What Women Want: Porn and the Frontier of Female Sexuality
James Deen won’t stop apologizing. From the moment he emerges from the garage of his sprawling, gray house and shakes my hand, he’s sorry. He’s sorry about the construction workers patching a hole in his roof. He’s sorry about the porn visible on his computer. He’s sorry about his television—he had it set to wake him up when Scooby Doo came on, but Scooby Doo didn’t come on, and now he’s running late.
He is not wearing a shirt. He doesn’t apologize for that.
He leads me past an enormous telescope, two bean bag chairs stacked beside a chaise longue, up a staircase, and into his bedroom.
“I had meant to put those pants on,” he apologizes, pointing to a pile of denim on the floor, before excusing himself to brush, floss, gargle, and apply a T-shirt.
I wait on his maroon bedspread, run my feet over his circular maroon rug, and take inventory: zebra-print headboard, stone fireplace, big TV, can of spray-on deodorant, two-dozen lighters, and the tallith from his bar mitzvah. Outside his maroon drapes, Deen has a sweeping view of the San Fernando Valley below.
It feels like no one actually sleeps here.
The porn mansion clichés come as a surprise, since James Deen looks like an average 25-year-old guy from Pasadena. He is 5'8" and 150 pounds. He has wavy brown hair, bright blue eyes, and day-old stubble. He tweets about bacon, hot girls, and his difficulty finding time to shower. He cracks Jew jokes. He doesn’t work out. His penis is 9 inches long. On the internet, you can watch him employ it in a thousand different ways.
Deen has carved out a niche in the porn industry by looking like the one guy who doesn’t belong there. Scroll through L.A.’s top porn agency sites and you’ll find hundreds of pouty women ready to drop to their knees, but just a few dozen men available to have sex with them. These guys all have a familiar look—neck chains, frosted tips, unreasonable biceps, tribal tattoos. Deen looks like he was plucked from a particularly intellectual frat house.
It’s not that more normal-looking guys don’t want to be in porn, it’s that the industry isn’t exactly looking for them. Within the major porn talent agencies, female performers outnumber male ones almost 5-to-1. The directors and producers hiring them are mostly men. They’re staffing porn’s workforce with an eternally refreshed slate of female bodies, and a handful of guys who look like what men think women want: Big arms. Big abs. Big dicks.
The porn machine churns out performers to satisfy every fantasy, be it MILF, dwarf, fat, granny, or gang bang. But if you’re interested in watching a young, heterosexual, nonrepulsive man engage in sex, James Deen is basically it.
He emerges from the bathroom and offers me a list of places we can talk—his living room, his home office, door open or closed, wherever I feel the most comfortable. I choose the office, door closed. Deen shifts between managing his Twitter feed, texting from his phone, watching YouTube videos his dad sent him, and reviewing takes from a scene he’s just shot. (Deen isn’t just an actor—he also directs.) He’s eating a burrito I’ve brought him, carefully avoiding its pockets of sour cream. For the most normal guy in porn, porn has always been normal.
“My problem is I never really had anything I wanted to do in life other than porn. I’ve never really had a hobby. I never really had any ambition,” Deen says. “I was in kindergarten or something and I saw porn for the first time, and I said, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to grow up and be in porn.’”
When Deen was 18, photos of his erect penis hit the inbox of Pamela Peaks, a leathered industry vet who claims 50GGG-size breasts and a squinting resemblance to Pamela Anderson. Peaks was “kind of rude” to Deen until she saw the photos. “She immediately took an interest in me,” Deen says. “I think it was my nonthreatening, everyday look, but I really have no idea.” (Peaks later cast him in an audition-themed film in which Deen plays an aspiring actor who performs favors on Peaks to secure the job.) He took a junior-high nickname—he was always brooding across the street, smoking in a leather jacket—and spun it into a stage name. Deen made his porn debut in 2004’s Art School Sluts, a sort of Reality Bites with penetration. Deen spends the bulk of the film looking vaguely impressed with himself. But he could maintain an erection, and the mainstream porn world opened its doors.
The porn industry has endless uses for an 18-year-old woman, but an 18-year-old man is good for just about one thing. For the better part of a year, Deen shot scenes every day for websites like MILFseeker.com, working with older female performers he described at the time as either “girls in their late 20s to mid-30s who are smoking hot” or “old ladies who can’t get laid in real life and want to have sex.”
Soon, Deen raised his rates and expanded his audience. He filled a void the industry hadn’t even realized existed. “Here comes my skinny little Jewish ass,” Deen says of his debut. “Everyone’s like, ‘Huh, he stands out.’ It was a Where’s Waldo-type situation.” Viewers turned off by the typical porn guy— especially young women—started picking Deen out of the scenery.
Today, they can watch him engage in vanilla sex with large-breasted “schoolgirls” for Brazzers, bind and gag sex slaves for Kink.com, stage explicit Seinfeld parodies for New Sensations, and penetrate punk princesses for Burning Angel. There are some things he won’t do: Deen stopped working for one site because he found the plots “a little rapey."
He records a new scene almost every day. In 2009, when Adult Video News named him “Male Performer of the Year,” he was the youngest guy ever to snag the title. Deen knows he should have been thinking, “‘I’m the man! I won this!’” Instead, he snuck outside for a cigarette to avoid taking the stage. “My overanalytical Jew brain goes, ‘Fuck, I have to win this every year or it goes downhill. I’ve peaked at 20.’”
But despite a growing female following, the industry’s engineers are reluctant to invent new uses for him. Like all men who work consistently in pornography, Deen is clean, punctual, and erect. He knows how to angle a woman toward the camera. In some videos, he appears only as a disembodied, thrusting penis. He bills himself as “the luckiest boy alive.” Deen is polite, self- deprecating, and speaks well of everyone. Online, he tweets about being too apathetic to brush his teeth. At home, he cleans them thoroughly.
On YouTube, you can watch a 19-year-old Deen fire off an interview while reclining at the foot of a bed before a scene. A dim young porn actress orbits around him, chewing on cashews and attempting to redirect the camera’s attention. “I’m in this for money, not to be famous,” Deen tells the camera. When asked, he rattles off his earnings: He averages $10,000 to $15,000 a month, he says, once hitting a high of $22,000. “I’m doing pretty damn good. I’m very pleased with the way my life is going,” he tells the camera. “It’s one of those things that every guy wants to do.” To hear Deen tell it, all he has to do is show up. “It’s his scene,” Deen says of the porn director. “I’m just fucking in it.”
Since the interview resurfaced in April, it’s been viewed more than 14,000 times. “I want to go back and punch that kid in the face,” Deen says. “I’m sitting here and watching it like, ‘What the fuck, just shut up, you fucking idiot!’ But you know, I was 19 years old and I was doing porn for a living. I was a little cocky.”
When he informed his family about his career, Deen says his parents “didn’t want me to get involved in drugs or buying dumb things like fast cars and big houses and stuff like that.” We are sitting in his big house watching a video of a Nissan GT-R—the model he owns—zoom past other high-end cars. But Deen still has the money he invested from his bar mitzvah. He no longer discusses his monthly haul with reporters, simply insisting that he is overpaid. He’s learned a lot. “Psychologically, it’s the most interesting job in the world,” Deen says. On the other hand, “you don’t really use math skills.”
Deen says he earned his parents’ blessing when “they found out I was career-oriented and that this isn’t like a game for me.” At that point, his family life was already strained. When Deen was a teenager, his parents split, Deen took a test to exit high school early, and he moved out of the house. “My dad sort of—he didn’t vanish,” Deen says. “He moved out. My mom didn’t want him seeing us.” Tensions rose among Deen, his mother, and his older sister, and he fell in “with a bunch of gutter punks,” living in Pasadena parks and abandoned apartments. He enrolled in community college classes and shilled coffee at Starbucks to pay for them.
He still wanted to be a porn star. “I would joke around with all my friends and stuff, but I knew I was gonna do it,” Deen says. He began attending Hollywood parties to network and fell into bed with a 20-something stripper who had touched herself online for money. She hooked him up with friends of friends of friends. Then Pamela Peaks fished him from the gutter.
Deen no longer speaks to his sister. But he’s reconnected with his parents, the punks are still his friends, and Pasadena is still home. “The rare time I leave my house and do something, I go there,” Deen says. He only calls a few industry people friends—among them, sometime girlfriend and Burning Angel founder Joanna Angel and MILF performer Lisa Ann.
Deen calls director Chico Wang his porno mentor. Wang “taught me how to shoot a camera. The way I perform has a lot to do with him,” Deen says. When Deen joined him on the set of Wang’s 2005 gang-bang title Down the Hatch 14, Wang had already been charged with beating and kidnapping his girlfriend. In 2007, Wang’s porn actress wife of 20 days, Haley Paige, turned up at a hospital without a pulse. A month later, Wang was found dead of a methadone overdose in a California Economy Inn next to a makeshift shrine to Paige and an empty box of Milk Duds. “He was always good to me. But he was such a horrible person to so many other people,” Deen says of Wang. “I still to this day don’t know what was in his head, if he was an asshole or actually a good guy.”
At 25, Deen is rounding eight years and a couple thousand titles, but he remains one of the youngest guys in the business. In a few years, his female peers will graduate to MILF roles, but Deen could spend the rest of his career performing alongside freshly minted
18-year-olds. And his teenage fans can’t wait to watch him do it.
Emily was sitting in her fourth-grade classroom when she was first introduced to porn. “These boys were sitting next to me, talking about boobs,” she says. Emily asked one of them what that meant, and “he stared at me like I was crazy.” In school the next day, the boy slipped her a piece of paper with a URL written on it.
She caught “like five seconds’ worth of humping” before closing the page. Now 17, Emily is distributing porn links of her own—this time, to other teenage girls across the United States. Emily runs a Tumblr blog dedicated to her two obsessions: Twilight and James Deen. Thanks to Deen, Emily is no longer watching porn for the generalized humping. “When I watch his videos, I don’t really pay attention to the sex,” Emily says. “I watch his videos for his reaction. It amazes me.”
Deen is not supposed to be the star of his scenes—his sex partners are. But on Tumblr, a network of teenage bloggers has emerged to turn the focus on him. The young women trade Deen videos, post candid photographs, and pluck out all the minute details that turn them on: the way he looks at a woman, touches her, stares into her eyes, whispers in her ear. “There was just something about the way he moved,” Emily says of her first exposure to Deen. He seemed to be “speaking to the girl, but not with his mouth, with his hand over the girl’s throat, and with his eyes.” Now, Emily says it doesn’t matter if Deen is having intimate sex with a woman on a bed or shoving her into the trunk of his car: “I go for just about anything.”
Deen’s young fans gush over the sight of him thrusting into a woman while holding her hand. They sigh over a private photo of a clothed Deen commuting by plane. They create animated GIFs of Deen’s greatest moves so they can watch him execute them again and again and again without rewinding. They pepper their Deen fantasies with Harry Potter jokes and circulate them to other girls. Several propose marriage.
“I think he is really cute (not in a sexual way),” one woman writes. “I want to talk to him and tell him why I like him,” another says. “It’s not only cause of his amazing talent, it’s because of his personality.” One woman shares a video that “doesn’t have James fucking her but he is there and he is being sweet so I think it’s cute to watch anyway.”
It’s a well-worn cliche that women don’t experience sex visually. So why can’t they take their eyes off James Deen? Clearly, some women do like porn. They just require a little bit more than a disembodied penis to get into it.
Gaby Dunn, a 23-year-old journalist and comedian, discovered Deen in college when a friend, a “connoisseur of porn,” referred her to Deen to satisfy her interest in “nerdy Jewish dudes.” Deen fit the bill. “He was almost like a guy that you would just hang out with at Hebrew school,” she says.
But he’s conspicuous in the industry. “Male porn stars used to look like the Brawny paper towel man,” says Chanel Preston, a 26-year-old performer who has worked with Deen several times. She says Deen stands out in another important way. Other guys “can be very robotic. It gets boring.” But Deen inspires “real facial expressions. He’s an amazing performer.”
Deen denies this: “It’s not that hard to get your dick hard.” He says he’s only taken medication to aid this process once. To get in the mood, he finds the appeal in every woman. “This part of you is really nice,” Deen will think. “You have really nice eyes, you have really nice hair, you have really nice boobs, your vagina is really cool, I can’t wait to jerk off all over your face.”
For his young fans, Deen’s perceived accessibility is part of the charm. He tweets every few hours to his 27,000-plus followers, most of them women. Between porn jokes, Deen tweets about wanting someone to go to the zoo with him. On his blog, he intersperses sophomoric interludes with photos of anuses. “Today my blog post is going to be all about Adrianna Nicole’s butthole,” Deen writes in a typical post. “Adrianna Nicole has an awesome butthole. You can put things in it. She can put Things in it. We can all [p]ut things in it. we can do it one at a time or as a group. There is no stopping her butthole.” The blog receives more than 4,000 hits a day. He reads every comment from his fans. Sometimes, he chats with them.
“I do have girls every now and then who are underage who are talking to me and stuff,” Deen says. “I’m like, ‘How old are you? And they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m 16, I’m going to be 17 soon,’ and I’m like, ‘Hey, we have to stop talking.’”
Deen is still figuring out how to manage all of this attention. He keeps getting older, but his fans stay the same age. “Even if I was 25 talking to a 17-year-old girl and I wasn’t having sex with her and we were just talking on the internet and nothing was ever going to happen, why the hell am I talking to a 17-year-old girl?” Maybe, he says, it’s “weird or creepy” because he’s “you know, ‘a porn star.’ Something about that rubs me the wrong way.”
Deen is more comfortable dispatching his porn-star persona on the over-17 set. When Gaby Dunn graduated college and launched an online interview project, she pursued Deen as a subject. She tweeted at him. He sent her his phone number. She arranged to interview Deen at his home, and the meeting turned flirtatious. (“I looked at your pictures first,” he told her, maybe joking). When she posted the first-person account on her blog, the response was deafening. “Women are so mad at me that I did not have sex with him,” says Dunn. She and Deen have remained friends, but her attraction has “dimmed,” she says. “It’s hard to try to watch porn with this guy in it when 10 minutes earlier he was Gchatting me about The Simpsons. The fourth wall has disappeared.”
Sometimes he dates, but he says it’s difficult to maintain a relationship while satisfying his sex drive. “I’ve always been a giant megaslut. Every girl I’ve ever dated, I’ve been like, ‘Hey, I’m a giant megaslut.’ Porn makes it almost more honest.” When he’s not working, he rarely leaves his house. A week after I bring Deen a burrito, he tweets to his followers: “BRING ME A BURRITO!!!!!!!!!!!” Then three days later, “I am hungry. Bring me a burrito.... no really. Who is bringing me food?”
One of Deen’s young fans tweeted back, answering the request. After Deen sent her a private tweet—“for reals :-)”—she rushed back to Tumblr to present the message to her friends. “I’M GOING TO FAINT OH MY GOD FUCK,” she wrote. When other bloggers asked how the conversation evolved, she told them she was “too shy to say anything back to him.” After all, “it wasn’t like he was all ‘HEY LET’S HAVE SEX AFTER YOU BRING ME FOOD.’”
“They don’t actually want to marry me,” Deen says.
For his teenage fans, James Deen is a window to a world of sexual expression that had previously been no-girls-allowed. For many, it’s an aspect of their sexuality that they’re exploring exclusively on the internet. “I don’t really discuss it at all; it kind of just stays where it’s supposed to, online,” Emily says. She’s since scrubbed the internet of her Deen-related Twitter, Tumblr, and Blogspot accounts.
Kay, 17, knows how to swiftly scroll past a Deen pic just before her parents walk by. Her viewing relationship with Deen is best described as monogamous. “I lost interest in a majority of male porn stars since becoming a fan of James,” she says. She communicates her attraction only through her blog. “The few friends I have that actually watch porn are male and don’t really feel comfortable with talking about porn with me,” says Kay. Besides, “I’m pretty sure I’ve actually watched more porn than they have.”
When men do weigh in on Deen, “it’s always these really asshole-ish comments only coming from guys who are clearly super butthurt that girls actually like a porn star for once,” one Deen blogger writes about the negative feedback she’s received from men. Deen, too, receives hate mail from viewers, “always dudes, always dudes.” One guy “told me I had to start working out. He said it would make the scenes better and the girls would like me more," Deen says.
When Dunn wrote about Deen on her blog, her male friends were unimpressed. "They thought it was blowing up their spot,” Dunn says. “It was shining a light on something that was supposed to be secret and just for them.”
“How many of you want to be in porn?”
Several hundred men who would kill to be James Deen have gathered at the Los Angeles Convention Center for the annual Exxxotica Expo, one of the largest porn conventions in the United States. In a makeshift lecture hall, Joshua Lehman, a bald, tattooed producer from sex toy and film distributor Adam & Eve, has com- mandeered the mic at a seminar called “So You Wanna Be a Porn Star?” Two platinum blondes are perched on folding chairs behind him, but all eyes are on Lehman.
A dozen men raise their hands. Yes, they want to be in porn. One woman with long brown hair, sitting quietly under a man’s extended arm, reluctantly lifts her hand. “For you, it would be easy,” Lehman announces in her general direction. “Not because you’re a hot chick, but because you’re a chick.”
“Everybody with a vagina,” Lehman continues, “you don’t even need boobs or a butt. You can be a porn star.” Actually, “you don’t even need a vagina. You could have boobs and a penis and still be a star,” he says. Most men are out of luck. “I get 300 dick pictures sent to my phone every day. I don’t want to see your penis. That’s not how you get into porn.” He advises straight men to “get the hottest bitch you can and make her your girlfriend,” then “go into a producer’s office and have her tell him that you’re the only guy she’ll fuck.”
If a woman enters the industry at 18, she can ride it for ten years, starting with solo scenes ($250) before advancing to “girl-girl” scenes ($600), then “boy-girl” arrangements ($800-$1,000). Along the way, she can secure pay bumps by exposing herself in new ways: blowjobs, anal, double penetration, gang bang. If she gains a following by her late 20s, she can keep working well into her MILF days. A man won’t make as much as a woman, but he can work every day without risk of overexposure. As far as the porn industry is concerned, no one is really paying attention to him anyway. “A male talent is a prop,” Lehman says.
One of these men is staffing his own booth at Exxxotica, just across from the seminar. Evan Stone, a tanned, muscular 42-year-old with a mop of blond hair and a broad, gap-toothed smile, wears only a white and gold wizard’s robe. For a new guy to break into the industry today, Stone says, “You have to kill someone.” I ask him how he broke through. “I killed someone,” he delivers. Stone is funny, and that’s helped him stay popular. Male fans will approach him and tell him, “I’m not gay or anything, but I love that you have a sense of humor.”
But even the most beloved male stars have no hope of transcending their supporting role. Everyone in the industry—from stars to agents to producers—seems to agree that it’s too risky to invest in fresh male talent to appeal to its growing female audience. “If you’re a producer or director, you’re working from a limited budget,” says porn publicist Adella Curry. “You have a limited period of time to get your movie shot. If a male performer can’t do the ‘performing’ part, you’re out a lot a lot a lot of money.” That’s why you see the same male performers used over and over again. To the porn industry, Evan Stone’s penis is interchangeable with Ron Jeremy’s or Rocco Siffredi’s or Manuel Ferrara’s or James Deen’s.
Aside from the erection, Lehman suggests that male stars can differentiate themselves by “treating the girls nicely and not being a scumbag.” Male performers must also play nice with producers and directors, who often double as actresses’ husbands and boyfriends. “I did Jenna Jameson three times,” said 19-year-old Deen. “Her husband hates me.”
All of this changes, of course, when there are no girls involved at all. Gay porn stars make “a ridiculous amount more,” Lehman says. “The best male performers make $1,000 a scene on average. Some of the male performers in gay porn make up to $10,000 a scene. That’s why guys do it.” According to Lehman, “some of the guys who do gay for pay would rather be in straight porn,” but if you turn up in gay porn, “we don’t really want you on the straight side,” Lehman says.
Lehman tells me he was recently approached by “two well-known male performers” floating a DVD of their sexual exploits with women. “The box is basically them. Huge pictures of them. In the background, there’s a couple of hot chicks, but it’s real small,” he says. “I looked at it and said, ‘Is it gay porn? Because that’s what it looks like.’” Lehman cannot imagine a future in which this rule does not hold. “Even James Deen. You may see him in every movie, but do you see him at the center of a box? I don’t think so,” Lehman says. “If you put a man in the foreground on a box cover, male and female customers are going to assume it’s gay porn.”
The straight male performer must be attractive enough to serve as a prop, but not so attractive that he becomes the object of desire. As Curry puts it, “No one wants to alienate the male audience.”
But she’s hopeful the industry will start to see women as consumers in their own right. Curry excitedly points me to New Sensations’ Romance Series, a line of “erotica for her.” “They’re little Jennifer Aniston-type romantic comedies,” Curry says. “They’re adorable.”
But it turns out these feature-length films are more like “erotica for them”—porn for men to buy their reluctant wives. “We’re often targeting couples,” says Jacky St. James, publicist and writer for New Sensations. According to the website, titles in the series are “written by a woman and directed by a man,” and have features to appeal to both. For her: “passionate, connected, and intimate sex.” For him: a money shot. However, there are absolutely “no pop shots above the neck.” The company’s research has shown the stomach to be the most respectful part of a woman’s body on which a man can deposit his sperm.
“I don’t know a single woman that watches any of these porn-for-women Playgirl type of things,” Deen says. Most women? “They want to see porno. They’re watching what they want to watch, regardless of what’s marketed toward them.” He says he has considered launching his own website, JamesDeen.com. “Here’s me, just doing what I want to do, the scenes I want to do.” He continues, “In a sense it would be focused on me,” before stopping himself. “Not any more than a regular scene would be focused on me.”
Meanwhile, teenage girls are cutting and pasting Deen’s work to fit their needs. On their blogs, James Deen is their own personal star. They call on him for love or sex or idle conversation depending on the hour of the day. They collect his tweets and photos and craft their own narrative fantasies. He comes wherever they want him to.