A week ago, Stoya, adult performer, business owner, and essayist, accused her ex-boyfriend and fellow performer James Deen of rape on Twitter. Stoya described her assault in a pair of tweets; the first alluded to the pain of seeing her rapist lauded as a feminist, and the second named her rapist and described the rape. She said, “James Deen held me down and fucked me while I said no, stop, used my safeword. I just can't nod and smile when people bring him up anymore.”
Stoya’s tweets packed a powerful punch: they brought down the most famous straight man in porn. In the days that followed her tweet, seven more women accused Deen of sexual assault, two adult entertainment companies distanced himself from him, one sex toy manufacturer stopped producing toys modeled after his penis, a website dropped him from their columnist roster, and fans across the globe turned their backs on the star.
As a porn performer, Stoya has been unique in creating a fully formed, three-dimensional concept of self. She has blogged about an emotional meltdown in downtown Los Angeles; she has tweeted about her recalcitrant uterus; she has published on the ethics of privacy and the metaphysics of nailing “the meathook.” Stoya’s public self throbs with a palpable interiority and it’s this interiority, more than her sheer fame and even more than her romance with Deen, that makes people trust the validity of her allegations.
Stoya’s two tweets—just under 300 ephemeral characters—seem to have undone the myth that was “James Deen.” As Amanda Hess, writing for Slate, says, “If this is not the end of Deen’s career, it certainly marks the conclusion of his online-feminist-idol stage.” As this unfolding real-life rape drama launches multiple think-pieces, news reports, and individual reactions, it nonetheless emphasizes the importance in believing women when they allege sexual abuse. Like the individual accounts of the fifty-plus women who accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assault, Stoya’s tweets show why representations of rape matter; moreover, as a real-life account from a flesh-and-blood human, her tweets illustrate the limits of fictional media representation of rape. Because the thing is this: even though nearly one in five women say they’ve experienced rape or sexual assault, most people don’t come to know rape through real-life experience. They come to know it from watching television and movies.
Last May, HBO’s "Game of Thrones" aired the year’s most talked-about television scene. Ramsay Bolton tears the ivory gown of Sansa Stark, runs his hand down the skin of her back, and pushes her face into the fur-covered bed; the camera closes in on Sansa’s distressed face; the sound of her whimpering floats over building extra-diegetic strings and the metal-over-fabric susurrations of Ramsay unfastening his trousers. Then, the camera cuts. The frame fills with a close-up of Theon Grayjoy/Reek, Sansa’s childhood companion and Bolton’s captive; tears flow down his anguished face. Sansa’s cries grow louder, more pained; the strings build; Theon weeps; the frame goes dark; credits roll.
Viewers went wild. U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill publically vowed she was done with the show. The Mary Sue, a website devoted to movies, television and gaming, stopped promoting it. Critics everywhere called the scene gratuitous. Knowing what we know about Ramsay, a character with a robust, sadistic history, loyal viewers felt that didn’t need to see the rape—and it seems as if the showrunners knew this too, for in a very pointed way, we didn’t see it. Rather than actually experience Sansa’s rape from Sansa’s perspective, we see Sansa’s rape from the reaction of Theon/Reek. Our horror is not her horror; deprived of her agency, we can only understand her experience from the scene’s witness.
"Game of Thrones" likes to depict rape in the same textural way that "All In the Family" liked to play the sound of a toilet flushing, or the way that "The Simpsons" make fun of Fox television: pointedly and with narrative intent. It also does so early and often. One fan’s statistical analysis of "GoT" rape showed that through the end of season 5, the show had depicted 50 acts of rape perpetrated on 29 victims. Even for a show filled with bodice-ripping knights and serial beheadings, that is an impressive number of rapes, especially when you consider that it averages out to one rape per episode.
Although "Game of Thrones" boasts a stunningly high number of rape acts, it’s hardly an outlier. Police procedurals like "Law and Order: SVU," soap operas, and countless Lifetime movies make rape its bread and butter, and shows as diverse as "Veronica Mars," "The Sopranos," "Downton Abbey," "Scandal," "The Fall," "House of Cards," and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" featured rapes and/or rape backstories. Salon’s television critic Sonia Saraiya suggests that over the past fifteen years or so “rape on television morphed from a delicate topic to practically de rigueur.”
If you watch television, in short, you’re gonna see a lot of rapes. But beyond sheer repetition, individual rape representation matters. Just as it does with gender or race, media representations create a cultural understanding of rape; these representations show us what rape looks—or feels—like. Good, bad, or ugly, representation creates expectations in people, and when you’re talking about rape, a crime with about 300,000 victims every year and a conviction rate of just 2%, these representations carry resonance that ripples through victims, perpetrators, and the judicial system.
To understand why these fictional rapes matter, let’s return to the rape of Sansa Stark. Very, very few men will identify with Ramsay Bolton, known sadist. His penchant for causing pain is so fully formed and so detailed that we can nearly smell his coppery scent of blood. A man who relishes dismemberment, Ramsay is a monster. His closest modern kin is the murky bogeyman attacking his victim in a parking garage, as happened in "The Sopranos" episode “Employee of the Month” when therapist Dr. Jennifer Melfi is raped. Very, very few people who have never been victims will see their friends, relatives or lovers in Ramsay Bolton. Similarly, very, very few men are the thug in the parking garage. But when men see Ramsay or the "Sopranos" thug, they get that image of a rapist: an unequivocally brutal man with limited, if any, attachment to the victim.
Rape statistics don’t support this construct of a rapist. Most rape victims know their rapists, and often, they know their rapist well. It’s important to note, however, that rape statistics themselves are problematic because so few rapes are reported and because so few reported rapes are adjudicated. Talk to your female friends and lovers (and, yes, rape victims can be men, and, yes, women can be rapists too), and you’ll discover that most women knew—and even loved—their attackers. In these competing representations of rape, more women are like Stoya than they are like Sansa, and most rapists are like accused James Deen, porn’s putative “boy next door,” than they are like Ramsay Bolton.
It’s impossible to discuss fiction rape representations within the context of Stoya’s real-life allegations and not look at the great fantasy elephant in the room: porn. Both from a jurisprudence standpoint and from a victims’ standpoint, separating sex from violence in crimes of sexual assault is important. While rape is indisputably an act of violence, the sexualized fantasy of rape is equally important for both men and women, and few purveyors of adult film deal in it quite as explicitly as Kink.com.
Like Deen, Kink.com has carved a niche in porn that’s assertively BDSM, or bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism, and it has repeatedly averred its commitment to holding consent sacrosanct. Kink.com, which employed Deen, was one of the first companies to distance itself from him. However, Kink.com is also the site of two of Deen’s alleged acts of sexual assault. Both Ashley Fires and Nicki Blue detail alleged assaults that happened in and around shoots at the Kink.com San Francisco castle, and these allegations indicate the permeable nature of line between filmic fantasy and rapey reality.
Let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with having rape fantasies. There is nothing wrong with consenting adults acting out rape fantasies. There is nothing wrong with watching porn that indulges or enacts rape fantasies. There is something very wrong with violating consent, regardless of whether it happens in a communal shower at a porn studio or in the bed you share with your partner. Admitting that porn performers play with rape boundaries as part of their work, Daily Beast columnist and former adult performer Aurora Snow asks, “When your job regularly consists of roughing a woman up, ignoring her pleas, and choking her out, do you start to bring some of that behavior home with you?” What, in short, did enacting rape possibly teach James Deen? And what does it teach the people who watch him?
Looking again at Sansa Stark, the showrunners’ decision to cut from Sansa’s experience to show the response of onlooker Theon/Reek suggests that Sansa doesn’t matter. Those of us who, like Theon, watch in horror—we are the ones who matter. We are the potential jury pool, and if Sansa’s rape is the image we hold in our heads when we step into the courtroom, it makes sense that only two rapists out of every hundred see any prison time. Because most rapes are not that cut and dry; because most are not perpetrated by clear-cut monsters; and because by and large we are not in that room when Sansa—or Stoya, or any of those other nearly 300,000 victims a year—gets raped.
In the past few years, television has begun focusing on the woman who is coping with life after her rape trauma. Comedies like "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" and dramas like "Jessica Jones" center on characters who are trying in their own idiosyncratic ways to come to terms with their sexual violation. Whether Kimmy’s pastel Easter-egg worldview or Jessica’s darkly leaping, bounding misandry, these stories are irrevocably colored with—but not defined by—rape. It’s a helpful, hopeful change in the way we “see” sexual violence, one that both privileges the voice of the victim and one that suggests that rape, while traumatic, isn’t the end of the world.
Representation matters because it’s what shapes our understanding of our lived reality. What we see on the small screen—or read in our Twitter streams—influences how we understand rape, as victims, as perpetrators, and as potential jurists. When the legal system looks for a monster, they overlook the “boy next door,” and as in the jury that convicted preppy St. Paul’s School student Owen Labrie of sex with a minor rather than the more serious charge of aggravated sexual assault, juries are reluctant to convict their blue-eyed neighbors. But representation can change this. The louder the voice of those who have lived to tell the tale, the better our cultural understanding of sexual assault, a crime that often leaves no forensic evidence.
Ultimately, it comes to this: the clearer the voice of victims, the clearer concept of consent—and the bigger the chance that the boy next door will stop and recognize himself as nothing better than a wolf in Deen’s clothing.
A former academic, Chelsea G. Summers writes almost exclusively about sex. Her writing has appeared in Hazlitt, VICE, The New Republic, Adult Magazine, and The Guardian US, among other sites.