Yes, Sex Workers Can Be Raped | Vol. 3 / No. 6.5

The one and only, seriously kickass, Stoya | Photo: Michael Dorausch, CC BY-SA 2.0
The one and only, seriously kickass, Stoya | Photo: Michael Dorausch, CC BY-SA 2.0

This #FeministFriday post discusses sexual assault, not in great detail, but perhaps enough to be worth pointing out before we start. 


Much like the phrase “I’m not a racist, but,” the phrase “you can’t rape the willing” is a surefire indicator that whatever is about to follow the statement is an absolutely worthless opinion. It’s bad enough when it’s said about something banal (and since when do we use sayings about rape in banal settings?) to dismiss someone’s complaints about a situation they entered into somewhat willingly: “I’m getting really tired of my ‘get-burned-with-matches’ job.” “Well, you’re the one who decided to get burned with matches for a living. You can’t rape the willing.” This obviously confuses the line between “willing” and “wanting,” as well as the line between “employee” and “victim of brainwashing that can no longer have opinions and preferences.”

The phrase is even worse when it’s applied to, well, rape. Unsurprisingly it’s frequently used when a woman in some facet of the sex industry reports a sexual assault. Because for some reason, people are willing to consider the fact that your personal life and your work life are separate entities when you’re a lawyer or a garbage collector, but when sex is part of your job their heads get all fuzzy. That must be why the defense team for UFC fighter and legitimately crazy terrible human being war Machine claims that War Machine could not have raped his former girlfriend, adult film star Christy Mack, because Mack’s “work in pornography pointed to consent”’ and claimed that her career led her to have a ‘“desire, the preference, the acceptability towards a particular form of sex activities that were outside of the norm.”’ Right. That’s why dentists are totally okay with it when someone at a party grabs them and forces them to perform an oral exam by the cocktail bar. They implied consent when they got their DDS. And no matter what activities Mack may have a “desire” for in the bedroom, I doubt they include “broken bones in her face and ribs, a ruptured liver, missing teeth and severe bruising,” which is what Mack sustained after being attacked by War Machine.

The bottom line is, women in the adult film industry have sex as their job. That doesn’t mean that they can’t want or have a different type of sex at home. That doesn’t mean that they have signed on to have all kinds of sex, at all times, with anybody. That doesn’t mean they can’t be raped. But often if they claim that they did not consent to an action that they are willing to be paid for in other situations, they are called liars and hypocrites.

This “you can’t rape the willing” mindset is among the reasons that my gut clenched in sympathy and horror when Stoya, a porn actress and activist, tweeted about being raped by her former boyfriend and fellow porn performer James Deen. “Oh God,” I thought. “The internet is going to absolutely destroy her.” I expected the usual litany of excuses and de-escalations. I expected the same kind of sickening “I wish he had ‘raped’ me!” chortles that seem to accompany cases where an attractive female teacher molests a male student. And while I’m sure that happened on some corners of the internet, for most of what I saw it…. didn’t. Miraculously, the mainstream media did not instantly cast doubt on Stoya’s story. Instead, as Laurie Penny points out, it seems the tide is turning slowly to actually believing rape victims, even if their occupation involves sex.

Other adult film stars, including Ashley Fires, Tori Lux, Amber Rayne, and Kora Peters, told their own stories of being assaulted by Deen, sometimes on set, and sometimes on camera. (If you can’t understand how someone can be raped mid-scene of a pornographic movie, go look up what the words “contract” and “no” mean, and then get back to me.)

Much like the dam finally breaking for the victims of Bill Cosby, it took this vital action from Stoya to help other women come forward about their assaults.

James Deen, of course, denies all of the accusations, claiming that Stoya’s motivation was likely jealousy over finding out that he and his current girlfriend are moving in together. He also claims that any rough treatment on set was part of his job, and not going overboard and off-contract as his accusers attest. And, according to our justice system, Deen is indeed innocent until proven guilty. But clinging to that as a reason to still like or support Deen, or to distrust his accusers, puts the victims of his assault in a terrible position. Laurie Penny puts it best:

Innocent until proven guilty” is the cry that goes up every time a woman, then two, then five or ten or twenty women come forward to accuse a powerful man of abuse. What this means, in practice, is that we should always assume that women are lying until a judge says otherwise. In other words: shut the hell up. In other words: don’t rock the boat. The reputation of men has historically been valued higher than the safety of women. If it’s a case of he said/she said, and nobody can ever know the truth, it’s tacitly understood that it’s better for fifty women to suffer in silence than for one man to lose his career.

As Penny says, going out of your way to emphasize “innocent until proven guilty” necessitates that victims are “liars until proven trustworthy, which necessarily discounts the experiences, and the trauma, of victims. The fact that so many people are standing behind Stoya, and are making it clear that her pain is more important than James Deen’s reputation, is encouraging. Perhaps it is a sign that we are finally ready to do away with phrases like “you can’t rape the willing.”

Maybe the next step can be “You just shouldn’t rape people.”

[Editor’s note: Stoya is, among other things, a great sex columnist over at The Verge, and I suggest you check out her writing (usual disclaimers about age-appropriateness apply).]


Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not discussing the more horrifying aspects of rape culture, she studies gender in popular culture.