How much can you change the world with 55 words?
On the 28th of November, in two tweets, Stoya—who is in no particular order a famous porn actress, an activist, a writer and a friend of mine—unambiguously accused her ex-boyfriend, fellow porn actor James Deen, of rape. “James Deen held me down and f–ked me while I said no, stop, used my safeword,” she wrote. “I just can’t nod and smile when people bring him up anymore.”
Within days, the porn industry had turned against its golden boy. In so doing, it became the first professional community to respond to allegations of serial sexual violence by actually believing women from the start.
What was astonishing was not the courage it doubtless took for Stoya to type those 55 words and hit send — knowing that she would be accused of lying and attention-seeking, knowing the number of people who would claim that as a sex worker, she cannot expect to claim rape and be believed. What was astonishing, though, what had my heart between my teeth, was the number of people who did the opposite. Even before more former partners and colleagues of Deen came forward with more accusations of rape and violence, major porn studios dropped him as a performer, and many outlets publishing his work and writing cut ties. The hashtag #solidaritywithsoya trended around the world.
Watching the story unfold, I found these lines from Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children echoing in my mind: “Nations will shift like stones in the hands of a girl making a city in the dirt, and men and women… either they will finally see each other and do what must be done to evolve, or they will not.”
Something is changing. The response to Stoya and the other accusers is the crest on a tidal wave of women’s truth washing away the detritus of lies about sex and violence, about which lives matter and who is to be believed. In Hollywood, in the music industry, in politics, in every corridor, women and girls are coming forward and coming together to stand against a culture of abuse that has valued the reputation of powerful men above the dignity and voice of women. It’s Bill Cosby. It’s Jimmy Saville. It’s Terry Richardson. It’s the Steubenville High School football team. It’s all of their accusers, whose names we have been told do not matter. Until now.
That’s what solidarity is.
The default response to accusations of rape, especially against powerful men, has long been to assume that the accusers are lying. That’s what women do, of course — that’s the nature of the sex. They are malicious and vengeful and they refuse to accept that men simply have more sexual power than they do, because nature made them that way, or because God wants it that way, depending on your point of view.
The thing about rape is that it is extremely hard to prove. By its very nature, there are usually no outside witnesses. Even when victims steel their courage, overcome and go directly to the police without taking a shower, they can count on not being believed.
Part of the reason that rape is hard to prove is that sexist fairytales about what constitutes consent infect judges and juries just as much as the general public. Of the many myths about sexual violence, the most pernicious is that women routinely lie about it. That’s not true; the rates of false reporting for rape and sexual assault are estimated to be around the same as rates of false reporting for any other crime – the current figure is anywhere between 0.2% and 8%. Men are actually more likely to be victims of rape themselves than they are to be falsely accused of it.
Rapists rely on these myths, often targeting women and girls who they know will be too scared to come forward, or who will not be believed. That means women of color, young girls, and sex workers. Former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw is currently on trial for allegedly stalking and raping 13 black women and girls, some of whom had previous arrest records for sex work. Serial rapists target the young, the vulnerable and sex workers, knowing how hard it is even for women deemed ‘respectable’ to be taken seriously.
For legal reasons, I must state that James Deen has not been convicted of rape—no charges have been brought, and he has denied the allegations.
But for moral reasons, I must emphasize that none of this means that rape did not happen.
Yes, Stoya could be lying. So could Tori Lux. So could Joanna Angel, Ashley Fires, Amber Rayne, Kora Peters, Nicki Blue, Lily LaBeau and all the other women who have accused James Deen of rape, assault and mental abuse. As a journalist, I have to consider that possibility, and so do you. He has denied the allegations. But the fact is that rape is common. Far too common. False allegations of rape are not common. Perhaps James Deen didn’t do it, but it’s more likely that he did.
“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. This continues to be the case despite the number of men who continue to enjoy success despite being actually convicted of rape or sexual assault.
Something huge is shifting in our culture. The way we think about sexuality as a whole, and the way we think about sexual violence in particular, is evolving as women and girls begin to speak collectively and with courage about their experiences. Rape is a crime; rape culture is what allows that crime to go unpunished and unreported. Rape is the injury; rape culture is the insult, shouted at you from comedy stages, whispered in the corners of parties, around dining room tables.
Well, what was she thinking, going back to his apartment in the first place?
She was so drunk.
Boys will be boys.
For a long time, women’s only real power in society was the power of sexual refusal. This was a contingent power — not based on pleasure but on the power to say yes or no to this man or that — and it was always dependent on whether the man in question would respect your decision, which depended largely on your race, class and social position. But the power to say “no” to sex has always been women’s last bargaining chip in a misogynist society, and for as long as that has been true, men have resented them for it. It is about power. It is about the insistence that women’s bodies are public property and women’s words, women’s autonomy, women’s agency, do not matter, at least not compared to a man’s good name.
Right now, the balance of power is shifting. Why? Why now, after lifetimes of silence and suspicion, are women and girls coming forward to name their abusers and demand change?
Technology has a great deal to do with it. Social media allows all people to talk to one another frankly and in elective anonymity about their experiences. Women tell their truths on the Internet, from powerful personal essays to private groups and listservs. One such group I was recently privy to allows women and queer people in a particular location to warn each other about how men in their social circles behave — not just about whether they are rapists, but whether they are violent, whether they are respectful, whether they treat their partners like human beings.
The group is private, and it is not about shame, but about protecting one another without censure. If a friend warns me not to date a certain man because he has a tendency to get drunk, ignore boundaries and become aggressive, I won’t wait for a court conviction before making other plans. In almost every community I’ve been part of in the last few years, this story has played out. Serial abusers are finally confronted, no matter how powerful and popular. Women speak up together, and they are believed. The community struggles to readjust. Divisions occur, arguments erupt and friendships change. Change this profound is always painful. But so is silence.
If patriarchy dreams, then its nightmares must involve women talking, loudly, bravely, about men. In fact, much of our culture is set up to avoid just this. Women are pitted against each other, taught to compete for male attention, socialized against solidarity. Our truths are dismissed as gossip and chatter, our writing as empty confession. The prospect of women truly talking to each other, trusting one another, and standing together against male violence and sexism in their communities is legitimately terrifying to those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
The uncomfortable truth is not that women are lying en masse about rape — they’re not — but that women and girls and their allies are finally speaking about their experiences in numbers too big to ignore. The even less comfortable truth is that many of these experiences involve behavior that men and boys grow up believing are not criminal. The same rape culture that raises women to believe that it is their fault if they were assaulted raises men to believe the same thing. Men learn, because culture tells them, that women’s sexual autonomy is a barrier to be conquered — that sex is something they are supposed to get from women. Boys will be boys. The little boys who grow up hearing that mantra repeated learn that they need not take responsibility for their actions.
There is solidarity in adversity. Perhaps the reason that the adult industry is the only community currently actually behaving in an adult manner is that sex workers are under no illusion that the law is designed to protect them. The assumption of the general public has long tallied with the current strategy for former MMA fighter War Machine, whose defense team claims that he could not have raped his ex-girlfriend, 24-year-old Christy Mack because her “work in pornography pointed to consent.” She was asking for it. She was also asking for the broken ribs, the fractured eye socket, the missing teeth and the lacerated liver that she sustained. War Machine has plead not guilty to the 34 felonies he’s been charged with, including sexual assault and attempted murder, even though he has actually tweeted that he raped Mack. Sex workers have had enough of being told that they have even less right to consent than the average woman — and it is no surprise that a broad movement against rape culture is now being led by sex workers themselves.
No means no, no matter who you are, no matter what job you do. No matter if he’s your partner. No matter how many times you’ve said yes. Women have always known this, but knowing is not enough when your friends, your family, society and the legal system tell you that you’re lying, you’re crazy, nobody will believe you, that you should think of the man’s reputation, that you should worry about being ostracized, that it wasn’t really so bad, was it, that you’re making a fuss about nothing, and really what were you doing drinking in the first place? Why were you wearing that dress? Why didn’t you fight harder? What made you think your dignity and safety was important? What made you think your body was your own? Shut up, stop whining and think about the man.
It is never easy to confront the prejudices we have grown up breathing in like air. But around the world, women are coming together and doing what needs to be done for society to evolve. Those clinging to old myths about rape and virtue, about good women and bad ones, will find themselves on the wrong side of history.
Laurie Penny is a journalist and author from London, UK. Her latest book is Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution.