Boys who became teenagers in 1953, the year that Hugh Hefner founded Playboy, and 40 years later in 1993, when I turned 13, were exposed to pornography in much the same way. A classmate pilfered a magazine from a father’s stash or an inattentive store clerk, secreted it away from adult eyes, and shared it with his peers. Most were fascinated and titillated by their first real glimpse at a naked woman. But in hindsight, the centerfold in the first Playboy I saw wasn’t so different from the swimsuit model spreads featured once a year in Sports Illustrated. As for sex, I didn’t see my first R-rated love scene for another couple of years. And more graphic fare, like what Cinemax aired late at night, was always scrambled on our cable box.  

All that changed for subsequent generations. People raised in an era when schools banned Bart Simpson T-shirts are now parents themselves. And many will give their teens, or even pre-teens, smartphones that give them access to the entire internet. Laments of what that might mean for affected generations is a familiar, if muted, part of America’s ongoing cultural conversation. It is hardly news that many parents are worried about the forces shaping how young people today think of sexuality.

It is news that this concern is now shared by an unlikely figure: James Deen, a childless 31-year-old who happens to be the most famous male adult-film star of his generation. (Be forewarned that graphic descriptions of sex are inescapable in what follows.)

Deen has been making headlines for years.The best early profile of him was written by Amanda Hess in Good in 2012. One section focused on the porn star’s teenage fangirls:

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 without rewinding. They pepper their Deen fantasies with Harry Potter jokes and circulate them to other girls.

Deen’s public image forever changed on November 28, 2015, when the adult actress and writer Stoya, his ex-girlfriend, tweeted, “That thing where you log in to the internet for a second and see people idolizing the guy who raped you as a feminist. That thing sucks.” And, “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.” Others came forward accusing Deen of misconduct. He denied all the allegations, writing, “There have been some egregious claims made against me ... I want to assure my friends, fans and colleagues that these allegations are both false and defamatory.” In a follow-up article in Slate, Hess wrote, “If this is not the end of Deen’s career, it certainly marks the conclusion of his online-feminist-idol stage,” and wrote of their 2011 interview, “I found him to be open but not exactly deep. He had little interest in analyzing his own career or interrogating the norms of his industry.”

Deen still isn’t exactly deep in his interviews. And that makes it all the more striking that he used an appearance on the Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew podcast, where he was promoting his role in Diminuendo, a non-pornographic film by recently-deceased director Richard Hatch, to speak out about business and cultural trends in porn, declaring, “It’s the first time in my entire career that I’ve ever had an ethical dilemma with what I do.”

He explained the crux of his concern in this exchange:

Deen: In the last 10 years we have had more free pornography at your fingertips than ever before, to a point where people are no longer learning about sexuality... This is something that is made for a purpose, this is not an example of what sex is, this is people having sex for entertainment.

[It used to be that] you’re getting the tape from your older brother, who stole it from the dad, or the neighbor, or whatever. You’re passing it around and everyone is excited to see this magazine or whatever. And you have to wait until you are older to really dive deep into the dark areas where people are peeing on each other and [an even more graphic act] and all sorts of stuff.

Now, a child, an 11-year-old child, anyone at any age could go to a myriad of places on the internet and be exposed to endless amounts of content.

Dr. Drew: The average age of exposure now is eight or nine.

Deen: Which is not okay! Granted, I’m sure there is an 8- or 9-year-old in existence of all time who was able to deal with what that content was. But I would say very confidently that 8- or 9-year-olds are not able to properly process what this is. Especially when it’s not just, “Here are two people kissing and some standard sex.” It’s some crazy stuff. And I think now that people… they are getting their sexual education and stuff, and I’m sure it’s better—or so I’ve been told by people who have kids—it’s better than it was when I was a kid, but they’re still seeing these examples, regularly, for years and years and years, of what they believe to be sex.

This relatively common concern is noteworthy not only because Deen is a prominent figure in pornography, but because he came to his concern so radically differently than other industry critics: by having sex with lots of women across age cohorts.

There are differences, he posited early in the interview in an uncomfortable passage describing moments of visceral discomfort that some of his co-stars have felt:

I’ve been paying attention to consistencies and behavior with the younger models that I work with. And intimacy almost is uncomfortable for them. I’ll do scenes, and I’ll like grab the girl and like kiss her, or be like, “Look me in the eyes,” and it will almost be like, “No no no no no, I just spread my legs; use my hole and blow a load in my face.” But no, that’s not sex.

Given the allegations against Deen, one cannot just presume that the words he puts  in the mouths of his co-stars are accurate renderings of their feelings, but here is his reaction:

That is a certain type of pornography, and if that is the kind of scene we’re doing, then we can do it. But there’s companies like X-Art and Erotica X and Passion HD and all these companies that have built their demographic on reality sex—you know, intimacy—and not just, like, the more gonzo type ... which, I was saying, that’s more of the porno style.

Adam Carolla pressed for an explanation. “Do you think that some of these younger women who you’re working with, do you think the idea of being caught on film or digitally and living forever on the internet, being intimate with somebody is a tougher pill to swallow than having sex with somebody?” he asked. “Like really being intimate?”

There may be some of that, Deen replied, but attributed the difference mostly to early exposure to relatively hard-core pornography among the younger generation of performers:

I have a “Do a Scene with James Deen” contest, where women can submit an application, and then, after a very long talk and months of me saying, you know, “Everyone’s going to find out, it’s going to affect your future,” and basically trying to talk them out of it kind of, then we shoot a scene.

And in just the last two years, there’s been a big shift in the type of personality that’s doing the scenes. I’ll have conversations where they’re like, “Yeah, and then this guy came on my face.” And I’m like, “You do know that is something that people should, like, discuss?” That it’s not just part of sex... it just seems that there is this programming and desensitization to what sex and sexuality is and it’s creating this very odd dynamic within the industry.

Of course, it is possible that Deen is an unreliable narrator here too––that he is misreading the people with whom he shoots scenes; or that an unrepresentative group of people he personally encounters have changed, rather than attitudes in the population as a whole; or that he has noticed a real phenomenon but misidentified the cause.

In any case, he now feels there is an ethical dilemma in porn. On one hand, the industry’s success depends on its being accessible to mass audiences online. On the other hand, Deen is convinced that the accessibility of porn is harming young people.

Or as he put it:

I’ve had conversations with business partners, the people that run––well, they run a bunch of adult web sites. This guy, he’s a father of two, and we were having a conversation about how I want all adult web sites, I want everything to be behind an age-verification wall. You can’t just say, “Yes, I’m 18”—you actually have to input a credit card, or something, the best you can, to create an 18-and-older environment… And he said––and I agree with him––“As a father I agree with you 100 percent, I would love to do that. As a businessman, I will go out of business in a day.”

And I’m kind of in the same boat. So now I have Analized.com, GTFsluts.com, JamesDeen.com, I run BadDaddyPOV.com, TwistedVisual.com, POVPervs.com, PervGallery.com, I have JamesDeenCelebs.com and a male James Dean celebs thing, so I have all these web sites.

And I’m in this world where I want to make this safe for anyone who stumbles on it, but at the same time I need to compete in the business world, so with Analized.com, for instance, I removed all trailers, so you have screen caps, and you can see the images. It’s very clear what it is—unfortunately it is still hardcore content, but like I said, I can’t just go out of business.

And it sucks, but anyway, in order to access any real hardcore content you need to get through a paywall. JamesDeen.com, for the most part all my trailers are just the first minute of a video, which is pretty much people talking.

It shows you what’s gonna happen, maybe there’s some boobs or something, but it’s not… craziness. I’m trying, but it’s also one of those things where, like, it’s kind of an all-or-nothing situation. With everything that I see in this world, none of these solutions are simple, they’re all giant systemic problems that need to be tore from the ground and rebuilt from the ground up to create a new structure in order to make it better.

Just as likely, the industry will instead invest in virtual reality, and the teenagers of 2023 will see pornography that even Deen’s teenage fans could scarcely have imagined.

Insofar as that is a problem, it is not because seeing sex is inherently damaging to young people––for thousands of years, a village’s adults had no bedroom walls for privacy––but because what young people see, when exposed to hard core pornography, resembles real sex only as much as a Jackie Chan sequence resembles a real fist fight. Yet it creates the illusion of reality, then reaches sexually inexperienced porn consumers in a society where there are few graphic but non-pornographic portrayals of sex, and where accessing hard core porn is (properly) legal, but a teenage couple texting naked pictures to each other is a criminal sex offense.

No one would choose anything like that information ecosystem for the sexual acculturation of young people. But technology evolved in a way that made it so, changing the social landscape faster than humans evolved norms to mitigate its flaws. Mercenary concerns are delaying any hedge. The consequences remain to be seen.