Adult film actress Joanna Angel (L) and adult film actor James Deen arrive at the 27th annual Adult Video News Awards Show at the Palms Casino Resort January 9, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Adult film actress Joanna Angel and adult film actor James Deen at the 27th annual Adult Video News Awards. Photo: Ethan Miller

Is a terrorist less frightening than a charismatic male porn star with a devoted female following? Judging by what happened last month at California's Pasadena City College – where I've taught history and gender studies since 1993 – the answer is yes.

In the past 20 years, I've brought dozens of guest speakers onto campus to address my own classes and the broader community. Many have been extremely controversial, like the late Irv Rubin of the Jewish Defence League. (Just months after speaking to my class, Rubin was arrested for plotting the murder of a US congressman; at the time he spoke, he was already on the State Department watch list.)

The college, committed to academic freedom and the cherished notion of open discourse, never challenged my choice of speakers, nor those of my colleagues. At least, not until last month, when porn superstar James Deen came to speak to my class and the broader community.

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I hadn't foreseen trouble. I'd invited female porn performers such as Jessica Drake and Alana Evans to address the college and the class in the past, and their visits took place without incident or controversy. (My guest speakers aren't just drawn from the porn business; I also invite the industry's critics, particularly those who come from a feminist standpoint, to come and share their concerns.) I filed the same forms I always file, reserving the same campus meeting space I usually reserved.

On Tuesday, February 26 – the day before Deen was to speak – I was called into an emergency meeting with the college's vice-president for academic affairs and the campus counsel. I was told there was a danger of “violent protests,” even though neither I nor Deen's management team had received a single threat.

The administrators told me the event would have to be moved to a smaller classroom with only my own registered students invited; the public and the media (who normally attend these events) would be excluded.

Predictably, the cancellation of the public portion of the event generated intense controversy. Though the college eventually relented and permitted the media to attend, it was too late to undo the public perception that the administration considered a male porn star to be uniquely dangerous. Deen's lecture, which was slated to receive coverage from only the local paper, ended up attracting a huge national media presence. The violent demonstrations that the administration predicted never materialised; the only demonstrator was a single evangelical Christian man who stood silently in the college's quadrangle with a sign reading “Porn Harms”.

As my students and fellow faculty members pointed out, it was difficult to escape the conclusion that the college cracked down on Deen's speech because he did present a very real threat: not to public safety but to the myth that women aren't also sexual beings. The old claim that “women aren't visually aroused” is belied by the statistics suggesting more and more young women are watching porn, and by the meteoric rise of the young man from Pasadena.

As, Jen Vuk wrote for Daily Life last month, “if you haven't heard of Deen, chances are you aren't a female in your 20s … who counts online porn as a pastime”.

In the past, the porn industry didn't take women's desires seriously. The archetypal male porn star of an earlier era was Ron Jeremy, a jovially hirsute, chubby man whose appeal was as much comic as erotic. Deen's boy-next-door charm may not be every woman's cup of tea, but there's no missing the reality that his primary audience is female.

While parents, as Vuk writes, may be particularly anxious about his popularity among teen girls, plenty of other adults are scared by the reality Deen embodies: lots of women look. An older generation can acknowledge (often with mixed feelings) that men like porn; a female star with a heterosexual male fan base may raise eyebrows as a classroom speaker, but she doesn't threaten traditional assumptions about desire.

I asked some of my students if they'd be willing to share their reactions to having Deen come to the class. I was deluged with responses. Most reported being both intellectually and physically turned on by Deen's hour-long talk.

“How could you not be aroused by such a cute and charismatic young guy?” one student asked rhetorically. “I'd tap that in a second,” said another of Deen.

While many praised his “relatability” and his lack of affectation, most mentioned his sex appeal as well.

“It felt really good to be in a classroom where we could openly acknowledge that women get horny too without it being unsafe or weird,” one wrote in an email.

“What I got out of his talk was encouragement not to be ashamed of ourselves,” said another student. “We fear living out our true desires, and we fear the shame that will most likely shadow us if we do. Our college's reaction to James Deen shows us exactly how much they're still invested in perpetuating that shame … at least for women.”

It would be wrong to equate criticism of the industry that has made Deen a superstar with a refusal to accept that women are visual creatures, too. It's possible to be against both porn and shame. At the same time, there's no denying that Deen's meteoric rise reflects a cultural shift towards acknowledging that young (and not so young) women are as hungry for sexual pleasure as men.

As the unprecedentedly nervous administrative reaction to Deen's appearance on my campus showed, that shift is profoundly threatening. When men realise that women aren't just sexy, but sexual in their own right, the fear of not being able to live up to female demands can become overwhelming.

The more we deny and shame women's libidos, the more we insulate men from the pressure to satisfy them. That's what makes Deen such a destabilising, even dangerous cultural figure.

In its official statement, the college explained that the cancellation of the public event was due to a lack of proper paperwork. Yet I filed the same forms for Deen that I've filed for countless other speakers over the years, including female porn stars. It's difficult to escape the conclusion that the campus administration was troubled less by Deen's profession than by the identity of his most ardent fans.