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Opportunity Knox: The Duke Porn Star Makes a Feminist Case for Her Career Choice

A professor doesn't buy her argument, yet doesn't entirely blame her, either.
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College-age people often make risky calls, as any teacher or parent can attest. It’s part of being young—experimenting with boundaries, with personas, with, well, everything. It’s also biological: In humans, the frontal lobes, where we gain the ability to recognize future consequences, only fully develop in the mid-twenties.

As a Duke University teacher, I often see how risky decisions can either derail a student’s future or firmly launch them into their life’s work. Sometimes, it’s hard to discern among the brilliant and risky. They aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

Take, for instance, the case of “Belle Knox,” the Duke student slash porn actress, whose story broke last week and was splashed all over the news. I don’t know this student, but her decision to pursue this career while enrolled at Duke certainly fits on my list.

Brilliant or too risky?

First the story: After winter break, “Belle Knox,” as she is known professionally, saw a jump in her professional Twitter feed. A male classmate recognized her from an online porn video. Knox, a freshman, swore him to a secrecy that lasted all of a winter afternoon. Millennials have been raised on the Internet, but they tend to be as naïve about its reach as your great-grandmother are about its perils. The student didn’t really “out” Belle, because she had already sold images of her most intimate lady-parts to the free teaser and pay-per-view sites that frat boys—among many, many other people—peruse with regularity.

Dan Savage, the writer and sex adviser, answers the following question a lot from his fans (of which I am one). May I (the caller inquires) put this [naughty bit] online and keep it from my parents/partner/boss? Can I take part in this porn film and still look forward to a rewarding career as an elementary school teacher, nurse, humanitarian or judge?

Here’s me channeling Savage’s two-part answer: of course and always, inevitably, not yet. Maybe things will change someday, but currently, our culture puts porn on the wrong side of respectable. If photographs, videos, and Instagram snaps are posted, someone you know will find them. It’s impossible to curate whose attention you’ll be drawing when pornographic images are transmitted into the ether. Knox was aware that hers were out there, and she may have hoped to elude the attention of her peers, but of course it was only a matter of time before her classmates would catch a glimpse. And once one student sees the images, soon everyone will.

Knox endured ferocious, revolting bullying online. According to later interviews, she revealed she was also being harassed on campus and has since taken a leave from school, as she told Piers Morgan on CNN. After her identity went viral on Internet chat sites like Collegiate ACB, Belle gave an interview to the Chronicle, the Duke student paper, which is what catapulted this story’s international coverage. Knox told xoJane that she entered the porn business because, “I couldn't afford $60,000 in tuition, my family has undergone significant financial burden, and I saw a way to graduate from my dream school free of debt, doing something I absolutely love. Because to be clear: My experience in porn has been nothing but supportive, exciting, thrilling, and empowering.”

Duke is a needs-blind school, meaning that students are admitted regardless of their ability to pay. And, as with many schools, the financial-aid office assembles a package of scholarships, loans and work-study funds (which is how I tackled my university expenses). Of course middle- and upper-middle class families must pay something, and it’s true that some are caught in a squeeze that can tip family finances into the red. Who wouldn’t want to leave school debt free—it seems almost impossible at a time when college costs have become more exorbitant than ever. Of course, Knox could have pursued a degree at a state university or, even thriftier, transferred into university after completing two years of community college. But she got into Duke, and why would anyone want to pass up a top-tier education? Still, there are other ways to handle the financial burden without resorting to porn.

But tuition, says Knox, isn’t the main reason she makes porn. She’s always been a little kinky and intrigued by the life. So when she turned 18, she started reaching out. Porn liberates her and other women from society’s repressed views, she argues. “When I’m in Pornland,” she told the Chronicle, “I feel at home. This is where I’m meant to be, with these people who love sex and are comfortable about it.”

The question is: Is Belle Knox trying to turn the system on its ear by making a kind of cultural statement about the extent people will go to pay for higher education at one of the country’s best universities? Or is she a naïf who hasn’t yet grasped the consequences of her actions?

Certainly there is such a thing as feminist porn. Femme Productions owner and former performer Candida Royalle produces female-centered material that includes the concept (revolutionary!) of the female orgasm—and she isn't the only purveyor of feminist porn. But there is a chasm between feminism and the kind of porn Belle Knox is making. One of her early videos—the one that reputedly led to her being recognized—is on “Facial Abuse.” There, a male performer and his cameraman insult, hit, and demean her as the man pummels her mouth with his member, until Knox weeps, chokes, and vomits.

In another of her videos, the male videographer-performer notices scars on Belle’s thighs. She explains that she cut herself as a teen because she thought she was “fat.” The man responds that this size 00 is still “fat.” The look of hurt on her face and the inauthentic giggles in the performance that follows were excruciating to watch.

The videos I watched—free teasers, to be sure—are tightly choreographed (freedom?) and entirely run-of-the-mill (empowering?), designed to appeal to precisely the prospective fraternity brother who revealed her identity to his peers. I am trying to understand how they can be spun as feminist. She does not appear to be in control of anything: The narrative, if this can be graced with such a lofty term, is utterly predictable, and everything is focused on male pleasure, the male gaze, and the inevitable cum-on-her-face crescendo.

And where were the condoms? There wasn’t a single video I saw in which a male performer was using a condom. As Elizabeth Stoker noted in a takedown of Belle’s “feminism” in The Week, a 2012 study found that porn performers in L.A. had higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases than prostitutes working in Nevada. “In other words,” Stoker notes, “the industry drive to respond to male sexual desire could well be the reason performers like Knox are in danger of contracting life-threatening illnesses like HIV. Is this what bucking the patriarchy looks like?”

I don’t mean to demean Belle for her choice to be a porn actress: She has the right to do any kind of porn she wants. She says it brings her joy and is an artistic outlet. If, as she has said, “rough sex” like the variety featured on “Facial Abuse,” is her thing, have at it. She should not be vilified in person or online—or anywhere. She has a right to choose.

But if she’d only stayed at Duke a little longer—and I, for one, hope she returns—she would have learned from a number of my fellow faculty members that there is a canyon between sexuality and pornography, an ocean between feminism and “facial abuse.” Pornography is fine if it’s what you want, but Knox’s argument that she’s producing something “feminist” doesn’t get my passing grade.

On CNN, Belle railed against a culture that represses women’s sexuality—and she’s right. But she threw me when she argued that American culture views “sex as bad, not to have sex, not to show our bodies … to be in porn and have that sexual autonomy is so incredibly freeing.”  We live in a culture that bombards us with sex and pornified ads, where women only appear scantily clad or buck naked. Open any fashion mag and you’ll see Belle Knox–size teens with a bit of pricey couture dangling from a swatch of unwrinkled flesh. In movies and TV, women are cast as prostitutes or girlfriends, and for reasons that are usually murky, must appear in panties and a lacey bra in their starship quarters (Star Trek: Into Darkness’s Alice Eve, I am talking to you).

At Duke, women still fight against what’s been dubbed “effortless perfection.” While men slag around in ripped shorts and flip-flops (so the perception goes), women must earn top grades, wear the latest couture, drink on par with the boys, win the coveted spots in specialty programs, stay model-thin, land plum internships, straighten their unruly hair (and pay for the pricey high and low lights) and always, always be sexually available for weekend “hookups” that won’t tie them down with a boyfriend or, horrors, a potential soul mate.

Every semester, exhausted, dejected, starving, hungover women fresh from a pharma refill of Plan B dump their knock-off Birkin bags on my office floor and weep big tears because the stress is overwhelming. And I’m not even touching the issue of rape—an epidemic on many campuses. Many women don’t report rape because they are too ashamed and actually don’t remember much of what happened, because they were blackout drunk when someone took the cell-phone photos. It won’t surprise you to learn that I buy my tissues at Costco. The status of women on campus breaks my heart, frankly. I thought my generation had made more gains, but it’s glaring how much work we still have to do to make the world a safe and welcoming place for our daughters, whatever their choices in life.

What is porn if not shaved and waxed perfection? In fact, Belle is feeding precisely the monster that makes college life for women such a contemporary bear. The culture wants young women to be pornified. It pornifies them even before they hop the L.A.-bound flight Belle flies to film. It pornifies them as teens. It pornifies them as little girls who plaster on unneeded makeup and false eyelashes and butt-enhancing heels.

Belle has voiced some regrets about how events unfolded. In appearances that followed her first interview, she says she underestimated how quickly her fame would spread and how dramatically it would envelop her family, who were unaware of her online career. But she continues to defend her choice to do mainline porn as empowering and feminist.

I just can’t see the feminist argument here. What Belle has done is simply take the culture at its word. If it’s porn you want, she’s serving it up, in exactly the format and style that the culture relishes. I imagine she’s not the first college student to work in porn. Indeed, the Duke label has boosted her videos into true star status, a triple-play for fans: young, brainy, and spread-eagled.

But it’s the same old same old, in pretty stockings and a stained bow.

Writer Robin Kirk teaches at Duke University and has now sworn off teaser porn.
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