Porn has historically been a divisive issue among feminists. This writer persuasively defends the Duke student against her fiercest critics.
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Last week, DAME published an essay by Robin Kirk, a Duke professor who called into question the feminism of Duke college freshman and porn star Belle Knox. This week, a writer weighs in on this complicated conversation, and comes to the student’s defense.
The recent public controversy of Belle Knox, the Duke freshman porn star who identifies as a feminist, has galvanized questions about feminist identity and to whom the label may apply: Can a porn star really be a feminist? To many female media pundits the answer is no. But if they just listened to Knox instead of come to the table with their preconceived notions about sexuality, they might reconsider.
Charlotte Allen, a guest blogger at the L.A. Times, for example, dismissed Knox (using her given name, Miriam Weeks) as a “talented self-promoter and publicity hound who has figured out how to combine an exquisite rhetorical mix of box-checking feminist pieties, tear-jerking self-pity, and unrestrained exhibitionism into a lucrative, if probably short-lived career as a celebrity” in her op-ed: “Is ‘Duke Porn Star’ Belle Knox a Feminist or a Troubled Young Woman?” Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post characterizes Knox’s defense as a “faux-feminist, hear-me-roar bravado about rejecting slut-shaming.” Elizabeth Stoker in The Week calls Knox “misguided,” and in Knox’s appearance on The View, Sherri Shepherd welled up with emotions after Knox bluntly admitted that she had been watching porn since she was 12. Shepherd said, “I don’t want to make you feel bad, but for someone to say that they’ve been watching porn since they were 12 years old … My heart breaks, my heart just breaks, it really, really does.” The audience broke out in applause.
Some may argue that Knox’s critics have her best interest in mind, and indeed, many feminists spearheading the antipornography movement of the 1970s—most famously Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon—railed against the industry in the interest of protecting women from abuse and exploitation. But discrediting Knox’s identity as a feminist by claiming a higher ground, and a “real” feminist agenda, I would argue is also exploitative, and anti-feminist.
Knox’s critique of sexual repression imposed by the patriarchy, as critics like Allen would claim, is not a superficial defense of her career choice. The public has responded to her with media shaming, death threats, petitions to have Knox expelled from Duke. She has been caricaturized as a “troubled teen” who must not know any better—thus removing her sense of agency, and undermining her feminist argument because it reaffirms the idea that one would only participate in sex work because she has a tainted past. And it puts her critics on higher moral ground, vesting them with the authority to excuse her troubled behavior as a parent would, making her out to be confused and naïve. On The View, Jenny McCarthy asks her, “So you get out of high school, a sweet, innocent little girl, what happened that made you turn to porn?”
If you read the op-eds on Knox, notice the language that is used to describe sex work: It’s an “activity,” a “last resort”—not a job—despite the fact that Knox insists repeatedly that “porn has been nothing but supportive, exciting, thrilling, and empowering.” Many women from all different socio-economic backgrounds choose porn or sex work as a career. While protecting women from exploitation is a legitimate concern, Knox’s critics seem to be ignoring the fact that Knox enjoys the work—she finds it liberating. Still, Stoker insists, “At the performer-level, porn is a notoriously treacherous place to make a career. While female performers might make more than their male counterparts, most of them just don’t get paid that well.” Knox’s critics are outright rejecting her assertion that she enjoys porn because it goes against their ideological standpoint. They believe that she is giving up her body, selling her body. And in our society, women are expected to “not give it up so easily”; boys, however, will be boys. Our sexuality is judged—we are slut-shamed by men and by women, our reproductive rights are regulated by lawmakers who don’t even understand how the female body works.
There is no need to put the word “work” in quotes, as Allen does, when discussing what Knox is doing: It is a form of income. For one thing, porn is not illegal in this country. She is 18, a consenting adult, and she has opted to use this means of employment to help pay for her tuition at Duke. Not everyone has the same boundaries regarding what kinds of labor she is willing to do, but that shouldn’t render her as an “untouchable,” to use Knox’s terminology. Because now this is turning into a moral-based argument. And the real question becomes, does morality have a place in questioning a woman’s feminism?
I wonder, too, why Knox’s critics sought out her porn? Did they do so to find out whether it was degrading toward women, or was it for more prurient purposes? Is there validity in the argument that violent porn leads to violence toward women? Knox told CNN, “I think 80 percent of the world’s traffic on the Internet is pornography. And I think that probably every single person at some point in their life has watched pornography.” It isn’t only men who watch porn—or who watch rape porn. A Daily Mail article reported that over half of women watch porn, with 21 percent enjoying fetish-related content. Knox observed, “The idea of power and degradation is completely subjective.” Her critics argue that she appears to be lacking control in the videos, but Knox affirmed on The View, “In porn, I’m in a safe, controlled environment, where I set the boundaries.”
And then there’s the allegation that Knox is a self-promoter who’s devised a meticulous publicity stunt to get rich and famous. Knox never intended for word to get around campus. It was Thomas Bagley, the young man with an alleged $200-a-week porn habit, who came across her video that broke a personal promise to not tell others about what he found. Yes, it was probably inevitable that someone would come across it. But there was a reason she wanted to keep her profession a secret—she was trying to avoid being harassed. Which is why she has taken a leave from Duke. So do porn stars not deserve a quality education? Must they really choose between the two?
Alas, in order to prove that Knox is indeed a money-hungry self-promoter, Allen highlights the “inconsistencies” in Knox’s narrative:
“The story on Duke freshman [Miriam] Weeks [Knox’s given name], who’s ‘working’ her way through college by flying regularly to L.A. to make porn films, oscillates between: 1) a lugubrious feminist narrative about an enterprising ‘sex worker’ (nothing wrong with that!) who’s being victimized by judgmental, patriarchal males who simultaneously condemn her and lap up (no pun intended) her filmed product; and 2) an equally lugubrious narrative about a naive young girl who’s being victimized by an exploitative adult-film industry (‘rough sex’ is one of her specialties) and a society addicted to pornography in general.”
What Allen fails to see is that there are no inconsistencies in the narratives, although both as posited by Allen are slightly off; (1) it is not only men who are victimizing Knox through their judgments, but women too, as we can see from Allen’s op-ed, and (2) Knox never makes out the job to be victimizing. The irony I believe Allen attempts to articulate is the one described by film theorist Laura Mulvey, when she wrote “on the one hand, women’s [interests] obviously serves patriarchal interests, on the other hand, this very concern is often denigrated and ridiculed by men” consequently rendering woman in a “double bind” in which she is both put into a corner through patriarchy and then daunted for making do.
Impassioned revokes of Knox’s feminism say more about her critics than they do about Knox. They’re so quick to shame her by putting themselves on higher moral ground, shaking their heads at the “poor soul,” but this only reveals their own biases and sexist ideologies that are rooted in notions of female sexual purity. Instead of chastising Knox, people might consider why they think and feel the way we do. Before attempting to shame an adult woman and publicly harass her for taking control of her body and using it in whatever way she wishes, it’s important to reflect on why we feel a certain way, and what kind of logic informed that response. Our truths are not everyone’s, and as Nietzsche once said, “Truth is the greatest lie ever told.”
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