Belle Knox’s life looked very different just a few weeks ago. She was a Duke University freshman trying to succeed in school, get enough sleep and adapt to her new home. Like a lot of other college kids, she was earning some money on the side to ease the burden of inflated tuition. Sure, the fact that her side job was performing in the porn industry rendered her something other than “average,” but the anonymity of her porn career allowed her to enjoy some normalcy.
Now she fends off death threats from Duke frat boys in between interviews for major publications. Ever since a fellow Duke student outed her porn identity to the public, Knox lives at the center of a surreal media storm. It seems that even students at one of the United States’s most prestigious colleges can’t process the idea that a young woman could be educated, responsible and a willing participant in the pornography industry.
In a personal manifesto she penned for xoJane.com, Knox writes of the overwhelmingly positive experiences she’s had in her line of work. “Shooting pornography brings me unimaginable joy,” she wrote. Her refusal to internalize the shame that her peers and innumerable Internet adversaries have lobbed at her is, in some ways, inspiring. Yet the feel-good, let-your-freak-flag-fly sentiment of her essay wears thin as she ventures into potentially dangerous territory.
Knox lost me when she wrote “[Performing in porn] is freeing, it is empowering, it is wonderful, it is how the world should be.” Later, she says that as a woman performing in porn, she “transgresses the norm and takes ownership of her body.” However personally empowered she may feel, Knox is glossing over the harsh, often exploitative realities of her industry. For every Belle Knox enjoying the pedigree of a top university alongside a blissful porn career, how many people are coerced into sex work? How many enter the industry voluntarily and encounter mistreatment and/or poor working conditions along the way? How many lose future job prospects from the stigma of their time in porn? It’s a logical fallacy for her to equate working in the porn industry with bodily autonomy.
It is a fact that with the exception of a few niche companies, porn caters to male viewers’ pleasure far more to females’. It enforces normative bodies and power dynamics. Basically, it replicates much of what plagues society as a whole, but in a more stripped-down way. Knox has every right to stand by her decision and have a good time doing so, but she isn’t doing anyone any favors by remaining silent about the uglier aspects of her industry.
One of the points that Knox has reiterated while defending her choice is that as long as college is so mind-bogglingly expensive, students have few desirable options to foot the bill. She is adamant that performing in pornography in order to graduate debt-free is just as valid as taking out monstrous debt loads. After all, we can’t always be ethical when an unethical system places us in impossible situations.
I understand this reality very well: I work for a chain restaurant that I consider socially and environmentally irresponsible – but that does not change the fact that I need the money. I buy jeans that I know were made in sweatshops because I can’t afford the fair trade alternatives. But at the end of the day, I am at peace with knowing that I do my best with the options I have. Knox seems to feel similarly.
My only wish for her is that she would take it easy on the rhetoric of empowerment and understand that just because performing in porn has been an enjoyable, supportive experience for her does not make it a supportive, woman-friendly industry. Rather than waxing poetic about the best aspects of her work and defending it at all costs, she should be advocating for change within the business so that other women can have equally empowering experiences.
Abby Grosse ’15 firstname.lastname@example.org is from Shoreview, Minn. She majors in English with concentrations in media studies and women’s and gender studies.