The Duke freshman student who was recently outed as a porn star, who wrote an article for xoJane a few weeks back about her experience as a porn performer and then as the victim of harassment at school and online, has revealed her face and her performance name to the general public in an act of badassery and defiance of the bullies who have slithered out of the woodwork to threaten her. I had intended to link to Belle Knox’s latest article on xoJane here, and to quote several of her excellent points about fear, hypocrisy, and the rights of sex workers… but it appears that xoJane isn’t working right now. I’d guess it’s either because the site has been inundated by traffic, or because some of the vigilante dickbags who have threatened Knox with rape, murder, and other violence are hackers and have taken down the website where she called them out for their dickbaggish behavior.
So, for now, let’s proceed without well-placed quotes from the article. Let’s talk about slut-shaming of porn performers.
Full disclosure: I have written about pornography for the past ~7 years. I’ve interviewed dozens of porn stars, reviewed even more porn films, made my own documentaries on the subject, and written extensively about all of it. So this subject gets me all worked up.
Here are the facts: someone at Duke University, where Belle Knox is paying her way through the high tuition by making porn, recognized Knox (ostensibly while watching porn online) and outed her amongst the student body. The shit hit the fan shortly thereafter, and her life has been a study in slut-shaming ever since: she’s been threatened, harassed, publicly shamed both online and in real life, and even given the runaround by police when she went to them for protection from the very-scary threats she’s been receiving. Threats which I personally believe would be inappropriate in any situation, let alone one in which the issue at hand is that a woman decided to get naked and have sex on camera.
This is a phenomenon, let’s not forget, that happens literally every day. People make porn, and when they’re done on set they participate in everyday life. Many of them are students paying their ways through the increasingly expensive American higher education system. This is not breaking news. But for whatever reason, the public, and in particular the Greek system at Duke, has made it a point to shame and harass Belle Knox for her legal and (if her articles are any indication of her thought process) carefully considered decision to film porn for money. To many, this decision is of questionable logical and moral merit, but it’s a decision that an adult made and it in no way violates anybody else’s inalienable rights.
So why all the hullabaloo? The issue here is not whether this woman has made a good or a bad decision; there’s no objective answer to that question. The real crux of the matter is whether the decision she made is in any way deserving of the kind of hateful, violent, hysterical response she received when that decision became public knowledge. And the larger issue that arises from that discussion is why this kind of response is not just typical, but so normal that it has come back around to eat its own tail: Belle Knox has been criticized by her detractors for hiding her true identity behind a performance name. Knox outing herself to prove she wasn’t hiding—photo and all—calls attention to the reason most performers must use fake names: it’s not out of shame, it’s for survival. Some volatile combination of misogyny, fear, hatred, and shame shows its ugly face to porn performers all the time, and they have to use fake names to protect themselves and their loved ones from it.
There is a difference in worldview on display here, between people who see the world through the lens of The Way Things Are—dangerous, cruel, and sexist—versus those who see the world through the lens of The Way Things Should Be. Idealists. Belle Knox is an idealist. She’s putting herself in danger, emotionally and physically, by speaking up and outing herself, but she’s doing it because she sees this as opportunity to call out the fact that the The Way Things Are—full of haters, trolls, bullies, self-aggrandizing misogynists—is ridiculous, wrong-headed, and hurtful.
She is reacting to those who would rather hurl insults at someone for making a poor decision than examine whether it’s the decision that’s poor, or the reaction that decision provokes. The reason Belle Knox should be legitimately worried is not because she went into a line of work that is legal and (despite many people’s uninformed rants in the comments section of her article) relatively safe. The reason she should be concerned is that her identity is now known to people who think sex workers should be objects of scorn, harassment, and violence without asking themselves why they think that’s the case. The fact that they think that way does not reflect on her decision to make porn—it reflects upon those who feel they have some sort of morally superior position from which they can safely threaten her because of her decision.
Knox makes a great point in her second xoJane article: those who publicly harass her for her choices are likely to be those who partake in the fruits of her labor. After all, she wouldn’t have been recognized by these trolls if they hadn’t been watching porn in the first place.
I’ve noticed in my time writing about pornography that there is a perceived gap between the millions—no, the billions—who watch porn, and those who make it. Those people who make porn are seen as fundamentally different, unknowable, even broken by porn consumers. (Don’t believe me? Check out the comments section on literally any article online that touches upon the lives of porn stars). I believe that the emotional distance placed between the us and the them in performative sex (and really any form of sex work) makes consumers feel somehow safer from the radically different choices made by performers. “There but for the grace of god go I,” and all that hooey. But the truth is that most porn performers are normal people who don’t have as many hangups about sex, who have decided to make money at it. Really, there’s not much else that sets them apart as a group. But consumers feel a need to label porn performers, put distance and difference between themselves and those they watch, to maintain some trumped-up sense of dignity.
We see performers engage in acts that we, as private citizens, consider intimate, and this gives many of us a heightened sense of power over them. But here’s the real truth: porn is not often intimate. A lot of porn shoots involve performers, lighting techs, sound techs, cameramen, makeup artists, and directors. The things you might feel exhilarated by “getting away” with watching are, in fact, extremely public. They are performed according to specific standards so that they can be turned—consciously, deliberately, and after much editing—into products for mass consumption. Porn performers know damn well that their performances are going to be viewed by thousands, possibly millions, of people. Belle Knox is not exposing you to her deepest darkest secrets; she has decided to make her sexuality not-secret on purpose. You have no power over her because you saw her naughty bits.
As a matter of fact, think about this for a moment: when you’re watching porn—a reproduction of a sex act that features consenting sex workers on a set full of people—who is the truly vulnerable party in this scenario? I’d venture to say it’s the one with their pants around their ankles, alone in a dark, locked room, who rushes to close all the open windows on screen and erase their history as soon as they’ve “finished.” The one who’s ashamed of what they’re doing. And maybe that’s one reason people get so angry at sex workers who speak up about their autonomy—even their power. Maybe there’s some kind of switch that flips when people feel that their own vulnerability, their privacy, their dark secret, is close to surfacing. The thought that the woman you watched fucking on your computer screen might actually have you at a disadvantage triggers some kind of primordial terror that internet trolls and entitled Greek system douchenozzles haven’t the self-control to master.
Or maybe that’s just what I want to think, because I cannot personally fathom why somebody’s decision to take off their clothes and have sex on camera could make others so hysterical that they would feel justified making death threats.
But there’s something to it, I think. The most violent responses are usually reactions to fear. Fear that we’re in danger. Fear that we are wrong. Fear that, maybe, someone else might know something we don’t, or represent something we don’t understand. In this case, terror that a young woman who has made a decision we don’t all approve of might do well, be happy, pay her way through school, and become a successful, empowered human being who leveraged her body, her image, and her free will to get where she wanted. Fear that she does not have enough fear. Fear that the Way Things Are—biased, filled to capacity with double standards, sexist—might be vastly inferior to The Way Belle Knox Wants Things to Be.
But let’s take a step back and realize something: The Way Things Actually Are might not be as starkly different from how How Things Ought to Be as you think. After all, Knox did consent, of her own free will, using her intelligent adult mind, to leverage her body for money in a legal industry in which she is safer from contracting disease than she might be in the general population at Duke (in which I feel confident saying that many, if not most, STDs are spread without consent or knowledge of at least one party). She probably isn’t filming very often—there’s not a lot of porn being shot around the Duke campus—but she is likely making enough money that she can afford to take unpaid internships and/or intensive courses of study that will prepare her for the world when she graduates. And, if I know the porn industry (oh, by the way, I do), all the publicity will very likely lead to her making a lot more money in porn, as her name on a DVD cover or website will bring in thousands more dollars now that she’s famous.
So, hey. Good job, trolls. This empowered young woman who made a decision about her life and her body that had nothing to do with you, but which has apparently worked you into a frothing frenzy of anger and likely masturbation, will probably make a lot of money because of you. The Way Things Are might not be as awful as you make it out to be.
IMAGES from xoJane. You may want to also read Lisa Marie Basile’s thoughts on how the CEO of an adult-film company outed the student who outed Belle Knox.