Earlier this week, I saw Belle Knox — the "Duke porn star," as she has been dubbed by the media — perform at a strip club. She was there as a special guest, having recently rocketed into the public eye after being outed as porn actor by her classmate. This, of course, resulted in a veritable media frenzy, a tidal wave of name-calling and pearl-clutching and enraged shaming, which she countered with a series of eloquent and openly feminist interviews and essays.
At about 11:00 pm, Special Guest Belle Knox strode onto the stage. She was clad in a very typical "sexy school girl" costume, which she proceeded to rhythmically remove while "-Cherry Pie" by Warrant played. The crowd, which was predominantly composed of reporters clutching cameras and smartphones, gazed on raptly. It was over very quickly.
The next morning, the New York Daily News ran a story claiming that Belle will not be returning to Duke due to death threats and fears for her safety (a very sensational claim, it of course turned out not to be true). However, it is true that Belle has been receiving death and rape threats ever since her peers found out about her job. According to Tyler Kingkade at the Huffington Post, Duke students have "threatened to throw garbage on her and have lobbed rape threats and death threats in her direction." And, obviously, the Internet is no better — she's been attacked on Twitter and in the media, condescended by talk show hosts, and had her struggles with self-abuse brutally, callously and erroneously picked apart by the Daily Mail (the pile of garbage took a quote of hers completely out of context in order to falsely and salaciously claim that she "gets aroused by hurting herself").
The juxtaposition here is very jarring. We're expected to salivate over a picture of Belle Knox clad in her schoolgirl fantasy outfit directly beneath a headline reporting that she feels unsafe on campus because of her peers' hostility toward her. As I read the media coverage of Belle Knox's strip club performance, the nebulous feeling of irony that had come over me when I first saw her come onto stage in a plaid miniskirt and matching bra-vest coalesced into a sense of pure absurdity. It's ridiculous: one of the most popular genres of porn is devoted to college women, and "sexy co-eds" is a staple of pornography. The horny college girl is a fantasy that's ubiquitous nearly to the point of banality (for instance, "college" is in the Top 3 PornHub searches for numerous states). Here's the description for BestCollegePorn.com, a site devoted to... the best college porn (link NSFW, obviously):
Welcome to the exciting world of college, where college girls explore their sexuality and have a great time doing it. That's right, these sorority babes are all too ready and willing to get naked, party, and satisfy their cravings with some hard cock and wet pussy.
The fantasy here is of "college girls expor[ing] their sexuality and hav[ing] a great time doing it" — and porn consumers, clearly, love it. But when we, as a public, are greeted with the actual thing — a porn star who is also enrolled in college, who is an eager and bright young co-ed — we react with a mixture of disbelief, scorn and malice. The irony is not lost on Belle that (in her words), "the same people who are shaming me are the same people who are jacking off to me." This irony should not be lost on anyone.
Obviously, this isn't restricted to Belle Knox. As a country, we consume massive volumes of porn but tend to look down upon — if not outright revile — porn stars. One of the comments on the Playboy interview with Knox sums up the vitriolic discourse about porn performers fairly well:
Don't. Give. A. Shit. You've done absolutely nothing in this life other than open your legs, let strangers fuck you for all the world to see and you collect a paycheck for it. Your accomplishments are null, you don't have "a story," and you aren't in any way a spokesperson for sex for any subset of our population....
Now please, drop out of school. Open up a slot for someone who isn't going to make a mockery of themselves and will try to get through college with some fucking dignity.
As Belle said in her Duke Chronicle interview (and as sex workers have been arguing for a very long time), sex work is not inherently "less dignified" than any other form of labor: "To be perfectly honest," Belle told the Chronicle, "I felt more degraded in a minimum wage, blue-collar, low paying, service job than I ever did doing porn." Similarly, sociologist Susan Dewey studied strippers in the Rust Belt and found that they preferred topless dancing to service-sector work, which they saw as far more "exploitative, exclusionary, and without hope for social mobility or financial stability."
Despite all of this, we insist on maintaining some kind of a priori divide between the fact that porn performers engage in on-camera sex and their humanity — their intelligence, their ambitions, their academic interests. "If I were a porn star and weren't in school, people would hate me and say I have no future, while when financing school by doing sex work I'm getting told that I can't do both," Belle told The Cut. "So basically the narrative is you can't be sexual and intelligent; you have to choose one."
In a moving and thoughtful Stranger piece, Conner Habib — a porn actor and author of the forthcoming book Remaking Sex — discusses the stigma he faces as a porn star. He recounts how his former boyfriend saw an inherent contradiction in the fact that he does porn and also teaches college English and studies science: "Framed this way, in the form of contradictions, it didn't seem right," writes Habib. "'Contradictions' was a word that meant I'd already lost the battle." Over email, I asked him why he thinks people cling to this false division between his choice to do porn and his "regular" self. "It's mostly because people separate sex from the rest of their experiences," he responded. "All of which [is a result of] people and institutions in power trying to use sex as a way to gain more power." It's threatening to systems of power — economic, social, religious, so-called "moral", etc. — when we see someone enjoying and profiting off of their sexuality in a non-socially-sanctioned way. It's especially threatening when we see that person also succeeding by ordinary social standards.
As Conner so eloquently put it:
The attitude that allows people to attack women in porn is the same attitude that kept women from getting degrees at Duke University until the late 19th Century. There's no difference. People love to explain that away by saying the body is somehow different than the mind, that pursuing a degree is nobler than being in porn. This is actually beside the point. The point is that women deserve the freedom to pursue whatever they'd like.
Unlike so much in porn, the idea of an openly and unabashedly sexual college woman — one who is open and unabashed enough to have sex on camera — isn't just a fantasy. It's ridiculous (and simply hypocritical) that our culture would pantingly demand that Belle Knox act it out over and over again in porn and then attempt to stigmatize, shame, condescend or threaten her because that's her lived reality as well.
Image by Jim Cooke.