The Internet exploded this week with former porn performer Mia Khalifa’s revelation that she made $12,000 from working in porn. To many, this dollar sum seemed wildly out of step with the degree of Khalifa’s viral fame: she has been called “the world’s most popular porn star” and is currently the second most popular porn performer on the tube site Pornhub. Soon after the five-figure divulgement, Khalifa, who left the adult industry years ago, started trending on Twitter, with countless variations of laughing, shocked, or double-taking reaction GIFs. Then came the mainstream news coverage, with the New York Post in a headline: “Mia Khalifa claims she made only $12K doing porn.”
It is, ironically, a cheapening of Khalifa’s story to focus on that $12,000 figure, which she revealed on Twitter while promoting a wide-ranging 80-minute-long YouTube interview. During those many minutes, she discusses a childhood growing up in Lebanon and moving in her adolescence to the U.S. “I thought, ‘This is my year, this is when I’m going to make friends—and two weeks later 9/11 happens,” she says. “I was immediately the terrorist. That was my nickname.” Khalifa talks about struggling with body image issues in high school—and then gaining self-confidence after losing weight and undergoing breast augmentation. She also, of course, talks at length about her experience in the adult industry, including performing in a scene while wearing a hijab, which reportedly resulted in death threats from ISIS, and garnered widespread media attention and viral infamy.
But it’s that $12,000 soundbite that made headlines and got her name trending. In this reductive response, she is collapsed from a complex human being—with a childhood, a family, a backstory—into a mere dollar sign.
The performative Twitter gawking doesn’t come from respect for the work of sex work or a belief in the value of it. It doesn’t come from a sense of injustice on Khalifa’s behalf or a desire to interrogate tube-site economics. It comes from a wish to attach a price to her shame—a shame that is both projected onto her by default as a former adult performer, and that she gives explicit voice to as her own. “I immediately started to feel ashamed,” she said during the interview of being recognized by fans. Her shame doesn’t happen in a vacuum, though: it happens in a social context where a lengthy, frank discussion with a woman who expresses mixed emotions about having worked in the adult industry inspires mocking reaction GIFs on the level of a sad trombone.
These reactions are essential to creating and maintaining shame around sex work. They are also, in no small way, reflective of why it’s possible that she made only $12,000, despite her fame: sex work is devalued. That devaluing is part of why people don’t pay for porn in the first place—why they feel comfortable watching Khalifa and countless others on tubes sites without concern for whether the performers receive any kind of cut. Ironically, that devaluing is also why making $12,000 from performing in porn is treated as a humiliation. The social stakes for doing porn is such that—despite the fact that Khalifa performed in but a handful of films, despite the fact that she says she was in the industry for “three or four” short months—only a small fortune would be treated as appropriate remuneration.
Of course it does seem unjust that someone could reach her level of fame without commensurate compensation, but the widespread impulse isn’t to critique the underlying system, to unpack the exploitive economics of tube sites, but rather to critique Khalifa herself—as a dupe, a fool. There isn’t even a push to understand the broader nuances of, and range in, performer pay, which Tasha Reign unpacks at length today in an op-ed piece. The gawking critique doesn’t focus on the magnitude of her popularity, either, but on the simple trade of sex for money. How could she have done [insert sensationalistic description of a single sex act] for so little money? In this viewpoint, women in porn—and only women in porn—are permanently surrendering something of themselves. From this perspective, any dollar amount is shameful. It’s why the Twitter discourse and the mainstream headlines alike are so focused on that five-figure sum: perpetuating shame.