What I'm Learning from Belle Knox, the Duke University Freshman Porn Star

What I'm Learning from Belle Knox, the Duke University Freshman Porn Star

Lately I’ve found myself intrigued, challenged and educated by some powerful young women. The first is Lena Dunham, the talented writer, director and star of the HBO series, Girls. Number two is 17-year-old Lorde, a singer who refuses to hyper-sexualize herself (à la Katy, Beyoncé and Miley) to sell her music. And the third is Belle Knox*, the Duke University freshman porn star.

A porn star? Ick, Wendy. Go ahead, judge, but it’s true.

A little background: Belle Knox, an 18-year-old woman who pays for college by doing porn, got recognized by a male student on campus. He blabbed it to his friends. Rather than hide, as most would have done, Belle Knox is now speaking out courageously about the adult film industry and her choice to participate in it. And she’s turning the mirror back on us, rightly so, to show our scorn and derision.

Make no mistake; I’m not a huge fan of pornography. Led mostly by sleazy and opportunistic men, porn exposes women to infection risk, injury, societal rejection, violence and harassment. Porn makes reckless, debauched sex appear ordinary and reasonable, creating unrealistic expectations for women. Porn can lead to addiction, with viewers craving a “sexual high.” And research has found that those who watch porn frequently were likely to suffer from “severe social and relationship problems, and were more likely to lose their jobs and get in trouble with the law.”

For those reasons and more, I see pornography as a mixed bag: men and women can use it to increase physical pleasure and enhance their love lives, but there is a dark side to the industry and a certain level of risk involved for the people who create and consume it.  In Belle Knox's case, what I find more noteworthy and distressing than the porn itself is the hypocrisy surrounding her story. I despise how Duke students (many of whom undoubtedly consume porn) and so many others are dehumanizing this young woman because she has sex on camera and gets paid for it.

Let’s face some facts. Most heterosexual women have dated or married men who watch porn. And I have yet to meet even one person who broke up with a guy because of his porn habit. Most women respond to the discovery that their partners watch porn with a resigned shrug. Or they have that inevitably awkward conversation in which both try to draw some arbitrary line in the sand between what’s acceptable porn and not acceptable porn. Unless it’s very obviously disruptive, most women allow it. And sometimes couples will even watch it together.

Around America, couples everywhere have been doing this seemingly innocent dance with denial when along comes Belle Knox. Immediately, our nation is overrun with the morality police. “She’s a slut!” “She’s a whore!” the Internet declares. Then come the rape threats and vicious attacks, along with the disclosure of all her personal information.

Following this we now see the online assaults against women that have become commonplace on the web. Dare to point out the double standard that exists, the one in which “decent” men watch porn, but the women who appear in these films are trash and unworthy of basic human decency? Prepare for a shit storm.

Why do women demonize porn stars? I think it’s partly because we are afraid of them. Porn stars never have a headache. They never complain about money or household chores. Porn stars never say no and they never have trouble getting aroused. If they are easy, then we – the wives and girlfriends – are difficult, boring and frigid. We are complex and needy in ways porn stars are simple. With men’s role in society changing and their status declining so rapidly, porn offers a clear, direct path to pleasure for the men who consume it.

Why are so many men attacking Belle Knox? The answer seems pretty obvious to me. Porn stars are supposed to hide in the shadows, emerging only to satisfy men’s needs. In the case of Belle Knox, we see what happens when the object of men’s desire strays from her distinct role as pleasure provider. By speaking up, she is no longer merely a receptacle for men’s basest desires. She is no longer simply a mannequin with a vagina, anus and mouth. She’s a human being, a woman who could be a wife, mother, sister, neighbor or friend. And that is too much for men to handle.

Here’s the bottom line. Porn is not going away. Ever. As long as there are screens, there will be women willing to get undressed and perform sexual acts with other men and women. In fact, given the ubiquity of technology, porn consumption will probably increase over the next decade. In the olden days, men watched porn mostly at creepy movie houses. Then they were able to watch it at home. Now porn is everywhere.

Given this reality, it’s time we got to know the women who are getting men off. While we may not agree with their decision to have sex on camera, they deserve to be treated as human beings. Regardless of where we stand when it comes to porn, we need to ensure that the women who appear in adult movies are safe and not being exploited or abused. Because these women, too, are everywhere.

At first glance, you wouldn’t think that ass-kicking rebels like Lena Dunham and Lorde have much in common with an adult film star. But dig a little deeper, and perhaps they are more alike than you think. All three demand that we challenge our preconceptions of how an actress, singer or sex worker should present herself to the world and respond to criticism. All three demand that we see and accept them for who they are, flaws and all. As a forty-year-old mom fighting stereotypes of what I should be in American society, I find that pretty damn courageous. And pretty damn amazing.

(photo credit: David Castillo/freedigitalphotos.net)

Belle Knox* is the Duke University student's professional name.

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