TIME Sex

The Duke Porn Star Isn’t as Empowered as She Claims

Even Playboy is skeptical of her feminist porn argument

If you haven’t heard, there’s a freshman at Duke University who moonlights as a porn star. During school breaks, Belle Knox (that’s her porn name — she’s still keeping her real name under wraps) flies to Los Angeles and shoots adult films. She uses the money she makes to pay for college…as well as purchase iPad minis and designer handbags, according to a profile of her in the Duke Chronicle. Her identity was revealed on campus in January when a male friend got drunk at a fraternity rush event and told others. The story of the freshman porn star quickly spread by word of mouth and text.

Initially, Knox shied away from the spotlight after being criticized by her fellow students and receiving anonymous sexual threats. But soon, the future gender studies major who says she’s a Libertarian decided to use her notoriety to become a voice of feminism in the porn industry and disclosed her story to XO Jane, the Cut and other blogs.

On Tuesday, Knox was again a top search term when Playboy published an interview with her in which she revealed her porn name for the first time. Again, she tried to make her case for adult films as a venue of female empowerment saying that while many feminists fight against the porn industry — arguing it degrades and objectifies women, gives a generation of porn-obsessed men unrealistic sexual expectations, and overall hurts our relationships — there needs to be someone within the porn industry fighting for women’s sexual autonomy as well as their self-expression.

It’s a sophisticated argument from a student at an elite school. But even with Playboy it fell flat after the interviewer repeatedly questioned her about some of the more degrading things she’d done on camera. And it’s gone nowhere with her peers online who have been brutal in their critiques: “So being choked, spit on and degraded is now empowering? Feminist logic…I’d rather have my dignity and loans than work as a prostitute. I’m sure Daddy’s proud,” someone commented on a Collegiate ACB board.

Perhaps Knox thought that the judgements against her would be less virulent from a generation that has grown up with unlimited access to porn. But though we’re living in an era when everything from clothing ads to salad dressing commercials is verging on soft core porn, she’s finding that there’s still a stigma attached to actual sex on camera. And now the freshman, who might have thought she had control of the situation when she was anonymous, finds herself on the defensive, even when questioned by the very industry she’s trying to defend. The Playboy interviewer was skeptical of the idea that porn was the only way Knox could have paid for school:

PLAYBOY: Is that what this is really about for you—the skyrocketing cost of higher education in America?

KNOX: Absolutely. My story is a testament to how fucking expensive school is. The fact that the only viable options to pay for college are to take out gigantic student loans, to not go to college at all or to join the sex industry really says something. We need to recognize that there’s a gap between what middle-class and upper-middle-class families can pay and what they’re asked to pay. We also need to stop looking at loans as a solution to fix our education system, because they’re crippling our economy.

Student loans are an absurd burden on anyone, but most students find jobs on campus — doing research for professors, working at local stores, writing. Porn may feel more empowering to the self-identified libertarian Knox than waitressing, but I promise that her frat boy peers won’t see it that way. And employers definitely won’t see it that way. (Knox says she hopes to be a women’s rights and civil rights lawyer.)

The rest of the interview degrades her even further, asking her questions about her parents’ reaction to the news that she has sex for money and constantly referring to the “facials” she receives in many of her pornos. Knox’s quest to put a positive, feminist spin on her work is failing. In most adult films, women are depicted as objects who are there to please the man in whatever way he might choose. And as Gloria Steinem pointed out typical pornography normalizes a relationship of dominance between men and women. So it’s not surprising to note Knox’s protestations that anyone who derides porn is sexist aren’t gaining much traction.

If Playboy is questioning your foray into the porn industry, you know you have a problem.

But before we mock Knox for her naiveté, remember that Knox is a freshman. Teenagers are not great at making life decisions, and it seems based on her interviews that Knox is just as much a confused adolescent as her peers in college. Sure, slut shaming her for her choices is wrong. It’s her body, she can do what she wants with it. But she doesn’t know how to process her newfound fame. The Duke Chronicle article reads: “In our first conversation, she mentioned her complete fear of the news going public, but in one of our most recent conversations, she giggled and asked, ‘Do you think I’ll be on Ellen?'”

College years are full of bad decisions that we must justify to ourselves and our roommates later in our dorm rooms. For most, you live, you learn, you move on. But this decision will likely haunt Knox for the rest of her college and professional career.

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