The Chronicle Review

When Pornography Pays for College

The trouble with Belle Knox

Getty Images

August 04, 2014

My first response to Belle Knox was to be thrown into my past. Knox is "the Duke University porn star," a rising sophomore infamous for entering the sex industry to pay her tuition and then turning into a meme. More than two decades ago, a friend of mine chose to leave graduate school at Yale to become a dominatrix. To me, she represented third-wave feminists’ desire to enjoy sex—even to work in the sex industry—and still be political radicals. She never spoke about her decision publicly and long ago moved on without a trace.

Since then, so many students have turned to sex work that it has become a kind of a joke. But Belle Knox is something new: a face of what you might call fourth-wave feminism, a generation of angry young women who have come of age in a pornified, financially devastated century.

Within a few weeks, Knox loudly established herself as a woman who, though "forced" into porn by her parents’ financial downfall, nonetheless loves it. She is a victim of the recession, but not, apparently, of the sex industry.

Like other fourth-wavers, Knox is all about her brand, which she advances via social and legacy media. She is brashly unapologetic about this brand’s embracing all of her roles—porn star, elite-college student, pundit, libertarian, future civil-rights lawyer. But her volume doesn’t mean she is right.

Duke is known for sex scandals, so I believe Knox when she said, in her earliest interview, "Being a woman at Duke is extremely difficult. Being a sexual woman at Duke is extremely difficult."

Yet Knox is no bad seed on one big, misogynist campus. Before she ever dreamed of Durham, she was exposed to factors deforming all fourth-wavers: the pornification of society and the rise of an intense brand of sex-positive feminism, the increase in slut-shaming as part of the so-called new misogyny, and the growth of unprecedentedly broad ideas about sexual diversity.

So many students have turned to sex work that it has become a kind of a joke.

The Internet, which allowed Knox to fast-track her porn career and led to her outing only a few weeks later, also shaped her story. No young woman today has the luxury of working in the sex industry and erasing the evidence. Today porn is forever.

Knox may have been influenced by a course she took called "Feminism: The Politics of Pleasure," which is rich in third-wave ideas, and by that millennial handbook, the HBO show Girls, both of which propose narratives of self-actualization that can stick to any situation, like Post-it notes. Porn makes Knox feel "unimaginable joy." Her sometimes shockingly self-serving vision of feminism seems to be: "Women support[ing] other women, even the ones who enjoy mascara-smeared, on-your-knees fellatio." I’m OK getting rough, you’re OK getting rough.

Because some of Knox’s ideas are so jejune, it is easy to dismiss her. But the hullabaloo over her porn has overshadowed what she shows us about the pressures that young women (and men) face today at colleges and universities, where fear and accusations of rape loom and the sex industry has infiltrated students’ minds and dorm rooms.

At the same time, administrators are caught between catering to sex-positive student agendas—not to do so would make them vulnerable to being accused of misogyny or worse—and having to take a larger role in policing sexual misconduct against women (a role that they are ill-prepared to take on).

Colleges are doing the former by seeming to promote "sex weeks," which might include presentations by sex workers and bondage demonstrations. These and other similar events often appear entirely uncritical of the sex industry. At the same time, colleges preach the necessity of consent—a fuzzy idea at best—and warn about the ubiquity of "rape culture," so that the idea of sex itself seems either dangerous or freighted with rules. And now, thanks to a recent mandate from the Department of Education, colleges must drag alleged rape victims through amateurish hearings.

The result is that students seem more vulnerable, and more distracted, than ever. They seem most comfortable talking about their sexuality in jokey, relativistic terms, as if they were discussing which condiment they prefer with lunch. They have more choices about sexuality than they ever did and yet, although they are often fearless consumers of extreme porn, they seem frightened of true intimacy and what the writer Anne Hollander has called "the rough strife of adult sex."

So it is hardly shocking to learn that Knox is not the only young woman to turn to the sex industry to test her limits. At the same time as her story was breaking, in March, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, by the journalist Melissa Gira Grant (who herself did sex work to support her writing career), was published. This provocative, ambitious, and at times maddening book argues that objectification might not, as some researchers think, "fragment consciousness," that sexualization is "value neutral," and, drawing on recent sociology, that sex work should be considered part of the expanding service economy, along with "child care, Brazilian waxes, [and] personal training."

OK. But when I hear Knox talk about the "craft" of her porn, my first response is not to think that she is making a shrewd political observation about how adult-entertainment stars and manicurists alike need skills to survive in the 21st-century labor market. It is that she learned only half of what "Feminism: The Politics of Pleasure" was selling—the half that claims that, as the course abstract puts it, "gender equality depends on women’s right to pursue their own pleasure." On the other hand, since lately Knox declines to talk about her first rough-sex scene, maybe she has changed her mind and decided that her sex work cannot be contained in the language of empowerment-craft-unimaginable joy.

The story of Belle Knox began last September, when Miriam Weeks (her real name) arrived at Duke from Spokane, Wash., where she had attended a Roman Catholic private school. The self-described "nerd" and "overachiever" was on the debate team and wanted to do pre-law. She was also bisexual and a cutter. She had watched Internet porn since she was a tween.

In November, Weeks’s father, a military doctor, was sent to Afghanistan, a posting that halved his salary. Duke did not recalculate Weeks’s financial-aid package and suggested that she take out a private loan.

She Googled adult films, found, and began her career in porn. A freshman eventually recognized her in a porn scene, and she was outed in the school newspaper. On the gossip site CollegiateACB, trolls then slut-shamed and threatened her. Rumors surfaced, including one that she was a cokehead and one that she was an escort. Duke was supportive.

Weeks took charge. She wrote a post for the blog xoJane ("where women go when they are being selfish, and where their selfishness is applauded"), "tell[ing] her story in her own words," which meant saying that porn was "exciting, thrilling, supportive," and that she was not ashamed.

The most contentious thing she has done is to argue that a woman’s consent to violence can be a feminist act.

She appeared in Playboy and New York and on CNN, Fox News, and ABC’s The View. On campus, she was a special guest in a sociology class and participated in a women’s-studies-sponsored panel on the sex industry. She started a sex-toy line, made public appearances at strip clubs, gave interviews, wrote columns, and is writing a book.

Weeks’s essay in Time last month, about the prohibitive cost of college, written a few days after she learned that Duke had cut off her financial aid (she most likely earns too much to be considered for grants and loans), supposedly announced her seriousness as a pundit. But her ideas are confused, and not just because she takes the libertarian point of view that colleges should stop borrowing from the government. Like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead (which a fan sent her after her essay appeared), she seems to argue that education should be for the privileged few. "Not every child should go to college," she writes, apparently forgetting that she has distorted her life for the right to do just that.

The most contentious thing Weeks has done is to argue that a woman’s consent to violence can be a feminist act. (She first made this point shortly after appearing in a rough-sex scene last fall.) She has ammunition from previous waves of feminism: the second-wave idea that a woman has a right to choose her sexuality, the third-wave notion that a woman has a right to be degraded, and the more recent theory that women who like consensual violence have been marginalized, that they are the sexual outcasts of the 21st century.

A problem with these arguments is that it’s not clear that Weeks’s scene was consensual, whatever that means when she claims to have been driven by financial need to make porn in the first place. But also, this porn shoot is no Story of O, or even Fifty Shades of Grey. Early on, the director, Jimmy, says off-camera, after Weeks says she is a feminist: "Doesn’t this go against what you’re learning? … I can’t wait until your classmates see you."

I want her to use her elite education to make sense of what she is doing, but nothing she has said thus far indicates that she can.

When Weeks giggles, Jimmy says something like, I hate your giggle. A male porn actor joins Weeks. She is slapped, spit on, choked, called fat, made fun of for the scars on her thighs from where she cut herself a few years earlier, and forced to have sex. Her eyes roll back in her head. She gags. She weeps. She begs the guy to stop, and he doesn’t. Off-camera, Jimmy says he can see the misery in her eyes, which is, he says, what she said she liked seeing in other porn actors’ faces.

And yet, throughout the 35-minute scene, Weeks also flashes toothy smiles and, when asked, says how much she loves what is going on.

Melissa Gira Grant would argue that Weeks is just doing her job (acting), and that my attempt to make her stand for something other than herself proves that I am just another second-waver who insists on fantasizing about rescuing her. But I don’t want to rescue Weeks. I do want her to use her elite education to make sense of what she is doing, but nothing she has said thus far indicates that she can.

No one else is making sense of it, either. I felt embarrassed while watching Weeks in her rough-sex scene—embarrassed by the porn, by her nakedness, and by the disparity between what she said about what she was doing and what she actually was doing.

But I was at least as embarrassed watching her on her media tour, as overpaid pundits pretended that she could pay Duke tuition by waiting tables. On The View, co-host Sherri Shepherd calculated that since a porn shoot pays about $1,000 per sex scene, Weeks would have to do 272 of them to pay for Duke. Shepherd didn’t do the math for waitressing. Barbara Walters choked on the word "afford," as if she were acknowledging that Weeks’s parents’ inability to pay her tuition would reveal that America is not a meritocracy. Admitting that money played a role would prevent her story from being a cautionary morality tale as opposed to the intersection of rising tuition and a family’s misfortunes.

Weeks is a young woman whose choice hoisted her into a media maelstrom no one could have imagined in the 1980s. She seems a long way from figuring out who she is and what she will do next.

Other writers have noted that colleges need to be more sensitive to the tuition issues faced by middle-class students. That’s a given. But colleges also need to be both more realistic about and more sympathetic to the contradictory and confusing pressures that might drive young women to pornography.

Rachel Shteir is the author, most recently, of The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting (Penguin, 2011).

Correction (8/5/2014, 11:06): Of course Duke is not in the Ivy League, as Unemployed_Northeastern notes below. The article has been updated to reflect that, and we are embarrassed that many editors missed it. We are even more embarrassed that we forgot to fix this yesterday when U_N pointed it out.