It’s rare for media to provide a multi-dimensional portrait of sex workers. It’s even rarer when it comes from a media outlet responsible for such titles as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.
This certainly isn’t meant as an insult to the media brand; if anything, I was excited to see their series on Miriam Weeks, aka, Belle Knox, aka The Duke Porn Star.
Knox has been the heated subject of many articles this year. The buzz began when she went public with her porn career, which began as a way to make ends meet in college. The harassment she received when many found this out, how her life has been since publicly stepping into the world of being a sex worker, and how all of that entwines with feminism, labor, and the way in which our society still seems to whack it with one hand, and point fingers and scream “Slut” with the other is the stuff of dissertations.
Weeks or Knox (an identity which, from the series, the young woman admits she has a hard time differentiating sometimes) is profiled in the five-part series that begins with, “I Googled ‘How to Become a Porn Star,'” and ends, with the admittedly less upbeat “Knowing When to Quit Porn.” What started as a side-job to pay college tuition quickly becomes a brand that needs to be maintained, a job, a form of labor, but one that not only is stigmatized by the outside world, but one that can often be questionable even in the best of circumstances in its own world.
Humanizing is the word I want to emphasize here. Sex work and the discussions around it tend to fall into one of two very loud categories: exploitive or empowering. It’s this dichotomy of the loudest voices that tend to leave out the grey area of what actually happens in between. It reminds me of Melissa Petro’s most recent article over at Ravishly, perfectly titled “Sex Work Isn’t Consensual or Exploitive — It Can Be Both.”
Political conversations on sex work have begun to acknowledge how women’s participation in the sex industry can be—as politicized sex workers insist—consensual, but that such work may also be—as anti-industry feminists contend—exploitative. Sex work is work, an income-generating activity that is in some ways similar to other jobs and, in other ways, different.
…As activists and intellectuals concerned for the interest and well-being of individuals with experiences in the sex trades, we need to talk substantively about the forces that harm those individuals. Within these discussions, we need to acknowledge how sex workers are fighting back, as well as the positive aspects of the work that, for many individuals, make it all worth it (including, but not limited to, economic factors). Individuals who consider all sex workers to be victims make it that much harder for us to be honest. In their desire to project an image of themselves as decent, respectable, free-thinking human beings competent of making decisions and running their own lives, current, former and transitioning sex workers often refuse to disclose anything that might be construed as evidence to the contrary. Pro-sex industry activists and other individuals with uncritical, overly permissive views on the industry are a problem, too.
It would be quick and easy to label Knox either “empowered” or “victim.” What’s great about the series is that she actually does both, and therein lies the brilliancy of bringing her story to the mainstream media in a way that is dignified and not given to the stereotypical narratives that sway from salacious to saved. Moreover, what viewers take away (or really, what I took away) is that Knox is a kid. I don’t mean this condescendingly, as if she is clueless about the choices she is making. If anything, she is doing what most young adults, freshly pushed out into the world do: make choices based on what they think is best for their lives. Like most of us at 18, 19, or 20, we look back at our choices and see ones we are proud of and ones we wish we had not made. Only her choices, however she decides to feel on them later on in life, are part of the cultural fabric.
Again, when I say that Knox is a kid, I mean, when I look at her, I see someone struggling to figure out the uneven playing field that many of us deal with on a regular basis and doing so messily, economically, humanly, the way one does when you are 18 and having to make choices, whether those choices are to take out student loans or to turn to sex work to cover the monumental cost of living and going to school in a labor market that takes no prisoners and cares for no excuses. I see someone who misses her family and is dealing with what most college kids deal with. I see someone who is still grappling with her body, one that is both sexualized and a money maker, but is also the vehicle for her to get to class and be herself. I see a woman struggling with what was done to her body (Knox says in the documentary that she was raped, that she has had an eating disorder, that she cut herself). If you were so bold as to go up to most women and ask them if they had experienced these things (and moreover, if they felt that they could trust you enough to answer honestly), most women would admit to having these experiences. To coping, to body hatred, to having a body that someone sexually assaulted. It is these admissions that are hardest to hear, not because they are true, but because it is more likely that people will warp them into the standard par experience of why one might become a sex worker, instead of perhaps what the majority of young women and women go through, often silently.
“With porn, everything is on my terms. I can say no whenever I want to. I can do what I want to, I can do what I don’t want to. I’m in control.” – Belle Knox, Chapter 1
“Porn is like any other job. It’s labor. I think that liking it is irrelevant.” – Belle Knox, Chapter 5
There isn’t an answer here, nor do I care to provide any semblance of one. What matters is this one portrait of what sex work can mean, which can range from empowering (economically, physically, emotionally) to exploitive (again, economically, physically, emotionally). It’s easy to prescribe an answer to what she should be doing or what sex work is. But there isn’t an answer here, just a brief glimpse into Knox’s life and choices thus far, ones that have been made somewhere in the mix of personal choice, economic reality, and what feminism actually might mean (despite the fact that none of us can ever agree on what it actually means).
I’ll end on some choice words from Roxane Gay, whose own choices sometimes feel as if they conflict with feminism, a thankful admission in a world that demands that women be everything and nothing at the same time, that asks us to be sexy, but never sexual, that demands our labor be constantly devalued, but completely necessary.
“I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves.”