Commentary Media

Is Being a Porn Star Feminist?

Erin McKelle

Porn stars aren't typically labeled as feminists or women’s studies majors, but Belle Knox, a Duke freshman who made headlines recently after she was outed by her classmate, is both. Whatever you make of Knox, her story offers a lot to think about.

Erin McKelle is a student studying at Ohio University and one of Rewire‘s youth voices.

You’ve probably heard of the Duke first-year student who is starring in porn to pay for her college tuition. If you haven’t, here’s the long and short of it: Thomas Bagley, a Duke freshman, recognized the 18-year-old who goes by the name Belle Knox from some porn he’d watched and outed her to their entire class and the Internet. She then faced an incredible amount of slut-shaming. Following that, Knox decided to go public and break down the sexism she has faced in the backlash.

Knox has been shamed because she is a female porn star. She’s declared that she loves doing porn and that it is not a degrading experience for her. “My experience in porn has been nothing but supportive, exciting, thrilling and empowering,” she wrote in a piece for xoJane.com. In that piece, she talked about the virgin-whore dichotomy that says women are supposed to be sexy but not sexual, and how she sees her role in porn as actively fighting against that standard. She is a self-proclaimed feminist.

All of this is very interesting, as porn stars aren’t typically labeled as feminists or women’s studies majors, however they self-identify. Knox is both, and from her writing she seems to have at least some understanding of feminist theory. So it’s important that we ask broader questions about the role that porn plays in the oppression of women.

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While the answer to this question has been hotly contested within feminist circles for decades, there is a chain of thought that suggests porn oppresses women. Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, puts it this way:

Every group that has fought for liberation understands that media images are part and parcel of the systematic dehumanisation of an oppressed group. … The more porn images filter into mainstream culture, the more girls and women are stripped of full human status and reduced to sex objects.

Porn is no isolated industry; it’s connected through and provides profit to hotels, cable networks, and Internet companies, and is a capitalist venture in nature. It’s also a big business: According to a 2013 report, global profits for the porn industry were $20 billion in 2007, although by 2011 profits fell by 50 percent due to the availability of free pornography online. Notably, the report says half of global profits come from the United States. The trends in pornography are also disturbing, as 88 percent of the top-selling content contained physical and verbal aggression, according to one study.

Generally speaking, the porn industry is created by men, for men. Even when women are calling the shots, they have to answer to their male consumer base. Violent pornography is also connected to rape and hostility toward women, as some research has shown that exposure to violent porn can create tolerance to these incredibly vile acts. Many people also argue that pornography objectifies women’s bodies and presents women as sexual objects, with women typically seen as vessels for male pleasure and domination.

Porn also has very restrictive and narrow standards of beauty. For women who are not rail thin, their bodies are turned into fetishes. The most obvious example that comes to mind is the Big Beautiful Women category of porn. Since BBW is considered to be a fetish, and since it seems that it is the only place where women with bigger bodies can be found in porn, it creates an association of fat women with fetishization.

Only women with bodies that the industry defines as beautiful—thin, white, and young—are permitted to have this “sexual autonomy” Knox speaks of, since other types of women are less often seen in porn. If they are, it’s usually in extremely oppressive ways, such as Black women being portrayed as animalistic and fat women as objects of a fetish. Where is the freedom in being told that if you don’t fit this standard, your sexuality is invisible?

When Knox has written and talked about her experiences in porn, she has failed to examine pornography as a tool for systematic oppression. Her focus has been on her individual experiences, and certainly she is not alone among women who star in porn and say they enjoy doing it. But it seems that she is ignoring all of the ways in which pornography negatively affects women, especially women who face double- or triple-binding oppression because they belong to a racial minority, lack thin privilege, are LGBTQ, or have other marginalized identities.

Knox herself is a woman of privilege, as she is white, thin, able-bodied, and cisgender. Although she says she lacks the funding to pay for her $60,000 annual tuition bill, she also says she doesn’t qualify for federal loans. This means that she still has some class privilege. Only a small sector of Americans could foot that bill entirely themselves without aid. I myself don’t qualify for much financial aid and am paying for 80 percent of my education through Parent PLUS loans. I am in the lower-middle-class, and paying my tuition without aid would be impossible. College is no longer accessible to those who are in the middle class, which is not to say that class privilege doesn’t exist on a higher scale (those in the upper classes have the most class privilege, inarguably), but it is also multi-faceted.

Knox also identifies herself as a libertarian Republican, which does not disqualify her from being a feminist, but is interesting to ponder. Since she believes in deregulation and free markets, how could this viewpoint inform her beliefs about pornography? Could it mean that for Knox, the dollar dictates the industry, no matter the problematic consequences?

We also need to consider the fact that the industry stands to benefit from her rising fame. Really, it has everything to gain by her new-found notoriety. Yes, porn may be something she finds empowering, as she says—but she is not the only one who stands to benefit from the porn she says she enjoys making.

From another angle, Knox has spoken about the fact that we live in a sex-negative society, where women’s bodies and choices are limited. In an interview with Piers Morgan, she said, “To be in porn and to be able to be naked and to be able to be free and have that sexual autonomy, it is so incredibly freeing.” While this may be true for Knox, does porn really give all women sexual autonomy?

With all of these thoughts in mind, I decided to look up some of Knox’s work. I was disturbed to find many videos and photos that seemed to have a twinge of non-consent present in them. In the thumbnail for one of her videos with “teen girls” in the title, Knox is topless and looking into the camera with a terrified look on her face. Another video has “facial abuse” in the title; that alone is enough to make you cringe, as abuse doesn’t really imply consent. Within the first 30 seconds of that video, the cameraman asks why she’s there, to which Knox replies, “because I’m a whore.” A few minutes in, he asks her how she feels about women being objectified, to which she says that it’s “hot as hell.” That’s very feminist of you, Knox.

Throughout this same video, though, the cameraman and another man harass her, calling her fat, questioning her about scars on her leg, and forcing her to the ground while choking her. She is saying “no” repeatedly and asking him to stop—which he doesn’t. Instead he forces himself inside of her mouth. This seems to contradict Knox’s self-proclaimed feminist principles.

The fact is, porn is a game you are most likely to succeed in if you’re a thin, white woman, which Knox happens to be, revisiting my earlier point about the representation of non-thin bodies in porn. If I, a 5’1″, 200-pound woman, applied to be in porn through a modeling agency as she did, do you think I would be accepted with open arms? Pornography has been a tool used by men to reinforce heteronormativity, sexism, and gender norms—even if some porn stars identify as feminist, and even if some feminists enjoy porn.

Whatever you make of Knox, this story offers a lot to think about. 

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