Two recent stories about women in the porn industry have sparked discussion and some outcry about women, sex, stigma, and exploitation in sex work.
Sex work is defined as “the exchange of sexual services, performances, or products for material compensation. It includes activities of direct physical contact between buyers and sellers, as well as indirect sexual stimulation.” This may involve street level prostitution, stripping, pornography, work in sex clubs, and much more. The term sex work, as opposed to sex trafficking, generally implies a level of agency and autonomy to this labor. However, the lines between coercion and consent can be murky at times and some sex work can be exploitative, dangerous, and non-consensual.
Not surprisingly there are vocal supporters and opponents to sex work. Opponents to sex work range from those who claim that exchanging sex for money is wholly immoral, to those that cite the rampant violence, misogyny, and exploitation in the field as reason for their opposition, to others who understand all sex work as a form of trafficking. Opposition to sex work often makes strange bedfellows of conservatives, liberals, and some feminists, who generally disagree on a whole host of issues but sometimes come together in their dislike of sex work. Supporters of sex work, including some current and former sex workers, draw attention to the complicated role of bodily autonomy and labor, especially as it comes to a person’s right to choose how they want to use their body and interact with others. They reject the notion that sex work is necessarily immoral or that all sex work can be collapsed to sex trafficking. And they also acknowledge that sex work is at times the most viable means of supporting oneself available to low income women of color, particularly trans women. Ultimately, sex work is a form of labor that is heavily policed and scrutinized and is one of the most contentious subjects in contemporary society. This fact has come into full relief with the recent case of Belle Knox, a young adult film star who has ruffled many feathers.
Belle Knox: Duke Porn Star
Duke University freshman Miriam Weeks is perhaps better known by her pseudonym Belle Knox. This self-avowed feminist and women’s studies major has chosen sex work, more specifically performing in pornographic films, to pay her way through the expensive elite university. Penning a piece for the website XOJane, Knox writes, “For me, shooting pornography brings me unimaginable joy. When I finish a scene, I know that I have done so and completed an honest day’s work. It is my artistic outlet: my love, my happiness, my home. I can say definitively that I have never felt more empowered or happy doing anything else. In a world where women are so often robbed of their choice, I am completely in control of my sexuality. As a bisexual woman with many sexual quirks, I feel completely accepted. It is freeing, it is empowering, it is wonderful, it is how the world should be.” Knox also has pretty ambitious post-college plans: namely becoming an advocate for sex workers and a civil rights lawyer.
Some of Knox’s “sexual quirks” involve filming scenes of rough sex. Ann Pulley defends women like Knox, whose desires include consensual rough sex, noting “Knox’s essay raises some important points, and one would think that, considering that more and more people of age have grown up with insta-access to a variety of kinky porn, an admission of rough sex wouldn’t be a big to-do. Yet apparently it is.” Critics of Knox’s work have challenged this stance. For example, Megan Murphy in Feminist Current rejects what she sees as a “ Belle Knox brand of feminism” that “says that if an individual woman consents to — or even enjoys — performing in pornography, it must be ok. It says that if an individual woman likes pornography, it must be ok. And not just ok, but potentially empowering. I have no idea why we would assume that only men’s sexualities can be shaped by porn or why, simply because a woman’s fantasies have been shaped by porn that means those fantasies and that pornography is necessarily feminist.”
Indeed, Knox has received a fair amount of backlash for her career choice, even from within the porn community: “the most common—and complex—criticism leveled against Knox within the adult industry does not stem from rumors of diva-like behavior on set, or her endorsement of tube sites, or even resentment of her relative privilege as a young, well-spoken, college-educated, attractive white woman. It primarily stems from a concern that by devoting so much attention to the Duke porn star’s narrative, the mainstream media is effectively positioning Knox as a ‘spokesperson’ for industry issues. That’s despite the fact that there are many other bright, articulate, college-educated performers who have spent years advocating for porn as a tool of female empowerment, such as Nina Hartley, Joanna Angel, and current UCLA undergrad Tasha Reign.”
Asa Akira is a veteran porn star, whose recently published memoir, “Insatiable,” chronicles her storied career in porn, which began when she was just 18 years old. NPR calls the autobiography, “A hypersexual narrative of the author's experiences making adult films, the memoir is itself pornographic. Its tone is celebratory, because Akira sees her career not as a descent into objectification but as a rise to celebrity.” Like Knox, Akira hails from a privileged background and finds porn and sex work to be empowering and lucrative. Thus far Akira’s work has not seen any pushback, which may be attributed to her status as a mainstay in the porn community. It remains to be seen what sort of porn career Knox will be able to sustain, between her studies, the backlash, and her own evolving goals and desires. The debate around her, however, does expose some of the fault lines around how we not only talk about pornography, but sex work more generally.
Sex Work, Pornography, and Women
The fact of the matter is that unlike Asa Akira and Belle Knox, most women who work in porn or sex work more generally are not in privileged positions. So, in some ways, the outrage and the acclaim surrounding these women may have less to do with the lived experience of the average woman who labors as a sex worker. Nevertheless, that is not to say that conversations around consent, coercion, autonomy, empowerment, and exploitation that these women’s celebrity has sparked are necessarily moot points. I think it’s most important to listen to and follow the lead of women who are sex workers themselves, rather than talking down to or over the experience of women’s actual experiences. I really appreciate the recent interview on RH Reality Check with three women, Minnie Scarlet, Darby Hickey, and Violet Rose, who work in porn and/or identify as sex workers. Each woman has had a variety of experiences in the industry and discuss sex work from multiple perspectives. Most importantly, the conversation does not devolve into slut shaming, policing, or condescension. If we truly concerned with the actual dangers of sex work, such as violence and exploitation, we must listen to sex workers and follow their lead. And if we are committed to the dignity, respect, and agency of all women, trans and cis, we must listen sex workers and follow their lead.