Gender

Belle Knox, Duke University Porn Performer, Becomes Media Star and Target

Knox shows herself to be a teenager with more nuanced social concerns and a greater depth of human understanding than many of the more mature adults around her.

Photo Credit: YouTube.com screenshot

Since the last time I wrote about Belle Knox,Duke University’s rising porn starlet, she’s claimed her throne as belle of the ball in the New York media circuit, gracing the full spectrum of talk shows, and receiving the full spectrum of responses from their hosts. While Knox’s interview with Ricky Camilleri had all the elegance and in-depth, thoughtful interviewing you’d expect from Huffpost Live, Dr. Drew used his airtime with the porn star to prove that not every host can be the class-act that Artie Lange or Howard Stern showed themselves to be—both of whom gave respectful interviews and covered the issues at stake through entertaining, non-judgmental open dialog. 

Sadly, Dr. Drew was not the only purveyor of foot-in-mouth moments. Here are a few selections from Knox’s media tour.

Knox on The View

The first stop on Knox’s media tour was ABC’s The View, where the 18 year-old left many bunched panties in her wake. If it were only a matter of former Playmate of the Year Jenny McCarthy asking, “What happened?” (i.e. that turned you to porn), it wouldn’t even have been all that weird. 

But when Knox mentioned that she began watching porn at age 12, and Barbara Walters asked if she did so with her parents (assuming abuse?), and everybody (quite naturally) laughed at the absurdity of it all — that’s when things get really weird. As Knox rather sweetly put it later in her interview with Howard Stern: “She (Barbara) didn’t know what was going on.” It’s the Internet where tweens are watching porn these days…without their parents. 

But you kind of have to give Barbara Walters the benefit of the doubt, even when she asked wince-worthy things like, “I just wondered if you have other ambitions?” 1) because she’s endearingly bewildered and sort of sweet about it; 2) because she’s from a completely different generation; and 3) because it’s nothing compared to what Sherri Shepherd had in store.

It was as though the sole purpose of inviting Knox on The View was to give Sherri Shepherd an opportunity to demonstrate what a caring person she is. “My heart breaks,” she admitted in refrain, and suddenly the show was thrown from its orbit by the gravitational pull of Sherri’s broken heart. All this after telling Knox, “It sounds like you have something completely memorized that you are saying.” 

Funny, because the only thing that sounded scripted from the other side of the camera was Sherri’s heartbreak. I, for one, think a few crocodile tears might have made the performance more sincere. Even my mom found it nauseating. Even my mom said, “Well if your heart is breaking so much, why don’t you go ahead and pay this girl’s college tuition?” You can imagine the laugh I had when I heard Knox say the same thing on the Opie & Anthony Show.

Through all this, Whoopie Goldberg’s panties remained the only un-bunched pair in the house. Knox managed the interview like a pro, always turning the conversation back to the two main issues — college tuition costs and women’s sexual empowerment. Whoopie took the lead and redirected the conversation to questions that are relevant to these issues, giving Knox the opportunity to describe her personal experience of empowerment:

"I’d like to first clarify that the idea of empowerment and degradation is completely subjective. And for me, I feel that, in this backdrop of our society where women are so often robbed of their sexual autonomy and are subjected to sexual violence — in this backdrop of, you know, misogyny against women, it’s incredibly freeing and liberating to have that choice, to make decisions about my own body. And in porn, I’m in a safe, controlled environment where I set the boundaries, I set the rules."

Whoopie also gave a whole-hearted and well-deserved “Right on” when Knox said, “For centuries sex workers have been the untouchables of society and I’m done. I’m sick of it.”

And with that, Knox showed herself to be a teenager with more nuanced social concerns and a greater depth of human understanding than any of the more mature adults on the panel (Whoopie excluded). 

Knox on Dr. Drew On Call

Unfortunately, oppressive viewpoints and awkward moments weren’t a View exclusive. When it comes to prescribing heavy doses of creepiness, Dr. Drew is apparently as liberal as they come. Much of the controversy surrounding Knox’s Dr. Drew On Call appearance centered around one quote in particular: “If I were your dad I’d be chomping down on a cyanide capsule right now.”

Dr. Drew smiled. Segun Oduolowu laughed. Why does this sound like it could be a quote from one of those frat-boy-forum-trolls who suggested Knox kill herself? These words were pretty disturbing, not to mention irresponsible, coming from a guy whose name begins with the title “Dr.” 

Knox, amazingly, responded with composure, simply stating, “I’m so glad you laughed at that because that’s just hilarious. But I mean, my family supports me in what I choose to do.” 

Yes, Dr. Drew and Co: you’ve been out-classed by a teenager.

Following a commercial break, Dr. Drew trots out one of his reality TV success stories, former porn star Jennie Ketcham from Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew. Ketcham started out by congratulating Knox on getting the media attention she’d hoped to get for her own porn career—the implication being that Knox’s main concern is the same as Ketcham’s was (and perhaps still is?): to garner media attention. 

That was only the beginning of Ketcham’s assumption that all women think the way she does. She went on to suggest that Knox “bring light to the things that are really important to women in the nation” as though Knox weren’t doing this already, highlighting issues like outrageous college tuition costs and the wrongful discrimination porn actors experience for participating in a fully legal profession. It only takes a Google search to know that there’s no shortage of women who care about these issues, and plenty who share Knox’s perspectives on them. 

Knox was quick to point out that she was talking about issues that are important to sex workers, a whole group of people who shouldn’t be marginalized. But that being said, of all the Knox interviews I’ve read, heard and watched (many!), she has only ever discussed empowerment in terms of her own personal experience of it.

So when Ketcham stated, “to suggest that sex work is empowering grossly oversimplifies the process of empowerment,” it was a rather mystifying statement because in this case, empowerment couldn’t be simpler to understand: if Knox feels empowered, then Knox is empowered. It’s not her job to dim the light of her own personal empowerment to suit the women who don’t share her empowered feelings regarding sex work. There are many sex workers who do feel empowered in their work and deserve to finally hear that perspective given a highly intelligent voice within the context of major media.

Knox’s brand of empowerment doesn’t need to fit the lives of the “30 percent of single mothers living in poverty” that Ketcham mentioned in her argument. It is reductive to think that all women could possibly be satisfied by a single flavor of empowerment. Such thinking grossly oversimplifies women and empowerment. Moreover, to suggest that sex work can’t be empowering grossly oversimplifies the human psyche. 

At the end of the day, Knox’s empowerment is hers to feel and enjoy and discuss as much as she’d like to. And I don’t see any shortage of listeners. 

Knox on Bethenny

Knox’s Bethenny show appearance was the last on her media tour to air. Oddly enough, Jennie Ketcham also appeared as a guest on the very same episode, but was suspiciously relegated to a different segment of the show. It’s purely speculation, but it seems likely that Knox refused to stay if Ketcham was to appear on the show with her—a smart move if her priority was focusing on the important issues rather than simply generating enough controversy to keep her name in the press. 

What did happen is that Knox fully maintained her assertive cool under fire. At one point, Bethenny asked if Knox feels she’s being harassed, and Knox responded, “I don’t feel I’m being harassed, I am being harassed.” There’s nothing particularly subjective about receiving death threats.  

But the main issue Bethenny couldn’t seem to let go of is why Knox bought into an expensive education to begin with. “If you want to be a porn star… why are you going to Duke?” she asked. 

Knox then discussed her future aspirations of becoming a civil rights lawyer. Bethenny responded: “Those are two very different brands: being a civil rights lawyer and being a porn star.” Knox brought up some parallels between the two professions, including First Amendment rights and women’s rights advocacy. But she really won audience support and applause when she said: 

"You know there are absolutely employers who wouldn’t hire even a gay person to work for them. And why would I want to work for anybody who would discriminate against somebody who’s doing a perfectly legal, regulated profession. I would never want to work for somebody like that."

But this didn't stop Bethenny from going right back to a rather classist read on education. Discussing the fact that the trend in the current economic climate is to avoid buying things you can’t afford, Bethenny asked her audience why college should be any different. Sounds simple enough, but what it actually says is that enrollment at an elite school should be reserved for those who can afford it rather than those who possess the merit to deserve it. For those who are tempted to argue that Knox could get a fine education at a less expensive school, let’s not forget what the Duke brand can do for its graduates. 

Plus, Knox wouldn’t have enough of a story to be on this media tour to begin with had she attended a lesser school. Robin Quivers layed it all out in perfect simplicity during Knox’s Howard Stern interview, when she asked, “Why would you not want to go to the best school you can go to?” 

Toward the end of the segment, a young African American woman in the studio audience spoke up in support and total understanding of Knox’s decision to do porn, describing loan collectors calling her up at work, and confirming that, “Sallie Mae is a totally different bully than you can ever imagine.” After withstanding the push of so many TV and media bullies, it’s almost reassuring to think that at least there’s one bully Knox won’t have to face. 

Knox Answers Back

Watching these hosts respond to Knox with their varying degrees of negativity makes me wonder: what would be the loss if all her schooling went as planned and she became a great success? Would it be anything more than a gentle laying to rest of some old ideas about lifestyle that have served their purpose and can now be released? 

What makes Knox and her self-proclaimed empowerment so painfully disquieting to some is that she just plain refuses to be the alienated archetype of a laborer that can be projected upon as a victim of exploitation, or a pawn of the patriarchy, or anything else.  She keeps showing up to say she’s still smart, she wasn’t abused, and damn it, she gets off on being the sub who gets face fucked.   

In truth, we’d all rather believe that the things we love exist independent of human agency. We don’t want to know about the sweatshop workers who may be responsible for assembling our garments, and we certainly don’t want to think about who might be babysitting a porn actress’s kid while we’re trying to get off. As much as possible, the magic of the commodity fetish is that it wants to vanish the social relations of labor. And in terms of pornography, we expect to reduce actual human beings to abstract porn stars, on which we may hang our fantasies of sexual encounters and theories of objectification alike. 

These moving human images are able containers for all of our diverse projections… until they show up on The View and can answer back. Knox comes along and shatters the projections in the laser-light of her genuine enthusiasm for her work and for the causes she has been championing. Her detractors will always ask for proof that her empowerment is actual, when all the proof you could need is in the light of this girl’s eyes when she’s doing exactly what she came to do. How do you prove empowerment anyway? To this, I say exactly what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said regarding the characterization of pornography, “I know it when I see it.”