Duke Porn Star Belle Knox Is the Hero I'd Been Waiting For
I remember the day I heard about Ashley Alexandra Dupré—the mysterious woman in sunglasses standing at the epicenter of the storm surrounding Eliot Spitzer. I remember hoping, so thoroughly and however unjustly, that she would turn out to be brilliant in a way that no one could deny: a Harvard coed, a virtuoso pianist, the next Joan Baez or Maya Angelou…anything at all that might make her the kind of hero who would be able to force America to take a good look in the mirror and understand the hard choices it puts before its greatest minds and sharpest talents when they lack financial means.
Ashley wasn’t that sort of hero. Nor should she have been: she was her own self, living her life as she saw fit. But surely there was some young woman—or man—up to the challenge of taking this rather prevalent archetype—the exceptionally talented youth with no money and plenty of hard choices—into the public eye.
As it turns out, the hero I was waiting for was Belle Knox, the Duke University pornstar, who arrived on the scene this March like Veronica Franco in the midst of the Counter Reformation, blade in hand and ready for a duel of ideas.
Why Veronica Franco, you might ask? Because in 16th century Venice, education was afforded to women of upper class nobility, and rarely to female citizens. Courtesans were the exception to the rule, and were paid to be equally sharp in jousts of the intellect and jousts of bedroom swordplay, giving them the rather exclusive opportunity to be educated well beyond the class they were born into. Veronica Franco was one such courtesan: a sex worker and an esteemed published poet. The two occupations were not mutually exclusive, and it is the former that afforded the education and social opportunities required for the latter.
When we think that sex workers of Veronica Franco’s day were among the very few women of modest beginnings who could acquire an education to rival that of the male and female nobility with which they mingled, it seems that we’ve come full-circle in seeing Belle Knox rise as a shining modern example of the scholarly sex-worker. Perhaps the cost of an education hasn’t changed at all.
Considering that annual tuition is around $60,000 a year, and that the median household income in the United States is only about $51,000, Duke is a high-quality school — often referred to as the Princeton of the South — and is out of reach for most Americans. According to an interview clip of Belle on the Duke Chronicle Soundcloud page, even Knox’s father is still paying for his own medical school education over twenty years after the fact, which really says it all: that we’ve entered an era of multi-generational student debt, an era in which parents and children are both simultaneously paying for the education that their keen minds entitled them to, but that their empty wallets knew was out of the question. This is what we do to our best and brightest, who make the cut at top universities by virtue of their merits (and not by their wealth): we saddle them with the burden of overwhelming debt. Even with the help of financial aid packages that include both government aid and aid from the university itself, middle class students still need to cover tens of thousands of dollars in tuition costs on their own.
So what to do about it? Belle Knox, being a sex enthusiast, intellectual and…wait for it…libertarian! (talk about sticking it where it hurts), took personal responsibility for her educational future, and rather than make appeals for charity, came up with a rather pragmatic solution: become a porn star. She sums up the situation in her recent interview with Playboy SFW saying this:
My story is a testament to how fucking expensive school is. The fact that the only viable options to pay for college are to take out gigantic student loans, to not go to college at all or to join the sex industry really says something. We need to recognize that there's a gap between what middle-class and upper-middle-class families can pay and what they're asked to pay. We also need to stop looking at loans as a solution to fix our education system, because they're crippling our economy.
Moreover, Knox asserts that, “If Duke had given me the proper financial resources, I wouldn't have done porn.” Naturally, a statement like this has everybody who isn’t Belle claiming that surely she could have done something else, found some more “respectable” job if she’d wanted to. And sure enough, during high school, Knox had a “real job” in which she attempted the delicate balance of waiting tables while completing her schoolwork. She recounts the experience to the Duke Chronicle:
I worked as a waitress as a job for a year in high school and not only did it interfere with my school, where I was barely sleeping and wasn’t doing my work, but also I was making $400 a month after taxes. I felt like I was being degraded and treated like shit. My boss was horrible to me…For people to tell me that doing porn and having sex, which I love, is more degrading than being a waitress and being somebody’s servant and picking up after somebody and being treated like a lesser, second-class citizen, that literally makes no sense. To be perfectly honest, I felt more degraded in a minimum wage, blue-collar, low paying, service job than I do doing porn.
Degradation is in the eye of the beholder, and if you think that Belle’s accounts of being treated like a second-class servant are an exaggeration, then you probably don’t know many waitresses, nannies, maids, or personal assistants. Regardless, the waitress scenario recounted above clearly provides neither the free time nor the funds necessary to get this woman successfully through school at Duke.
Still, many condemn Belle Knox for choosing to “sell her body” to pay her tuition costs. But let’s get clear about this term “sell your body” because in the act of having sex for money in a fully legal porn film, a woman leaves with pretty much the same body she had before. The product isn’t the body. The product is the movie. And in the case of other forms of sex work, the product is generally a service or experience. Better examples of selling one’s body might be paying for college through the black market sale of a kidney. You go in with two kidneys, and ten grand or so later, you leave with one kidney.
I can’t deny that ideas like these have been thrown around during student loan conversations I’ve been privy to, and I can promise that any ideas that were entertained in jest were also entertained in austere seriousness. A kidney that was posted for auction on eBay in 1999 reached $5.75 million before the website stepped in and took down the listing. And while the Silk Road didn’t exist when I was in school, I have a feeling that somewhere in cyberspace at this very moment, there’s an auction going on that no one’s trying to take down. So maybe you don’t have a student job that makes it rain Benjamins. If the eBay kidney listing is any indication, there may still be an opportunity to make it rain Bitcoins.
But to get back to selling the body, when I think of my own college days at Barnard, I recall bulletin boards covered in offers of eight and ten thousand dollars for egg donation—after all, Barnard is a prestigious and expensive women’s college with a predominantly Jewish student body (it’s important to some that the mother, or…umm…egg, be Jewish). You can understand the thinking in targeting the campus crowd: what a place to find elite women with tremendous financial burdens! Who more likely to agree to a process that provides immediate money at the sort-of-unknown-but-possible risk of future infertility and cancer? Personally, I have always thought that in return for such badass genetic material—and in return for the possibility of rendering me infertile or victim of a terminal illness—the least these people could offer for my eggs is to pay all four years of college tuition in full. That wouldn’t even be enough, but at least it’s not cheap to the point of being embarrassingly exploitative and downright gauche.
And dare we discuss the clinical trials of pharmaceuticals that university students also participate in for money? At least when you put a cock inside you, you know what it is and what it does. In the case of porn, you’re putting something inside you that’s already been tested many times…unlike these drugs.
Nobody knows the long-term effects, and yet top students at our best universities are putting themselves at risk in phase 1 drug trials just to pay for an education that we’re all hoping will raise them to be America’s future leaders and innovators. Did I mention that doing clinical trials on prisoners was banned in the United States in 1980? Luckily for pharmaceutical companies, financially needy volunteers are eager to respond to flyers posted around college campuses. Like sex work, drug trials are also the subject of the financial coercion verses “consenting adult” debate—i.e. are we taking advantage of financially needy people who would never do these clinical trials if it weren’t for the pay, or can we all just shrug it off as the act of consenting adults who agreed to the gig in the first place and thankfully aren’t us? Hopefully nobody dies, but it happens sometimes.
As for Belle Knox, she won’t need to sacrifice some part of her physical body that she can’t get back…or like all of it, in terms of…umm…death, as mentioned above. And as Knox points out in the first article she wrote for xoJane, sex—like love or hugs, wit or advice—is not something that a woman gives and then has less of. (And hell, no one seems to think that men run out of sex when they give it).
It’s not like squeezing the last bits of natural gas out of a hunk of shale: we’d heat our homes with sex if we could because it’s renewable. Sure, we all have an amount of physical energy that we can expend before needing to refuel with food or sleep. Certainly, all activities affect the psyche and the emotions in some fashion that the mind needs to find a way to categorize and understand. But in an age of constantly Instagramed selfies, nobody believes that the camera steals the soul, or at least we all think we have enough soul to go around. Belle Knox is acting from a place of abundance, not scarcity, and very clearly doesn’t feel that the substance of her has been in any way dissipated by having plenty of sex or by sharing her more graphic images of it publicly. After a shoot in LA, Belle walks onto a plane with two arms, two legs, a face, a brain, a heart and a vag, and goes back to class in North Carolina, probably less at risk of contracting an STD in an industry that tests for them so frequently than she would be at a frat party. She’s entered into her on-camera sex in sober clarity, which is more than can be said for most revelers at college parties. When she gets on the plane home, she’s still her, minus nothing. Harassers, stalkers, death threats, invitations to be silent, and slut-shaming from police—all of these wear down the spirit, but none of these acts are a deserved or understandable result of pursuing opportunities in the porn industry. These acts have very little to do with porn and a whole lot to do with how our society views women and their sexuality.
Up here in the northeast, I can’t say that I know any Ivy porn stars, but I certainly know Ivy gals—and guys, both hetero and gay—who have paid tuition bills by participating in sex work that was more private and sometimes less legal than porn. It’s a trend that I believe we can only expect to increase as the cost of tuition spirals further and further out of the realm of possibility for the middle and upper-middle class. Many who criticize Belle’s college job for not being enough of a “real job” seem to want to hold her to what they deem to be a gold standard of low-wage, “character-building” part time jobs that worked for them when they were in school. But the cost of college tuition has increased dramatically in just the past ten years, making such comparisons completely irrelevant (not that holding other people to one’s own standards has any sort of relevance to begin with). What many of Belle’s critics want to overlook is that lubing-up the old college fund is not new and is increasingly considered a viable option by students swimming in the panic of scholarly debt. Even websites like SeekingArrangement.com have been known to offer free premium profiles to “Sugar Babies” (male or female) who sign up for the site using a dot-edu email address. While such websites are fully legal and aren’t exactly what you can call sex work, they do deal in the exchange of sex and…sugar.
We should be concerned as a society at how common it is for college students to entertain increasingly inventive choices as a means to pay for school. And whether or not such paths are chosen, I guarantee that on campuses all over the country they are being considered. In my eyes, Belle Knox is already a hero simply for fearlessly bringing these types of issues into the spotlight for public discussion. Here she stands, with great strength and intelligence, owning her life and her story, saying all the things that no one wants to talk about in the face of such threatening adversity. Through all that she will undoubtedly learn as she triumphs over these epically character-building challenges on the public stage, who knows what sort of hero she may yet become? For now, I expect that she will continue to do as Veronica Franco did, and “bring with daring hand a piercing blade.” If the blade is keen and polished, it will reflect us as we truly are. But whether she wields a sword or a pen, there is no doubt in my mind that Belle Knox knows how to stick it all the way in, and sometimes, that’s exactly what we all need.