As the Broadway musical Avenue Q eloquently reminds us, the Internet has become virtually synonymous with pornography. While the Internet might truly be for porn, Web media has yet to fully deconstruct the myths that surround the porn industry and its performers. But Becoming Belle Knox, a new five-part documentary web series from media conglomerate Condé Nast about Miriam Weeks (a.k.a. “the Duke porn star”), is set to challenge some longstanding misconceptions about sex work in a powerful way.
Traditional mass media has failed to depict sex work and the porn industry in a non-judgmental way. With titles like The Dark Side of Porn on BBC and Porn: America’s Addiction on CNN Headline News (now HLN), television tends to depict pornography in a moralistic and sensationalistic manner, relying on illicit subject matter to titillate the viewer while hypocritically casting judgment on the industry as a whole. Small-scale independent documentaries likeLive Nude Girls Unite! are among the few pieces of traditional media that have explored sex work in a nuanced manner.
But if documentaries like Becoming Belle Knox become the new norm in a changed media landscape, the Internet might finally give us the fresh perspective on pornography that our culture so desperately needs. From the GOP’s 2012 attack on pornography in their official platform to new Christian propaganda like the bookPorndemic, conservatives are continuing to to criminalize and villainize pornography.
As if that’s not bad enough, many radical and liberal feminists throw women working in pornography under the bus, too. From Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin to Gail Dines and Julie Bindel of the Guardian, anti-sex work feminism has stood in opposition to pornography for 40 years. The debate over sex work remains one of the most hurtful rifts within the feminist community at large.
With both the Right and the Left continuing to propagate myths about pornography, here are three of those myths that Becoming Belle Knox manages to deconstruct in less than twenty-five minutes:
1) Sex work isn’t work.
One of the most damaging notions that conservatives and anti-sex work feminists spread about sex work is the idea that it is not a legitimate form of work. By superimposing a pre-conceived moral landscape onto the field of sex work, these cultural actors portray sex work as an illegitimate form of labor that is only necessary in an evil and/or a patriarchal world.
But in Becoming Belle Knox, Weeks clearly states that pornography is work. “Porn is like any other job,” she reminds us. “It’s labor.”
Like any employee working in any industry, Weeks likes parts of her job and dislikes others. On the one hand, she enjoys the clear-cut boundaries of her work. “It’s a deal,” she says, “It’s a transaction.” And on the other hand, Weeks is honest about the aspects of her profession that are difficult from the emotional fallout with her family to high overhead percentages to the complex professional dynamics of the industry itself.
Becoming Belle Knox shows us a young woman dealing with the difficulties of working in a stigmatized field, to be sure, but Weeks herself is clear that pornography, first and foremost, is a job, just like anyone else’s.
2) Emotional connection and sex have to go hand in hand.
Not only do we live in a culture that still considers sex to be the emotional endpoint of a traditional romantic trajectory, we also associate women with emotion to such a degree that it seems inconceivable that a woman could have sex without intense emotional investment. Slut-shaming, in part, functions to reinforce the idea that women should only want to have sex within the confines of a romantic relationship with a man.
In Becoming Belle Knox, Miriam Weeks recounts that she grew up internalizing these cultural views and, as a result, she had trouble “separating love from lust” before her career in porn.
“Now that I’ve done porn,” Weeks explains, “it’s so much easier for me to detach emotions from sex, which I think is a good skill to have in life.”
One of the most powerful statements that female porn performers like Weeks make through their choice of career is that women can have sex for a variety of reasons—like love, pleasure, or money—and that these reasons don’t have to overlap or coincide according to heteronormative expectations of absolute emotional and sexual monogamy.
“In porn,” as Weeks says, “you fuck and leave.”
3) Porn performers can’t be empowered if they have emotional trauma.
Those who oppose sex work often cite statistics about the number of women working in the porn industry who have a history of rape or child sexual abuse as evidence that porn performers enter the industry as wounded victims whose history of abuse has led them to make poor choices.
As Slate reports, however, rates of past sexual abuse among female porn performers aren’t significantly higher than the female population at large, we just “tend not to ask insurance agents and mainstream actresses about molestation” in the media in the same invasive way that we do with porn performers.
In Becoming Belle Knox, Miriam Weeks is open about the fact that she has been raped—as she says, “I’m a porn star, ex-cutter, rapevictim”—but she is clear that her past experience “has nothing to do with why [she] joined porn at all.”
In fact, after her difficult past, Weeks reports that she has finally found her sexual agency in porn. The porn industry reportedly makes her feel like “a strong independent woman.”
“With porn,” Weeks argues, “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. I like the assertive, passionate person that I’m becoming because of porn.”
Weeks implicitly contrasts this feeling of agency with her experiences with men outside of the industry. The boy at Duke who first discovered her porn persona, for instance, tried to make out with her when he confronted her about her career. When she refused him, the entire campus found out about her work in porn “within days,” with the national media following closely behind.
In a country where one in five women are raped, Weeks is not an anomaly, and her decision to enter porn requires no special explanation. The fact that Weeks can be critical of the industry or feel beleaguered by the pressures of her career does not contradict the fact that she enjoys many aspects of her career. No one falls neatly into binary categories of victim and empowered superstar and porn performers are no exception. The most radical thing that Becoming Belle Knox does is to depict Miriam Weeks as a human being who understands the nature of her work and chooses it.
Miriam Weeks is by no means the first feminist sex worker to dispute these myths about pornography. A vibrant sex workers rights community has also been challenging feminist and broader cultural perceptions about sex work on outlets like RH Reality Check andReason, in legal initiatives like the Sex Workers Project, and on social media platforms like Twitter, where sex workers declare that they are#NotYourRescueProject.
But in Becoming Belle Knox, Miriam Weeks is able to take some of the most essential points of pro-sex work feminism beyond the op-ed form into a glossy documentary package that’s already been viewed tens of thousands of times on YouTube. If a more diverse array of sex workers outside of Weeks’ particular bracket of class and race privilege are given the platform and the opportunity to tell their stories in this format, the Internet could finally change the way we understand porn, instead of just being where we go to find it.