It was recently revealed that the Duke University freshmen who wrote an open and heartfelt essay about being a porn star is indeed adult performer Belle Knox. It was revealed by Knox herself in a follow-up piece for xoJane, wherein she reaffirmed her commitment to her work, and detailed the double standard sex workers face from the very people who are seeking their services.
But one particular reaction to Knox's brave and exceptionally poignant essay has left me, a fellow college educated out sex worker, particularly angry. There have been numerous media outlets that have accused Knox of being hypocritical, claiming that if she was truly as empowered and unashamed of her sex work as she claims, that she would never have taken a stage name.
Here's the problem: Knox's personal stance on what she does for a living does not negate the exceptionally negative response so many will have to that work. Knox herself has reported numerous threats of harassment, violence, and rape against her. Reports that according to Knox, were largely belittled or ignored by the police.
If you were successful in a line of work that you enjoyed, but you knew that those closest in your life - the people you needed and depend on: friends, family, classmates, teachers, and employers might suddenly view you as different, as unintelligent, as immoral, as damaged, as someone without sexual autonomy, and generally speaking as less-than if they found out about that line of work - wouldn't you too take measures to keep that from them?
I decided to come out as a sex worker myself on Full Disclosure, a podcast I host where I interview escorts, porn stars, sexologists and the like. Yes, it's had disastrous effects on my ability to find traditional employment. But I think if we're going to edge closer toward a world where sex workers have control of our own bodies and careers, then we need the world to know that we're your friends and neighbors, classmates and colleagues. And while I stand by that decision, the decision was mine and mine alone to make.
There is a real and genuine threat of physical violence and social exile that sex workers face, and Knox herself is experiencing that right now. But that threat existed before she wrote for xoJane: Knox was betrayed by a fellow Duke student who recognized her and in whom she confided. Once that student revealed Knox's identity, students and blogs alike began a twisted campaign to reveal her identity to the masses.
At that point Knox was faced with a decision: allow the narrative of who she was to continue to be dictated by those who had nothing more than slut-shaming click-bait in mind, or take control as the author of her own story.
It's impossible to separate those trying to violate sex workers' right to privacy from those who believe sex workers somehow deserve to be devalued. I think it's safe to say most of the slut-shaming, largely misogynistic voices coming out against Knox have at one point in their life masturbated to porn, gone to a strip club, or hired an escort. How is it then, that if sex work is vile and sex workers are to be reviled, that those who benefit from their services walk away unscathed? How is it that the porn star is to be shamed, but the millions of individuals sitting in front of their computers, pants around ankles while they touch themselves and don't get paid for it are casting judgment?
As Knox herself said:
"You want to see me naked. And then you want to judge me for letting you see me naked."
Others are unable to wrap their heads around the notion that many sex workers actually enjoy their line of work. The fact is, sex work is just that: work. But you know what, some people actually enjoy their jobs. And just like any other workplace, some enjoy it more than others. Would these people be engaging in sex work if there wasn't pay? Of course not. But who the hell wouldn't quit their job if they were told they'd no longer be receiving a paycheck?
Arguments have been made against Knox that so much in porn is degrading to women, depicting acts of rough sex and humiliation, and no woman (or man) could possibly enjoy these acts. Understandably, what we see on camera can often make us uncomfortable.
But having interviewed and personally known hundreds of adult performers and those in the kink community, let me assure you that what might seem off-putting to one person in the bedroom is exactly what someone else wants, and one's sexual preference should never be the basis for dictating another's. Communication and consent are where things begin and end, and it's no different in the kink community. And as Knox has said, she's consented to and enjoyed everything she's done on camera. And that is absolutely empowering.
Knox, who is impressively sagacious at just 18, is joining the company of some tremendous voices in the industry who are redefining what it means to be a sex worker. Stars like James Deen and Lexi Love, legends like Nina Hartley, are forcing people to realize that some of the most eloquent, educated, and forward-thinking minds can also have sex for money and be okay with that decision.
I hope one day we'll reach a point where we can all see that, and it'll finally be safe for sex workers to enjoy the transparency we all desperately want.
For more from Eric Barry, be sure to subscribe to the Full Disclosure podcast in iTunes.