Is Being a Porn Star Feminist?


Erin McKelle is a student studying at Ohio University and one of RH Reality Check‘s youth voices.

You’ve probably heard of the Duke first-year student who is starring in porn to pay for her college tuition. If you haven’t, here’s the long and short of it: Thomas Bagley, a Duke freshman, recognized the 18-year-old who goes by the name Belle Knox from some porn he’d watched and outed her to their entire class and the Internet. She then faced an incredible amount of slut-shaming. Following that, Knox decided to go public and break down the sexism she has faced in the backlash.

Knox has been shamed because she is a female porn star. She’s declared that she loves doing porn and that it is not a degrading experience for her. “My experience in porn has been nothing but supportive, exciting, thrilling and empowering,” she wrote in a piece for xoJane.com. In that piece, she talked about the virgin-whore dichotomy that says women are supposed to be sexy but not sexual, and how she sees her role in porn as actively fighting against that standard. She is a self-proclaimed feminist.

All of this is very interesting, as porn stars aren’t typically labeled as feminists or women’s studies majors, however they self-identify. Knox is both, and from her writing she seems to have at least some understanding of feminist theory. So it’s important that we ask broader questions about the role that porn plays in the oppression of women.

While the answer to this question has been hotly contested within feminist circles for decades, there is a chain of thought that suggests porn oppresses women. Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, puts it this way:

Every group that has fought for liberation understands that media images are part and parcel of the systematic dehumanisation of an oppressed group. … The more porn images filter into mainstream culture, the more girls and women are stripped of full human status and reduced to sex objects.

Porn is no isolated industry; it’s connected through and provides profit to hotels, cable networks, and Internet companies, and is a capitalist venture in nature. It’s also a big business: According to a 2013 report, global profits for the porn industry were $20 billion in 2007, although by 2011 profits fell by 50 percent due to the availability of free pornography online. Notably, the report says half of global profits come from the United States. The trends in pornography are also disturbing, as 88 percent of the top-selling content contained physical and verbal aggression, according to one study.

Generally speaking, the porn industry is created by men, for men. Even when women are calling the shots, they have to answer to their male consumer base. Violent pornography is also connected to rape and hostility toward women, as some research has shown that exposure to violent porn can create tolerance to these incredibly vile acts. Many people also argue that pornography objectifies women’s bodies and presents women as sexual objects, with women typically seen as vessels for male pleasure and domination.

Porn also has very restrictive and narrow standards of beauty. For women who are not rail thin, their bodies are turned into fetishes. The most obvious example that comes to mind is the Big Beautiful Women category of porn. Since BBW is considered to be a fetish, and since it seems that it is the only place where women with bigger bodies can be found in porn, it creates an association of fat women with fetishization.

Only women with bodies that the industry defines as beautiful—thin, white, and young—are permitted to have this “sexual autonomy” Knox speaks of, since other types of women are less often seen in porn. If they are, it’s usually in extremely oppressive ways, such as Black women being portrayed as animalistic and fat women as objects of a fetish. Where is the freedom in being told that if you don’t fit this standard, your sexuality is invisible?

When Knox has written and talked about her experiences in porn, she has failed to examine pornography as a tool for systematic oppression. Her focus has been on her individual experiences, and certainly she is not alone among women who star in porn and say they enjoy doing it. But it seems that she is ignoring all of the ways in which pornography negatively affects women, especially women who face double- or triple-binding oppression because they belong to a racial minority, lack thin privilege, are LGBTQ, or have other marginalized identities.

Knox herself is a woman of privilege, as she is white, thin, able-bodied, and cisgender. Although she says she lacks the funding to pay for her $60,000 annual tuition bill, she also says she doesn’t qualify for federal loans. This means that she still has some class privilege. Only a small sector of Americans could foot that bill entirely themselves without aid. I myself don’t qualify for much financial aid and am paying for 80 percent of my education through Parent PLUS loans. I am in the lower-middle-class, and paying my tuition without aid would be impossible. College is no longer accessible to those who are in the middle class, which is not to say that class privilege doesn’t exist on a higher scale (those in the upper classes have the most class privilege, inarguably), but it is also multi-faceted.

Knox also identifies herself as a libertarian Republican, which does not disqualify her from being a feminist, but is interesting to ponder. Since she believes in deregulation and free markets, how could this viewpoint inform her beliefs about pornography? Could it mean that for Knox, the dollar dictates the industry, no matter the problematic consequences?

We also need to consider the fact that the industry stands to benefit from her rising fame. Really, it has everything to gain by her new-found notoriety. Yes, porn may be something she finds empowering, as she says—but she is not the only one who stands to benefit from the porn she says she enjoys making.

From another angle, Knox has spoken about the fact that we live in a sex-negative society, where women’s bodies and choices are limited. In an interview with Piers Morgan, she said, “To be in porn and to be able to be naked and to be able to be free and have that sexual autonomy, it is so incredibly freeing.” While this may be true for Knox, does porn really give all women sexual autonomy?

With all of these thoughts in mind, I decided to look up some of Knox’s work. I was disturbed to find many videos and photos that seemed to have a twinge of non-consent present in them. In the thumbnail for one of her videos with “teen girls” in the title, Knox is topless and looking into the camera with a terrified look on her face. Another video has “facial abuse” in the title; that alone is enough to make you cringe, as abuse doesn’t really imply consent. Within the first 30 seconds of that video, the cameraman asks why she’s there, to which Knox replies, “because I’m a whore.” A few minutes in, he asks her how she feels about women being objectified, to which she says that it’s “hot as hell.” That’s very feminist of you, Knox.

Throughout this same video, though, the cameraman and another man harass her, calling her fat, questioning her about scars on her leg, and forcing her to the ground while choking her. She is saying “no” repeatedly and asking him to stop—which he doesn’t. Instead he forces himself inside of her mouth. This seems to contradict Knox’s self-proclaimed feminist principles.

The fact is, porn is a game you are most likely to succeed in if you’re a thin, white woman, which Knox happens to be, revisiting my earlier point about the representation of non-thin bodies in porn. If I, a 5’1″, 200-pound woman, applied to be in porn through a modeling agency as she did, do you think I would be accepted with open arms? Pornography has been a tool used by men to reinforce heteronormativity, sexism, and gender norms—even if some porn stars identify as feminist, and even if some feminists enjoy porn.

Whatever you make of Knox, this story offers a lot to think about. 

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  • DonnaDiva

    “Knox also identifies herself as a libertarian Republican, which does not disqualify her from being a feminist, but is interesting to ponder.”

    That right there disqualifies her from feminism in my book. She votes for people who deprive other women of bodily autonomy and the ability to make their own private health care decisions.

    • http://cathyreisenwitz.com/ Cathy Reisenwitz

      I don’t think it’s helpful to decide who can and can’t be a feminist based on their partisan affiliation.

      • DonnaDiva

        I think it’s super helpful. Republicans oppose reproductive rights and equal pay and support many policies that are harmful to women. If someone identifies as Republican I know quickly that they vote against the interests of women. Whether they are actively hostile to women or simply don’t care may not be evident but they are definitely NOT feminist.

        • http://cathyreisenwitz.com/ Cathy Reisenwitz

          No, no. I get it. But Democrats also support policies that are harmful to both sexes. To make forcing your views of what’s best for women through the political process a requirement for identifying as feminist unnecessarily limits the reach and effectiveness of the ideology.

          • DonnaDiva

            This is a two party country, like it or not. One party is far from perfect, to be sure, but the other is actively working to harm women. Choosing to vote Republican is choosing to harm women. Period. Especially in North Carolina.

          • Julie Watkins

            An election almost always is us choosing which of 2 factions of the 1% we want to have “represent” us … says the socialist who will never vote republican and usually votes democrat.

            Those two parties-of-capitalism have a vested interest in having the rest of us believe that all we can do is vote. Actually, all the gains that have happened through non-voting actions. What FDR was doing was “saving capitalism” when he did the New Deal. Locally, a lot of non-electorial mass politics stopped a new jail (which would have put more real estate taxes on the working class so other people could make money putting the poor in jail).

            Looks like Knox is quite the individualist — the system works for her so yeah system (according to her). The 1% are all about “individualism”, because one of us can never go up against one of them.

          • Arekushieru

            But, I think, Donna’s point was more concerned about how each party uses their ‘rugged’ individualism to actively and knowingly marginalize oppressed groups further.

          • G B

            No one said voting was a requirement for being feminist. I agree that both parties oppress all sexes (not “both,” as you wrote). The claim is that voting for Republicans disqualifies a person from being feminist, and that’s objectively true. Believing oneself to be a feminist doesn’t make one so, however strongly one may feel about it. All that matters is what one does.

          • colleen2

            I notice that this is the new Republican argument form. ‘Democrats (or someone else) does it too so it really isn’t a partisan issue’ appreas to be the form of the argument whether the issue is Republican racism, Republican sexism or some other form of bigotry. I WOULD be genuinely amused to see someone define how Republican feminism works. Is it the wonderful grizzly bear wisdom of Sarah Palin? Or the rape enabling analysis of Kathleen Parker? Or how about the Susan B Anthony list to lie sticking up for it’s right to lie to women? Is it the pink guns? ‘

      • Megan Delilah

        Yeah we should just decide if people are feminists based on literally nothing. Everyone is a feminist, no matter what they do or believe. Yay we are guaranteed to get literally nothing done except watering down what was once a pretty potent political movement. But hey, nobody feels shamed or left out, right? Barf.

        • DonnaDiva

          Yeah, and the problem with Republicans isn’t that they simply haven’t been exposed to feminist ideas. They are perfectly aware of what feminism is and choose to reject it. Of course, many Republican women embrace the gains of feminism – jobs, freedom, etc. – for themselves while working to deny them to other women. That simply makes them giant hypocrites, not people who need feminism explained to them better.

        • G B
        • colleen2

          These are the same women who try to insist that Sarah Palin is a feminist. I find their complete lack of basic decency and intellectual integrity off-putting but not nearly as off-putting as their embrace of theocracy.

      • colleen2

        It’s a lot more helpful than the agenda of the religious right and the Republican/Libertarian parties.

      • jruwaldt

        Libertarianism is all about using your money and other resources to gain power for yourself. Libertarians may wax on about rights and often claim to be socially liberal, but they have no qualms about using fiscal policy to restrict people’s rights. AlterNet (most likely, or perhaps Mother Jones) recently had an article about why there are so few women libertarians (please don’t give me a list of women libertarians; I’m sure there are many more male ones). The simple fact is, most women realize how the system is rigged against them, so they recognize that libertarianism will not work for them. Libertarians imagine an egalitarian utopia when government butts out, but they ignore the informal power structures that affect women (and minorities) disproportionately. Therefore, about the only people who can successfully be libertarians are rich, white men. Rich, white women can generally manage rather well, too, but lower- and middle-class women have little chance in a libertarian system, which still leaves them responsible for all domestic labor and protection against harm.

  • http://ellacydawson.wordpress.com/ Ella Dawson

    I find it weird that an article about whether porn stars can be feminist doesn’t mention the entire genre of feminist pornography whatsoever…

    • http://cathyreisenwitz.com/ Cathy Reisenwitz

      It also grossly represents the academic literature on porn and aggression toward women. It’s also condescending: “That’s very feminist of you, Knox.” Women are allowed to have sexual fantasies involving degradation and still be feminists.

      • Megan Delilah

        Wait, so discussions about porn shouldn’t mention academic research regarding its connection to acceptance of rape myths and greater intent to rape? Are we only allowed to talk about the unicorn that is “feminist porn”?

      • G B

        Having fantasies is fine. Contributing to rape is not. http://www1.umn.edu/aurora/pdf/ResearchOnPornography.pdf

    • G B

      That’s because it’s statistically insignificant.

  • jruwaldt

    While heavyset women may be fetishized in porn, it should be noted that BBW was the title of a magazine aimed at heavyset women, whom the magazine actually called “fat,” which I understand is widely used by fat people to destigmatize the word. This magazine focused on fashion, makeup, relationships, and health. It generally avoided using clothing choices to cover up a fat woman’s shape and didn’t use health as an excuse to encourage the women to lose weight unnecessarily. It also was devoted to issues of fat shaming and fat rights. I have no doubt that BBW porn fetishizes fat women, probably by playing up grossness and other factors surrounding their shape and by overly eroticizing food to the point of disgust. It’s all a shame, because many fat women are very pretty and should be allowed to show off their beauty and be sexual creatures in their own right.

    • Arekushieru

      I agree with most of your post, but, unfortunately, the last part of it seems to fall into the category of appearance-shaming. Policing someone’s appearance tends to fall on women more heavily than it does men, after all. Ugly vs beauty is just as false of a dichotomy as is saying that all fat women are ugly and all thin women are beautiful.

      • jruwaldt

        It wasn’t my intention to appearance-shame. I was emphasizing that beauty comes in all different shapes and sizes. However, I can see that, perhaps, I didn’t show all women (or people in general) to be beautiful and placed some beyond the pale.

        • Arekushieru

          Glad to see that you at least took my concerns into consideration, though! It was helpful to have you explain the context, as well! So thanks, once again, jruwaldt! :)

  • G B
  • Arekushieru

    Here’s my answer to this question: No. But I would also say that, barring any sort of direct negative impact that upholding the status quo would otherwise have on a further marginalized group (example: polygamy as practiced by some fundamentalist religious groups. True, making such forms of polygamy unlawful most likely would harm the women more than the men in such societies, by forcing them to be separated from their children, but the alternative is the children, especially female children, facing even worse abuse at the hands of the all-male leadership of these societies, such as in child marriage and child rape), limiting a woman’s ability to make her own individual choices even further, is not feminist, either. After all, I believe that if one side of the issue is concerned with the impact it has on bolstering the oppressive systems that keep women as second-class citizens, so should the other side.

    • purrtriarchy

      +1

  • Ginnie Dickinson-Burns

    Though I agree with much of your analysis, I want to point out that “porn” doesn’t HAVE to be a monolithic entity defined by explicit and degrading images of women, even though for the most part it currently is.
    With the means of production controlled by men, and the lazy standard of marketing to the lowest common denominator of their consumers, that’s about as much as the current industry intends to offer, but I reject the notion that explicit sexual imagery of women is automatically degrading.
    I think feminist-friendly porn is possible, and at some point in the mid-’90′s there was movement in that direction, but the end result at that time ended up being cheesy romance novel type stuff and never really got a foothold in the market.
    Point being, as with anything else, the way it’s usually done isn’t the only way it can be done, but with the industry controlled by men, with primarily male consumers, pandering to that lowest common denominator is presumed to mandate the degradation and subjugation of women to male fantasies of power and control, when porn can (and should be) hot (and profitable) while still portraying women as active agents in the fulfillment of their own desires.

    • Ozge

      That is what I was trying to say. Agree with you.

    • Shan

      “With the means of production controlled by men, and the lazy standard of
      marketing to the lowest common denominator of their consumers, that’s
      about as much as the current industry intends to offer,”

      That could apply to ANY industry. Porn, t-shirts, hamburger, sneakers. Where does ANYTHING we buy come from? How culpable are any of us whether we’re consumers or BEING consumed?

      • Ginnie Dickinson-Burns

        I completely agree with you!
        At the time I was dancing I wrote a lengthy article about my experiences for my college magazine, and focused in part on capitalism and commodification of all labor, and for a jumping-off point I used the words of one of my fellow dancers (in response to the question of whether or not we were being exploited by the industry):
        “Exploitation is working at Wendy’s for $4.50 an hour and coming home smelling like a French fry.”

        • Ginnie Dickinson-Burns

          The fact that it’s been 20 years and the minimum wage is less than three dollars higher than it was then speaks volumes, no?

          My point, then and now, is that we all sell something to survive, and not everyone has a vast array of choices in the matter.

          • Shan

            “capitalism and commodification of all labor”

            That’s what it’s all about.

  • Ozge

    There is the feminist wave which support porn. There are feminist directors who shoot porns and actresses also. If you shoot it properly by remembering that there aren’t only heterosexual male audiences, then you can rearrange the angle of the camera, you rearrange the conditions of actors/actresses, so both audience and actors/actresses can be happy. You gotta read stuff about porn in feminist literature. Haven’t you heard of “sex-positive feminism”? Sex-positive feminists support porn and sex work. Porn and sex work can be feminist. But of course one can say that “Even though they are feminist things, still, they are not good things for BOTH women AND men.” If we gotta argue, we gotta argue this way I suppose…

    • Carrie

      I have given so-called Feminist porn a try. It is far less ghastly, but it still reeks of teaching falsehoods to its viewers. Porn that consistently reinforces the fallacy that “all women are available for all sex at all times by any person who asks” is why [many] men despise women. I have attended too many Sexaholics Anonymous meetings to believe otherwise. Porn allows men to learn to despise women.

      Once you watch enough porn (god forbid you started watching it at an impressionable age to boot!), you really get brainwashed into believing what you see IS the world’s norm. Yet when men go out into the real world and strike up any discussion with the “hot girl”, he is instantly disappointed at her lack of nymphomaniacal enthusiasm. He tries it with the next girl, and the next, and is sickened to realize that he can’t get laid at the drop of a hat like “everyone else” can.

      Feminist porn (showing loving marital couples engaging in purely consensual fun) is hardly worth calling porn. Like gluten-free, vegan home-made Twinkies are NOT Twinkies. They are the poorest of substitutes for the real thing.

      • Julie Watkins

        I saw a sign someone shared on facebook that pointed out the “all women are available” fallacy in 5 words:

        No
        doesn’t mean
        Convince Me

        • Carrie

          You might have even seen it on MY Facebook :)

          Alas, when we want something, we tend to choose the option that gives us more likelihood of getting the thing we want, NOT the five word fallacy-breaker that doesn’t get them what they want.

          More often than not I think those anti-rape memes are preaching to the choir already. If memes truly worked, we would have no sadness, no loneliness, no overweight people, and no rapes.

      • Arekushieru

        This post seems to be saying that porn oppresses men. Although, I could be reading that wrong (please tell me I am)? ^_^;

        Anti-rape memes, btw, that put the onus on the perpetrator rather than the victim, have only been put into practice relatively recently. Of course, that doesn’t mean that that’s the only strategy that feminists think need to be implemented.

        Also, studies have been done that show that overweight people are no more likely to develop certain diseases commonly associated with weight than those who typically fall within the ‘healthier’ weight range on the BMI.

        Finally, isn’t whether something is the real thing or not a value-based judgment and a form of othering things that don’t typically fall within the bounds of narrowly defined norms?

    • Arekushieru

      No, sex positive feminists support dismantling a patriarchy that teaches women that their consent means nothing. Sex positivity is about promoting the importance that the role of consent plays, especially for women, in sexual intercourse.

      Porn and sex-work, in their current iterations, are not feminist for that reason.

      And I would say these things are not good things because they are never good things for women, alone.

  • Carrie

    Women who support pornography in this manner are no better than the Africans hundreds of years ago who “supported” slavery solely in order to profit from capturing, beating, and selling other Africans to the New World.

    “As long as it helps me, I don’t give a sh!t whom else it hurts.”

    • Kirby McCain

      That’s one of the best points I’ve seen made on this subject.

    • Arekushieru

      I’m kind of hesitant about attributing that rationale as a one-size-fits-all masterstroke to the motives behind Africans selling their own people to the Whites, however, since even then the power differential between black and white people was already quite obvious and well-defined. It’s quite a different thing when African people enslaved each other. There wasn’t quite the power differential in play, at least.

    • http://plumstchili.blogspot.com/ Plum Dumpling

      FO, kunt.

      • Carrie

        Nice Guest Vote you gave yourself there. Mommy would be proud.

        • http://plumstchili.blogspot.com/ Plum Dumpling

          I did not give myself a guest vote. But now that you mention it, kunt, I will vote for myself.

          • Carrie

            You’ve also accidentally misspelled your name with a “k”. Is that to get around supposed censors, or did your parents really want you to have a rough life by naming you kunt?

      • IdiotsChild

        Oh, mom. You’re never going to change, are you?

        • http://plumstchili.blogspot.com/ Plum Dumpling

          Nope. Go to your room.

  • http://plumstchili.blogspot.com/ Plum Dumpling

    I like porn. I get bored if i see too much of it and I have fetishes of my own. So I myself consume porn on the net.
    I worked as a stripper and go go girl. I had women come up to me and ask me if I was a feminist and, if I was, how could I do this? Made me feel bad.
    I was sexually and physically abused as a child and adult. I am bipolar and bipolar women are sometimes hypersexual. I have a family tendency to be an addict. It is called the genetic treasure chest. I was born to be a porn star but they made me a Cathoic sexual cripple instead.
    I do not know how I feel about this article. I do know this: if I had a webcam and a website, old as I am, I could run a pay per view sex site all by myself, using only myself, and make a million bucks.
    People like to like at weird pictures. That is never going to stop.

    • purrtriarchy

      I too worked as a stripper. If women want to work in porn or any kind of sex work it should be allowed.

      • http://plumstchili.blogspot.com/ Plum Dumpling

        Agree. Every man has a property in his own person and this no one has a right to but himself. – John Locke, Second Treatise on Government.

    • Ginnie Dickinson-Burns

      I danced in an upscale strip club for years in my 20′s and found it to be a very empowering experience that didn’t conflict with my feminist views at all.
      I think a lot of that had to do with the very clear boundaries in that setting, and that I was inviting sexual attention on my own terms, and performing for my own pleasure as much as anyone else’s.
      I know that’s not always the case though, which is what makes the topic so complicated!

      • purrtriarchy

        I found stripping to be extremely depressing and I was even more insecure after I started. Ended up hating everything about myself. Nothing like a 400lb man throwing pennies at you to feel superior…

        HOWEVER, if other women want to strip/porn/prostitution more power to them I say. To each and every woman her own!!

        • Ginnie Dickinson-Burns

          During the time I worked there, my venue had very strict standards about ‘look, don’t touch’ and someone throwing pennies at a dancer would have been tossed out on his ass in a heartbeat. We didn’t have to tolerate disrespect from customers, though some dancers did, but even that was more frat boy/bachelor party “show us your tits” kind of immaturity rather than outright attempts to humiliate.
          About 5 years into my career, a lot of clubs with lower standards opened up in the area, and my club’s standards gradually eroded in response to the competition, which is what led to me leaving the industry altogether.

      • http://plumstchili.blogspot.com/ Plum Dumpling

        Well said. I loved my job.