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Sorry Belle Knox, porn still oppresses women
Porn stars aren't fighters against "patriarchy." They're non-unionized contract workers with horrible benefits.
 
No, porn isn't that liberating.
No, porn isn't that liberating. (Thinkstock)

In what may be one of the splashiest media sagas of this year, a Duke University freshman has revealed her secret porn performer persona after being "outed" to her classmates by an insensitive male friend earlier in February. The student, known now by her stage name "Belle Knox," has vociferously defended herself through editorials submitted to the feminist website xoJane, and has enjoyed a great deal of support from sex positive quarters, though not without a good amount of admonition from sources both within Duke and on the web at large.

Of course, a good chunk of the criticism Knox has received has been of the reprehensible and personal sort, including threats and harassing messages sent through social media. These attacks are of course odious and inexcusable, and no amount of disagreement with Knox's message can justify them. This kind of behavior is not only harmful, but disproportionately aimed at women in the public sphere.

That having been said, Knox's agenda is misguided. Knox, a self-described libertarian with reluctant GOP affiliations, believes that performing in porn is a direct affront to the patriarchy, the term she uses for general systematized and institutionalized oppression of women. According to Knox:

We deem to keep women in a place where they are subjected to male sexuality. We seek to rob them of their choice and of their autonomy. We want to oppress them and keep them dependent on the patriarchy. A woman who transgresses the norm and takes ownership of her body — because that's exactly what porn is, no matter how rough the sex is — ostensibly poses a threat to the deeply ingrained gender norms that polarize our society. [xoJane]

Knox's mission, in other words, is to attack the oppression of women by intentionally flouting sexual norms, such as the expectation of some level of modesty or exclusivity in partners. But does that actually undermine patriarchy? I doubt it.

It's notable, for instance, that the major media venues who are now airing Knox's feminist editorial are only doing so because she's a curious sexual tabloid spread. That women's bodies are easily marketed is no strike against the patriarchy, and that a woman can get attention for her political views only after appealing to male sexual desire certainly doesn't seem to indicate any serious move in the direction of equality.

But let's leave aside whether this theoretically breaks the barriers of sexuality and focus on a side of porn that has gotten far less attention in this debate. What material good do women gain from the porn industry?

At the performer-level, porn is a notoriously treacherous place to make a career. While female performers might make more than their male counterparts, most of them just don't get paid that well, thanks in part to the rise of piracy, cam sites, and the glut of material online. And dwindling profits mean not only pay cuts for performers, but an increased willingness to jockey to meet the demands of a mostly male audience. This competition has two major negative outcomes for Knox's anti-patriarchal project.

First, it means that male consumers dictate the terms of what's depicted. As a result, male desire impacts the work and health of performers. For example, a 2012 study found that porn performers in LA had higher rates of STIs than prostitutes working in Nevada; the study authors chalked the prevalence of infections up to the reluctance of studios to enforce condom use because visible condoms aren't arousing. In other words, the industry drive to respond to male sexual desire could well be the reason performers like Knox are in danger of contracting life-threatening illnesses like HIV. Is this what bucking the patriarchy looks like?

Two, porn doesn't feature the kind of workplace a woman — or for that matter, a man — should want to join. While one could imagine building protections within the industry against unsafe sex practices, that's a difficult task in the absence of any labor union, as porn performer Jenna Jameson has noted. It is unclear to me how working without any collective bargaining power in an unsafe industry is a helpful move for women. Now, I don't mean to imply that Knox is secretly unhappy in her niche, but many women are surely suffering in a low-paying industry with little control over working conditions that pose significant threats to their long-term health.

The obvious retort is that while the material conditions of porn performers might leave something to be desired, the work of porn performers helps non-performing women at large by challenging gender roles. (This is heavily disputed, of course, with many women expressing concern that readily available porn imbues young men with disastrously misguided expectations of women's bodies and committed sexuality.) But it is difficult to imagine, even in that case, how porn really challenges gender roles.

Her assertion is that by making a choice — any choice — she's bucked the patriarchy because she's asserted her decision-making capabilities. But this is only a net increase in one particular woman's freedom, which means both that it isn't any improvement for the status of women as a whole, and also that it only signals an increase in liberties, but not necessarily any gain in measurable well being. This is perhaps satisfactory in a libertarian frame, wherein freedom is the ultimate value, but for women who are interested in measurable material gains, it leaves almost everything to be desired.

One hopes young women paying attention to Knox will choose not to campaign for ambiguous increases in freedom, but rather in targeted betterments in the arenas of life you can take to the bank: good and fair wages, health, and safety in the workplace. In the world of porn, none of those goods are on offer.

 
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes about Christianity, ethics, and policy for Salon, The Atlantic, and The Week. She is a graduate of Brandeis University and received her MPhil in Christian theology from the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. She is currently working towards her PhD at Brown University. In her spare time, Elizabeth enjoys working in the garden.

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