You Tell ’Em, Duke Porn Star

Like everyone else with a lick of moral sense, I was shamed and saddened by the news out of Duke University last February that a freshman student was paying her tuition bills by doing porn. Belle Knox, as she called herself in print, felt no shame when she was publicly exposed by a male classmate, who recognized her while—you guessed it—watching porn. (He wasn’t ashamed either.) Doing porn, Knox told the Duke student newspaper, is “liberating. It’s probably the most empowered I have ever felt.”

The expected moral outrage never developed. If sermons were preached against the degradation of pornography, they did not penetrate the church walls; if a scarlet letter appeared in the night sky, no one reported it. Instead, Knox very quickly became a victim. The sin against her? An outrage called “slut-shaming.” Facebook postings and Twitter messages ridiculed her; girls on campus glared at her, boys yelled, “You’re the porn star!” “There were stares and whispers in the dining hall,” Knox complained to the Huffington Post. “After I was outed, every single day waking up was like a nightmare.”

Defenders leaped to her side. “This country is in a trillion dollar student loan debt,” the website College Candy reasoned, “Duke is $60,000 a year, so if someone has to make a few porno movies to get a good education, who is anyone to judge?”

We must be non-judgmental toward one another, because moral judgment is so yesterday. “To suggest—as many Duke students have on various message boards—that [Knox] is somehow deserving of harassment or abuse because she works in adult films sets us back about five decades, if not five centuries,” a libertarian blogger explained.

Even conservatives joined in to decry the “mob” that had “circled” Knox to bury her “in a shower of condemnation.” “It’s not surprising that many students have been quick to show such hatred and disrespect to Belle,” a young writer concluded in the conservative journal The Federalist. “Respect for women, in general, seems to be in short supply at Duke.”

For her part, Knox was unrepentant. “I’ve never felt degraded in porn,” she wrote in Cosmopolitan. “I feel degraded by them, these people telling me I’m stupid and naïve and not able to make decisions for myself.”

True, she accepted money for appearing on film in scenes of “rough and dirty, nasty and filthy, saliva-dripping and name-calling-filled sex,” she acknowledged in XoJane. But the important thing is “the agency behind the decision to do.” As long as the decision was hers, she was “not being shamed but rather being empowered.”

“You tell ’em, Duke porn star,” Charlotte Alter cheered in Time. “Empowered women can also enjoy kink.” Like everyone else who wrote about the story, though, Alter withheld the exact details of the kink. Here is what neither she nor anyone else would say. Belle Knox is featured on a porn site devoted exclusively to videos in which men, sometimes several men, ejaculate on women’s faces.

In the silence over what was actually happening in Belle Knox’s porn videos, it was easy to talk about shaming and empowerment instead of asking a moral question or two—if anyone, at this outlying point in American cultural history, still knows how to ask a moral question.

The French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995) might have provided a moral vocabulary especially appropriate for Belle Knox’s story. For Levinas, the genesis of personhood is the human face. “The face is not the mere assemblage of a nose, a forehead, eyes, etc.,” he says; “it is all that, of course, but takes on the meaning of a face through the new dimension it opens up in the perception of a being.”

Another person is always a Thou, because she has a face; she foredooms every effort to reduce her to an It, because objects do not have faces. Her face establishes her uniqueness, her irreducibility to interests or explanatory context, her being-in-herself. You may perhaps account for her behavior, but you can never account for her face.

Moreover, a person’s presence in the world, as revealed by her face, is a summons to respond, to bestir and thus to identify myself: “here I am.” The I-Thou relation is constitutive of the self, not the other (she exists independently of me). I construct myself as a person by how I respond to her. Morality can be summed up in a single word—responsibility.

One way to evade responsibility to another human being, I guess, is to deface her face. Or to pay male porn actors to do it for you. No one involved in Belle Knox’s story—not even the father of this teenaged girl—seems to have asked himself his responsibility to her. Nor in her many online self-defenses has Belle Knox ever once considered her own responsibility to the other people in her life (including parents, siblings, friends, teachers). The appeal of empowerment routs the call to responsibility.

In our time the moral relation of I to Thou is no longer a face-to-face relationship, but a power struggle: I (“the agency behind the decision to do”) versus Thou (the appetite to judge, that is, to shame, harass, or abuse).

The only moral vocabulary available to us belongs not to Levinas, but to his great rival in French philosophy, Michel Foucault (1926–1984). An entire generation, drilled in the Foucauldian apothegm in nearly every humanities course taught over the past three-and-a-half decades, has learned its lesson well: there is no distinction between knowledge and power, there is but power: “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth” (those are the same thing).

And what then is responsibility but the voluntary surrender of power? Why would anyone want to do that? You’ll only get yourself abused for your pains.

Better to say or do nothing at all. It’s not much of a choice, but when the alternative is tribute to power, who can blame those who prefer a mute unresponsiveness toward sadness and shame?

D. G. Myers is a critic and literary historian who taught for nearly a quarter of a century at Texas A&M and Ohio State universities. He is the author of The Elephants Teach and ex-fiction critic for Commentary. He has also written for the New York Times Book Review, the Weekly Standard, Philosophy and Literature, the Sewanee Review, First Things, Jewish Ideas Daily, the Daily Beast, the Barnes & Noble Review, the Journal of the History of Ideas, American Literary History, and other journals.


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