On various tube sites, you can watch Belle Knox sit on a penis as wide as an arm, go down on another barely legal teen and receive facial after facial. Meanwhile, if you're an undergraduate at Duke, the North Carolina university ranked seventh in the country according to U.S. News & World Report, you can discuss Marx and de Beauvoir with her in sociology and women's studies classes (her planned double-major).
That a student would resort to sex work to close the funding gap for a $60,000-a-year liberal arts education shouldn't be such a huge surprise. ("College-girl" porn is its own huge niche; it should be a comfort that at least one of those coeds is what she claims to be.) But since a frat boy at Duke outed Knox, 18, to his bros from the school's notoriously sexist Greek scene and the campus drama escalated into full-blown internet scandal, Knox's story has shed light, once more, on a double-standard—the person we jerk off to is not supposed to be the same person we take exams with. (Or do anything else with for that matter.)
Knox has since received more internet hate than anyone should ever have to deal with; wrote an essay on xoJane defending herself and praising porn as "empowering," "wonderful" and "how the world should be"; and claimed that she's not worried about how this will affect her career prospects. "I'd like to be a lawyer," she told the creepy guy behind the camera in her first ever scene for the porn site Facial Abuse, moments before a male actor begins choking her.
Knox, who has been commuting to L.A. from North Carolina on school breaks to shoot a couple dozen videos since starting her career in November, insists that her work is a political act in line with a sex-positive feminist perspective. And with the reveal that Knox is a Republican, it turns out that doing porn is also in line with another ideology: Her libertarianism. Knox has used the publicity to draw attention to feminist libertarianism—marginalized within the pearl-clutching, religious, anti-sex and often anti-woman confines of Tea Party fundamentalism and the Christian right. In other words: If you believe in personal freedom, you shouldn't judge anyone for what they do with their bodies. And if you believe in personal responsibility, perhaps it's the right thing to do.
Too poor to afford health insurance? Find other places to cut back answers the libertarian. Fast food making you fat? Learn moderation. Not enough money for school? Shoot a porn scene…?
Through that lens, youth and soft tissue are just assets to be leveraged. The justification of selling your body to enrich your mind brings libertarian cynicism to its ultimate peak, with Knox the martyr on the altar of DIY thriftiness, personal responsibility and free speech.
Knox's story is, of course, just beginning—i.e., it'll be interesting to check in with her at the Duke five-year reunion to see what kind of job she landed. While she's been speaking out under a range of pseudonyms, this week she's chosen to reveal her nom de porn—at xoJane and here at Playboy SFW. We originally spoke to her late last week when she was in L.A. to get away from the increasingly uncomfortable Duke campus.
PLAYBOY: How do you feel about abandoning the pseudonyms you've used in the student paper and xoJane?
KNOX: I'm scared, because I've already been getting stalked and threatened. One of two things will happen: Either people will be like, "Well, she revealed herself. We don't need to terrorize her with, 'We know your identity.'" Or it'll get worse.
PLAYBOY: Would you ever consider revealing your legal identity?
KNOX: I don't think so. People like my agent are trying to encourage me to do it, but I'm scared.
PLAYBOY: When the frat boy at Duke first told everyone you were doing porn, you wrote on xoJane that he had ruined your life. If that was the case, why do you want to make your story even more public now?
KNOX: My stage name is already out there, so I might as well capitalize on that fact. But it also says something powerful: I'm not hiding, and I'm not ashamed. And I think I could be a voice within the industry. I can't do that if I'm anonymous.
PLAYBOY: What kind of "voice within the industry" would you like to be?
KNOX: I want society to recognize that sex work is a legitimate profession, meaning equal protection under the law and freedom from discrimination within hiring practices. I also want society to recognize that there's humanity behind the billion-dollar industry that it consumes every day.
I think the industry needs a feminist advocate as well. There are a lot of anti-porn feminists who try to speak out against exploitation in the industry, but we need somebody who can advocate for women while standing up for our right to sexual autonomy. Because so many women absolutely love the porn industry. At the same time, I want to raise awareness for how badly we treat sex workers and how that needs to change for us to have any type of real change in the industry.
PLAYBOY: Is that something you have personal experience with?
KNOX: No, I've been lucky in that regard. But I know of girls who basically get picked up by suitcase pimps trying to exploit them or who have been asked to work after tears or with yeast infections. The bigger problem, however, is that we don't have a voice to say, "These abuses are occurring, and change needs to happen." This is primarily because there's such a stigma and shame about porn. Most of the girls I know haven't even told their parents or friends about what they're doing.
PLAYBOY: Have you told your parents about what you're doing?
PLAYBOY: How did they react?
KNOW: I don't want to comment about my family.
PLAYBOY: In your xoJane piece, you wrote that your experience in porn "has been nothing but supportive, exciting, thrilling and empowering."Do you think that there are certain types of porn or companies whose work is more empowering for female performers than others?
KNOX: My main concern is I want to make sure that I'm working with somebody who treats its performers ethically. Yeah, sex-positive pornography is great, but I also love rough sex. I've gotten a lot of criticism because, literally, the first thing I ever did was this rough, blow-job thing—and everybody's gotten super mad at me, calling it "rape porn" and stuff like that. But I enjoyed doing it, because I really like shit like that.
PLAYBOY: Do you feel like there are certain lines that should be drawn about porn being too close to rape in certain circumstances—especially by porn performers?
KNOX: There are all types of sexual play, all types of sexual preferences and all types of sexual desire. I think that as long as everything is consensual and legal between all parties, it's fine. We have free speech in this country so I stand by the right of female performers to engage in rough sex scenes. If it's something you enjoy doing, more power to you.
PLAYBOY: There's been a lot written about how younger men watch so much porn that it completely informs their ideas about sex and influences their relationships—whether its expecting their partners to want a facials or to try a million positions. Do you find that men that you are seeing romantically or hooking up with have expectations about sex that have come from porn? And is that a problem?
KNOX: I don't personally think that it's a problem or that porn creates unrealistic expectations for women. If you're dating a guy who wants you to do everything that porn girls do, he's an asshole and you should probably dump him. What I advocate for is for partners to be communicative and mindful of their partner's boundaries. I totally recommend for couples to watch porn together because it will give them some kinky ideas. But if getting a facial isn't your partner's cup of tea, that's totally fine!
I do think it's hypocritical that, as you said, probably every person my age is watching porn, yet those same people are bullying me and calling me a slut for making porn.
PLAYBOY: A lot of people have reacted to the news that a Duke student was secretly making porn with "How'd she ever expect to keep that a secret?" How do you answer that question?
KNOX: I don't think it should be a scandal in the first place. We have such a fear of sexuality that when people heard about my story, they were upset that I could be intelligent and still be an adult film star. I will admit, however, that it was naïve of me to think that I could be a secret porn star and lead a double life.
PLAYBOY: You wrote that one of the main reasons you did porn was to pay for school and not be saddled with large student loans once you graduated. Would you be doing porn if Duke were free?
KNOX: No. If Duke had given me the proper financial resources, I wouldn't have done porn. They have nobody to blame for the scandal but themselves.
PLAYBOY: Is that what this is really about for you—the skyrocketing cost of higher education in America?
KNOX: Absolutely. My story is a testament to how fucking expensive school is. The fact that the only viable options to pay for college are to take out gigantic student loans, to not go to college at all or to join the sex industry really says something. We need to recognize that there's a gap between what middle-class and upper-middle-class families can pay and what they're asked to pay. We also need to stop looking at loans as a solution to fix our education system, because they're crippling our economy.
PLAYBOY: Are you suggesting that more people should consider doing porn to pay their way through college?
KNOX: [Laughs] No. I'm not going to encourage anybody to do anything. Whether you want to take out loans, be a stripper, do porn or work multiple jobs, it's completely your choice.
Zak Stone is a Playboy contributing editor based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared onNext City, Fast Company and NY Mag's The Cut. Follow him on Twitter @_zs.