Have you ever had someone rave about a film, promising you that if you see it, you’ll love it?
Then you watch the film, or you read the book, and you think… really? Did we read the same book? Are we talking about the same film?
And it’s not that you’re just having a polite disagreement over aesthetics or plot holes, it’s that you actually can’t believe you watched the same thing.
That’s how I feel about Samantha Allen‘s piece, which has run on Salon, xojane and other outlets.
Called ‘Debunking The 3 Biggest Myths About Porn’, Allen’s jumping off point is a 5-part Internet documentary called Becoming Belle Knox. The series follows Miriam Weekes, the Duke University student who decided to pay for her tuition by doing porn. According to Allen:
Traditional mass media has failed to depict sex work and the porn industry in a non-judgmental way… But if documentaries like Becoming Belle Knox become the new norm in a changed media landscape, the Internet might finally give us the fresh perspective on pornography that our culture so desperately needs.
Allen says the film deconstructs three myths:
1. Sex work isn’t work
2. Emotional connection and sex go hand in hand
3. Porn performers can’t be empowered if they have emotional trauma.
The issue of whether sex work is work or a form of exploitation has been debated hotly within the feminist community for years. Radical feminists have argued that pornography is exploitative, while sex positive feminists have argued that the criminalisation of sex work is just another way to control women’s sexuality. The arguments on both sides are complex and the topic is fraught.
Allen sidesteps the whole thing by boiling it down to a single idea: sex work is just a job. Like any job, it has good points and bad points.
It’s her third point, about porn and emotional trauma, that I thought was interesting. There is a theory that says that young people who have been sexually traumatised or abused are more likely to turn to sex work or promiscuity, as a way of re-enacting their trauma. This is the ‘damaged goods’ hypothesis and Allen points to a Slate article that says the rate of past sexual abuse among performers is not necessarily higher than among the general population, based on this research. Others have suggested it’s too soon to toss the (unfortunately named) theory out.
As it happens, Miriam Weekes is a rape victim, which she openly talks about in the film. At some point during her adolescence, she was also deeply troubled, as her thigh is criss-crossed with self-inflicted slash marks.
But for her, porn is empowering: “It makes me feel like a strong independent woman.”
“Everything is on my terms,” she says. “I’m in control.”
Except that, soon enough, the documentary starts to tell a different story. Weekes talks about how painful it is to have sex for hours on end, while she’s suffering from vaginal tears. We see Weekes in the persona of Belle Knox, standing selling hugs and autographs at some kind of sex expo. She visibly cringes when she’s touched.
Later, she empties out the bag of money she made that day – about $1500. Which seems like a lot.
Except that it isn’t. Weekes says she has a lot of “overheads”, from flights to make up. I assumed she was talking about her appearance at the sex expo, rather than her porn work, because surely film expenses are covered? What kind of employment makes workers cover the fundamental costs of the business? At the very least, the on-set make up artist must be covered – because if it’s not, then Weekes is subsidising the making of a film from which she doesn’t get shares or royalties.
But then Weekes says: “There are a lot of expenses involved in doing porn,” so it seems she is subsidising the film makers after all.
But perhaps that’s the price of doing business, and maybe it’s worth it, for the validation and empowerment it brings her. After all, she’s totally in control.
Except when she isn’t. Weekes says her agent refuses to tell her in advance who she’ll be having sex with, even when she pleads for information. When she turns up to one gig, she discovers she has to sleep with a 50-year-old man she clearly finds repellant. But rather than being in control of the situation and walking away from it, she submits to the scene, because if she doesn’t, there are penalties – a $300 kill fee, no more work, and a backlash from other porn workers.
“I felt like crying during the entire scene,” she says later.
Despite her newfound ability to detach emotionally from the sex, this all comes at a psychological cost: “The industry has a way of making you very cynical and bitter… it teaches you not to trust people. My experiences have aged me.”
This is the same person who wrote:
Because to be clear: My experience in porn has been nothing but supportive, exciting, thrilling and empowering.
After I watched the documentary, I re-read Samantha Allen’s piece.
I can’t work out which was worse – watching an exhausted Miriam Weekes cry for her mother, or discovering that Samantha Allen is a ‘doctoral fellow in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University’.
In other words, someone who should know sexual exploitation when she sees it.