Of What is Belle Knox the Name? Liberalism and Women

By John Rogove
March 26, 2014

The press has been all agog over the story of an American college student who has had to do porn to pay tuition. This is nothing new. When I was an undergraduate a decade ago it was already reported that some students were doing this, discretely. What's new in this case is that her identity was betrayed by a classmate, and the harassment that followed was so violent she decided to go public about it. If there could be a silver lining of any sort to this sordid affair, it would be to draw national attention to the double bind that college-as-sine-qua-non-of-success-in-life and college-as-unafforadable-luxory-product puts families, and women in particular. From here in Europe, the story was briefly treated, and as a cautionary tale about the dangers of privatizing higher education.


But what's followed in the U.S. has been a lurid media circus, with the public eye leering at her qua porn star while clucking its public tongue in a way only two cuts above the frat-boy slut-shaming she's suffered. The way the media story is presented has itself all the elements of the standard porn fantasy, the exploited once-innocent school-girl we can at once judge and consume (as in, "use up and throw away") since she's degraded herself to those same base desires of which we are ashamed, a sort of sacrificial goat we can load with our masturbatory fantasies and expel from the city. The frat-boy who outed and shamed her was the one consuming the porn she was in, and yet it was he who led the charge of harassment and shaming. He's ruined her and her family's life, all without having to cancel his subscription to the website.


Her strategy, on the other hand, has been to present her decision as a way of reclaiming her autonomy from those who would shame her into conformity and submission to puritanical norms. It's the classic libertarian "pro-sex" feminism, claiming "sex work" as the most daring way women can at once liberate their bodies and sexuality from patriarchal control and succeed as self-starting entrepreneurs in a market society, itself bursting with "norm-subverting" potential just waiting to be tapped by those daring and unhung-up enough to step up and "lean in". The market wants to commodify womens' body parts? A poor but attractive women is "rich" in exploitable resources right at hand—the only thing that she needs to overcome are society's hang-ups—and her own (any moldy old notions about dignity or intimacy, for example)! Her agency, her autonomy, is only that of the businesswoman willing and ready to leverage her resources at any cost. This liberal or libertarian ideal is behind this notion of "sex work" as "work" in the entrepreneurial sense, with the worker as CEO of the monadic start-up that is their own body and its raw capacities. In this way, it’s not fundamentally different from any other kind of work.


In reality, while this strategy of Knox's might seem, in the short run, to neutralize the sting of her attackers' bite, in the long run, the only thing it neutralizes is the very moral autonomy it claims to want to restore to womankind. "Sex work"—porn and prostitution—inherently negate the dignity of the worker, not only because it turns a subject, a person, into an object or commodity themselves, to be consumed, used up, and spat out; it turns one of the most intimate, vulnerable, life-giving and dependent parts of that personhood into a piece of meat, reducing a feeling, animated body capable of love to mere dead matter, a resource to be appropriated and dominated.


That's precisely the appeal of porn for the consumer: it takes a dignified human being, often one in a position of power or at least of autonomy, however socially limited, and degrades her: having already reduced her personhood to a mere symbolic social role, it then reduces even that to the simple material presence of a passive body, ready for consumption. It is precisely this body-as-meat ready for consumption that the entrepreneurial sex worker effectively exploits and sells as a product. The self-evidence of this dynamic is at the core of the intuitive revulsion most feel towards “sex work,” and the reason why we feel compelled to draw a line between this type of “economic option” available to a person and work in general, however degrading.


And yet, this moralizing rejoinder to the libertarian "pro-sex (work)" defense is insufficient, and even unacceptable, if it fails to recognize the fundamental economic point that so-called "sex work" is only the paroxysm of all wage-slavery in a capitalist system. The premise that I can sell my labor, meaning my body's ability to work until it is used up, already means that my body's capacities are a marketable commodity, and that my "autonomy" ultimately consists in nothing more than my entrepreneurial freedom to sell them to the highest bidder. My creative capacities are already alienated to the benefit of market forces beyond my control and so separated from any purposiveness in my life, since they belong to whoever can buy them, and must produce whatever the market wants, however degraded.


But still, the alienation to market forces not only of my body's active capacities, but of my body itself, i.e., the physical substrate of my very personhood, takes things a step further. It appropriates and negates what is most intimately mine, my erotic and reproductive love, and the fullness of my eros in its longing to get to interpersonal communion with the other through his or her freely offered body, which I accept as the substrate of their personhood and not as an object of consumption. It degrades and objectifies me in my intimate personal dignity in still more radical a way than ordinary labor does.


And yet, capitalism is "patriarchal" in the sexist sense in that it leaves women far more vulnerable to this more radical, intimate form of exploitation and personal annihilation than it does men. Nay, the commodification of women's physical and emotional intimacy is never far wherever they are subjected to market forces, and the further down on the socio-economic scale one goes, the more specifically female wage-slavery resembles prostitution. The coal-miner may have totally alienated and enslaved his creative capacities, but at least the dignity of his bodily intimacy is intact; the waitress's physical and emotional availability, on the other hand, can never be far from the list of resources she is expected to make available for use in the same way.


Capitalist wage-slavery oppresses everyone; but it oppresses women with a sui generis ferocity because it makes their bodies and intimacy merchandisable. This is why, while sex work as a problem cannot, ultimately, be separated from the problem of market wage-slavery in general, it is also a form of exploitation that deserves special attention, and whose workers deserve special protection and consideration. And by its workers, I mean all women, since all women, by virtue of their having women's bodies, are the objects of these exploitative forces. The market's Invisible Hand wants to grope them all equally; for this reason, it is not irrational for the state to offer them special protection. This is why any measure protecting women's bodies from naked exposure to market winds is welcome, like France's law, passed by the Socialists in the 1990s, outlawing the Huxlian chattel-slavery practice of surrogate pregnancy. But where sex work is concerned, moralizing prohibitionist half-measures are toothless, and even counter-productive, driving exploitative practices underground, without the broad economic support measures that keep women out of this sort of dire need to begin with—not the least of which is precisely the dire need to pay criminally exorbitant college tuition.


Indeed, while the "moralizing," reputedly "socially conservative" measures, and the "socializing," reputedly emancipatory progressive measures are usually presented as contraries, rightly understood, they tend towards the same protection of human dignity and autonomy. And their common enemy is both male-chauvinist hypocrisy and the liberal-feminist ideological superstructure of a wage-slave-driving unchecked market economy. The term "sex work" itself is ambiguous and controversial because it cuts in both these ideological directions: It can be used to justify a liberal notion of "work" as fundamentally entrepreneurial, obscuring and covering over the exposure of one's very intimacy to potentially enslaving market forces; or it can alternatively be used simply descriptively, to give name to the objective condition of this specific and radical type of labor alienation, and in so doing underline its fundamental continuity with other types of wage-slavery, especially for women.


The bottom line of the Belle Knox story is that she was forced, in the broadest sense, by economic necessity to do what she did; and this is not an aberration.  It is the paroxysm of what liberalism/capitalism does to women.  Her discourse about it being a liberating lifestyle choice masks the economic necessity that drove her to do it, and the condition of women in society in general. But the tongue-wagging that alternatively greets her alienated choice lacks any credibility outside a global critique of the system that created the necessary and sufficient conditions for that alienation—an alienation of which the harassment disguised as ethical judgment is, along with unrestrained market economy, half the foundation.