Duke is expensive. There is no doubt about it. A good education in the hallowed halls of Gothic architecture costs big bucks. Even if the Duke administration tells us that it is investing an average of $90,000 in each student’s education, the $60,000 a year that it costs to be an undergraduate at this school is a significant and often burdensome financial commitment. Of course, current and prospective Duke students are entitled to choose any available legal means of raising those funds, from federal financial aid, to local scholarships, to work-study programs, to part-time jobs in the service industry, to acting in pornographic films.
Of course, that last means of paying for Duke’s tuition has recently garnered a lot of attention in both local and national news because of one freshman’s recent revelation of her means of paying the bill. I will not comment on Belle Knox’s personal decision to enter the pornographic film industry, or on the continued development of her story over the past several weeks. Rather, I want to point out some important continuing problems with the porn industry that could problematize the choice of acting in the pornographic film industry as a means of paying for college tuition.
First, a point about the legitimacy of a career in the porn industry: Until the development of the internet, porn was far more difficult to access. Not only did you have to leave your home, but you also had to go rent a video or buy a magazine in person. With the rise of the internet porn industry, anonymous consumption became possible. With the rise of such anonymous consumption, age restraints become more difficult to enforce and even individuals legally able to purchase pornographic materials may feel less peer pressure not to explore a latent interest in pornography.
The increasingly widespread consumption of porn, however, does not actually do anything to help legitimize work in the porn industry if there is not also a concurrent increase in the honesty and transparency of the industry itself. The legal standard for the types of pornography that are protected by the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech was set out in the 1973 case of Miller v. California. The Supreme Court there set out a three-prong obscenity test which would find a speech or expression obscene and therefore not protected by the First Amendment if: “the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;” “whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law;” and “whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
Since conforming to “contemporary community standards” of what would appeal to the “prurient interest” is an essential condition to a jury’s finding of a particular speech or expression to be obscene, the porn industry itself would benefit from changing those community standards to exclude at least some types of “soft” porn from the obscene classification.
So how can the porn industry help make itself legitimate by changing these community standards? Be honest and open. Learn a lesson from Dutch sex workers and make yourself a member of a recognized profession. Form a trade union, pay your taxes, submit to regular medical checkups and establish clear standards for the profession. If a career in the porn industry becomes increasingly transparent and increasingly regulated, then the community will come to accept the profession and its product as non-obscene, therefore perpetuating the cycle of increasing legitimacy.
Individuals who work in the industry can themselves also increase the legitimacy of their profession by demonstrating that it is possible to be a fully functioning, productive member of society and make pornographic films. Of course, this is no easy task. No doubt a generation or two of porn industry workers will suffer considerable reputational losses in the process of helping make their profession legitimate. They may very well suffer discrimination and ostracization and objectification. In helping to bring the inner workings of the industry out into the open where they can be discussed and evaluated, however, workers in the profession can begin to remedy some of the pervasive problems in pornographic films.
Among the most prominent problems in pornographic films is the exploitation of women. While it may be perfectly legitimate for consumers of pornographic materials to have a preference for submissive, child-like or even outright powerless women, it is vitally important that the actresses who portray these women do so voluntarily. There may be a need to revamp the payment structure for the performance of certain sexual acts on screen, in order to ensure that actresses in particular are not economically compelled to play a certain role.
Thus, I have neither the desire nor the means to question Belle Knox’s decision to enter the porn industry in order to pay for her Duke tuition. However, being an active and productive member of the industry that furthers the legitimacy, safety and equality of the industry as a whole requires honesty and transparency, and a wholehearted embrace of one’s profession.
Joline Doedens is a second-year law student. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Send Joline a message on Twitter @jydoedens.