With the release of a new Lifetime movie centering around the dramatized life of Miriam Weeks, better known as the Duke porn actress, Belle Knox, conversation over the 2014 scandal has been stirring on campus. When Weeks was outed by a classmate during her freshman year, the story was picked up by local and national outlets alike. The idea of a young college student at an elite, prestigious university paying off tuition by starring in adult films caught the attention of the country and pulled her into a firestorm of debates over sexuality, morals and gender. Three years after the affair, exiting seniors are the only students left with direct memory of Weeks and her controversy. But with the story back in the news and now on TV in film format, now is a good moment to reflect on the response of students at the time to Weeks and how they and we deal with deviations from the student norm on campus.
When Weeks’ porn identity was forcibly revealed, it of course caused a stir among the Gothic towers of Duke, but when the gossipy stir mixed with resentment, slut-shaming and moralization, it became a dangerous curiosity. Students played on false dichotomies of what a Duke student, specifically a Duke woman, could be. It had been decided that you could not film yourself having sex and be a smart Duke student at the same time. Without a doubt, she had broken preordained models. While it is popular to consume the idea of a sexually-open college student or a porn star that just happens to be articulate, it is far less so to warm to the idea of a multifaceted person who does porn, is a college student and is smart. Weeks was all of that and it was her choice. Regardless of your thoughts on porn or abstinence, it’s up to an individual to make the choices of what to do with their bodies or for a career for themselves. And those choices do not warrant crucifixion.
Although the Lifetime movie gives us a chance to remember our faults and mistakes, the movie itself is far from perfect. Just as Duke students turned Weeks into a one-dimensional character, the movie erred similarly, portraying Duke in a static, salacious and overdramatized way. The student body was a homogenous block of white, Goldman Sachs-adoring frat brothers and Weeks was distorted to provide cinematic contrast. The filmmakers denied Duke students a fuller and more nuanced profile, just as the student body did with Weeks.
Notably, in the wake of the Lifetime movie release, some have leveled attacks on Weeks on the grounds that she sullied the “good Duke brand.” For the most part, those jabs are nonsensical. Names affiliated with Duke, in recent history, have participated in neo-Nazi think tanks and helped draft racially discriminatory legislation. Compared to that, Weeks has done near nothing. There is a clear double standard here that lies within a complex web of sexism and prejudice surrounding certain forms of work and labor. It echoes the expectation of effortless perfection from Duke women that former president Nan Keohane spoke of. Weeks broke that expectation and people hated her for it.
The bottom line with the Miriam Weeks affair was that we at Duke dropped the ball. Weeks was a fellow student and a member of our community. When she was facing harsh criticism and harassment under the scrutiny of the national media, we should have stood with her instead of tearing her down. Although the affair occurred over three years ago, we ought not forget its lessons.
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