Higher education in the United States can carry a hefty price tag, with tuition alone at a four-year private college averaging almost $30,000. To pay those bills, students need a benefactor, a scholarship, a lender, or a job. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a wealthy (and generous!) family, not everyone is clever (or athletic!) enough for a scholarship, not everyone is comfortable going into six-figure debt, and good luck trying to earn enough money while studying full time.
For one incoming student at Duke University—estimated annual cost of attendance, over $61,000—the answer was simple: Adopt the screen name “Belle Knox” and become a well-paid adult film star. Unfortunately for Knox, her hopes of keeping work and school separate were dashed when a male student recognized her from a website and outed her to his fraternity brothers. As the news spread across campus, she was pilloried and became the target of threats. Despite the criticism, Knox has embraced her celebrity status and defended her life choices on CNN and elsewhere.
Though she had tried waitressing in high school, Knox explained that “not only did it interfere with my school where I was barely sleeping and wasn't doing my work, but also I was making $400 a month after taxes. I felt like I was being degraded and treated like shit.” About her current employment (in which she earns $1,200 per shoot), she says, “I'm not being exploited, I love what I'm doing and I'm safe.”
Knox has been subject to a truly appalling amount of vitriol, noting that “I've never been told to die in quite so many ways.” Among other things, her fellow students have threatened to kick her in the face, demanded that she be expelled “or we will take matters into our own hands,” and asserted that she deserves to be raped. Among her most ferocious critics are fraternity boys who, when they are not attacking her, are doubtless great admirers of her work. As she put it, “You want to see me naked. And then you want to judge me for letting you see me naked.”
While I'd be remiss not to draw attention to the breathtaking levels of hypocrisy and misogyny that underlie such hate, I'm more interested in the claim that Knox earns her money in an immoral manner and that she should be ashamed of herself. There are all kinds of debates over the social effects of pornography, whether it degrades women, whether it increases sex crimes, and so on. While I don't have the answers to those questions, I do think that singling out Belle Knox as the epitome of wickedness is more than a little off the mark. There are a great many among us who should repent their career choices before anyone points the finger at Knox.
I have in mind the staggering number of people whose job it is to inflict suffering on their fellow human beings under the auspices of state coercion. Think of SWAT team officers who break down doors in the middle of the night, shoot dogs, terrorize families, and do not even apologize when they get the wrong house—all in the name of finding a plant or a pill that has been deemed illegal for no good reason. Think of tax inspectors who crush people like bugs even before a court has determined whether or not they're guilty. Think of immigration officers who destroy the lives of people whose only crime is to exist on the wrong side of an imaginary line. Think of prosecutors who hide evidence, knowingly persecute the innocent, and for whom justice is not even an afterthought. Think of bureaucrats who shut down health care clinics for having the nerve to accept money from patients or who persecute businesses whose sin was to use the wrong language. And, of course, think of politicians who enable all of the above by writing ever more complex laws, creating ever more complex bureaucracies and deputizing ever more people to wield the state's coercive powers—all funded by money extracted from taxpayers under threat of violence.
As for Belle Knox, she has freely chosen to work for a willing employer who pays for her services. The products to which she contributes are enjoyed by willing consumers who choose to invest their time and money to do so. In other words, no one is being forced to do anything and anyone who has anything to do with Belle Knox's work does so of their own accord. That voluntary aspect signals that Knox is contributing to the world in a way that those who impose themselves on others by force never could: If people are willing to exchange their own money for something, it is because they value it. They would rather have whatever it is that you're selling than the money they're paying because they believe that the exchange will leave them better off. Conversely, if your job description includes forcing people to do things against their will, it is probably because no one is interested in what you have to offer. Of course, there are cases where coercion is necessary, like stopping a rapist or a child molester. But as a general rule, those who deploy the coercive power of the state spend their lives inserting themselves into the affairs of people who are simply going about their own business.
If I ever have a daughter, I would discourage her from following Belle Knox's path for all kinds of reasons, from concerns about disease to the lifelong social stigma that would forever hang over her. And for all I know, Knox may come to deeply regret this chapter of her life. But right now, before going to bed each night, Belle Knox can look herself in the mirror and say, “Today, I made people happier by giving them something they want in exchange for something I want.” Whereas there are far too many others who, if they are honest, can only say, “Today, I made others suffer by hurting people who were merely living their lives in peace.” I would be far more ashamed of a daughter who took the latter path. By that yardstick, at least, Belle Knox can hold her head up high and proud.
* Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B. A. and an M. A. in political science from McGill.