Tag Archives: sexuality

Pornography For—and As—Education?

by Ann Millett-Gallant

"Belle Knox."

“Belle Knox.”

As a college professor and a resident of Durham, NC, I have been following the stories in the local, national, and even international press about the Duke University student known as “Belle Knox” (or “Lauren” in some articles)* who has been performing in pornography to pay her tuition. If you’re interested in reading along, you can check out these articles from The Duke Chronicle, WNCN, The News and Observer, The Washington Post blog, The Huffington Post, Gawker.com, and UK’s Independent.

I am fascinated by the articles written about and by this, shall I say “candid,” young woman, who declares her rights to own and display her sexuality. She is repeatedly quoted as saying she does the work to make money to pay for her $60,000+ per year tuition to Duke.

She wrote this blog about her experiences for XOJane, and as a follow-up article, she addresses the responses she received from the first article. In these pieces, Belle Knox asserts her rights to participate in pornography and to own her sexuality. She also responds to the criticism and harassment she has received in response to her story, saying that no one has the right to judge or vilify her.

The issues raised by this case relate directly to two of my BLS classes, Photography: Contexts and Illusions (BLS 345) and Representing Women (BLS 348).

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #6, 1977.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #6, 1977.

In Photography, we study the work of Cindy Sherman, who photographs herself in the guises of stereotypical film characters (the housewife, the femme fatale, and the victimized girl of horror movies, for examples), women in art historical portraiture, and mythological, monstrous female forms to critique and parody the representation of a “Woman” across visual culture, specifically as a fantasy persona constructed through the male gaze. Sherman’s strategic role playing in the images articulates the artificiality of her staging and asserts ideas that identity is a performance.

Sherman also makes works that critique the pornography industry specifically. She photographs herself in excessive compositions or uses prosthetic or mannequin bodies to recreate explicit porn-like poses. Her images attempt to frame how these images are staged and strategically non-lifelike.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #255, 1992.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #255, 1992.

(Follow this link to see more of Sherman’s work at MOMA).

Lyle Aston Harris and Renee Cox, Venus Hottentot 2000, 1995.

Lyle Aston Harris and Renee Cox, Venus Hottentot 2000, 1995.

In Representing Women, we analyze the work of Renee Cox, who also photographs herself in the poses and costumes of various dubious roles for woman. These works satirize and critique the ways women, particularly black women, have been objectified in visual culture historically.

(See more of Renee Cox’s work at her website here).

Renee Cox, Olympia's Boyz, 2001.

Renee Cox, Olympia’s Boyz, 2001.

These classes debate how effective Sherman and Cox are in their postmodern parodies. Many students feel these artists are simply contributing to the profusion of visual culture that objectifies women’s bodies. I wondered about the Duke student’s actions and whether they could be thought of as performative acts. Maybe she is working within the system of pornography to expose its problematic history. Perhaps she is acting in the traditions of Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who was employed as a Playboy Bunny in New York’s Playboy Club in 1963. Steinem then wrote a two part article for Show Magazine exposing how women were treated in the clubs. Here are links to a scanned PDF copy of her essay on the subject and an article about her acts in the New York Times from 1985.

Gloria Steinem as a Playboy bunny.

Gloria Steinem as a Playboy bunny.

Is Belle Knox doing research for an exposé? Is she gaining experience for the future career goals that she claimed on ABC’s The View, where she stated that she plans to pursue a law degree to advocate for Civil Rights, and particularly women’s rights? Is she a Feminist?

I still have these questions, and found this provocative article, written by Duke professor Robin Kirk, which raises more issues.

In the article, Kirk underscores the role pornography has played in the objectification and abuse of women, historically and specifically on the Duke campus. Pointing to more distinctly Feminist forms of pornography, she questions what is Feminist or even avant-garde about the student’s performance in this media.

My questions mount! I was particularly moved by seeing Belle Knox speak on ABC’s The View on Monday March 17, as she was interviewed by Whoopi Goldberg, Sherry Shepherd, Jenny McCarthy, and Barbara Walters. I was disappointed that no one on the show spoke of Barbara Walters’ own experiences with pornography, or the display of women’s bodies. In 1962, in an act similar to Gloria Steinem’s, Walters was a Playboy Bunny for a day and reported for NBC’s Today Show. Here is an article about the event with a clip of the story.

On The View, the 18 year old student reported that she has made 25-30 films, for which she was paid $1000-$1500 each, and that her parents supported her positions. She also spoke about the hostile reactions of others when her story was exposed: People have declared she should be expelled from Duke, or even raped; she has received thrash thrown at her and numerous death threats. I found her to be very intelligent and eloquent in speaking about her beliefs and defending her actions, as well as every woman’s right to ownership of her sexuality.

Belle Knox on The View.

Belle Knox on The View.

The co-hosts were varied in their reactions. Whoopi Goldberg said she understood why the student has said she felt “empowered” by doing the films. Sherry Shepherd, who tends to be the most morally conservative of the group, was almost in tears as she said that her heart broke for the girl and expressed how she would feel if any of her female family members “sold” their sexuality. And although I respect and support many of the Duke student’s positions, I shared Shepherd’s sadness, not from personal or familial experiences of my own, but from thinking about the woman (as well as men, AND children) who have been and continue to be exploited, degraded, and abused in venues of pornography. I would advocate the rights of the Duke student’s and other artists’ and Feminists’ participation in these venues, most especially when their projects intervene on and critique the traditions within they work. And as an educator, I see these acts as stimulating material for conversations and debates about key contemporary issues.

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* Editor’s note: “Belle Knox” is the name under which she performs, and “Lauren” was a pseudonym assigned by a journalist before she went public with her performing name. Neither is her actual name, which is known, but will not be used here because it is not clear that she has given consent for that name to be circulated.

Come On Out! It’s National Coming Out Day

by Joyce Clapp

Banners at Elliot University Center

Banners at Elliot University Center

I took this picture outside of the Elliot University Center last week, and posted it to my Facebook, along with the caption “I do so love working here”, and it’s true. I’m truly lucky in where I work, and I’m lucky that I can be out at UNCG.

UNCG is proud to celebrate LGBTQ History Month

“UNCG is proud to celebrate LGBTQ History Month”

I’m a professor in the Sociology department in addition to working with the BLS Program, and one thing that we social scientists talk about a lot is privilege. Being out carries privilege and is a privilege, even if we don’t always think of it that way. Being out requires supportive coworkers, family, friends, and communities. Being out involves hoping that you’re not at risk by virtue of being out. At risk can mean many things—being at risk physically or at risk for being fired (sexuality is not a nationally protected EEOC class, and is not protected in North Carolina). We worry about the risk of losing friends or family. We worry about being the target of bullying.

However, being out is also important, for those of us who live and work in places where it is safe to be so. Being out normalizes not being straight and having a non-standard gender presentation. The more we’re out, the more it’s safe to be out—until, hopefully, it will be safe for everyone. Until then, those of us who can be out should be out, and shouldn’t criticize those who can’t in the circumstances they’re in.

National Coming Out Day logo by Keith Haring (1988)

National Coming Out Day logo by Keith Haring (1988)

So, in honor of National Coming Out Day, I just want to say that my name is Joyce. I’m genderqueer, a masculine-leaning woman, or just a woman depending on the day and how I’m contrary I’m feeling that day. (“Why do I need to qualify as ‘masculine-leaning woman’?  Can’t ‘woman’ just look like this? Why do we have to attach adjectives to it?”) I’m sapiosexual, pansexual, or bisexual depending on the audience and how much explaining I feel like doing. I also teach sociology, read too many books when I have time, love to cook, and live with the cutest dog on the planet (who is very lucky that he is so cute).

UNCG is not perfect on these issues—no institution is. But UNCG is good. I feel so lucky to work in a place where I can post something like this on a school blog, or mention my sexuality in class (in context, of course—we were discussing minority and majority relations) and have it not be a big deal. I’m sure someone has thought something about it at one point or the other, but I have never had one person criticize my sexuality or gender presentation in going on seven years at UNCG, and that’s an amazing thing. Our society has changed so much in the last few years, and I would never have dreamed many years ago when I first came out, that I’d be able to live in the society we do and write something like this. Here’s to things continuing to get better, for all of us—no matter who we love or how.

So, happy GLBTQIA2 history month, and happy National Coming Out Day!

A few resources:

Link to UNCG Pride on Facebook

Link to UNCG Pride on Facebook

LGBTQ Community at the Office of Multicultural Affairs

UNCG Safe Zone

National Coming Out Day page at Human Rights Campaign