Friday, March 21, 2014

Films, Scenes and Belle Knox: Some Thoughts on Empowerment and Our Pornified Culture

The other morning I was watching the morning news as I got ready to head in to work for the day when a segment caught my attention.  In the event that you haven't been paying attention to the national news, a Duke University student has gone public with the fact that she has been performing in pornographic "films" in order to pay her tuition.  Belle Knox (I am assuming this is not her real name but her ‘porn’ or ‘stage’ name – which we will need to come back to at some point) has been making the television talk-show circuit and creating a blogosphere buzz.  While I can appreciate the fact that college tuition is far more expensive than it should be, after hearing the rationalization and justification for her decision, and her use of the language of ‘empowerment’, something different than you might expect jumped out at me. 

She said she had been in 26 Films.

26 Films?


This got me wondering - what exactly constitutes a ‘film’? Specifically, what constitutes a ‘pornographic film’? 

If we can sidestep the matter of whether or not Belle Knox’s use of the word ‘film’ was cavalier or careless), it got me thinking. As I dwelt on this, my first instinct was that she merely misspoke. In truth, what this young lady was most likely referring to should be properly understood as ‘scenes’.  The interchangeable use of term ‘film’ with ‘scene’ reveals, though, something significant – an insight - about how our culture has adopted a nascent view of sexuality.

We are wholly focused on the friction of bodies and erotic pleasure. A fully mature view of sexuality, empowerment, and dignity is less concerned with the financial or sensual consequences of two bodies coming together.  It extends outside the individual's experience into the broader culture. When recording a sexual scene constitutes an entire film, what does it say about how we view sexuality?
If we go back to the early days of the mainstreaming of pornographic movies, wasn't there some kind of story-line? Was there more than one scene of different couples having sex?  While I confess that my knowledge of pornographic movies is fairly thin, Luke Ford's book, A History of X, details how even the early pornographers made some, albeit adolescent, attempt at telling a story. It is a great piece of history, although it is unabashedly graphic and not recommended reading for the faint of heart. Porn ‘films’ were more than just a single recording of two people copulating,

But this highlights how pornography has changed over the last 20-30 years and how it has impacted the generations that have come of age in the world of digital porn.  The widespread availability of pornographic material online, anonymous access and the fact that so much of it is free has cultivated a fractured view of sexuality inasmuch as isolated scenes do not make up a film. These pornographic clips have provided fractured snapshots of sexual encounters and not sexual relationships. So much of the pornography that is available online is not available as full-length movies.  The vast majority of it is freely available as short video clips which can be viewed indiscriminately.  While there may be tags and categorizations of genres, the mindset of the consumer which is revealed in Belle Knox’s throwaway comment is that somewhere along the way an edited version of a sexual encounter is now viewed as a ‘film’. 

Sex is embraced a form of emotional distancing rather than emotional bonding. Our culture has crafted an understanding of sex that limits it to short, concrete, simple and separate acts divorced from our emotional and relational nature. Because of the development of gateway pornography hubs and video sharing sites, the mass recording and distribution of isolated single sexual encounters has lost all pretense of context, plot or narrative.  The only things that are important are the mechanics of orgasm.  Because of this narrow view of sexuality, we have lost its connection to intimacy, relationship, and procreation. While I appreciate how one person may feel empowered or freed by engaging in sexual intimacy (this form of intimacy is so powerful that it can create a new life), the consequences of these actions affect the community as well.  Porn misses the mark in that sexual power is not always used for selfish desires.  How does participating in an industry that grinds up and spits out women, that preys on financial injustices, and takes advantage of the emotionally vulnerable affect others? What happens to these actors/performers after they leave the set? I find it hard to believe that their relationship as human beings off camera has not been affected (either positively or negatively). A 2011 study has shown that women in the adult film industry are disproportionately affected by mental health issues.

With pornography there is no follow-up.  There is no larger context that we have access to. It inherently is form of voyeurism that lies at the root of our notions of sexual intimacy as "performance". Unfortunately much of the pornography available online for the education of young minds and the feeding of adult minds is not really sexual intimacy, but a strip-mined digital recording designed to appeal exclusively to carnal, erotic arousal – a performance.

Unfortunately many children today have seen pornography - sexually mature adults engaged in adolescent staging of what should be a romantic, erotic, sacred and intimate moment - before they have even entered puberty.  It is important to recognize that one can become sexually mature (that is to say able to conceive a child) before one is emotionally mature. Pornography trains its viewers to see sexual encounters as somehow being completely independent – islands of ecstasy without consequence.  ‘Hooking Up’, “Friends with Benefits’, and ‘Booty runs’ has become the language for sex on campuses across the country, and has found its way into high schools and middle schools where viewing porn online and sexting are rites of passage.  
Sex has become a one-act play, digital media is the stage, and we are merely actors.

But what happens when we leave the stage? What happens when the cameras are off? The consequences of sexual acts is far-reaching.  Pretending while you are being filmed having sex doesn’t make it less ‘real’ for those involved. Files aren’t so easily scoured from the computer networks, and the neurobiology of memory is a powerful force.

What we are missing is a broader story of human sexuality, one where sexually intimate moments are best understood when they cultivate and deepen the relationship between a man and a woman within a marriage relationship. But in a world where sex is a commodity, marriage a contractual arrangement, and consent the sole sexual ethical principle, is it surprising that Belle Knox did what she did?

No, it isn’t.

Honestly, I am surprised there aren’t more young women like her and will not be surprised if we see an increase in stories like hers. She is a product of her times, but she is at the vanguard of young women who will be pushing the empowerment narrative. We are broken people exploiting and breaking one another. So many can come off as self-righteous and judgmental (seen by the Comments online), or Prudish and this prevents a healthy engagement on matters of sexual ethics. In turn this triggers those with differing opinions to retreat to their own psychological defenses such as rationalized “empowerment”, out-group labelling those who differ as ‘bigots’, or their own form of righteous indignation. We become embroiled in a never-ending sanctimonious loop.

None of us should look upon Belle Know with contempt, scorn or disdain. She is young woman muddling through this broken world like the rest of us are, trying to find her way through life. She is being exploited even as she exploits others.

Who is exploited by her? The millions of men who sit at home alone in front of their computers trying to find their way.

Who benefits? The pornographers who exploit both Belle and the faceless men (or women) in front of their monitors looking for a sexual jolt are the ones who receive the financial harvest.

So what should we make about Belle’s claims of ‘empowerment’?

We must be sure not to make the mistake of confusing sexual activity as sexual empowerment, let alone the recording and public distribution of sexual activity. Nor should we conflate notoriety and celebrity as empowerment. Chasing after these will feed a narcissism that will never be satisfied. Nor should financial security be equated with sexual empowerment. It is clear, though, that financial need can lead to sacrificing our sexuality if it seems to be the only option. It is the appeal to financial vulnerability that was offered first, predating Belle’s empowerment defense of her choice to do porn.

But the language of empowerment is seductive, and especially alluring to those who have been oppressed, disenfranchised, disempowered, or in a place of need.  It is also the language oppressors prefer to use when deceiving the oppressed; it gets the oppressed to embrace the oppression and celebrate it. True empowerment is found when we claim what is already ours and confidently use it to the benefit and flourishing of others. Empowerment is when we make choices that transform ourselves and others into emotionally mature human beings. It is not self-centered, and it doesn’t exploit others – this use of our power would make it dominance and oppression which is to be condemned. Empowerment should be about removing barriers so that we can have access and opportunities that lead to flourishing – eudaimonia – where we do not treat our sexuality as a means to some other end, but as an end in and of itself. It has healthy boundaries that benefit the self and the community.

We cannot champion or celebrate that which should be condemned. Sexual exploitation in all of its forms (prostitution, sex-trafficking, pornography, child sexual abuse – and any other form of sexual violence) should be condemned. But when it is wrapped in the beguiling cloth of empowerment, our rational faculties seem to stall. In our culture today, there is no better pill that the oppressor can get the oppressed to take than self-deception. A poisonous center of misogyny is surrounded by a candy coating of empowerment language.

Our culture loves to prey on women and keep them subservient, and nowhere is this better evidence of this than in the sex industry. What is best understood as a feast of sexual intimacy between loving spouses has been packaged by our hypersexual culture in a convenient, ready to consume collections of categorized clips (sorted by length and preference) on a porn website devoid of relational or familial context. Just as a pornographic scene becomes a ‘film’, a candy bar becomes a ‘meal’ that never really satisfies our true needs. Somehow being spit upon, cursed at, slapped in a moment of extreme nakedness and vulnerability while being used as prop for a stranger’s pleasure becomes ‘empowerment’. But appeals to empowerment and the cost of an education should never be used to justify or rationalize sexual exploitation. Nor does consent by someone who is vulnerable (financially, emotionally, or because of their age) reduce the consequences of exploitation.

We human beings are so very good at deceiving ourselves, and we are so willing to be deceived if it comforts us.

If you think that being involved in the production or consumption of pornography doesn't impact a person psychologically, you are in denial.  You cannot consume thousands of calories of junk food on a daily basis and have it not affect your health.  In the same way you cannot consume thousands of sexualized images and have it not affect the way you see others.  You cannot consume pornography and have your understanding and expectations of sexuality not be affected. And all of these reasons can serve as a perfect storm to give us the Belle Knoxes of the world. Women who have been groomed by a pornified, misogynistic culture that continues to prey on them. It deceives them into thinking that by participating in a misogynistic system they are ‘empowered’. Empowerment is not to be equated with stereotypical bad male behavior. Empowerment language has so addled our minds that we confuse ‘scenes’ with ‘films’, sex with performance, and degradation with power.

My guess is that a year from now the majority of people will have forgotten Belle Knox’s name (which is likely not the name given to her by her parents). Yes, she will be only a Google search away and her fans may remember, but like so many others who have been discarded by the sex industry she will have made her money and then she will be disposed of.  

But at what cost?

After being used as a sexual partner takes its toll, she may invest in her ‘career’ by making surgical alterations to mask perceived imperfections or improve her attractiveness. Criticism leveled at her attractiveness has already begun to appear on the news websites Comments sections. She may dive into alcohol or substance abuse, or she may do 100 ‘films’ to pay for her college education and we may never hear from her again.

The question is not just at what cost to her, but what does this say about our culture? There are so many other dimensions of this question to be explored:
  • If Belle Knox were an African American woman attending a less affluent school, would there be as much outrage? What does this say about our culture?
  • If she were less attractive, would we care? What does this say about our culture?
  • If we were talking about a man, would there be as much outrage, or would we be more permissive for male sexual immorality?  What does this say about our culture?
  • If we lived in a culture where human sexuality (especially women's sexuality) was not viewed as a recreational or advertising commodity, would these kinds of opportunities even be available? How many young women will entertain the possibility of this as an option? Wouldn’t a rapid influx of ‘talent’ reduce the financial benefit each person might gain?

The solution to the problem is for women and men to think clearly about sexuality. Clear thinking on sexuality, however, is not found in abundance in our culture. It is time for us to take a close look at how we think about sexuality as a culture. We are heading down a road that is leading us into a sexual apocalypse. It will be our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who suffer the most as we attempt to fornicate, rationalize and cavalierly exercise sexual license in an attempt to find happiness, justice, and peace - True Empowerment.

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