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Is 'Duke Porn Star' Belle Knox a feminist or a troubled young woman?

The one thing you've got to say about Miriam "Duke Porn Star" Weeks is that she's probably not racking up much in the way of student loans at Duke University.

Or is she? The story on Duke freshman Weeks, who's "working" her way through college by flying regularly to L.A. to make porn films, oscillates between: 1) a lugubrious feminist narrative about an enterprising "sex worker" (nothing wrong with that!) who's being victimized by judgmental, patriarchal males who simultaneously condemn her and lap up (no pun intended) her filmed product; and 2) an equally lugubrious narrative about a naive young girl who's being victimized by an exploitative adult-film industry ("rough sex" is one of her specialties) and a society addicted to pornography in general.

In fact, Weeks is actually a talented self-promoter and publicity hound who has figured out how to combine an exquisite rhetorical mix of box-checking feminist pieties, tear-jerking self-pity and unrestrained exhibitionism into a lucrative, if probably short-lived career as a celebrity.

It was she, after all, who first sought the public spotlight, not just by making the movies themselves -- there's no such thing as a film without an audience -- but by giving a lengthy Feb. 14 interview to a reporter for the Duke student newspaper, the Chronicle, under the fake name "Lauren." On Feb. 21, a week later, she wrote a tell-all confessional for the feminist website xoJane under her porn-film stage name Belle Knox. Already some of her male classmates at Duke (evil fraternity guys, of course) had figured out who she was, and now everyone in America was able to put two and two together.  

Even Weeks' pathos-tinged rationale -- that she needs the money to pay the $60,000-a-year cost of attending Duke (standard for elite universities) -- has a self-serving, insincere ring to it -- partly because Weeks' father is a generously paid Army doctor. Weeks told Piers Morgan she makes about $1,200 per scene, which means it costs an awful lot of porn flicks to keep yourself at Duke. Furthermore, as Chronicle reporter Katie Fernelius observed, Weeks wore Lululemon yoga pants -- those are expensive! -- to her interview. Fernelius wrote: "Lauren does not disclose how much she is paid per shoot, but during the course of our month-long correspondence she does not hesitate to show off to me her recently-purchased iPad mini and array of designer handbags." Hmmm, seems that not all of that porn money is direly needed to cover the bill for Weeks' Duke meal plan. Weeks also "giggled" and wondered aloud to Fernelius whether she would land an appearance on "Ellen."

Meanwhile, hilarious hand-wringing aplenty has proceeded from both ends of the victimology spectrum. Emily Shire of the Daily Beast branded as hypocrites and misogynists anyone who dares to suggest that there might be something wrong with Weeks' line of part-time college work: "Lauren's challenge against her harassment as a porn actress reveals how pointless and shameful our stigmatization of adult film performers are." On the other side, Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post called Weeks a "troubled young woman" whom we should "worry about."

"Troubled" all the way to the bank! If Weeks is a victim of anything, she's a victim of her exhibitionistic tendencies. Women are natural exhibitionists, and they'll gladly take off as much of their clothing for men to view as societal mores and their own consciences permit. In that sense, Weeks is living the dream. Photos of her happy self in various states of undress are all over the Internet -- and those are just the clean ones.

Plus, she's a master manipulator of feminist buzz-phrases (and why not? she's majoring in women's studies at Duke). I had to laugh out loud at her article for xoJane. "Patriarchy"? Check. "Virgin-whore dichotomy"? Check. "Stigma"? Check. "Empowered"? Check. "Completely in control of my sexuality"? Check, check and check. She even dishes on her own mother: "When I was 5 years old and beginning to discover the wonders of my body, my mother, completely horrified, told me that if I masturbated, my vagina would fall off."

Happy Mother's Day, mom!

There is, however, a tragedy lurking in this merry, sex-positive, anti-stigmatizing tale. It is the tragedy of Weeks' family. Her father, reportedly a devout Catholic, just returned home from deployment in Afghanistan to discover what his daughter has been up to, and according to a relative's report, was "heartbroken."

Let's slut-shamingly face it: Pornography is essentially prostitution protected by the 1st Amendment. It's sex for money while other people watch. In a sane culture, Weeks would be disowned by her parents and kicked out of Duke for conduct unbecoming a member of a scholarly community. In our culture she's a "star." So you can't blame her for trying to make the most of it.

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Charlotte Allen writes frequently about feminism, politics and religion. Follow her on Twitter @MeanCharlotte.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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