A Tale of Two Porn Stars

June 13, 2014 • Love & Sex

I swore to God I would never write a piece about Belle Knox. Those weeks in March immediately after she was outed were exhausting. It seemed like every human being with a WiFi connection and two pennies felt the need to draft a blog entry. Some were chiding. Some were congratulatory. All were creepily, obsessively fixated on the implications of a single teenager’s choice of sexual expression.

To be blunt, I just didn’t get it. Overnight, Knox became a lightning rod for the entire world’s criticism of sex work. Why now? Why her? Why is this young woman considered so singularly fascinating that she, unlike her countless similarly situated peers in the sex industry, rose to international prominence, landing a feature in Rolling Stone and talking shop with Whoopi Goldberg and Barbara Walters on The View?

A large part of the buzz seemed to stem from her prestigious alma mater. Before her name was released, she was known in the press simply as “the Duke University porn star.” It is widely understood – hell, even expected – that many college-aged women pursue sex work to finance their educations. But not women who go to Duke. Not women who dream about law school. It’s the same kind of stratified, classist misogyny that led to Harvard attendee and Sex and the Ivy scribe Lena Chen’s online humiliation half a decade ago. In the popular imaginary, women at top-tier schools don’t have sex – unless, of course, they’re pretty, empty baubles in a Mark Zuckerberg biopic or a sensational retelling of the MIT Blackjack Team’s escapades. They don’t think about sex, they don’t talk about sex, and they certainly don’t pursue sex work – that’s the purview of, like, poor people. Ew.

That’s the most obvious problem with Knox’s rise to prominence – and, really, the reason why I continue to weary of her media prominence. On many occasions, she has described her experience of sex work as wholly positive, empowering, and edifying. Fair enough. She also has the benefit of an agent and publicist working night and day to ensure her safety, health, and comfort. 99.9% of sex workers don’t have any such guardian angels. It is utterly preposterous that a cis white woman attending a $60,000-a-year university is considered the leading expert on sex workers’ rights when sex workers of colour, trans sex workers, and economically disadvantaged sex workers have been struggling to be heard for decades without ever garnering even an iota of the public attention and consideration afforded to Knox.

So I don’t want to talk about Belle Knox anymore. I want to talk about Alyssa Funke.

Have you heard of her? It’s not likely. “The University of Wisconsin – River Falls porn star” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like “the Duke University porn star.”

Alyssa Funke was a nineteen-year-old biology major who had reportedly been bullied relentlessly by wealthy classmates for her low socio-economic status. In an effort to fund her education – which, thanks to state subsidies, totalled just under $15,000 a year – she flew to Los Angeles and appeared in a porn film. Her classmates found out. They bullied her ceaselessly. On April 16, she committed suicide.

In the wake of her death, Funke’s family opened a month-long online anti-bullying fundraiser in her name – and attracted a vocal crowd of misogynists.

“So tragic… she made a rash decision that co$t [sic] her precious life,” wrote one commentator. “This is NOT bullying she should’ve EXPECTED a tongue lashing from former classmates.”

Another wrote, “When you expose yourself online in such an immoral and distasteful way you must expect there to be consequences… where was her family when she was slutting out for money??????”

One guy cut right to the chase and posted a link to her film on the donation page.

Adding insult to injury, Funke’s family was only able to raise $165.

It is absolutely crucial that we mourn Alyssa Funke. We need to understand what the reactions to her death – ranging from violent hatefulness to callous indifference – say about the value our society places on women. And we need to recognize that, for young women who don’t have economic privilege, who don’t have the support of agents and publicists and nü-Ivy educations, the sex industry is overwhelmingly a hostile and toxic environment.

As a culture, we are long, long overdue for critical conversations about sex work. I’m not interested in the sorts of solipsistic, rose-coloured glasses defenses of the industry floated by Knox. I’m also not interested in sex worker-exclusionary strains of radical feminism which equate all forms of sex work to slavery and champion anti-prostitution legislation such as the Nordic model, which sex workers fear would endanger their lives.

Both camps utterly ignore the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in sex work.

Neither one offers meaningful solutions for the care and protection of those groups.

When conversations about sex work are constantly and consistently framed like this – sex work as universally empowering versus sex work as degrading slavery – everybody loses. When conversations about sex work centre solely on one individual, and become entirely about whether or not her personal choice is coterminous with the tenets of feminism, everybody loses. When popular media ignores the stories of young women like Funke, treating her death as a tragic anomaly and not the result of widespread, deeply ingrained misogyny, everybody loses.

So let’s give broad, public platforms to the sex industry’s most marginalized voices. Let’s confront the violence, abuse, and suicide endemic in the sex industry and work to create legislation which prioritizes sex workers’ security and destroys their stigmatization. Let’s talk about the intersection of misogyny and economic oppression, the sexual commodification of women of colour, the reduction of queer and trans women to object fetishes. Let’s stop talking about Belle Knox and only Belle Knox, and let’s talk about sex work.

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