Thirty years ago, before the Internet, Madonna scandalized society with her brash underwear, explicit sexuality, and the song “Like a Virgin.” Madonna’s clothing, performances, and music videos had a huge cultural and social impact on fashion, music and the emerging Internet of its era—the edgy counter-culture youth driven cable television network known as MTV.
Madonna’s 1984 title track, “Like a Virgin”, topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for six consecutive weeks. It was criticized for promoting premarital sex and undermining family values, and there were efforts to ban the song and the accompanying video.
In July 1985, Penthouse and Playboy published several nude photos of Madonna taken in New York in 1978. Desperate for money, Madonna posed for as little as $25 a session. Their publication caused a media backlash and social criticism, but Madonna remained defiant and unapologetic. Madonna later appeared on the cover of the NY Post saying about the photographs “I’m NOT ashamed.”
Then there was Madonna’s 1992 book that was simply entitled Sex. It was shrink-wrapped and could not be previewed, and was filled with sexually provocative and explicit images. While the book was strongly criticized, it sold 1.5 million copies at $50 each in a matter of days.
Finally, in September 1993, Madonna embarked on The Girlie Show World Tour, in which she dressed as a whip-cracking dominatrix surrounded by topless dancers. Once again the show faced strong negative reaction. In March 1994, Madonna appeared as a guest on the Late Show with David Letterman, using profanity that had to be censored and handing Letterman a pair of her underwear and asking him to smell it.
Madonna’s sexually explicit films, music and books, combined with her unabashed appearance on Letterman, led some to conclude that Madonna was so far outside the mainstream that her career and her legacy were effectively over.
They were wrong.
Consider that all of this occurred on conventional television, radio and the media, at a time when there were paper books, and no cell phones, Internet, Facebook, or Twitter.
Madonna was both a feminist archetype and sexual revolutionary. Writing in the New York Times in 1990, social critic and self-described dissident feminist Camille Paglia editorialized that Madonna’s "Justify My Love" video
"is pornographic. It’s decadent. And it’s fabulous. MTV was right to ban it…. Parents cannot possibly control television, with its titanic omnipresence."
On Nightline, Madonna bizarrely called the video a “celebration of sex.… Mr. Sawyer asked for Madonna’s reaction to feminist charges that, in the neck manacle and floor-crawling of an earlier video, “Express Yourself,” she condoned the “degradation” and “humiliation” of women. Madonna waffled: “But I chained myself! I’m in charge.”
Madonna is the true feminist…. Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives. She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive and funny—all at the same time.
Madonna has a far profounder vision of sex than do the feminists…. Feminism says, “No more masks.” Madonna says we are nothing but masks. Through her enormous impact on young women around the world, Madonna is the future of feminism.
Smart and capable, Madonna transformed herself from a girl who “wanted to be someone,” into a worldwide music and cultural icon. And she accomplished this without the instant global marketing and distribution power of the Internet, something that is nowadays hard to conceive.
The sudden appearance of the Duke college freshman porn star Belle Knox on today’s cultural landscape has engendered a great deal of discussion on television, and online in videos, blogs and commentaries. Unlike Madonna, who took years to carefully craft her public persona, Knox has risen to global recognition in just a matter of weeks. And the fact that so many are talking about her says more about us than it does about her.
Is Knox, like Madonna, a gatecrashing rabble-rousing sexual revolutionary, or is she expropriating the dialectic of today’s sex-positive feminism and Internet freedom for her own personal financial and psychological gain?
Several years ago the New York Times reviewed the Parisian exhibition Controversies: A Legal and Ethical History of Photography and surmised
there is a civil contract implied by photographs…shooting pictures of people is a sort of violation…if sensitivity is lacking, there can be something barbaric about it.” The article continued, “[w]e, viewing the pictures, are complicit. As consumers of images we bear witness through them. Or we’re voyeurs. In either case we complete a transaction that we instigated, in that a photograph is made hoping someone will look at it. It’s a message tossed into the ocean of time, and how we read that message, whether indifferently or with compassion, can have moral dimensions.
Not surprisingly, many of our clients look like Knox, they are young, intelligent and attractive. They speak passionately about their lives and their experiences. But unlike Knox, they didn’t have choices about what was done to them or by whom. They are victims of something that sounds painfully similar to Knox’s current genre of self-expression, but is really something very different.
Our law firm represents victims of child pornography, child trafficking, revenge porn, sextortion, and online exploitation. Many of our clients were sexually abused and exploited long before Knox started watching pornography when she was just twelve years old. None of them have become porn stars or are publicly identified. They are the collateral damage of today’s so-called sex culture; a movement that shows no signs of stopping or even slowing.
Dr. David Corwin, a renowned child psychiatrist who has done extensive work into the long-term impact of child sexual abuse and violence, calls child pornography “psychological heroin” to young developing minds and bodies. Given Knox’s experience at a young age with (presumably?) adult pornography, this is an apt description of an easily obtainable online drug that is never going away. A ubiquitous porn culture is here to stay for everyone, not only as consumers, but as producers and distributors. The serious public policy and public health questions of this unabashedly sex-positive world, however, cannot be ignored.
Victims of child pornography do not have a choice. They are coerced through carefully calculated grooming or threats, and are almost always inculcated with adult and child pornography in an effort to normalize sexual acts and behavior. According to Knox, she started watching pornography when she was twelve years old. If true, then she was effectively grooming herself as a child for her current sexual self-exploitation.
Sadly, this dynamic no longer impossible or shocking, and clearly Knox is not the only victim. The Internet has made pornography—even what used to be considered hardcore pornography—instantly accessible and available to everyone, even children. The shrink-wrapped covering over Madonna Sex book seems like a cultural artifact from another world.
It is the normalization of deviant sexual behavior that is the greatest threat to children. While no one is advocating returning to the days when children were taught that sex is a degrading and shameful act or—as Knox’s mother reportedly told her—that if you masturbate then your vagina will fall off—we really don’t need to. The dogma of Internet freedom combined with the commoditization and normalization of endless sexual imagery and videos has created a world where almost anything by anyone can be seen at anytime with no shame attached.
What is empowering for some, however, is slavery for many others.
For our clients, the Internet is the broadcaster of their brutal raped and sexual degradation. The easy availability of a content neutral distribution network, the elimination of technical barriers to production, and a self-reinforcing anonymous community of pedophiles and child molesters combine to create a physical environment where children are sexually abused to produce child pornography for an eager worldwide audience.
As a child, Knox experienced online sex culture as part of the first generation that came of age in a world of high speed Internet and limitless exposure to all kinds of images and ideas both good and bad. Like psychological heroin, however, her avid participation in a limitless market for abusive hardcore barely legal sexual material is enslaving more women and girls than it’s freeing.
Unlike Knox, I don’t think the dominant culture needs to be liberated through images of extreme sexual abuse wrapped in feminist platitudes. In fact just the opposite needs to happen. The incidence of rape and sexual assault on college campuses is just one example of how sex without boundaries or context is blurring the lines between what’s possible and what’s acquiesced. The Internet has made what’s possible equal anything you can see online. It has not done a good job, however, of negotiating limits.
Corrinne Dettmeijer-Vermeulen, the Dutch National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence against Children, explains that “technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.”
Not everyone has the power like Knox to block out their sex scenes, develop guidelines and boundaries, and stop whenever they feel uncomfortable; that’s precisely what Knox’s videos do not show us. Instead they are an unbridled unabashed orgy of unstoppable and unambiguous aggression and exploitation that normalizes and excuses the behavior depicted for everyone who views them. This includes the 12 year old girl that Knox once was.
Biological studies have shown that sex and violence are linked in the brain. Knox’s hardcore porn harnesses both not to liberate women but, according to the preeminent child psychologist and author Joyanna Silberg, to convince an entire generation that:
- sex and love have nothing to do with each other;
- liking your body means getting money for doing what makes your audience feel good;
- enjoying sex means enjoying anonymous sex for money with no emotion or connection;
- the fact that someone will pay you to do something means it is probably worth doing, and if paid you should not be judged for doing it.
Whether Knox is re-living her childhood trauma on her own terms like many of our clients, or pushing her sexuality to the extreme like Madonna, her words and her actions are occurring in an Internet sex culture that values explicitness over explanation, fame over reason, and freedom over understanding.
While sex has become a limitless unrestrained online commodity, the damage caused is often ignored if not shunned. When noted journalist and writer Emily Bazelon published a front page New York Times Magazine story on the fractured lives of two child pornography victims around the same age as Knox, not one website commented, tweeted, or asked for an interview. Big Porn, controlled by large multinational corporations including ISPs and the moneymaking Internet giants, don’t want to dampen the mood or their bottom lines by dwelling on the web’s dark side.
In a book entitled Big Porn Inc., feminist thinkers Melinda Tankard Reist and Abigail Bray reveal that:
The largely unregulated pornography industry has colonized private and public spaces at a rate that presents significant challenges to women’s and children’s rights. The mainstreaming of pornography is transforming the sexual politics of intimate and public life, popularizing new forms of anti-women attitudes and behaviors and contributing to the sexualization of children. The pornofication of culture is leading to a form of hypersexualism that entails an increase in physical, sexual, mental, economic and emotional cruelty towards women and children.
While Knox may personify a wave of unconventional feminism that’s advancing through the sex culture of social networking like Tumblr and Twitter, her expressed goal of using her "experience in the porn industry to help advocate for women’s rights…to go to school and…be a human rights lawyer for women” cannot lesson the psychological heroin of her words and images.
Whoopi Goldberg told Knox during her appearance on The View, “I understand why you feel empowered by porn.” This is the same Goldberg who defended director Roman Polanski’s drugging and anal rape of a 13 year old girl as “not rape-rape” but "something else." Knox, on a recent HuffPost Live interview, called Goldberg an amazing friend. The child victim of Polanski’s crime got no such comfort or understanding.
Is Knox, as she claims, “breaking down barriers as sex workers?” Is she expressing her “sexual autonomy?” Or fighting for women to “win in this patriarchal society?” Or is she simply trying to pay her ever-rising Duke tuition bills without going into debt? Is she more Belle, the righteous Disney princess, or Knox, the predatory psycho-sexual killer?
Whether she’s Madonna or whore, Knox’s impact is not without consequence both for herself and for the detritus left in her ever-expanding wake.