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When Porn Comes Up Against Puritans

03/05/2014 05:13 EST | Updated 05/05/2014 05:59 EDT

In an xoJane article, headlined "I'm Finally Revealing My Name and Face As the Duke Porn Star," the 18-year-old college freshman Miriam Weeks concludes with a reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, The Scarlet Letter:

The truth of the matter is this: I am one identity when I am a student. I'm another when I do porn. And no one controls either -- but me. Today, I am choosing to reveal my porn identity to the world. My name is Belle Knox, and I wear my Scarlet Letter with pride.

Hawthorne's examination of seventeenth-century American Puritanism, published 164 years ago, might seem a remote and misplaced reference. The scarlet letter is of course the letter A, and it refers to Hester Prynne's adulterous conception of her daughter Pearl, with the Reverend Dimmesdale. We're not talking about adultery, however; we're talking about a twenty-first century topic which like adultery in 1850 has its own taboos and secrets.

Hawthorne had something of an open family secret himself. His allegorical tale is in part an expiation and opens with a detailed family history: born on the fourth of July in Salem, Massachusetts, he was a direct descendant of the unrepentant witch trial judge, John Hathorne, and added a W to his surname as a way of distancing himself from the disgraceful patriarch.

"I doubt greatly," he wrote "--or, rather, I do not doubt at all--whether any public functionary of the United States, either in the civil or military line, has ever had such a patriarchal body of veterans under his orders as myself." Hawthorne wasn't proud of this history, and it's clear when you get to the end of his novel that he looked forward to something better, far off in the future. Like 2014, for example.

The letter that concerns us today, dear friends, is neither A nor W -- it's P, as in Porn and Puritanism. Duke University was founded in 1838 by Quakers, the very group which populated Hawthorne's ancestry. This is mere coincidence, but it supplies a useful theme. Those who are today persecuting Ms. Weeks on social media might ponder the moral character of Hawthorne's fanatical mob and reflect on their own behaviour. Puritanism is an ancient and shameful racket, and it usually looks bad in retrospect.

As a contrast to the hateful tweets of the moral police, consider this, again from the hand of Miriam Weeks/Belle Knox:

Of course, I do fully acknowledge that some women don't have such a positive experience in the industry. We need to listen to these women. And to do that we need to remove the stigma attached to their profession and treat it as a legitimate career that needs regulation and oversight. We need to give a voice to the women that are exploited and abused in the industry. Shaming and hurling names at them, the usual treatment we give sex workers, is not the way to achieve this. [...] I can say definitively that I have never felt more empowered or happy doing anything else. In a world where women are so often robbed of their choice, I am completely in control of my sexuality. As a bisexual woman with many sexual quirks, I feel completely accepted. It is freeing, it is empowering, it is wonderful, it is how the world should be.

That's quite a glowing assessment of the pornography industry, and no doubt some of you are raising your eyebrows. Miriam Weeks describes porn the way I imagine I'd describe travelling the world with Bill Gates, saving children from malaria and misery. Who knew you could get all that fulfilment putting things up your bum. Well, I guess there's more than one way to get a full feeling, and bless her if that's where she's found hers.

Also, she does acknowledge that it's not all roses and sunshine for everyone. If porn is a job, then it takes place in a workplace, and a workplace should have rules and regulations and safety practices. That sounds logical to me, and I imagine that a lot of porn is made in places where it's not so much a workplace as a place of exploitation.

If so, I would say that's wrong, and it should be stopped. But Miriam Weeks is not writing about these places -- she's talking about her own experience, and unless she's lying, it's a good experience. The question whether pornography is good or bad is a big question, well beyond the scope of her article.

Attitudes about women and their bodies, on the other hand, are very much her topic, and it's clear that these attitudes affect the full range of porn. Otherwise, how is what Miriam Weeks does in her spare time such a crime and offence against you?

She strikes me from her writing as having a thoughtful and deliberative intelligence, and boy how I prefer that to the tone and hatefulness of the people who are attacking her. The campaign against her smells like old-fashioned Puritanism. Here she is, calmly asserting her dignity, while those who are calling her a slut are exposing only their righteous indignation. There's nothing special about indignation on its own. You have to come up with a better argument, trolls, than "ur a slut." Your derogatory sexual slurs only show that your brain lives in the year 1642, and that you believe women are either angels or whores. Here is what she has to say about that:

It terrifies us to even fathom that a woman could take ownership of her body. We deem to keep women in a place where they are subjected to male sexuality. We seek to rob them of their choice and of their autonomy. We want to oppress them and keep them dependent on the patriarchy. A woman who transgresses the norm and takes ownership of her body -- because that's exactly what porn is, no matter how rough the sex is -- ostensibly poses a threat to the deeply ingrained gender norms that polarize our society. I am well aware: The threat I pose to the patriarchy is enormous. That a woman could be intelligent, educated and CHOOSE to be a sex worker is almost unfathomable.

Does this sound like anything familiar, such as, say, religious fundamentalism? The control, consumption, and shaming of female sexuality are all linked. Consider the coincidence of porn consumption and religious piety, and of illicit pleasure with explicit repression, both of which have been well established.

Utah for example is America's porn and Mormon capital, and hyper-patriarchal and hyper-religious Pakistan is the world's. It's the old principle of condemning in public what you crave in private, in the hope that your performance will sway the congregation. Someone should write a book about this. (Oh, wait, we covered that already.)

The term for this way of acting is hypocrisy, and it feeds upon self-loathing, repressed shame, insecurity and the anachronistic notion that women exist primarily to submit to the whims of men. Puritans of all kinds are soaked in this stuff, and as Hawthorne writes, "how utterly nugatory is the choicest of man's own righteousness."

In a separate xoJane article, "I'm The Duke University Freshman Porn Star And For The First Time I'm Telling The Story In My Words," Miriam Weeks writes that "I am going to graduate, I am going to pursue my dreams and I will hopefully galvanize change in a world wrought with gender norms and sexism. Just try to stop me." I hope that she prevails, and on precisely these terms. And I hope, as Hawthorne did over 150 years ago, that our species evolves beyond all manifestations of Puritanism and its destructive hypocrisies.