Belle Knox and the Identity Monster

March 20, 2014

Pornography actress Alana Evans, being interviewed in 2008. / BushLeagueTV

At this point, the dust has largely settled on the story of Belle Knox, the Duke University freshman who, after being outed by a fellow student as a pornographic actress, took to the Web like a crusader riding for Jerusalem. In a rambling but emotive blog post, she made herself a powerful symbol of every woman who has ever sought liberation by performing blowjobs for cash.

Much response focused on “our degraded culture,” that worn and tendentious trope. But some critics made the essential connection between Knox’s liberationist claims and the tripwire of “choice feminism.” In her insightful commentary, Michaele Ferguson sees Knox’s honey trap for what it is: a means to head off detractors who would “tell her that she isn’t empowered, in control, and free to make her own choices.” The appeal of choice is obvious, but as Nancy Hirschmann has argued, not every woman’s preference—in her example, for stay-at-home mothering—is beneficial to women’s empowerment in general.

Yet, amid all the chatter about Knox, little attention has turned to what may be the most revealing element of her defense. Her insistence on unfettered choice easily slips into an assertion of absolute sovereignty over identity. Challenging her online harassers, she writes:

Society may feel like they are in control of my identity, but I refuse to let the dark corners of the Internet determine my future. . . . 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.

In fact, there is little truth here. Knox’s own case demonstrates the falseness of sovereign identity. She admits that she never intended to reveal her secret and did so only after others had already done it for her. Then, suddenly, it was her choice to be an empowered sex worker who wanted the whole world to know. Her politicization came as a result of outside pressure. What she claims as a wholly self-actualized identity was, if not exactly imposed on her, at the least a response to social constraint. Yet many readers of Knox’s manifesto—particularly, from the looks of it, recent college graduates who’ve imbibed the most simplistic concepts of gender theory—congratulate her on Facebook and in comment threads for being her own pure self.

A laissez faire approach to identity may seem like an avenue toward justice and liberation, but it can never take us all the way to either.

Forgotten here is that social constraint is an inescapable feature of identity. Identity is bounded by the options society allows. Even the opportunity to adopt a novel identity is linked to the privileges that accrue to certain identities and not others; in our society sharply delineated on the basis of race, only white people can claim such flexibility. And those, such as Knox, who push hardest against received identities inevitably form self-definitions by reference to the social expectations they believe do not apply to them. Her case only goes to show that society is always there first, impossible to avoid.

A laissez faire approach to identity may seem like an avenue toward personal liberation, even toward justice for the oppressed, but it can never take us all the way to either. To profess an identity is always to play by the rules. And the game is open to all. Though identity has traditionally been a concern of the left, today “religious liberty” advocates exploit the terms of identity to promote a homophobic agenda. The nascent men’s rights movement decries the sacrifice of masculine identity on the altar of feminism. Diversity, a treasure of identity politics, has been affirmative action’s zealous undertaker.

In some respects, identity politics is a monster the left has unleashed upon itself. It has been the left’s version of the hyper-individualism so often located on the right. Whereas conservatives have emphasized the individual’s unassailable right to agency, the left has celebrated an unassailable right to be whoever you want to be, on your own terms. But the right has caught on: when everyone must be allowed to establish their own identities and demand universal respect as a result, everyone will find some grievance to justify their claims against the state and each other.

Given that identity politics trades on the cherished language of individual choice, it is no surprise that it has flourished in America, while other leftist commitments—to fairness in the economy and the justice system, to a more pacifist foreign policy, to high-quality public education, to racial integration—have foundered. Identity is something that both libertarians and the left can embrace, creating a powerful coalition.

Arguably that coalition has had some success. For instance, sexual minorities enjoy civil rights today as never before, even if there is further work to be done. But is that a function of a newfound acceptance for formerly outsider identities, or is it a product of moral persuasion, the forceful argument that all people, regardless of their identities, should enjoy certain fundamental rights?

Which is to say, perhaps the left can ease up on identity politics without abandoning the methods that have been so vital to the advancement of civil rights. And at the same time, it could renew its focus on the political-economic critique that is the true heart of its message.

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