Young Folks: Sex and Age in Duke University’s Belle Knox Affair



In February, Duke University freshman Miriam Weeks identified herself as the porn star that has gripped the imagination college campuses and various social media platforms. Using the moniker “Belle Knox,” Weeks reportedly developed this performative identity to pay off her college tuition.

During Christmas break Weeks received a plethora of friend requests from male Duke students on Facebook, according to a recent article in the “Huffington Post.” Weeks linked this to sharing her alternative identity to a student in a fraternity. Rather than let others divulge her real name and physical appearance, Weeks identified herself in The Chronicle, Duke University’s official school paper. She also published a series of controversial pieces on “XoJane,” an online lifestyle magazine with a largely female demographic.

In one of those pieces, “In Defense of My Kink,” Weeks associates her alternative identity with feminism. The freshman meditates on personal experiences and launches into genuine defenses of the pornography industry and so-called sexual deviancy in general. Weeks’ intentions are difficult to ascertain; she seems to thrive on attention and abrasiveness. She also gets caught up in semantics—about feminism, gender roles, and issues of “submission” and “dominance.”

Weeks determines that feminism does not dictate cultural parameters for progressive-minded women. Rather, it creates the opportunity to appraise “canonized ideas of gender.”

Of course, responses to Weeks’ means of economic progression and ways to justify it are deeply problematic. Some bloggers suggest that she should commit suicide; others throw around words like torture, rape, and murder. In most instances, her age is attached to these words and actions.

And she’s only 18.

Age is bigger than words as complex as “porn star,” “adult film actress,” or “sex-positive feminist,” as Weeks describes herself. Age creates the difference between innocence and experience; it structures our laws and contextualizes how we see others and ourselves. It’s the reason why being a freshman in college is unlike being a senior in college; it’s the reason why we prioritize getting passable fake I.D. cards, hoping to indulge in the one activity that is legally contained by age. Weeks is only a freshman and, regardless of her reasons and motivations, she’s still barely legal. Only 18.

But it’s also the oldest story in our pop culture landscape.

In 1998, Britney Spears released the record-selling ten pop single, “…Baby One More Time.” The single’s official title cut off Spears’ catchy and recurring refrain in tune: “Hit me baby one more time.” She was 17-years-old when she released the track. She was also that age when she filmed the music video for the track, in which she danced around a high school wearing a scrunched up blouse—undershirt conveniently exposed. Four years earlier, R&B singer Aaliyah released the LP “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.” She was 12-years-old when she signed onto R. Kelly’s label to produce this record.

Young actors, too, are caught up in these connections between publicity, youth, and sexuality. There’s Lindsay Lohan. And, though she’s now performing on the Oprah-backed eight-series documentary “Lindsay,” she first became a household name back in 1998, when she was 12 and had starred in “The Parent Trap.” In post-Lohan Hollywood, other child stars create tabloid journalism: the Olsen twins, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, the Jonas Brothers, Willow and Jaden Smith. The list continues; the standard remains the same. Modeling is not out of the question, either. British model Kate Moss ushered the “heroin chic” movement in 1993, when her face and willowy limbs promoted Calvin Klein underwear. She was only 19.

Youth is a means of capital in films, music, and other visually based mediums. Weeks is caught up in the old adage: sex sells. It sells variants of feminism and, nowadays, the guarantee of a college education. And, strikingly, that sex is also younger and more fertile. What happens when a child entertainer understands that he or she is also a tool for economic progression? What are the dangers of throwing sex—with its complications, growing pains, and heartbreaks—into that realization? What about the generation that is raised on this association?

Sure, Weeks is paying her tuition at Duke, which is estimated at $45,620 without room and board according to the university’s website. Sure, Weeks is spreading her perspective on feminism, sexuality, and independence. And that’s a beautiful thing. Sex sells because it’s also ubiquitous and we’re all proof of that.

But her age is a daunting, looming thing, especially when it causes men and women in her age group to ridicule, threaten, and objectify her. But which came first: that response, which seems to represents conservatism and denies sexual expression, or Weeks’ impulse to record the ways in which the body seems to create economic and philosophy agency?