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Molecular Sex and the Duke Porn Star

The television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey deals with big subjects. One is how we came to realize the sun (and everything else) does not revolve around the earth. Another is human civilization itself: since the Big Bang (the theory for the origin of the universe), all of recorded history can be compressed into the last second of the last minute of Dec. 31 on a traditional 12-month calendar. And in the episode “Some of the Things That Molecules Do,” narrator and host Neil deGrasse Tyson describes how molecular sex may have given rise to life on earth as we know it.

If sex is so fundamental-if even molecules are doing it-why is it such a problem for us? Why does sex both repel and fascinate us?

The Dirty Business of Sex

To take the Cosmos perspective, we’ve only just recently become self-aware enough to read and write, to create laws governing our conduct, and to realize not that the universe revolves around us but the other way around. And we’ve only just begun-like a teen who knows the mechanics of sex but nothing of its potential consequences-to grapple with sex and what it means.

To take the human-scale perspective, where all of recorded history seems like an eternity, there’s one obvious reason why we think sex is a problem: It’s dirty. This unseemly biological business, the crude urge to “mate”-the very mechanism for our survival as a species-is at odds with the notion that we are human beings, not animals. We have our civilized idea of restraint, which finds expression in mainstream religion: virginity, marriage, monogamy, family.

Restraint also finds expression in our laws: We are, generally speaking, encouraged to enjoy sex, its rewards and consequences, under the legal protections and prohibitions of marriage. We are not to gratify ourselves, at the expense of our fellow human beings, without their consent. We are not to rape, pillage and plunder.

For perfectly worthwhile reasons-to prevent rape and sexual assault, for instance-we are to exercise restraint and punish those who fail to do so. But for less-than-worthwhile reasons-to assert religious authority over the prohibition of same-sex relationships, for example-our reasons for exercising restraint in matters of sex are less than clear.

Nothing illustrates this sexual tension more than pornography.

Porn: We Know It When We See It – And We See a Lot of It

Pornography, tough to define, even tougher to regulate, where once a small group of Supreme Court Justices got together in a room, flicked on the TV and came up with a definition: ” I know it when I see it.”

Pornography, now with its own academic journal, Porn Studies , a journal in which the authors seek to bring substantive research to a subject that mainstream culture seems unable to acknowledge with anything other than a grunt that “porn is bad.” Yet somehow porn gets more Internet traffic than “Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined,” as Alexis Madrigal reports for the Atlantic.

Pornography, perhaps the dirtiest and most uncivilized thing of all (depending on the genre and the line between porn and art), exists in a world where the Internet has become, as Madrigal writes, “a very efficient porn delivery machine.”

The Duke University Porn Star

Belle Knox is part of that machine. “Belle Knox” is the screen name of the freshman who revealed on XOJane.com, after a fellow classmate broadcast who she was on campus, that she was paying her tuition through her work as a porn star. Some of us felt the urge to attack and shame her, as one who produces pornography, as opposed to the millions who consume it.

Shame her they did, with tweets like this: “[Duke] should either expel her, or we will take matters into our own hands and make this f* up suffer. Cheers!” Here’s one of the more violent tweets: “You should slit your wrists and die, you stupid b*tch.”

Knox wrote, “The porn performer is to be shamed. The porn consumer is to be celebrated.” If not quite celebrated, the porn consumer certainly exists, and why the porn consumer exists in such large numbers we don’t quite know, other than the Cosmos, survival-of-the-species reason. Others might consume porn out of loneliness or the need for human connection (even if on a superficial level), or because, as some critics assert, ours has become a normalized “porn culture,” where porn is just part of everyday life, even if this part of life is carried out behind closed doors.

At any rate, porn performers like Knox arguably elevate this crude business, if not quite to a publicly accepted art form, to a form of entertainment that brings covert pleasure to those who watch it. Perhaps sex workers satisfy a need, much like entrepreneurs (or exactly like entrepreneurs), who similarly fill market needs with products and services, but who, unlike traditional entrepreneurs, do not enjoy the distinct benefit of cultural worship.

As “the Duke porn star,” Knox is like those who have been on the receiving end of a culture that is both repelled and fascinated by sex-like those charged under sodomy laws for sexual acts deemed to be “unnatural” or “immoral”-a culture whose members tweet “b*tch” and go home to fire up their Internet browsers.

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