Belle Knox, Libertarianism and the politics of freedom

Image credit: New York Post

Image credit: New York Post

What pops into your mind when you think of Libertarianism? (Or Classical Liberalism, if you’re from the UK). It’s about liberty- as its name suggests. Freedom from government and moral regulation, hence its socially liberal and fiscally conservative tendencies. It’s been used to justify everything from consensual incest to legalising drugs to the Snowden leaks.

So it might seem a tad surprising that Pamela J Stubbart, a Libertarian writer and member of the Libertarian media organisation Young Voices left the organisation because they accepted ‘Belle Knox’, the Duke University student, sex worker and writer.

As you’ll already know, Knox was bullied and slut shamed for her job by her classmates, the media and online trolls after a fellow student and porn consumer outed her as an adult performer.  She spoke out to her university’s paper and XOJane under another pseudonym. Her story was unexpectedly picked up by the media and she was outed by- who else?- our very own Daily Mail, pride of the British press, because deliberately exposing a then-18 year old to increased bullying and cyberbullying, as well as potential future employment discrimination, is what today’s journalism is all about.

Hailed as one of the “finest minds in Libertarian thinking”, Pamela J Stubbart spends most of her time blogging about how to tell if your cat has OCD and what people think about your Facebook photo. Stubbart describes herself as a feminist and an atheist- not exactly the kind of ideological background you’d expect from someone who won’t touch a sex worker with the proverbial ten-foot barge pole – even when said ‘pole’ is a signal pulsing along an Atlantic cable. “I’ve been told my cultural politics are delightfully screwball,” her Twitter profile boasts. Interestingly, Stubbart is an Education Officer for the Institute for Humane Studies, whose mission is “to support the achievement of a freer society by discovering and facilitating the development of talented, productive students…who share an interest in liberty”. Obviously, in Stubbart’s view this only extends to students whose career (or perhaps sexual?) choices match up with her personal tastes. Otherwise surely she should be the first to assist Belle Knox in her development, instead of publicly (as opposed to quietly) leaving Young Voices in protest over Knox’s acceptance.

Some Libertarians disagreed with Stubbart’s choice because liberty necessarily includes sexual liberty. Others felt that the Libertarian movement should be inclusive of everyone. Some agreed with Stubbart that Libertarianism doesn’t mean supporting sex workers or being pro-porn.

So, what does this tell us about Libertarianism? Is it true that supporting the legalisation of sex work (actually, sex workers campaign for decriminalisation) is “all that’s required of a libertarian,” as Stubbart tweeted? Or does being a libertarian mean more than just supporting legal change- does it mean supporting sex workers’ rights more generally, including their right to join groups, be visible, and participate in community life?

Cathy Reisenwitz is a libertarian, writer and public speaker, as well as a Young Voices editor. For her, Libertarianism and sex work aren’t mutually exclusive. “I think shaming or ostracizing sex workers comes from the same place as central planning. It’s the idea that you know what’s best for other people,” she says. “The best part about libertarianism is its humility. It’s perhaps chief insight is this: Allowing people to pursue their own self-interest makes everyone richer. The same is true whether you’re talking about money, or bodies, or bodies and money. Being libertarian means supporting the right of sex workers to work without police abuse or imprisonment, of course. But I think it also means questioning the validity of making their lives more difficult through stigma and ostracization.” 

“A very basic idea from the libertarian ideal is that people have the right to make their own decisions, and specifically that people have personal autonomy and freedom,” says  Kaelie Laochra, a sex worker activist and blogger who tweets about respecting sex workers. “So being pissed off that a sex worker is libertarian makes almost no sense in my mind.  And being angry that someone who is a sex worker is [in] a libertarian organization makes no sense.  In fact, it makes sense to me that a lot of sex workers are in fact libertarian and that the party should be one of the most supportive of sex workers because of its stress on autonomy and pride in being self employed, self sufficient and everything else I find to be very much an aspect of being a sex worker… I think, for people who actually do follow a libertarian ideal, it is pretty much within those beliefs to be a sex worker”.

International Union of Sex Workers activist and editor of the Harlots Parlour blog Douglas Fox is a libertarian and a sex worker. He’s living proof that you can be both, and for him it makes complete sense. “While respecting individual morality, those who sell sex as a job, deserve, within the libertarian community, respect and support for having made that choice, and should not be judged on prejudice, but on their worth as individuals,” he says. “Libertarianism was born from the enlightenment, from a declaration recognising the right of man not to be subordinate to the tyranny of the state, or to dogmas that judged a man’s worth on the subjective morality of prejudice and superstition. Sex workers remain the last group of workers judged not on their worth to society but on prejudices about human sexual behaviour that hypocritically control, especially, women’s sexual choices and right to consent. In a libertarian society prejudice should hold no control over a person’s right to consent to sex, or a person be judged by their choice to sell sex. An individual’s worth should be determined by rights that value the individual, not by prejudices about their labour.”

An individual’s worth. It seems that “Should being libertarian mean being pro-porn?” is the wrong question. You don’t have to be “pro porn” or “pro sex work” to refrain from ostracising someone because they work in porn.

 

Of whorephobes, slut shamers, trolls and Libertarian voices

Stubbart might think she’s taking a stand by leaving Young Voices. But her actions aren’t screwball at all (delightfully or otherwise). Instead, all Stubbart is doing is adding her Libertarian voice to the thousands of other online bullies who are calling for Belle Knox’s advocacy to be ignored and her voice to be silenced.

Think about it. Refusing to associate with someone or isolating them is recognised by UK schools as a common form of bullying which their anti-bullying policy makes unacceptable. Boycotting Israel is a moral judgement. So are many state sanctions, or refusing to play sports with apartheid South Africa back in the day. This is an attack on Belle Knox, not Young Voices, whether Stubbart admits it or not.

Whorephobia is (unsurprisingly) hard for us non-sex workers to grasp. We were raised to hate and despise sex workers. And just in case you think I’m any better, I’m not- I used to hate ‘sluts’, too, or rather the idea of them, more than most. But if we think of other marginalised groups, we can begin to grasp how sickening whorephobia is. Imagine Stubbart living in an era when it would have been socially acceptable to do so, saying “I’m leaving this organisation because I don’t want to be associated with a lesbian, and I’m worried what homophobic employers will think of me if I’m associated with someone who is attracted to members of the same sex.” Now imagine Stubbart being alive even further back and saying “I don’t want to be associated with a black woman because racist employers will discriminate me too for not being racist”.

But wait, you might be thinking, aren’t you jumping the gun here? Pamela Stubbart didn’t mean to join the bullies and slut-shamers and whorephobes! She’s just worried about ultra-conservative employers; you’re a Brit and have no idea what the job market’s like across the pond!

To that I present Exhibit A: In another blog post she writes “I definitely am not willing to claim that [slut shaming] is unequivocally bad in general. No, no, no. We do, and should want to, live in social groups where the informal enforcement of norms (as through shaming) is the primary mode of moral discipline”. It continues with “I take a really high number [of sexual experiences] as prima facie evidence that someone may have impulse control issues and/or self-esteem issues…slut shaming per se — i.e., attempting to make someone feel bad for truly excessive sexual activity — is something of a different case. It is partially morally legitimate…slut shaming is on the moral up and up in my book.”

In the interests of balanced reporting, I’ll point out that Pamela Stubbart does say “I implore you to exercise caution: as far as I can tell, slut shaming typically occurs in cases when the alleged slut is harming no one but herself (if even that). Exercise moral caution. Is this person’s sexual behavior harming anyone other than herself? If not — and you’re not a close friend or family member — then back the fuck off.”

If only she’d taken her own advice. Because ostracising someone for doing sex work is a form of slut shaming.

This isn’t an agenda of liberty. It’s allowing the oppressors to oppress. It’s taking advantage of one’s own privelege to collude with oppressors to the ultimate detriment of one’s own freedom.

What Stubbart is saying is:

It’s not OK to accept a sex worker into an organisation.

It’s not OK to be “associated”, however tenuously, with a sex worker.

And if employers discriminate against sex workers and those associated with them, that’s OK- the problem is the existence and visibility of the sex worker.

 

And why? Because if paid sex is as empowering as giving it way for free, that’ll endanger the Libertarian Revolution? Oh no. Nothing like that, no. What Stubbart- as a self-described “hookup culture survivor”, a phrase that I find offensive considering it apes the language of child abuse and rape trauma- seeks to prevent is the collapse of the sex market, or something:

“[W]hen sexual norms are too permissive, it creates mating market collective action problems” she declares. Though apparently the Pill and watching porn are A-OK, possibly because Stubbart makes use of them, but doesn’t do sex work. Stubbart also casts doubt on whether Knox consented to perform, and believes that Knox’s choice is a moral issue (albeit one she doesn’t know about enough to judge…which means she would judge it if she ever knows enough). She goes on to say “Keeping your experiments in sexual growth small and private helps to limit their potential to damage both yourself and our normative socio-sexual frameworks. I want to live in a community where people understand and respect that we are all sexual creatures, enjoy their sexuality in pro-social or at least benign ways, and limit it otherwise.” Which is surprisingly anti-freedom and moralistic for a self-confessed Libertarian atheist!

 

Hypocrisy, Or, What Doth Unacceptable Sluttiness Make?

Another concern is that Stubbart doesn’t play by her own rules. She  describes herself as “poly curious”, saying she’s read The Ethical Slut (a book on polyamory which I also read as a student).

” [W]ith a tagline like “Fall in love. Stay in love.” I may not be your target audience,” she teased another Twitter user. It seems kind of hypocritical to say ‘It’s OK for me to be poly and a Young Voices advocate, but a sex worker? NOOOO!! I QUIT!’.

It’s also very telling that Pamela J Stubbart publicly admits to using porn. So it’s okay to be the consumer but not to be the performer? Belle Knox would be out of work tomorrow if consumers like Pamela weren’t creating the demand. Oddly enough, in 2013 she tweeted “The fact that academia doesn’t want to talk about porn seriously is evidence that it really needs to talk about porn seriously.”

For all her criticism of Belle Knox not keeping sex private, Pamela Stubbart publically reminisces about her friend being the victim of a “sex toy scam” and the time she herself “added a question about period sex to OkCupid in 2011 but much to my chagrin it was never widely answered”. Other tweets include “I hope there are sex workers on LinkedIn, with all the relevant skills endorsements” and “I’m too busy having recreational sex to read all 7 pages”. That’s not exactly keeping sex private.

 

A sex worker’s right to exist in non- sex work spaces

“Libertarian sex workers, by unapologetically affirming their labour choices, challenge hypocrisy that limits women’s sexual choices and freedoms,” says Douglas Fox.

“Libertarian sex workers, especially women sex workers, affirm a woman’s ownership of their own bodies, they challenge the state’s control of women’s vaginas.”

So maybe it’s not that surprising that libertarians who eagerly challenge state regulation but who have internalised the patriarchal double standard might still baulk at the idea of sharing an organisation with a sex worker. And whether you agree or disagree with Stubbart and Knox’s choices, one thing is undebatable: whether they’re campaigning for decriminalisation of sex work, writing about their experiences, raising their children, or just existing, sex workers are stigmatised, discriminated against and ostracised. Just for doing their jobs.

Surely the pursuit of a liberty agenda should mean fighting employee discrimination? Surely it means supporting marginalised and oppressed groups as they shout to be heard, not silencing them and punishing them for becoming publically visible?

Knox’s visibility is not even a massive victory for sex workers- Belle Knox is cis, Western, middle class and highly educated. Her father is a doctor and she attended a private school. All of this means she can- to some extent- take on her critics as one of their own, and be more acceptable to the kyriarchy than a migrant, poor, uneducated, trans, disabled, substance-dependent, (fully) non-white sex worker (Knox is mixed race), or a sex worker with a history of abuse. But even a socially acceptable, possibly unrepresentative sex worker is too much for Stubbart to allow her fellow women who happen to work in the adult industry. No, they must all be stopped, every sex worker activist, no matter how unthreatening to the status quo. Even saying sex work is empowering- a simple personal statement which doesn’t call for legal change- is a rebellion that must be put down. Stubbart wants sex work to be legal and regulated. So, sex workers can exist invisibly, marginalised in the shadows as long as they keep quiet. But they can’t advocate for the legalisation of their own industry. Or even join an organisation if Stubbart joined first.

“The value of a person is not their labour but how they conduct themselves as citizens, as human beings,” Douglas Fox reminds us. “The greatest challenge for the sex worker is how to reclaim and affirm their identity. To have their work choice recognised but not define who they are.”

Kaelie Laochra says “I’m always a bit baffled when people are angry about sex workers being involved in real world organizations, or for that matter having real opinions on anything. It may go against the image people have in their heads, ready to discount anything we say, but sex workers have the right to not only have input, but be a part of things outside of sex work.”

Belle Knox wasn’t highlighting the fact that she’s a sex worker when she joined Young Voices. She was doing Libertarianism, not sex work advocacy. She thought she would be allowed to exist, to be treated equally. That trusting assumption was her mistake- a mistake so many sex workers make every day because they underestimate the cruelty of us freebies. If you’re a sex worker, freebies will always define you by your work. That needs to change.

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  • Captain Obvious commented on August 20, 2014 at 07:17

    Isn’t this just the thick vs thin libertarianism debate being hashed out once again, this time over a very specific issue and incident? The article’s presumption is that thick libertarianism is right, and then argues on that basis without ever addressing the obvious counterpoint, except in leading questions:

    “So, what does this tell us about Libertarianism? Is it true that supporting the legalisation of sex work (actually, sex workers campaign for decriminalisation) is “all that’s required of a libertarian,” as Stubbart tweeted? Or does being a libertarian mean more than just supporting legal change- does it mean supporting sex workers’ rights more generally, including their right to join groups, be visible, and participate in community life?

    Surely the pursuit of a liberty agenda should mean fighting employee discrimination? Surely it means supporting marginalised and oppressed groups as they shout to be heard, not silencing them and punishing them for becoming publically [sic] visible?”

    So it seems like preaching the choir. What if someone just flatly rejects your premise that libertarianism entails more than simply reducing the power of the state?

  • dino commented on August 20, 2014 at 17:45

    This is an interesting (and by interesting I mean lack of reading comprehension) reading of Stubbart’s piece, which essentially says she is leaving YV because she thought Knox was simply an intellectual know-nothing. I’ve yet to see a credible rejoinder to that. Can you explain to us how getting facialized is now prima facie evidence of intellectual rigor?

  • Nixon's Revenge commented on August 20, 2014 at 17:50

    Libertarianism is and always will be the philosophy that there are things the government shouldn’t prevent, even though you personally don’t like them. If you honestly don’t see “legalize it but I don’t want to associate with it” as a legitimate middle ground—as, in fact, a libertarian position—you’re very narrow-minded.

    And you will never accomplish anything politically if your goal is not just “change the law” but “change the way everyone feels.” That’s also gross and creepy.

    Hypocrisy is also a kind of stupid and irrelevant accusation. If you don’t understand someone’s beliefs, you can always call them hypocritical. Maybe libertarians are hypocrites for wanting a Republican tax policy and a democratic drug policy. Or maybe they are just Libertarians.

    You are revelling in your inability to model your opponents as reasonable actors whose beliefs happen to be more nuanced than yours. That’s a bad habit, and a self-marginalizing one to boot.

    (Also, super-impressive work searching her twitter timeline for “sex” and quoting a bunch of old tweets out of context. Obviously a tweet about being too busy having sex to read a paper is exactly equivalent to doing choke porn on camera. The hypocrisy in treating 140 character jokes as somehow different from a sex-for-money career is just agonizing. It’s almost as bad as people who say you should eat bananas and avoid Froot Loops. Ugh, hypocrites all!)

  • Good article. Lovely seeing two of my favorite people (Cathy and Kaelie) in print.

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