On Sarah Coakley and Belle Knox: Pornography, Piety, and People

photoIn thinking about what to blog about, there are times when I just feel utterly compelled to write something—based on something I’ve read, an experience I’ve had, etc…—and then there are other times where I have to push myself a bit more, to really be disciplined and think through what I want to reflect on and process through (in a public forum). This is, of course, a part of what any kind of disciplined writing practice entails, I think, especially when one is in the part of the process of shifting from directed student-scholar, where one is told what to read and write about, to self-directed scholar-student, where one pursues their own interests, chooses their own texts, and moves from looming monthly to semester deadlines to the more inchoate timetables reflected by statements like “I think I’m going to take exams in August,” and “I’m planning on being done with my program by the end of 2015, but I have funding through 2016, so we’ll see…”


I got some great advice from a colleague back when I started my doctoral program, to keep a list of themes and questions that interested me, to come back to during exams and the like. At the time, I found this kind of funny, and silently judged said colleague—having to keep a list of themes and questions that interest you? My problem is that I have too many things that interest me—a list would just make that worse, I thought haughtily. I thought, at that point, that needing to keep some sort of list, rather than being a helpful organizational and recall tool, was a sign of some sort of lack of commitment to or passion about theology. Now, though, I’m feeling quite grateful that I took her advice anyways; I think the exam stage, for me, is where this is the most helpful—sometimes, when I’m trudging through, say, Calvin’s Institutes, or Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, it’s really nice to turn to a document that reminds me of some of the interests and questions I have. This list-keeping has also been handy for my blogging, and for my time management! When I see something on the facebooks that piques mScreen Shot 2014-04-03 at 9.05.40 AMy
interest, I add it to a running list I keep in a word document, oh-so-cleverly titled, “To Potentially Blog About?!” This month, as I turned to that list, two of the three stories/themes
that were at the top of it—as the screenshot below shows, ha—with asterisks beside them marking themes that I keep coming back to were Sarah Coakley and the whole Belle Knox story (the third, again, as the screenshot shows, being Divergent stuff, but I decided I wanted to wait on that one—still reading the book series!)

I say all of that as a sort of long introduction to explain the title (and content) of this blog post, which may seem like an odd juxtaposition… I was trying to decide between the two themes, and realized that, in some ways, they overlap quite a bit, at least in my mind. Before I get into that, some very brief comments about the title topics on their own…


On Coakley:


Most of the people reading this blog likely know at least a little about Coakley, who recently published the (very long-awaited and much-anticipated) first volume of her systematic theology, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity.’ Some of us here at WiT actually plan on doing a sort of roundtable blog conversation/series on Coakley and feminist theology sometime in the not too distant future, addressing her new book in particular, so I won’t go too much into detail here, but, rather, I am considering this as my own personal sort of prelude for that discussion.

I don’t plan on offering a review of Coakley’s work here (for a good thorough review of her book, check out either Teresa Wooten Daily’s piece or Joshua Brockway’s review.) Two closely related points that Coakley makes are of particular relevance for me here…

First,a, if not the, key thesis Coakley proffers in God, Sexuality,and the Self is that “desire is more fundamental than sex”(10). Coakley makes this argument based on her metaphysical and ontological beliefs about God’s nature as Trinitarian and what that means for God’s creation (read: us)—that the Trinity is “both the source and goal of human desires, as God intends them (6).

There is a lot in this thesis that I not only agree with, but also find to be particularly helpful in and for the projects of many feminist and queer theologies. In many ways, Coakley’s centering of desire in God affirms desire and with it, affirms sexuality, and embodiment, and sex. This foundational aspect of Coakley’s project strikes me as very similar in argument and tone to Rowan Williams’ essay “The Body’s Grace,” where he writes that:

The life of the Christian community has as its rationale – if not invariably its practical reality – the task of teaching us this: so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy. It is not surprising that sexual imagery is freely used, in and out of the Bible, for this newness of perception. What is less clear is why the fact of sexual desire, the concrete stories of human sexuality rather than the generalising metaphors it produces, are so grudgingly seen as matters of grace, or only admitted as matters of grace when fenced with conditions. Understanding this involves us in stepping back to look rather harder at the nature of sexual desire; and this is where abstractness and overambitious theory threaten.

Like Williams, Coakley affirms sexual desire as reflective of divine desire—or, as Daily puts it, she sees matters of Trinitarian doctrine, experiences of prayer, and matters of gender and sexuality as inexplicably intertwined, and from there “seeks to articulate a prayer-based approach to the Trinity that anchors human physical desire in divine desire…”

That being said, I admittedly think Williams is quite a bit more explicit about the significance of their overlapping/common thesis for sexuality and sexual desire, and that he gives more space to what I’ll call, for lack of better words, failures and risks in desire. Which brings me to the second point that is central to Coakley’s argument that I want to engage here: For Coakley, these “messy entanglements” between theology, contemplation, and sex(-uality) demand a sort of privileging of contemplation and worship. As she puts it, the task of theology demands “the practices of prayer, contemplation, and worship,” which, if absent, mean that “there are certain sorts of philosophical insights that are unlikely, if not impossible to occur to one” (16). While Coakley spends a great deal of time arguing for the importance of engaging with “secular” feminism and the social sciences for robust theological reflection, these arenas of knowledge are limited in what they offer if not grounded in prayer, because of the ontology of desire.

I’ll be honest (and blunt)—this really scares me… NOT because I do not think prayer and worship are important (I do), nor because I think her reflections on the telos of desire are wrong (I don’t), nor, finally, because I do not think that folks should ethically reflect upon, and have a theology and ethics of sex (I think both of these things are very, very important—so much so that I decided to pursue a Ph.D. engaging in such kinds of reflections).

Rather, this sentiment scares me because piety, assurance, and purity scare me—and seem to reflect power more than they reflect…actual piety. Which I want to talk about in a minute; but first, a little on Belle Knox.


On Belle Knox:


I’d now like to turn to a recent example in the news that illuminates some of my questions about Coakley’s claims, and that could—potentially, maybe?—say something about the possibilities of grace occurring outside the norms and practices she wants to champion?[1] Bell Knox may be a less familiar name to some folks reading this than Sarah Coakley is, though may at the very least ring a bell as someone who’s name has been in the news recently. For those unfamiliar with the story, Belle Knox’s name became common parlance for an audience quite a bit larger than those who have seen her acting… Back in February, still writing under anonymity, Knox “came out” in an xojane column as the Duke University freshman porn start, telling the story in her own words. After being outed by a frat member who, after identifying her in a video he watched and confronting her about it, promising to keep it under wraps, he instead outed her to hundreds of his frat brothers, the Duke University freshman penned a piece explaining (and defending) her experiences working as a porn actress—noting how she got into the industry for financial reasons, and how she found the work fulfilling and empowering. After that, she wrote another piece revealing her porn name and face as an act of defiance and pride after she was ostracized, shamed, told to remain silent, and “told to die” by a disturbing number of people. While there was some support in response to these pieces, it seems as though Knox has, through the whole ordeal, been an overwhelming amount of condemnation. In an interview with Huffington Post, she explains that every day has been “like a nightmare” since revealing her side employment. In addition to what seems like enough hate mail to fill the state of Texas, Knox’s privacy has been invaded, her family harassed and threatened with death, and so on and so on.


An Important Excursus:

In this blog, I have no intention of speaking to or offering any sort of constructive, prescriptive feminist theological ethical reflection on pornography. I think that would be a dissertation, and then some; and moreover, “going there”—at least in this blog post—would, I think, detract from the questions I am trying to think through and reflect on. What I will say about the matter is that the topic of pornography and feminism is hotly debated, which is also then to say that there is by no means a consensus that pornography is anti-feminist.[2] Also, it is probably important to keep in mind that pornography is not monolithic, but varies vastly in many different ways, matters of feminist-friendliness being one of them. Rather, what I am reflecting on and thinking through here, or at least hoping to do so, is quite in line with what Burrus and Moore articulate in “Unsafe Sex: Feminism, Pornography, and the Song of Songs” where they note: “Ceasing to react either with or against pornography, our reading thus sets foot in the slippery territory that MacKendrick dubs the ‘counterpleasures.’ These pleasures, which resist rather than oppose, she defines as ones ‘that queer our notion of pleasure..that refuse the sturdy subjective center, defying one’s own survival, promising the death not of the body but, for an impossible moment, of the subject…’” (40).


On Connections (or, on Porn, Piety, Personhood, and more…):

In thinking about the connections between, on the one hand, Coakley’s account of sex and the ontology of desire, and Belle Knox on the other hand, a number of themes stand out to me, which I want to explore here in this final section of this post.

Hypocrisy & Failure

Perhaps the most obvious theme to arise is that of hypocrisy—though, I also want to nuance it a little by thinking about failure as well. In her second op-ed where she reveals her porn name, Knox poignantly asks: “what about the people who consume porn?” Knox is wise to point out the hypocrisy in the vehement and condemnation that so, so many have directed towards her. First, let’s be honest, it is likely that many of these people condemning her have watched or do watch porn—while studies have varied in their statistical claims, the fact that the pornography industry is worth over 50 BILLION dollars says something.[3] Additionally, it seems like this predilection towards watching porn isn’t limited to secular liberals— a 2007 nationwide study, for instance, suggested that there was more porn consumed in conservative and religious states (Utah made the very top of the list, with Mississippi, Florida and Arizona trailing closely behind).

What strikes me in particular about Coakley’s account of desire and sex is how it seems to call for… success. Coakley’s optimism isn’t as much directed towards sex—as I noted earlier, she actually speaks very little about sex itself—but towards what contemplation is and what it is able to accomplish. Contemplation, for Coakley, can even do for gender theory what gender theory can’t do for itself. Working towards full gender equality and justice, Coakley argues:

is—to say the least—an exercise of historical, religious, and political sophistication, requiring distinctive spiritual strengths of self-knowledge and humility. It is not, then, a task best accomplished by a divestment from religious practices and traditions, as is still assumed in dominant ‘secular’ circles: on the contrary, it may be that contemplative religious practices of ‘effacement’ are precisely the enabling incubus for such reconsideration. (81).

Leaving aside her claim about secular theory demanding a divestment from religious practices and traditions (a claim that, for the record, I do not agree with), Coakley’s argument here puts enormous faith in the effectiveness of religious practices and traditions. So what does this have to do with pornography and sex?

I am guessing that, even for most of those folks who do not see pornography as necessarily problematic in toto, porn is not the ideal when it comes to sex—to sexual intimacy and desire. But can grace be found even there?

Williams is by no means pro-porn in “the Body’s Grace.” In fact, porn is one of the things he most blatantly eschews, as he cites an author who argues against pornography at the end of the essay, and as he eschews “assymetrical” sexual practices, and notes that “Solitary sexual activity works at the level of release of tension and a particular localized physical pleasure; but insofar as it has nothing to do with being perceived from beyond myself in a way that changes my self-awareness, it isn’t of much interest for a discussion of sexuality as process and relation, and says little about grace.”[4] Nevertheless, William’s begins his essay narrating the fictional tale of Sarah Layton, a young female character in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, who is “seduced lovelessly” coaxed into bed by a manipulative man, and who gets pregnant and has an abortion. Yet, Williams notes the peculiar line that the narrator of the story notes right after Sarah is coaxed into bed—how hours later, on the train journey back to her family, she looks into the mirror and sees that “she has entered her bodies grace.” Williams notes that

There may be little love, even little generosity, in Clark’s bedding of Sarah, but Sarah has discovered that her body can be the cause of happiness to her and to another. It is this discovery which most clearly shows why we might want to talk about grace here. Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God… God loves us as God loves God.

In God, Sexuality, and the Self, at least how I read it, there seems to be a sort of piety that stems from the practice of contemplation, that is part of what is transformative about it. As Coakley puts it, “the questions of right contemplation of God, right speech about God, and right ordering of desire all hang together. They…are purified in the crucible of prayer” (2, emphasis mine).

I guess I just find myself wondering, how do we understand sex and grace as it relates to an ontology of divine desire? Where and what are the boundaries by which limited, human, flawed sexual “encounters” can reflect God’s desire for us and ours for God? Can failure reflect or engender that moment of desire, even if flawed or limited—i.e. in or through something like pornography? Is there perhaps something ethical and moral, even, about exceeding boundaries, something ethical and/or moral that occurs in and through “failures” or limited means of whatever sort? Simply put, can even porn ever be a means of grace?

An Additional (Very Brief) Excursus: While there doesn’t seem to be a vast amount of theological literature out there that is pro-porn, there is some excellent scholarship that has a more positive account of pornography, however implicit or nuanced. At the end of this post, I’ve comprised a list of some of them.


The Self, Structures/Systems, & Power:

Relatedly, it seems like, in some ways, the attention to Knox herself deflects and reflects problems that are far more systemic and structural. For instance, Knox notes that, while she finds the work empowering, she got into the pornography business due to financial concerns. Additionally, it is especially interesting to note the amount and content of the vitriol that Knox has received has been incredibly sexist—while there have assuredly been critiques of the pornography industry as being sexist, a number of scholars have noted that the critiques themselves are also, and at times more, sexist (and, even more so, heterosexist); as Lynda Hart notes, “One would think that women didn’t join the feminist movements in order to have their sexual practices policed by feminists themselves.[5] Many feminists—Knox included, it seems—see certain aspects of the pornography industry as working against structural inequalities against women, and see it as empowering for female sexuality, embodiment, and autonomy. Moreover, while critiques of pornography often take structural inequalities into account, many don’t take into account pornography that subverts or exceeds these inequalities.

Relatedly, Coakley’s focus in God, Sexuality, and the Self seems to attend primarily to the individual. As Daily puts it in her review:

In effect, Coakley argues that ending gender oppression by decree only perpetuates a coercive system, thereby preventing true transformation. Instead, we can really only get to a “right” place through a spiritual practice that embodies power-in-vulnerability—through submission, purgation, and hard work. But if each of us must do this work for ourselves, how does a théologie totale translate to a societal level?

Whereas Daily thinks the last paragraph of Coakley’s text offers a bridge to this gulf between the individual and society, I am still struck by how focused Coakley’s essay is on the individual, and wonder what it might mean to think about sex, and porn, in a more systemic and structural way.


Piety, Personhood & Difference:

Finally, very briefly (because this is already quite long), is there a way—regardless of our own sexual ethic—to affirm difference, and not only allow for, but affirm, positions that differ from ours? I realize it sounds painfully individualistic and, well, capitalistic, but nevertheless, what may be flourishing and empowering for me may not be so for someone else, and vice versa. I was especially struck—though not really surprised—by the way Knox has been treated after her admission of porn stardom. If you disagree with her ethics, fine. But what about treating a person like a person, with dignity and respect regardless of their choices and how you feel about them? That seems like a more basic ethical principle to me. I know it sounds simple and cliché, and I suppose it is, but still, she’s been ostracized by everyone from close friends to complete strangers, so apparently it isn’t that simply.

While I of course cannot say or know if the vitriol that Knox has received has come from religious people, I can say that some of the most painful and isolating and osctracizing experiences in my own life have been from religious folk.[6] And I do know my experiences aren’t unique—in addition to my own experiences having connected me with folks with similar narratives, sociological research has suggested that there are a great deal of people in the U.S. who experience Christians as especially judgmental, homophobic, and hypocritical.[7] Perhaps it is that these folks don’t pray enough, and thus don’t foster the kind of spirituality and character that Coakley calls us all too—I have no doubt that this is part of it, really—but the fact that amidst her own experiences and practices, Coakley’s argument leads her to suggest that failing to engage in particular practices means that “there are certain sorts of philosophical insights that are unlikely, if not impossible to occur to one” (16), is jarring to me. Is this not its own sort of hegemony, that—even if unintentionally—engenders a sort of pride and hierarchy that can lead to a scorn towards difference, in thought and in practice? As someone who does work in queer theory, I can’t help but be wary of any call for a “new norm,” however transformative said norm might be.



Some scholarly religious texts that have a more nuanced, less-negative approach to pornography:[8]

Althaus-Reid, Marcella, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics(New York: Routledge, 2000).

Brintnall, Kent L. Ecce Homo: The Male-Body-in-Pain as Redemptive Figure (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

Burrus, Virginia & Stephen D. Moore, “Unsafe Sex: Feminism, Pornography, and The Song of Songs.” Biblical Interpretation, 11, no. 1 (2003), 24-52.

Burrus, Virginia, ed. Towards a Theology of Eros: Transfiguring Passion at the Limits of Discipline.(New York: Fordham Press, 2007).

Isherwood, Lisa & Mark Jordan, eds. Dancing Theology in Fetish Boots: Essays in Honour of Marcella Althaus Reid (London: SCM Press, 2010).

Jennings, Theodore W. An Ethic of Queer Sex: Principles and Improvisations (Chicago: Exploration Press, 2013).

Long, Ron, “A Place for Porn in a Gay Spiritual Economy” Theology & Sexuality 16 (2002), 21-31.

MacKendrick, Karmen, Counterpleasures(Albany: SUNY Press, 1999).

Mercedes, Anna, Power For: Feminism and Christ’s Self-Giving(New York: T&T Clark, 2011).



[1] Thanks to Kait Dugan for her feedback about this blog post in general, and in particular, for her assistance in helping me rein in my verbosity, particularly in this section.

[2] The literature on both sides of the debate is vast and still growing, but some places to look for feminist pro-pornography work, and “sex positivity” include: Judith Butler, “Against Proper Objects,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 6.2-3 (1994) 1-25 (see especially her section “Against the Anti-Pornography Paradigm”); Dossie Eaton & Janet Hardy, The Ethical Slut(Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009); Wendy McElroy, “A Feminist Defense of Pornography,” Free Inquiry Magazine 17, 4 (2004). Additionally, while there is not a lot of social scientific work on pornography and feminist matters (see comment at the end of note 2 below), data does seem to suggest that previous studies that claimed that women found porn to be distressing to be ungeneralizable. See Bridges et al (2003)“Romantic partners’ use of pornography: its significance for women.” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 29, 1-14. Thanks to Amanda Gesselman for this reference!

[3] Statistics on pornography saturate the internet, as a quick google search suggests. Among the many, many stats out there, this was the best link I found in terms of a compilation of some reputable data. Additionally, this was useful, simply in terms of the way it presents the numbers in infographic form. Finally, it is also important to note, as a social psychologist friend of mine who focuses on sex research pointed out to me, most studies and statistics look at and reflect porn use in men and how it impacts them because “women notoriously underreport porn usage.”

[4] I am making the assumption here (and Williams is, perhaps, also making this assumption) that pornography is always a solitary sexual experience, which, of course, isn’t always the case.

[5] Between the Body and the Flesh, 1998, p.47 See also footnote 1.

[6] Conversely, some of the best and most live-giving experiences and encounters in my life have also been from religious folk.

[7] See, for instance, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012).

[8] This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor is it to say that these scholars necessarily endorse pornography or agree with each other on the matter—rather, at the very least, they offer a more nuanced approach to it

4 thoughts on “On Sarah Coakley and Belle Knox: Pornography, Piety, and People

  1. Brandy, thanks so much for this terrific post. My narrow and limited observations won’t do it any justice, but I wanted to share them anyway. I think Knox/sex workers/porn are the leading edge of our evolving understanding of our embodiment. Its importance imho cannot be overstated.

    IMHO, it’s relevant that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” (1943) puts sex at the bottom with eating, sleeping,…..

    In his hierarchy, Maslow separated sexual intimacy from sex and put it two levels above.


    Knox’s attempt to integrate her life as a student with her craft (she’s an actress) appears very threatening to some of the male Duke fraternities. Wonder if this kid plays La Crosse. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duke_lacrosse_case

    I’ve heard “Macho-decadent,” used to describe this kind of behavior/stance. It sounds right, but I’m not fluent enough in this stuff to know for sure.

    He appears to think that his (sexual?) survival depends on expelling her from the University community. Peaceful co-existence does not appear to be an option. I’d be interested to know what this young man thinks of “big government,” aka “the nanny state,” when it comes to abortion rights, the Second Amendment,….

    IMHO, the NFL is a decent counterpoint to sex work. In both cases young people rent their bodies in risky endeavors that pay well. Their likelihood of remaining in the industry decreases rapidly with their age.

    FWIW, I got into a disagreement with @e_stoker about this and her claim was that Knox wasn’t in need, she had a full ride to another school. I don’t know if that’s accurate. Last I checked @e_stoker was not supportive of Knox or sex work. Per your post, I think we need to look at why it pays so well.

    I’m reading @melissagira ‘s http://www.amazon.com/Playing-Whore-The-Work-Jacobin/dp/1781683239 right now. So far, I’ve been very impressed.

    I don’t think it’s the place of government, to police adults who want to contract for non-procreative sex.

  2. Thanks for this. Two brief questions. Is there an inherent trap in discussing spiritual piety and assurance of grace without a power move? This sentence: “Rather, this sentiment scares me because piety, assurance, and purity scare me—and seem to reflect power more than they reflect…actual piety. ” seem to negate the possibility of an affirming spiritual practice apart from a posturing towards other nonpractitioners.

    As well, in discussing belle Knox, what I find so fascinating is the aspect of the objectified speaking. It is the gaze of pornogrraphy which is so damaging, the gaze which speaks to Jesus’s words in the sermon on the mount about adultery. Christian tradition has historically acted incredibly misogynistically in blaming women for being gazed upon, yet I wish with the affirming and empowering words of Belle Knox the cultural gaze in that moment could have questioned more the boys who outed her and their dehumanizing actions than her own life decisions (and her image as further clickbate for content). But perhaps this is just back door Puritanism…

    • Hi Wilson,

      Thanks for your questions… Re: the first question, I’m not sure I fully understand what you are getting at here, though as I think about it more, I realize that that is likely because I wasn’t very clear in the sentence that you brought up. A few (rather inchoate) thoughts that might elucidate what I was trying to get at a little more:

      I do think spiritual practices that do not posture, as you put it, towards other non-practitioners, is possible. It is not the practices, per say, that is the object of my concern, but rather the sentiment that is seemingly imbued in the presumed effectiveness or success of said practices–the assurance and purity of the way I read piety reflected, at least implicitly/in part, in Coakley’s recent work. I do think there is a way to envision and practice contemplation and other practices that risks this, at least, less…. for instance, I think the way Wendy Farley articulates contemplation and practices (See Gathering Those Driven Away or The Wounding and Healing of Desire) would get at this…

      I also want to note that I don’t think doing anything, really, “without a power move” is possible, though I realize I wasn’t explicit about that. I’m quite Foucauldian in my understanding of power–I think we all wield it to some degree, that it is everywhere, etc… (to put it quite crudely). I think I just wanted more, in Coakley, of the recognition of the power we wield, even and especially within the practices (and discourse about the practices) of “giving up power.” Does that make any sense/does that address your question?

      Re: the second question, I think I am a little confused here as well (sorry!)… I tried, in part, to redirect the critique in some respects to the viewer, so to speak, when I bring up the way in which she is harassed and yet so, so many people fuel the porn industry by their viewing habits, etc… Though, on the other hand, I also wanted/tried to complicate the narrative about what porn is and does, hence the list of books and such at the end, etc… I suppose that, while I want to acknowledge that porn does/can produce/result in an objectifying gaze, I wonder if, on the one hand, it has to, and on the other hand, if there are possibilities to question said objectification and subvert it–put another way, if there are possibilities for grace–within such an gaze.

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