Millions of people around the world have signed a petition seeking “justice” for former adult film actress Mia Khalifa, sparking greater conversations about the predatory nature of the porn industry, and the contracts that take advantage of people, and in particular, young women.
It also opens up a conversation about “redemption”, and how we give people, primarily men, more chances to redefine themselves and redeem themselves than we do to women to put the past behind them and move forward.
I think of Monica Lewinsky, whose name is only ever mentioned in regards to the "scandal" in the White House, in which former President Bill Clinton used his position of power over an intern, only to come out of the situation unscathed.
Lewinsky was completely torn apart in the media, being scrutinized more than the actual sitting President, to the point where she was relentlessly bullied and used as a punch-line for decades.
I also think of Kim Kardashian, which say what you want about her, (granted there is a lot to unpack here), she is still subjected to people bringing up her sex tape in nearly any conversation around social justice work she is doing.
On a similar thread, Khalifa, who is now married, a sports show host, a Twitch streamer, a Youtuber, and more, is still defined by 3 months of her life from over 6 years ago.
She has always been open about her experiences in the industry, but has recently become a Tik Tok star, creating a widespread network of support in response to her openness about the same struggle: trying to move forward, but being held in the past.
According to Khalifa, she only made $12,000 for her career which lasted only three months, after being pressured into entering the industry in the first place.
To this day, she says that she faces dissociative flashbacks, and regularly attends therapy to deal with the trauma she endured in the industry, and as a result of the death threats and hate she continues to receive due to the inability to get her videos removed.
She wrote on Twitter: "I just want B*angbros to stop actively putting me in harm's way by promoting my 6-year-old videos like they're new, making millions of ppl think I'm still active.The death threats are emotionally crippling, I haven't felt safe even going to the grocery store alone in years.”
There’s undoubtedly multiple layers to understanding the industry, and it’s important to recognize that dualities can exist -- that some people may wish to enter sex work, or see it as a way to pay their bills, and others may face pressure or just be flat out trafficked into the industry.
What matters here is the ability of those involved to do it safely, consensually, and of their own free will.
Khalifa’s story is indicative of the way that racialized women are often exoticized, humiliated, or degraded for their sexuality or for being sexual beings, and then not given space to re-write their story or define themselves by something different, while continuing to be interrogated even years later.
Women are simultaneously hyper-sexualized for their bodies, and then shamed for having a sexuality.
Conversations about sex and porn are considered extremely taboo, yet the high profits of the industry shows that many people who will be the first to call a woman an insult for participating in the industry, are also the same ones who are clicking on their content.
If we refuse to normalize these conversations, it also enables the predatory nature of the industry to continue and to remain unchecked, and it pigeonholes those who want the chance to tell a different story, or to tell multiple stories at once.
Khalifa has discussed in interviews how it was often many of the men who were sending her death threats or hate mail that were the ones viewing her videos online.
Similarly, online platform OnlyFans subscriptions have skyrocketed -- yet at the same time, those secretly subscribing would be the first to denounce women they know if they found out they too were trying to profit off of the way the world sexualizes them in every possible way.
Khalifa posted a Tik Tok, saying that she regularly dissociates because she remembers that hundreds of millions of peoples only impression of her is based off of three uncharacteristic months of her life.
Three months of her life have now come to define her entire existence, and a predatory industry that does not allow for her videos to be removed, keeps her in the past.
For men in the spotlight, making “mistakes” that involve predatory or racist behaviour is almost a rite of passage that is almost always forgiven. But for people like Khalifa, it’s impossible to try to be taken seriously because people will attempt to diminish her worth as a result of her past.
Khalifa has been outspoken about social issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement, yet her fans have been quick to point out that still, it is her past that continues to be brought up in these conversations, as a way to invalidate and silence her voice.
Being a woman in sex work does not invalidate your contributions to society, both while you are in or out of the industry.
Multi-layered identities can and do exist. If as a society we are going to try to push past respectability politics and deciding who is and isn’t worthy of respect and safety based on who they are -- we need to advocate for people regardless of their line of work.
In any case, shaming someone or continuing to put them down as a result of something they did with their own body, is a way to try to write people off, invalidate them, and limit their ability to grow and transform.
We often see predatory men or people who have previously been hateful, racist, or homophobic being given a second chance, or still having a thriving career despite doing awful things, yet the same grace isn’t extended to people like Khalifa, who is simply trying to re-write her story and have a fresh start.
The petition, which currently has over 1.7 million signatures, is calling for “her domain names be returned, her videos be removed and fairly discussed in court without putting Mia Khalifa into deep financial ruin. Mia has stated her regret for her decisions in the porn industry multiple times.”
Two things can be true at the same time, and just because her story includes a few chapters that she may not be proud of, doesn’t mean she doesn't deserve her chance to start off with a fresh page.