Many of us have done things that we regret, but unfortunately for Mia Khalifa, a choice she regrets went viral.
The 27-year-old social media mega-influencer and sports commentator had a brief stint in the adult entertainment industry that “haunts her to this day.” Mia was 21 years old when she was approached by a man who told her she was beautiful and should try nude modeling.
Mia said, “I struggled my entire childhood with weight, and I never felt attractive or worthy of male attention… I lost about 50 lbs, and the first thing to go were my breasts. Once I got implants, I started garnering all this attention from men. And after feeling the validation and compliments for the first time, I didn’t want it to go away.”
After feeling the validation and compliments for the first time, I didn’t want it to go away.
Mia wasn’t in it for the money (she only made $12,000 before taxes, whereas PornHub has made an estimated $50 million from her videos alone), and she definitely wasn’t in it for the fame. Mia never thought her videos would go viral. She told Lance Armstrong in an interview on his podcast, “If anyone finds out, if my parents find out, this would ruin my life. The way I rationalized it was, there is so much porn out there, there is no way anyone is going to see me.”
I asked if she ever felt like she was doing something wrong. "Yeah. The whole time," she said. "Anytime that validation would go away, and I would be left alone with my thoughts, I knew in my heart of hearts that I was doing something wrong. But it was very hard to say no to that short confidence boost."
Three Months, or So She Thought
If you were to come across her content, you would think that Mia Khalifa is a seasoned porn actress with a long career. But the opposite is true. The companies she worked with have repeatedly republished her videos every time she has trended in the news, giving the false perception that she's still actively making porn. In reality, she only made 12 videos over the course of three months. Then, she left the industry for good, but not before making one of the most controversial pornographic videos of all time — her infamous hijab video.
Mia’s experience is a cautionary tale of how the porn industry preys on young girls’ insecurities and banks on their inexperience to pressure them into doing scenes they’re not comfortable with. When Mia was asked to shoot a video in a hijab, she told the men in charge, “You’re going to get me killed.” The producers in the room just laughed.
The Hypocritical Outcry
Immediately, the backlash started. Muslims were particularly outraged, and ISIS supporters began calling for her beheading. On Twitter, a user posted a photoshopped image of her face on a beheaded ISIS victim. Ironically, the same people calling for her execution were also the biggest consumers of her content. Statistically, Muslim countries are the biggest consumers of porn.
I get grabbed by men who think they’re entitled to me because they’ve seen me do certain things on the internet.
When she was making the videos, she had no idea of the global (or personal) impact they would have. After quitting porn, she tried integrating back into everyday society. She got a normal job. She changed her hair. But her experience around male co-workers was confirmation of a new reality: life would never be normal again.
“I don’t leave my house,” Mia told me as we sat down for an interview in downtown Los Angeles (below). “I get followed to my car. I get grabbed by men who think they’re entitled to me because they’ve seen me do certain things on the internet.”
Several years after leaving the industry, the companies she filmed with are still making millions off her videos, presumably due to contractual rights Mia signed over at the time. They’re still using web URLs with her name to market her videos.
What Responsibility Does the Porn Industry Bear?
The porn industry has attacked her for speaking out against it, with many saying she should be “grateful” for the stardom she got. The dismissal is driven by jealousy from other performers and greed from producers.
This isn’t just a story about a woman who “made a mistake.” Mia has been taking responsibility for her choices and trying to move on. She's held other jobs much longer than her short time in the adult industry, but no one ever seems to acknowledge that. We can’t ignore an industry so steeped in exploitation that it allows child pornography to be streamed through its sites. There’s something very wrong with a culture that thinks we should be able to lay all the blame at the feet of women who made choices she regrets, while ignoring the toxic culture that led them to those choices in the first place.
Her Viral Petition, Largely Thanks to Gen Z TikTok Users
But for all the terrible people out there, there seem to be quite a few who actually care. Mia's Change.org petition, demanding that her domains be put under her control, and the video rights returned to her, has garnered over 1.7 million signatures in less than two weeks, largely thanks to users on TikTok, where she boasts over 9 million followers.
Have We Given Up on Redemption Stories?
"No one wants to let you move on from your past," says Mia. "They think they have an upper hand on you because you made a mistake that's out there for the world to see."
Most of us aren’t being judged for what we did for three months out of our entire lives, but that’s what Mia’s living with every day. It seems like nothing she does is good enough. The men yelling at her are the same men clicking on her. This seems to be the trend nowadays.
We used to want to hear the stories of people who had been down on their luck or made bad choices, but were able to realize the error of their ways and turn their life around. In a way, it’s the American story: redemption, forgiveness, and freedom.
No one is perfect, so we need a world where we can be forgiven if we’re willing to change after past mistakes.
But the culture today is not interested in forgiveness or redemption. You say one wrong thing on Twitter, and your entire career and lifetime of achievements are moot. Or, if you’re a woman who makes a choice you think is empowering but later realizes it was incredibly harmful to you, you’re not allowed to move past it.
Has our culture become so distorted that we no longer value people changing and growing for the better? No one is perfect, so we need a world where we can be forgiven if we’re willing to change after past mistakes. I wouldn’t want to live in a place where my entire life was judged by my most shameful action, so we shouldn’t be so quick to cast stones at others who have more "visibly" messed up than we have.
Casting Stones Is a Hypocrite's Game
There‘s a certain dark pleasure we seem to take in destroying another person’s life for their sins, but we would be much better served by setting our own house in order first. We should listen to people who have been able to recognize their mistakes because it gives us something to learn from without having to make the same mistakes ourselves.
Mia has moved on; it's society that doesn't want her to. And I'm not referring to the extremists. I'm referring to the "civilized world." If the ones who watch her on their porn site of choice were to accept her mistakes and see her as a normal human being, maybe they'd be forced to let go of their degrading view of her and the warped pleasure it brings. If the judgemental ones were to accept her mistakes, perhaps they'd lose the feeling of moral superiority and be forced to look inward at their own faults.
Despite All This, Mia Continues To Push Forward
Mia's hosted multiple sports shows, developed apps, engaged in activism, and built a social media empire with over 30 million followers across several platforms. She liked a man's Instagram photos 17 times and flew to Sweden, where he lived, to meet him (and of course, made other plans because you never know). Now she's married to the man who won her over with his expert culinary skills, and they live a relatively quiet life that involves a lot of cooking, pilates, and Postmates.
I'll have you know, she's also a really funny person, and I'm glad I got to sit down with her for an afternoon. I could be one of the few people in the world who didn't know Mia by her viral videos, and I'm so glad I got to see her for who she is. It may be shallow, but the first thing I noticed about her was how incredible her skin is (which I was surprised by since she zoomed in on her pimple a couple of days before our interview on her IG stories). But yeah, her skin is #goals.
We talked about our favorite makeup. We talked about our favorite foods. We bonded over our love for Hans Zimmer's music. We talked about marriage and our future kids, about her passion for therapy and the wonderful impact it's had on her life. Mia was quick, charming, and incredibly bright. She should really have her own show. In fact, just Mia signed with talent agency powerhouse CAA, so maybe she will.
In a world that's almost excited to cancel people, let's be the change. If someone regrets her mistake, let's let her move on. None of us want to be judged by our lowest moments. Look at everything Mia has accomplished in the last six years. Look at how happy she and her husband are. If we never let people move on from their past, we'd never have some of the most iconic people in history.
Video by Patrick Dwyer
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