U.S. News

02.24.14

Duke's Freshman Porn Starlet Isn't Ashamed—and She Shouldn't Be

After being outed for her work in pornography, a student is explaining her professional choice, but not abandoning it. Her words reveal our own unfounded stigmatization of sex workers.

That a woman could be intelligent, educated and CHOOSE to be a sex worker is almost unfathomable.

With those words in her essay last week for XOJane.com, “Lauren,” the Duke University freshman who is fast gaining notoriety outside of Durham for her porn career, caused the internet to drop its proverbial jaw.

Since coming back to Duke after her Christmas break, Lauren has been gossiped about on campus and, with greater and more threatening vitriol, online. After one of her male classmates revealed at a fraternity rush event that she had an alternative life as a porn starlet, Duke, unsurprisingly, erupted. But while male students salivated and parents blanched at the thought of a genuine sex worker being educated at pristine, prestigious Duke University, the real controversy began when Lauren told Duke's The Chronicle that acting out her porn altar-ego is “probably the most empowered I have ever felt.”

It's not so shocking that a college student strapped for cash may engage in porn—or any other number of activities—to cover her tuition and college expenses. But, to own up to her decision to do so, and take pride in her adult film career, that’s what appears to be so scandalous.

Lauren's story is a tabloid’s dream come true: a female student at an elite, preppy Southern university who voluntarily turns to the disgraceful world of pornography and (gasp!) enjoys it. “Work-study programs were never like this!” cooed the New York Daily News, which also didn't hesitate to mock Lauren for her claim that she “feels at home” in the adult film community.

Eric Owens at The Daily Caller was even more vicious, attacking not only Lauren but the The Duke Chronicle for agreeing not to use her real name or “even her adorably slutty porn name.” He seemed shocked that a woman who voluntarily participates in porn would have thought about feminism or her treatment as a human being, noting, “Lauren had much to get off her (apparently 32C) chest.” Owens also accused her of making far more than she claims to need in order to defer the costs of her $58,000 tuition. Instead, he assumes (or perhaps fantasizes) that she does a double-penetration scene every day for one week a month to make over $300,000.

Of course, nothing compares to the anonymous online comments, the kind that led Lauren to come forward in the first place. A discussion thread now over 20 pages long on the site CollegiateACB under the Duke University section began on Jan. 16 with the subject line “Freshman Pornstar” and the post “If you banged her, report in.”

What makes her story so abhorrent to people is that she is embracing her sexuality and her career in adult films.

The comments get worse from there, delving into a painfully revealing discussion of how sexual freedom is viewed within the context of feminism. The responses ranged from crude—“posting before some feminist starts shouting about 'dont slut shame!!!!!111!1! if i wanna take ten black dicks at once thats my choice and i still deserve respect!!!1!!!”— to prude—”we going to pretend like she was unaware of the social consequences of going into that business?”

But all of the negative comments share a common underlying assumption: By voluntarily pursuing a career in the porn industry, Lauren has automatically surrendered all of her rights as a feminist, a woman, and a human. From here on out, everything she has coming to her, she deserves.

Instead of just accepting her own admission, we want to hear that Lauren was tricked or coerced into her porn career or that she is ashamed and regrets her poor youthful decision. She is, after all, only 18 years old. She may grow up one day to actually wish she had done things differently, as many, many wish they had at that age. Unfortunately, while we may eventually excuse someone for driving drunk and killing people at a similar age—or at least eventually grant them a life of anonynmity—acting in porn is a “mistake” not so easily forgiven or forgotten.

Lauren actually appears to understand that quite clearly. She doesn't want people to forget that she has a career in pornography. What makes her story so abhorrent to people is that she is embracing her sexuality and her career in adult films. She is not ashamed of the self-described “rough sex” she participates in on camera and her “many sexual quirks,” nor her decision to make money for doing so.

She is not denying her behavior, and she's unwilling to beg for the public's mercy. She writes in her essay:

I, like all other sex workers, want to be treated with dignity and respect. I want equal representation under the law and within societal institutions. I want people to acknowledge our humanity. I want people to listen to our unique narratives and dialogues.

In short, she is more than fine with the title of sex worker, but she doesn't want to give up her rights, her education, or her potential career opportunities because of the stigma associated with it. And, she shouldn't have to.

The shame that society imposes on sex workers does only one thing: hurts sex workers. To form a blanket protest against pornography and those who make it does not protect the sex workers who suffer from exploitation. Instead, she writes, “Shaming and hurling names at them, the usual treatment we give sex workers, is not the way to achieve this.”

Moreover, we should not blame Lauren for wanting to have a successful adult film career. The article in Duke's The Chronicle suggests that Lauren is not just the Norma Rae of sex workers, but, perhaps, in it for the fame. Katie Fernelius wrote that Lauren “giggled and asked, 'Do you think I’ll be on Ellen?'” and “did an interview with BroBible, wrote a monologue about her experiences, and was invited to speak to classes studying sex work.” If Lauren were granting these interviews after a homemade music video went viral on YouTube, we wouldn't begrudge her for embracing publicity. But again, we expect a girl caught making porn to be ashamed and begging for forgiveness.

Lauren's challenge against her harassment as a porn actress reveals how pointless and shameful our stigmatization of adult film performers are. It hurts sex workers who love their careers and want to enjoy full lives outside of pornography. Worse, it may further hurt the sex workers who are subjugated and are too afraid to ask for help.

Lauren's openness with her porn career raises many questions, but I fear people will only think to ask the wrong ones. We shouldn't be wondering why a smart young woman with her whole life ahead of her would choose a career in porn. Instead, we should be wondering why it should preclude her from doing anything else she so chooses.