Why The Duke University Porn Star Scandal Is Helping Redefine Sexual Agency

Another college student, another paying-her-tuition-fees with porn scandal. When I first heard that a Duke University student nicknamed Lauren had been ‘outed’ for making adult films, my initial response was a shoulder shrug. I say that, not only as a 30-yr-old former pro-domme who wrote a schlocky BDSM memoir about my experiences, but as a sexual politics journalist and ethical porn campaigner. 

As I've worked between the U.S. and the UK, I’ve grappled in particular with the contradictions of America’s status as the biggest producer and consumer of pornography, and its paranoia about sexual morality — particularly female sexual morality. So my reaction was essentially one of expecting nothing less (and nothing more) from a country that loves to make money off of female sexuality, but cannot tolerate letting women own their own.

These may seem like petty cyberspace victories, but they are rewriting sex workers’ histories; the people who have long been the scapegoats for societal fear about the demonic force that is human sexuality. 

The American Dream of turning any kind of capital and labor into cold, hard cash has its caveats. A college girl loving her extra-curricular life in porn is one of them. 

What’s particularly disturbing about these stories — apart from the moral furore surrounding them — is the regularity of these kinds of ‘outings,' and the repeated themes that underscore each individual case: how the young women are outed (via internet gossip forums and social media); how they are forced to justify their actions; (for money to pay for something that will ‘better’ them, like their degree); and how their privacy is so grossly violated, with "every private detail about my life…dissected," as Lauren herself puts it in an open letter published by XoJane.

To read Lauren’s letter is to get a real sense of bite back. It is reasoned; it is insightful; it is unapologetic.  Apart from putting forward a cogent argument for why her experiences in porn have helped her to come into her own sexuality, she also uses the letter to name her adversaries. 

They are the feckless frat boys who can’t get their heads — or genitals — around the notion of a campus porn star. They were responsible for that first wave of gossip; the standard conservative moralisers; the patriarchy — a phrase that’s almost so unfashionable nowadays that to read Lauren straight up state that "the patriarchy fears female sexuality" is actually kind of thrilling. 

It terrifies us to even fathom that a woman could take ownership of her body. We deem to keep women in a place where they are subjected to male sexuality. We seek to rob them of their choice and of their autonomy. We want to oppress them and keep them dependent on the patriarchy. A woman who transgresses the norm and takes ownership of her body — because that's exactly what porn is, no matter how rough the sex is — ostensibly poses a threat to the deeply ingrained gender norms that polarize our society.


I am well aware: The threat I pose to the patriarchy is enormous. That a woman could be intelligent, educated and CHOOSE to be a sex worker is almost unfathomable.

There are feminists that want Lauren silenced as well; most galling of all because they should know better than anyone why the silence of women is treachery. Lauren implores them not to write her off. 

Please do not continue to make the mistake you have made in the past of ignoring the voices of minority communities. Listen. Listen to the women who have for so long been silenced. Listen to their thoughts and their needs. Only then can we achieve solidarity and true progress within our movement.

That’s the most significant thing about Lauren’s letter: Not so much her assessment of porn, politics, and female identity, but the very fact she herself expresses it — and her personal experiences, to boot — in her own words. 

Praise be to XoJane for disabling comments on her article. Finally, a woman in the sex industry speaks, and nobody gets to tell her she's deluded, damaged, or slutty for expressing herself in an unquestionably intelligent way.   


Thankfully, the frequency with which exposed sex and adult industry workers now rail against being publicly slut-shamed is increasing. Last year, former Miss Delaware Teen USA Melissa King was stripped of her title after it was discovered she’d stripped on film. She later took to Instagram to share a cheeky cake-icing covered face shot, captioned ‘Not again,' to make fun — and take charge — of her identity as a former adult movie star. 

Then there was Christina Parreira, a college student and sometimes-porn performer who it was revealed had exchanged sexts with former Pasadena college professor Hugo Schwyzer. Schwyzer was the one breaking ethics codes by sleeping with students, but she was the one exposed online. So she hit back with an article on her blog, which was soon widely syndicated around the net.

These may seem like petty cyberspace victories, but they are rewriting sex workers’ histories; the people who have long been the scapegoats for societal fear about the demonic force that is human sexuality. 

Far better that we get to read Lauren’s story, as told by Lauren. Far from being just another porn-star college student scandal, her open letter is a rallying cry for female sexual agency. And we could use more of those. 

Image: Getty Images

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