Point of View

Porn stars and stigmas: A Duke student's (possibly naive but not dishonorable) choice

February 27, 2014 

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ONUR HAZAR ALTINDAG — Getty Images/iStockphoto

Duke University is buzzing about an interview in the campus paper that revealed to the world what every student already knew. A freshman is a porn actress. Someone (of course) recognized her.

“Lauren,” as she calls herself, saw a boost in her professional Twitter feed over winter break, when online bullying commenced. I’ve heard (I don’t know this student myself) that she’s been harassed in her dorm and as she makes her way to classes and the cafeteria.

In the online magazine xoJane, “Lauren” elaborated. “I couldn’t afford $60,000 in tuition, my family has undergone significant financial burden, and I saw a way to graduate from my dream school free of debt, doing something I absolutely love. Because to be clear: My experience in porn has been nothing but supportive, exciting, thrilling and empowering.”


So is this a story about the new feminism, “Girls” for the pre-professional set? I think something deeper is afoot. Our views on sexuality and morality are swiftly changing even as our culture stubbornly limits what is allowed in the realm of female sexuality.

Upon enrolling at Duke, every student signs the Duke Community Standard and promises to conduct herself “honorably and responsibly” in all activities as a Duke student. Lauren, to my knowledge, has never identified herself as a Duke student professionally. An adult, she has committed no crime. But the DCS language is broad enough for some to interpret her off-campus activities as a violation.

“Honor” is a tricky concept. Someone can engage in behavior that’s perfectly legal but still be considered dishonorable (on Wall Street or a porn shoot). In many places in the world, to be “dishonorable” when it comes to sex can cost your life. In parts of the Middle East, for example, women are killed because they violated an honor code by refusing to enter an arranged marriage, having sex outside marriage or being raped.

Writing on women’s rights in South America in the 1980s, I was shocked to learn that a woman who was not a virgin could not legally be raped in some countries. She was considered without honor since she’d had sex. Thankfully, those laws have changed.

Men are also subjected to honor codes. In Putin’s Russia, men sleeping with men is a crime. Putin’s defenders say this reflects the views of the Russian people that homosexuality is immoral. A terrifying video released by Human Rights Watch recently showed thugs beating and humiliating people they identified as gay – and for that reason without honor.

The abuse Lauren faces in Durham is not physical, though the online commentary is predictably revolting. Lauren has every right to make a legal living in whatever profession she chooses. While Lauren is a student, the university has a responsibility to protect her from physical harm.


But no one can shield her from stigma. In some ways, Lauren’s activity is nothing new: sex for pay. Her brand (and yes, I watched a bit) is choreographed and entirely run-of-the-mill, meant to appeal to precisely the prospective fraternity brother who Tweeted her identity to his peers. Americans consume unprecedented quantities of porn even as they shame those who perform it.

Lauren claims to lean libertarian, is a feminist and aspires to be a human rights lawyer. Judging by her writing, she is intelligent and self-possessed. She is also very, very young. The rights activist in me defends her freedom to perform even as the teacher and mom in me fear that she is profoundly naïve about porn, as regimented in some ways as any factory floor.

Lauren has actively sought attention, and it’s entirely predictable that the young men who see porn as part of the party scene recognized her. For Lauren, when she applies to law school or for a job – or when she meets the future in-laws or when her children surf whatever the Internet will become – “Belle Knox,” one of her professional personae, will be there.

Maybe in the future the stigma around sex and naughty bits will abate. Perhaps porn itself will shed its tiresome and in many ways misogynist predictability and become a more inventive medium.

But as former congressman Anthony Weiner can attest, that day has yet to arrive.

It’s one thing to have the right to do something. It’s another to call it advisable. The rest of Lauren’s life will be shaped by her decision to enter this industry. I can only hope that she has the fortitude and luck to make her choice a strength.

Robin Kirk co-directs the Duke Human Rights Center.

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