The news of a Duke college freshman being outed as a porn star raised many issues that I feel passionate, yet conflicted about. Jezebel reported that it was a class mate that betrayed the young woman’s trust, and she has since seen fit to come forward and tell her side of the story. I’ll get back to her words in a bit.
I want to start by saying that the kind of filth that people immediately began writing about her is a clear sign of our culture’s complete discomfort with female sexuality, if that sexuality is not in the explicit service of men. Boys at Duke asked for explicit information from partner’s she has slept with, and claimed that her porn work nullified her right to privacy and respect. Porn stars are whores and sluts, and those kinds of women don’t deserve to feel safe or dignified. Even if they are bright students at a top tier university.
And moreover, women cannot possibly be smart and a sex object at the same time. Many of the comments were confused: Why do sex work when you are so smart? The idea that she may enjoy it, that she made a decision and doesn’t regret it, is no where to be found. Because once you become a sex worker you cease to be a full human (sluts and whores aren’t people who deserve respect, remember?) And here is the thing: no one is asking about the morality of her viewership. Because men can consume sex without fear of judgement or consequences. Indeed, even the term ‘sex-worker’ and ‘porn-star’ are so tied to females in the cultural mind that ‘male porn-star’ is the default label for men who shoot porn. Why do we shoulder women with the burden of keeping themselves pure? Why is sex a female responsibility, something we must guard and keep clean within ourselves, denying parts of our identity that men can display and explore freely?
I’ll let her speak for herself in some of my favorite passages form her open response on XO Jane:
However, the answer is actually quite simple. 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... Of course, I do fully acknowledge that some women don’t have such a positive experience in the industry. We need to listen to these women. And to do that we need to remove the stigma attached to their profession and treat it as a legitimate career that needs regulation and oversight. We need to give a voice to the women that are exploited and abused in the industry. Shaming and hurling names at them, the usual treatment we give sex workers, is not the way to achieve this.
These words were, for me, a bit of a wake up call. I personally find most porn scenes to be hard to watch. Mainstream porn does not teach good gender relations or, for that matter, fun and healthy sex practices. However, it is not for me to say that this girl is confused or mistaken. Treating her like a child is a knee jerk, paternalistic reaction, and I had to check myself. If she feels that her experience has been empowering, well then that’s what it’s been. And it is true that not all sex work plays out this way, and those concerns or valid. But we must not treat all sex workers as victims. This is just as damaging as treating them all as a-moral sluts.
The most striking view I was indoctrinated with was that sex is something women “have,” but that they shouldn’t “give it away” too soon -– as though there’s only so much sex in any one woman, and sex is something she does for a man that necessarily requires losing something of herself, and so she should be really careful who she “gives” it to.
The prevailing societal brainwashing dictates that sexuality and sex “reduce” women, whereas men are merely innocent actors on the receiving end. By extension, our virginity or abstinence has a bearing on who we are as people — as good people or bad people, as nice women or bad women.
This quote is particularly well thought out and eloquent. Sex is not something that women ‘have’ and men ‘receive.’ It is not something women are bartering out for commitment or marriage or respect, and men aren’t brainless idiots bumbling around trying to ‘get’ sex from girls. At least, this isn’t universally true. Sex is something people share for a variety of reasons. No one is innocent in a consensual sexual experience. Each person is an actor, and all parties are both giving and receiving something. And no one has the moral high ground, because sex isn’t immoral. But for women who have ‘too many’ partners or the ‘wrong kind’ of sex or who enjoy sex ‘too much’, those transgressions are linked to their status as good or bad people. This story is as old as Eve (original sin is my favorite rage trigger) and as new as Beyonce, Miley, and really any well known woman who dares transgress into ‘too sexy’-ville. It’s fucking played out. The narrative is absurd and reductionist and hypocritical, to say nothing of it’s dangerous implications. Because if we think women who enjoy sex or have too much sex are bad, then why would be want to treat them with respect? Why should they feel worthy of non violent relationships or privacy or the right to pursue their passions? Whores can’t have passions.
Now, I feel very strongly that a lot of sex workers are in danger and coerced. But ‘a lot’ is not the same thing as all. I also feel strongly that the industry needs to re vamp itself, make different kinds of movies with more variety in terms of plot, body type, race, gender variation and overall message (everyone should be authentically enjoying themselves, and not just as a quick and exaggerated moment of foreplay), but these concerns are not in conflict with my desire to support this person’s choice to do what is right for her. I mean, I sure as hell didn’t graduate debt free. And porn work isn’t for me personally, at least not right now. But who the fuck am I, and who the fuck is anyone, especially folks who consume porn and who are sexually active but really I just mean anyone, to judge her? Her experience is her’s to have. Having sex for money is not a choice all of us would make, but if it makes you itchy you may want to ask yourself ‘Why?’ Why is it that we are suddenly uncomfortable or angry when the identity of an actor in a porn film is revealed, and the narrative isn’t what we thought it would be? Why can’t she be a college student on a prestigious campus and also shoot explicit sex scenes? If it was a male actor, how would the reaction be different? Why are we so quick to demonize female sexuality?
Remember, your feelings and concerns are valid. But so are her feelings and experiences. Your feelings do not give you the right to condemn the completely legal decisions of other adults, they don’t give you the right to be mean or disrespectful, and they don’t give you the right to throw stones from the front yards of your very own glass house. Because we all live in a glass house.
Furthermore, if you are truly concerned for her and her well being, you can advocate for the rights of sex workers to feel safe in their work place and you can work towards dismantling the system that strips them of humanity and dignity. You can also educate yourself on feminist porn, and use that knowledge to explore your own paradigms, fears and opportunities for growth. We all want to get off. But we need to start acknowledging the full-on, complex, unique and varied humanity of the folks who work to help us get there. (On and off camera.)