*Editor’s note: The sources’ names in this story were changed to protect their identities. The stage name of the first-year porn star was also changed so that it could not be traced back to her true identity.
How fast is the Internet? In the United States, information travels at about 8 megabytes per second. An email is sent in the span of 0.2 seconds on average, faster than the blink of an eye. A text message is even faster. That’s the speed between “send” and “sent,” between almost and permanent—because as parents, teachers, potential employers and public service announcements have warned us, the Internet is forever.
For a first-year woman at Duke, a half-second Google search transformed her from Lauren*, a college Republican and aspiring lawyer, into Aurora*, a rising porn starlet.
But, in the lyrics of the Tony-winning musical Avenue Q, a more appropriate mantra for cyberspace has also emerged: the Internet is for porn. With an estimated 450 million visitors each month, porn sites account for 30 percent of all data transferred across the Internet. Accordingly, it comes as no surprise that the pornography industry generates more than $13.3 billion in revenue in the U.S. alone. In both China and South Korea, the amount of money generated by the porn industry is twice as large.
At a private, top-10 university like Duke where the full cost of attendance is steadily creeping to $60,000 a year, Lauren said she turns to the adult film industry to help supplement her financial aid.
Mark Spiegler, one of the leading talent agents in the adult film industry, said that for female porn stars, $800 is typical for a girl-girl scene, $1,000 for guy-girl, $1,200 for anal sex and upwards of $4,000 for double penetration. If a woman were to film one heterosexual scene a day for one week every month, she would earn an annual profit of $84,000 and easily place herself in the 70th percentile for income in America.
Cognizant of these facts and facing a tuition bill of more than $20,000 a semester, Lauren opened up her Internet browser and indulged in a Google search with more than 429 million results:
In less than a half-second search, Lauren opened herself up to a new identity typically reserved for the droves of aspiring actresses in Los Angeles—that of a porn star.
Two days after receiving a text message from a friend about the “freshman porn star,” I decided to reach out to her on Facebook and ask to meet.
I was nervous about being so forward and immediately regretted messaging her. I realized that my message exhibited an attitude of entitlement to information that was not mine to have—an attitude encouraged by the public nature of the Internet. I was surprised, however, when a few moments later I was greeted by her enthusiastic response. Not only did Lauren respond to me within three minutes, but she said she had “a lot to talk about!”
We set a time and place for the next day to grab lunch. That night, I could barely sleep. I kept sitting up in the middle of the night to scrawl down a new question for her in my bedside journal.
The next day, I stood outside The Loop Pizza Grill, feeling like how someone must before a blind date—blithely looking around trying to decipher any hint of profile picture familiarity in the strangers that walked past.
Gothic Wonderland & Pornland
“Hey, are you Katie?” she asked, walking up and gathering her hair on one side of her neck. She was wearing the standard garb of many Duke women: a cotton, blue V-neck and lululemon yoga pants with a North Face jacket tucked underneath her arm. In shuffling past her on the plaza or sitting next to her on a bus, one would never suspect that Lauren was, in fact, involved in the adult film industry.
In talking to her during the meal to come, I hardly believed it myself. She talked of her dismissal of sororities—“it’s a toxic environment”—political beliefs—“Republican, but I identify more as a libertarian”—and her studies—“proud women’s studies and sociology double-major.”
Lauren said she travels to Los Angeles during breaks to shoot adult films. Her travel is paid for by her agent at Matrix Models. Lauren does not disclose how much she is paid per shoot, but during the course of our month-long correspondence she does not hesitate to show off to me her recently-purchased iPad mini and array of designer handbags.
Lauren’s parents still do not know of her involvement in the porn industry. During winter break, she told her parents she had an additional final exam at Duke so she could fly to Los Angeles for a week of filming before flying home.
Inevitably, our conversation veered toward the discussion of her identity, especially as a woman. I naturally was curious if she saw her womanhood differently in the porn industry than on Duke’s campus.
“For me, Lauren is nerdy, she’s intelligent, she’s aspirational,” Lauren said. “So is Aurora—but she’s sexy and innocent, too. She gets to be more open than Lauren, more vulnerable. I feel totally and completely myself as Lauren and as Aurora. An alter-ego is liberating. It’s probably the most empowered I have ever felt.”
Having an alter-ego has allowed Lauren to find a home that she has not been able to find at Duke. Although she said her first experience of filming an adult film was awkward and uncomfortable, she quickly realized there was no reason to be self-conscious since she was in the company of people who had acted in and filmed these situations before.
“I have always been a very sexual person, and I’m also bisexual, but I haven’t ever felt really welcome,” said Lauren. “But when I’m in Pornland, I feel at home. This is where I’m meant to be, with these people who love sex and are comfortable about it.”
The same cannot be said for Duke culture, in Lauren’s viewpoint.
“I feel like girls at Duke have to hide their sexuality. We’re caught in this virgin-whore dichotomy,” she said. “Gender norms are very intense here and I feel like that’s particularly carried out by frats. I think that being a woman at Duke is extremely difficult. I think that being a sexual woman at Duke is extremely difficult.”
When I asked her if she identified as a feminist, Lauren enthusiastically said she was, but identified many issues with it."To be perfectly honest, I felt more degraded in a minimum wage, blue-collar, low paying, service job than I ever did doing porn." —Lauren
“I think the thing lacking in feminism is that women are making decisions for other women,” she said. “If the patriarchy is about men making decisions for women and taking away their agency, why do some feminists want to control other women’s decisions?”
This recognition of Lauren’s love of her sex work and the sexism in the pornography industry puts a contemporary feminist between a rock and a hard place: Is it better to support the radical autonomy of a porn actress like Lauren or is her participation an affirmation of an inherently sexist system? Such criticism of porn as degrading seems unwarranted to Lauren.
“I worked as a waitress as a job for a year in high school and not only did it interfere with my school where I was barely sleeping and wasn’t doing my work, but also I was making $400 a month after taxes. I felt like I was being degraded and treated like s—t. My boss was horrible to me,” Lauren said. “For people to tell me that doing porn and having sex, which I love, is more degrading than being a waitress and being somebody’s servant and picking up after somebody and being treated like a lesser, second-class citizen, that literally makes no sense. To be perfectly honest, I felt more degraded in a minimum wage, blue-collar, low paying, service job than I ever did doing porn.
Ideally, I would agree with Lauren. Feminism should concern a respect for the autonomy of individuals of all identities, but I think it is problematic to view issues of feminism in a vacuum without regard for the systems that perpetuate sexism."You’re right, all the directors are male…. If anything, that means I need to go in there and I need to change it." —Lauren
For instance, the word “pornography” itself carries a problematic history. While pornography comes from the French word pornographie—literally defined as writing or paintings depicting prostitutes—the Greek root porne means “bought, purchased.” Such etymology can be problematic as it insinuates the commodification of bodies—particularly female bodies.
Gloria Steinem recently said in an interview with Jennifer Aniston, “Porn means female slavery. Erotica is something quite different. Eros means love and free choice. But the combination of the right wing suppressing sex education in the school and the availability of pornography is making pornography into sex education. And it’s really very dangerous.”
The sexist history of pornography is only emphasized by current industry power dynamics. Women directors are rare and Matrix Models is almost entirely male-run.
When asked how she feels about working in a male-dominated industry, Lauren asserted that this only shows the importance of having women invested in the inner-workings of the adult film industry.
“Feminism to me means advancing my personal liberty, my opportunity in the world, while also championing my body and my right to choose what to do with my body,” Lauren said. “For people who say that porn is inherently degrading, that’s wrong. First of all, everything we do is consensual. We are not coerced in any way. Second of all, you’re right, all the directors are male, there may be two female directors in the entire world that are porn directors. If anything, that means I need to go in there and I need to change it.”
When private becomes public
If the Duke social scene was an ecosystem, I would be many substantial steps down from the top of the food chain. I avoid fraternity parties like the plague and can barely name the “Key Three” sororities. If a rumor like this one gets to me, it can be reasonably assumed that the entire campus knows. By the time that I heard about Lauren, the moment I said, “Did you know” someone would finish, “about the freshman porn star?”
At Duke, rumors can travel various routes. What my parents called traveling by “word of mouth” is more appropriately translated for my generation to “word of text message.” With the advent of popular social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, as well as anonymous forums like CollegiateACB, there are many avenues for student gossip to proliferate.
In this case, there are two competing narratives of origin. Lauren said it all started with first-year Thomas Bagley watching porn and noticing that one of the actresses looked oddly familiar, almost exactly like Lauren. At his next fraternity rush event, he divulged this discovery to the older brothers and the news took off from there. It was the climax heard ‘round campus. Bagley said Lauren was walking with him to a pre-game and admitted her secret. She begged him to keep it private and he agreed, but he broke his promise at a rush event that evening.
These facts remain consistent between the two: on Friday, Jan. 10, Bagley revealed Lauren’s porn identity at a rush event for a fraternity, and by Saturday, January 11, Lauren had received more than 230 new friend requests on Facebook and a rapid influx of followers on Aurora’s Twitter account. By Thursday of the next week, the topic “Freshman Pornstar” was trending on CollegiateACB."She told me that I ruined her life…. I certainly would take it back." —Thomas Bagley