Every 16 minutes someone in the U.S dies by suicide. Every 17 minutes someone is left to make sence of it. Suicide is 100% preventable reach out please donate to The Trevor Project here

If you use statistics to justify which group of victims isn’t worthy of concern then you’re a piece of shit.

“There have been so many times
I have seen a man wanting to weep
but instead
Beat his heart until it was unconscious.”

“Masculine” by Nayyirah Waheed”

Portrait of a Porn Star

Duke freshman stands behind her alter-ego

Elysia Su / The Chronicle

A first-year Duke student who doubles as a part-time adult film actress struggles to avoid the Internet spotlight.

*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.

Lauren turns to the lucrative adult film industry to help supplement her Duke financial aid package.

Elysia Su / The ChronicleIn a 2012 interview with Business Insider,

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.”

"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
When I asked her if she identified as a feminist, Lauren enthusiastically said she was, but identified many issues with it.

“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.

"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
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.

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 FacebookTwitter 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.

"She told me that I ruined her life…. I certainly would take it back." —Thomas Bagley
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.
"I am not at all surprised, because you know how word spreads as well as I do,” Bagley said. “From what I heard, even that weekend one of the [Selected Living Groups] had interviews and one of the questions was if the freshmen knew her. The fact that some people have taken it to be incredibly disrespectful and downright cruel is unfortunately not surprising. I obviously don’t like it, but I can’t say that I’m surprised it happened.”

Bagley claims that if he could take it back, he would.

“She told me that I ruined her life,” he said. “As much as it was her decision to go into the profession, it was her decision who to tell. I certainly would take it back. I would take pretty much that whole night back.”

Growing up as millennials, there has never been a point in most Duke students’ lives where the Internet did not exist. To us, the Internet as a social space is seamlessly cohesive with the rest of our social spaces, like coffee shops and plazas. The Internet is an extension of our campus: there’s West Campus with its gothic spires, East Campus with its Georgian landscape, Central Campus with its lego-like clusters of apartments. But weaving these three campuses together is Duke’s fourth campus—the online campus, complete with the towering chapel of Facebook, the student center of Twitter and the grungy alleyways of CollegiateACB.

Just as easily as many of us feel free to move around campus, to enter common rooms and inhabit study areas, so do we feel comfortable to enter and inhabit spaces of the Internet. Yet, our involvement on the Internet has collapsed the notion of what constitutes private and public information. Anyone who chooses to involve themselves on the internet is seen as willingly entering into a space where they are made vulnerable. In my personal experience, the most common remark when the topic of “freshman pornstar” was brought up at a party or study group was “Well, what did she expect to happen? It’s online.”

The Internet and the communications it facilitates are seen as public material that everyone is entitled to viewing despite the privacy of the content. Anything shared via email, social media or text message carries a sense of inevitability in going public. Nothing is safe unless it is left unsaid, un-posted and unshared. This was the fate for a sophomore woman who found her drunken brag publicized to the entire campus last year.

In Spring 2013, Nadia* slept with performer Steve Aoki when he visited campus for the Last Day of Classes concert. After sleeping with the performer, she emailed her sorority saying “I just f—ked steve aoki xoxo” along with a screenshot of her text messages with Aoki.

A few of her sisters leaked her message and it found its way to multiple fraternity listservs. Within the next week, a fake email parodying her message went online on the website Betches Love This. It got more than 200 comments and was pinned nearly 3,000 times on Pinterest. Despite the fact that she was in contact with the site about the falsity of the message, Betches Love This decided to keep the content up, only agreeing to add a brief disclaimer at the bottom.

Following the incident, Nadia deactivated her Facebook, deleted her Instagram and disabled her Twitter. Nadia became a ghost from cyberspace, but her story remained.

“I will recognize that I made a mistake in immediately telling everyone in a way that could be documented electronically,” she said. “The whole experience has been a slap in the face as far as how people treat sexual culture because if I was a guy having sex with any female pop star or artist, the reaction would be completely different.”

Negative aspects of Duke’s sexual environment are often exacerbated by the Internet.

“I received so much hate online, like on CollegiateACB, with people calling me an attention whore, a cum dumpster and a swamp donkey,” Nadia said. “That would never happen if I was a boy. I was objectified.”

Lauren experienced similar comments as Nadia did. In the span of four weeks, Lauren’s infamous thread on CollegiateACB received 136 comments. At the time of publication, it was the seventh-most-recently commented post on Duke’s page. In the month it has been active, the thread has hosted scores of derogatory comments.

In addition to hurtful anonymous jabs, rumors of a Duke student working in the porn industry sparked thought-provoking conversation not usually reserved for the depths of a message board.

“I feel angry. I feel victimized. I feel harassed. I feel hated. I feel discriminated against,” Lauren said. “At Duke, I can’t be who I want to be. I really wish I could just do porn and pay for my college and not get s—t from people and just be respected as a human being, but clearly that’s not going to happen.”

After the CollegiateACB post, Lauren reached out to Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta. Moneta affirmed that the University’s policy was to be supportive of all student identities. Although he worked with Lauren to ensure her safety and security on campus, he noted to me that such incidents tend to arise on online forums.

“I still think of the Internet as the wild west,” Moneta said. “It seems like complete anarchy. Even when there are established institutions or systems on the Internet, like Twitter or Facebook, the vile comments still bubble up to the top. I like to believe that these comments represent the 5 percent and not the 95 percent. I hope they do.”

"If I could do it again, I don’t know if I would’ve done porn. I don’t know if I would’ve gone to Duke." —Lauren
This is not the first time Duke has been linked to sex scandals. Karen Owen, Trinity ’10, drew national media attention when she wrote a 42-slide Powerpoint on her sexual encounters with Duke athletes.

Both Moneta and Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, noted in a 2010 Chronicle article that they did not want the Karen Owen incident to revive stereotypes about Duke’s sexual climate.

First-year Natalie Markowitz, a close friend of Lauren’s, had a more positive perception of Duke’s culture before coming to campus and discovering the University’s underground Internet subculture.

“I realized that people here are obsessed with social hierarchy. People are obsessed with categorizing people,” she said. “I didn’t realize that people had so little respect for others.”

Since coming to Duke, Lauren has also experienced the same disillusionment as Markowitz. After experiencing the worst of what Duke’s Internet culture has to offer, Lauren is left reconsidering life choices that expand far past the porn industry.

“If I could do it again, I don’t know if I would’ve done porn. I don’t know if I would’ve gone to Duke,” said Lauren. “After how I’ve been treated, I sometimes find myself wondering…. I had scholarships to other schools where I would’ve had to pay nothing. But I chose Duke because I thought it would be a great place for me—I thought that I belonged here.”

During the course of getting to know Lauren, I found myself excited, frustrated and endeared by her. But most of all, I was tempted to characterize her in absolutes. However, I came to realize that like any normal human being, Lauren is composed of inconsistencies. Sometimes, I was completely enchanted by our conversations, but other times I struggled to maintain a calm demeanor when she made risky decisions or brazen remarks. She brims with exuberant confidence when talking about sex, but reveals instances of insecurity when faced with the odd glare or side comment from a fellow student. She is prone to both hesitation and brashness, to acting impulsively or changing her mind.

At once both whip smart and distressingly naïve, Lauren is the type of girl who cannot help but flicker a smile when she hears scandalous news—especially if it involves her. In our first conversation, she mentioned her complete fear of the news going public, but in one of our most recent conversations, she giggled and asked, “Do you think I’ll be on Ellen?” During the month since Bagley’s fateful revelation, Lauren did an interview with BroBible, wrote a monologue about her experiences, and was invited to speak to classes studying sex work.

She became Duke’s best worst-kept secret.

It is not my place to impose a narrative upon her—to do so would be to assume an authority concerning her decision making that is hers alone. But I would be lying if I did not admit that I was originally intrigued by her because it seemed like she was an Upworthy story waiting to happen. Like other Duke students, I had preconceived notions of her character and what the story would be. I was equally guilty of putting her into a fixed identity.

Instead, our conversations revealed the story of a Duke first-year woman—a woman just like many of us, struggling to define her place on campus and online. This is the story that is at once familiar and alien to all of us here at the Gothic Wonderland; it is the story of both fitting in and standing out, and not knowing which of these competing desires to indulge.

Photos and graphics by Elysia Su. Multimedia and packaging by Daniel Carp and Danielle Muoio.