THE BLOG
02/26/2014 06:02 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2014

Women Did Not Burn Their Bras to Take Them Off: A Response to the Duke University Porn Star

As a sociologist who studies sex, I found recent reports regarding the Duke University freshman, Lauren A., who was outed as a porn star, to be troubling. Lauren is a young woman trying to complete her education at an elite university and undoubtedly did not want her extracurricular activities to become campus, let alone national, knowledge. To mitigate the aftermath of her outing, Lauren wrote a piece for Xojane that has drawn a great deal of media attention. While many may feel a great deal of sympathy for Lauren and applaud her defense of self-expression, Lauren's defense of her porn career is flawed at least on a sociological level.
Given that porn production is a private though publicly-ridiculed enterprise, many scholars neither know much about the industry nor the actors involved. Although Lauren acknowledges that the experiences of some women in the porn industry may be negative, she claims that she has never endured any negative experiences or abuse. Lauren, however, fails to fully account for the representativeness of her experiences. According to Lauren, "For me, shooting pornography brings me unimaginable joy." For many porn actresses, who have provided accounts to the media or testified before Congress, the porn industry provides more women with trauma and sexually transmitted diseases than joy.

Given that Lauren studies sociology, I would hope that Lauren has or will learn something about social stratification and privilege. While demographic data on porn actresses are not available, I am certain that most porn actresses are not sitting in classrooms at Emory, Duke, Princeton or Harvard. As a Duke undergraduate, Lauren is in a privileged position. If she were to experience abuse when filming porn, she theoretically has the ability to walk away, complete her education and not be reliant on the porn industry as a means of survival. In short, Lauren's experience is not necessarily representative of many porn stars.

The most important issue that Lauren mischaracterizes, however, is that porn represents women's sexual agency and freedom. According to Lauren, "Porn is women taking ownership of their bodies." I could not disagree more. The porn industry does not provide sexual agency or choice to women, but rather is a social structure that confines and objectifies women. Pornography structures how women should look and act and what appropriate sexual relationships between men and women are. More importantly, pornography reinforces the social hierarchies Lauren claims exist by sexualizing women as unequal and placing them in a position to be dominated by a male partner.

In fact, Lauren slips slightly in her argument about porn providing women with agency by discussing her disdain for certain types of porn. Lauren acknowledges with disgust that she has been associated with a type of porn that is particularly troubling, "rape fantasy porn." While she seems able to draw a distinction between "rough sex porn" and "rape fantasy porn," she does not begin to address that certain types of porn especially "rape fantasy porn" may not align with her argument that porn liberates women.

There are also historical inaccuracies in Lauren's argument. Lauren's attacks on anti-pornography feminists as marginalizing porn stars should be reconsidered. For example, several leading anti-pornography feminists, including Andrea Dworkin, Gloria Steinem and Catherine MacKinnon supported the famous porn star Linda Lovelace (Linda Boreman) when she revealed that she had been coerced to make pornographic films. Contrary to Lauren's statement, anti-pornography feminists actually help to provide a voice to porn stars enduring abuse.

I agree with Lauren that women face double standards and must negotiate their sexuality far more than their male counterparts. Nevertheless, her ignorance regarding feminism, sociology, and the history of women's sexual agency make her a rather poor spokesperson for women's sexual liberation. Women did not burn their bras to take them off in front of a camera.

Finally, many media pundits claim that liberals are applauding and conservatives are deriding Lauren's actions. The problems associated with porn are neither liberal nor conservative, but rather structural and human. Lauren, I teach sociology in Los Angeles. You are more than welcome to join my class any time to learn about the real sociological consequences of porn.