A Response to Duke University Student’s Recent “Coming Out”

Sophia Ottoni-Wilhelm, Opinions Editor

Hot, smoking hot. The photo depicts a young woman — she’s naked from neck to waist save for a simple, pink bra. Her abs are strong and her skin glows. There’s only one way to describe her: hot. The body belongs to a first-year at Duke University who recently “came out” as a porn star in an article she submitted to an on-campus publication.

Why does she do it? The answer is quite simple. “I couldn’t afford $60,000 in tuition,” she wrote. “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.”

First and foremost, I want to give this woman props — mad props — for coming out. It takes some serious ovaries to do something like this at any college or university, not to mention one located in the South and notorious for being fraught with frat life and crazed basketball fans. As she says, “If people are going to talk about you, you might as well control the conversation and use it to start a dialogue, which in this case is about the abuses we inflict on sex workers.”

Talk about badass. Gosh, I can’t get over it. Whether or not you agree with what she’s written, you must admit that she’s got some serious chutzpah. I must admit I was initially skeptical when I saw the picture of a scantily clad girl with the bolded headline, I’m the Duke University Freshman Porn Star and For the First Time I’m Telling the Story in My Words.” But then I read.

“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,” she says. When I read this paragraph, this young woman’s wisdom, her succinctness and brutal honesty completely shut me up.

This point resonated deeply with me. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the gendered barriers placed on sexuality, specifically surrounding the all-important “number” — that is, the number of people you’ve had sex with. We’ve been conditioned to think that this number shouldn’t be too high. If it is, you’re a slut, and you’re giving it up too easily. As my friend pointed out to me recently, your number “can’t be too low, either,” or you’ll be considered a prude.

It’s often hard to recognize when it’s so deeply ingrained in society and culture, and I applaud the author of this article for calling it out. The impossible is expected of us as women — we’re not supposed to be too promiscuous, but we’re also told not to be too prudish. What’s up with that? It’s completely unrealistic to expect all women to think the same and dress the same, much less go about sex in the same way. What works for one person doesn’t — and shouldn’t — work for all others.

This is what I’ve been turning over in my mind since reading the article. We, as women, rarely articulate how unfair and frustrating this stereotype is. We’re conditioned to think that our sexuality should be guarded, given away only when it is earned. These heteronormative, fucked-up standards are not ones I choose to live by. It relies on the assumption that sex isn’t in itself a pleasurable thing for women, which — let me tell you — is complete bullshit.

The sheer magnitude of negative responses this young woman has received proves that these stereotypes are alive and well today. Ranging from mean tweets — “I’d rather have my dignity and loans than work as a prostitute. I’m sure Daddy’s proud.” — to physical threats, they reinforce the negativity that already surrounds female sexuality. Instead of listening to what she has to say, instead of considering why she is involved in the porn industry, people point fingers.

This negativity is not only a terrible response, it is also quite contradictory. Many of the people harassing this young woman were young men from the Greek community on her campus. A study done in 2012 by researchers at the University of Montreal asked for participants that were males in their 20s who had never watched porn. The study was dropped because no subjects could be found. Many of the men shaming her behavior undoubtedly partake in the industry they condemn.

Although I’m conflicted about whether or not I support an industry that has played an active role in the oppression of women, I’m keeping an open mind. Most importantly, I’m not going to shame this young woman for sharing her story. I admire her for coming out under such difficult circumstances and for pointing to issues of sexism that are so much a part of our lives.

Just because sexism is difficult to locate, this does not mean we should stop looking. And just because these issues are difficult to discuss, this does not mean we should forget about them. When it comes to issues of sexism, we should keep asking the hard questions of others and ourselves, and we should do so with love for the lives and experiences of all.