The persistence of sexism
When it comes to female sexuality, the elite university is an embittered battleground, and discussions about Lauren*—a first-year porn actress—have extracted salacious and sexist commentary from members of Duke's student community. The controversy contains some novel elements: revelations about a voluntary sex worker in our midst and the role Twitter and CollegiateACB played in propagating the story. But, for the most part, Lauren’s story sheds light on the degradation of a young woman’s sexuality. Duke culture’s history of slut shaming, entitlement to female bodies and the threat of sexual violence continues. Lauren, regardless of her profession, should never have been subjected to such vilification.
“I feel like girls at Duke have to hide their sexuality,” Lauren said in The Chronicle profile about her. “We’re caught in this virgin-whore dichotomy.”
The best evidence supporting Lauren’s point is the manner in which her own drama has unfolded. A cursory survey of CollegiateACB’s message board reveals two primary themes, often expressed by the same user: characterizations of Lauren as a morally bankrupt slut and comments expressing a lewd desire to have sex with her. This opposition, between self-righteous chastity and unabashed sexual predation, is the precise problem with Duke’s sexual culture.
We agree with Lauren’s claim that Duke can be an inhospitable environment for a sexually open woman. The wildly different responses to the sexual escapades of Duke graduates like Tucker Max, Law '01, and Karen Owen, Trinity '10, confirm this, and less visible applications of a double standard occur daily. Cyberbullying— especially the mudslinging that happens on CollegiateACB and some fraternity email listservs—amplifies these sexist attitudes. Views expressed anonymously online tend to be extreme, distorting the average user’s understanding of what kinds of views are popular, acceptable and expected. Anonymity shields the most disgusting opinions, protecting their owners while enabling repulsive comments to achieve incredible visibility.
Current campus discussions are, of course, not just about female sexuality. Duke is also grappling with difficult questions about sex and sex work. In American culture, sex is considered a private activity, and performing sex in public is taboo. Porn, in particular, invites strong moral reactions. Some feminists oppose pornography for supposedly demeaning or harming women, while others, like Lauren, consider it empowering. The moral debate surrounding pornography remains open: Is pornography bad for women? Is it something Duke students should consume, create or condone? What is the appropriate relationship between money, pleasure and desire? It remains to be seen how Duke will integrate a sex worker—a historically marginalized and stigmatized figure—into its community. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, this process has unfolded in an ugly and shameful manner thus far.Lauren’s story has brought important questions—about sex work, feminism and the perils of the Internet—to light. But mostly, this story smacks of an all-too-familiar sexism at Duke. Porn actress or not, Lauren should never have experienced vicious name-calling, strangers’ sexual claims to her body or the threat of sexual violence. No woman deserves such treatment, and yet too many Duke women experience it every day.
*The source's name was changed in The Chronicle's profile to protect her identity.