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Duke’s feminist porn star

By Jonathan Zimmerman
Special to the Observer

“Why do we call women sluts and whores?”

The question comes from an article posted last week by a Duke University freshman, who admitted that she moonlights as a pornography actress. “Lauren” (not her real name) went public after a fellow student recognized her on a porn site and told his fraternity brothers about it.

Within a few days, the topic “Freshman Pornstar” was trending on CollegiateACB. The Internet lit up with slurs against Lauren, featuring “slut” and “whore” and many other nasty terms that we can’t print here. She fired back in last week’s article, which argued that these slurs reflect a long-standing male denigration of women.

She’s right, of course. But here’s what Lauren didn’t say: that same vilification of females is fed by pornography itself. And if you think otherwise, Google “rough sex” and have a look.

Again, I can’t describe what you’ll find on these sites. But suffice to say that women are violated, abused, and humiliated in every way you can imagine. And yes, the men who are coupling with them call them sluts and whores. Indeed, many sites feature those words – and worse – in their names.

In her article, Lauren admitted to shooting rough-sex scenes. But she has also defended her decision as a feminist one. “Feminism to me means advancing my personal liberty, my opportunity in the world, while also championing my right to choose what to do with my body,” Lauren told the Duke student newspaper. “Everything we do is consensual.”

But why does that make it OK? And how can this possibly be “feminist,” if it depicts precisely the kind of misogyny that Lauren deplores in her own article?

Suppose an African-American “chose” to appear in a racist film made by the KKK, or a Jew in a movie produced by neo-Nazis. You might support their right to do so, as I would, but I doubt you’d praise them as tribunes of freedom.

Instead, you’d ask what led them to participate in imagery that reinforces the hatred against them. Some women are coerced into pornography by pimps and other predators, as Lauren correctly noted in her article. So we need to protect the vulnerable women who are forced to do porn, she wrote, even as we acknowledge that some women – like herself – might actually decide to do it.

But it might also be hard to tell the difference. Consider America’s first modern porn star, Linda Lovelace, who headlined the 1972 blockbuster Deep Throat. Eight years later, she published a book describing how her then-husband used threats and violence to force her into prostitution and pornography. “When you see the movie Deep Throat, you are watching me being raped,” Linda Boreman (her real name) told a reporter. “There was a gun to my head the entire time.”

Rather than keeping the violence off-camera, meanwhile, other porn movies started to depict it directly. In the 1976 film Snuff, a man and woman have sex; he then proceeds to dismember her, limb by limb. The second part wasn’t “real,” but it sure looked like it.

Snuff helped jump-start the feminist anti-pornography movement. In New York’s Times Square, the hotbed of the industry at the time, women led tours of the area to expose the violent underside of porn. They also pressed for municipal ordinances to bar “the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women,” as one proposed measure said.

But none of the cities that considered these laws instituted them them. Courts struck down some of the ordinances on First Amendment grounds. Many feminists rejected them, too, worrying that the anti-porn laws would unfairly restrict women’s right to determine their own sexuality.

And they were right about that. If anyone tried to pass a law barring Lauren from doing porn, I’d be the first to object. She’s an adult, and she should be able to do with her body has she pleases.

Nor did she deserve the torrent of online abuse she received, often from men who had seen her movies. If she’s such a disgusting you-know-what, then why are they watching in the first place?

Because they’re turned on by the denigration of women, that’s why. Porn teaches them to regard women as sex objects, who actually like it when they are demeaned and degraded.

Only, they don’t. After news of her porn career went viral, Lauren wrote, she was “brutally bullied and harassed” with “fear, humiliation, shame, threats, name calling.” But that’s also what you’d see in any rough-sex porn movie, including the ones she made. And that makes me incredibly sad.

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. His most recent book is “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”
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