DURHAM, N.C. (MCT) – When "Duke" and "porn star" appear in the same headline, the university gets a public relations headache.
Duke University has recently found itself in the national spotlight not for basketball glory or research prowess, but for the salacious story of a freshman who claims to be working her way through school as a porn actress. And once again, a sex story about Duke has taken on a life of its own, with nasty online commentary and fierce debate about the sexual climate and status of women on campus.
The story first sizzled on the Internet, then spread to the network morning shows and gabfests. Cosmopolitan magazine's website published this: "the elite North Carolina college has a heinous reputation for slut-shaming, double standards and overall sexual hostility towards their female students."
It seemed too far-fetched to be true. "Portrait of a Porn Star," a story based on an anonymous interview, was first published in the Duke Chronicle on Valentine's Day. The paper called the student "Lauren" (not her real name) and "Aurora" (not her real porn alter-ego). In the story, the student described herself as a bisexual Republican who leans libertarian, a feminist and a women's studies and sociology double major.
Lauren told the reporter she had given up a waitress job for porn to help pay the nearly $60,000-a-year tab at Duke. She said she was hired by Matrix Models and was flown to Los Angeles during school breaks for the porn filming.
She said she had been outed by a male classmate who recognized her from her work, and then blabbed her identity to his fraternity. Soon she was flooded with friend requests on Facebook, and a college gossip website was electric with discussion about the freshman porn star.
She told the Chronicle she felt victimized and harassed, not by the porn industry, but by the reaction online and at Duke.
Lauren A. later told her story in her own words on a website called xoJane.com, writing, "I saw a way to graduate from my dream school free of debt, doing something I absolutely love. Because to be clear: My experience in porn has been nothing but supportive, exciting, thrilling and empowering."
She fought back against characterizations that she had participated in "rape fantasy porn," calling it instead "rough sex." The student described porn as "my love, my happiness, my home" but added that some sex workers have been abused and exploited in the industry.
Duke officials said they could not comment on any student's specific situation and said they are committed to protecting students' privacy and safety.
"Whenever we identify a student in need of support, we reach out to them and offer the many resources that we have available on campus to assist them," Duke spokesman Keith Lawrence said.
And, he added, Duke's financial aid program meets 100 percent of students' demonstrated need based on a review of family circumstances. More than half of Duke students receive financial aid, he said, and students can request a review if their financial status changes.
Every few years, it seems, Duke attracts attention for some students' behavior. In 2010, an alumna's 42-slide PowerPoint display detailed sexual dalliances with Duke athletes. The racy document ended up on the Internet.
Chronicle student journalist Ellie Schaack wrote in a column this week that the porn star coverage had unfairly demonized Duke. She pointed out that the 2006 lacrosse saga – in which three players were accused of raping a stripper but were later cleared – still loomed large on the Durham campus.
The university had taken on the early persona of the lacrosse players, she wrote: "The narrative that now makes sense is the story of the dominance of the Dukebag: the rich, white, smart-but-unintellectual misogynist unaware of his privilege."
It's not a true characterization, she wrote, and the reaction would be no different if a porn star attended Yale or the University of North Carolina or Brigham Young.
Schaack told parents they shouldn't hesitate to send their children to Duke. "There are a lot of screwed up norms on this campus _ just like there are everywhere else," she wrote. "We're just lucky enough to be so infamous that we confront them regularly."