Balancing Sex Work and School: In the Wake of Duke Porn Star Revelation, Other Performers Speak Out

Tasha Reign, a UCLA student and adult film star, says she wants to help debunk stereotypes about porn performers.

Tasha Reign, a UCLA student and adult film star, says she wants to help debunk stereotypes about porn performers.

By now you’ve probably heard about the Duke University freshman porn star who was recently outed by a male classmate after he learned about her porn alter ego. He shared the information with his fraternity brothers and the news spread like wildfire across campus, the Internet and, eventually, the world. “Lauren” (a pseudonym) was bullied and harassed online, called a “slut” and a “whore.”

But rather than retreat in disgrace, “Lauren”—who’s since revealed that her performer identity is Belle Knox—decided to take control of her own narrative, and use the media to start a dialogue about how sex workers are treated. “The Internet does not dictate my life,” she wrote in a February 21 blog post for website xo Jane. “My sexuality is not some sort of blackmail to be used against me, granting you ownership over my life or my story. It is my life. It is my story.”

To be sure, there’s nothing new about college students who pay their tuition and buy their groceries with money earned from sex work. There are students at UNLV, and other colleges, who work as strippers, porn performers, cam-girls and escorts, drawn to the good money and flexible hours.

Many opt to keep their sex worker identities private, using stage names for work and birth names for school. This way, they don’t have to deal with judgmental friends, disappointed parents, or, worse, stalkers. It also means they can avoid having their sex worker identity become their “master status,” whereby they are “viewed as a sex worker first, even when they are in an academic setting, which is then used as a way to discredit their intellectual ability,” explains Jennifer Reed, a former exotic dancer who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology at UNLV.

The outing and public shaming of “Lauren” has brought attention to the experiences of sex workers who are also navigating campus life, prompting conversations about a number of different subjects, from the prevalence of slut-shaming to the meaning of privacy in the Internet age to the skyrocketing costs of college tuition and fees, which at Duke are upwards of $60,000 a year.

One of the most important conversations to emerge—and one initiated by Lauren herself—has drawn attention to the sexual double standard. Young men like Thomas Bagley, the Duke University student who discovered Lauren’s double life while watching porn, routinely receive high fives for being “one of the guys,” whereas the women who work in porn are shamed. “You want to see me naked,” Lauren writes on xo Jane. “And then you want to judge me for letting you see me naked.”

“People forget that these are intelligent women who are making decisions about their futures and their bodies,” says Dee Dennis, founder of the sexuality conference CatalystCon. “The dominant stereotype is that women who do porn aren’t intelligent. Otherwise, why take your clothes off when you could be doing something else? College students who do porn really challenge this perception.”

Adult performer and UCLA undergrad Tasha Reign is one of those people. I first met Reign at the 2014 AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, when we both took part in a panel discussion called, “Porn Goes to College.” Reign, 25, is bright and articulate, and it’s easy to see why she’s frequently invited to speak on panels at UCLA and elsewhere about her experience working in the adult industry.

“I didn’t go to UCLA with the desire to spread awareness at first, by any means,” Reign told me. “I enjoy going to class and focusing on school, and fitting in with the kids and everything.”

Blending into the college social scene wasn’t as easy as Reign expected. She rushed a sorority, and even joined one for a while, before the demands of balancing work, school and Greek life proved too much. But as Reign’s name in the adult industry grew, so did her profile on campus. She was interviewed by the UCLA student newspaper, The Daily Bruin, and invited to participate in panel discussions about sex work and adult entertainment. Her visibility as a porn star, which she openly embraced, limited her ability to participate in certain parts of college life.

For instance, Reign says there’s “no way” she’d go to a fraternity party and risk being harassed. “If I went to a frat party, and something happened, I think people would just say, ‘Oh, she’s that porn slut. She’s down to do whatever.’”

“I feel the safest [in terms of places were there are lots of boys and men] when I am at a strip club, because there are bouncers and the guys who are there know all the rules.”

For the most part, people on campus are “warm and fuzzy,” she says. And if they aren’t, they are curious. “They ask me questions [about the adult industry] and when I respond, they are often surprised by what I have to say. Sure, sometimes people ask me for my autograph or a picture, but for the most part I’m treated just like a regular student.”

But Reign isn’t “just like” most college coeds, and on some level she recognizes this. She talks openly about working in the adult industry, because she wants to play a role in debunking the misconceptions she says many people have about women and pornography.

“I think sharing my experiences helps contradict what professors often have to say about sex workers. I’m a first-hand resource, and that’s one of the most unique things about people like [performer] Jessica Drake and me. We are not researchers or professors. We are actual sex workers. And there aren’t enough sex workers who have a voice and who share their experiences.”

Being open about her porn star status to family, friends, classmates and professors isn’t always easy, though. Reign has had family members who’ve disowned her and friends who’ve stopped talking to her.

“My little sister, who is 21, got married in December. She is pregnant. She has a whole new life, and I am not allowed to meet her husband. I’m not allowed to meet her child. I’m not allowed to be part of anything because of what I do,” Reign tells me.

“That’s been a real wakeup call. It’s given me real motivation to speak out at schools and talk about sex work to people, because I feel like what I’ve experienced has been so hurtful and traumatizing, and I don’t want that to happen to other girls.”

So last week Reign penned an open letter to the Duke University freshman porn star, in which she told her that she knew what she was going through, and that she was sorry for all the hurtful, ignorant comments that were being directed at her.

“I wish every woman in the adult industry, whether they go to school or not, would do what she is doing,” Reign told me. “The more that people hear our stories, the faster things will change.”

Lynn Comella is a women’s studies professor at UNLV. Her column, ‘Unbuttoned,’ examines issues of sex and gender—with a Vegas twist.

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