Which Way, Modern Woman: Nun or Porn Star?

Our modern age promotes participation in the porn industry as "empowering," but it is in sacrifice and dying to self that we truly find happiness.

Several years ago, a young Colombian postulant made headlines for leaving the convent to become a “camgirl,” and, subsequently, signing a contract with a major U.S.-based pornography studio. Her debut performance, perhaps unsurprisingly, included a priest-nun motif. Her new employer lauded her decision as an exemplar of female empowerment and self-expression: “Her beauty, her raw sexuality and her desire to share that with her fans is something that we knew was extremely special.” The woman, in turn, explained that while she initially felt bad about her career choice, she “feel[s] good when she goes to church, and never misses Mass.”

Obviously, for Catholics this story is about as scandalous as they come. But it also raises a provocative question for our feminist age: Is participation in the sex industry a more empowering, expressive decision than a religious vocation? The question, in all its blunt controversy, illuminates what’s at stake in our current distemper.

There’s no shortage of people claiming that participation in the sex industry—as long as everything is consensual—embodies sexual freedom and self-realization. “Women who previously worked in the retail sector or in nursing found that pornography offered them greater control of their labor, and surprisingly, it treated them with more humanity,” the New York Times reported more than a decade ago. Many praise the website OnlyFans— which netted $5.6 billion last year—as a way for women to retain independent control over their participation in the sex industry, acting as “creative” entrepreneurs. “Many creators now operate like independent media companies, with support staffs, growth strategies and promotional budgets,” reports the Washington Post.

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All this, of course, can be debated. Is female complicity in the commodification of their bodies for anonymous (predominantly male) voyeurs good—psychologically, physically, spiritually—either for the object or the subject? Are disembodied, virtual sexual acts emblematic of human flourishing, or human degradation? Are female sex industry entrepreneurs absolved of any guilt for encouraging destructive, self-absorbed sexual addiction in their customer base? 

But what I find interesting in this conversation—especially as it relates to a Colombian former postulant—is the comparison to female religious vocations. For it was the Catholic Church’s encouragement of convents and female religious orders that served as one of the earliest (and often only) alternatives to marriage in pre-modern societies. Prior to Christianity, women rarely had options for social value outside marriage and child-bearing. As convents dotted Christendom’s landscape, women had an alternative, one that included leadership opportunities and unparalleled access to literacy and education.

A casual survey of history proves the remarkable influence of female religious. Clare of Assisi started a papally-approved religious order that exists to this day. Catherine of Siena exhorted a pope to return from French exile to Rome. Catherine, along with Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux (all nuns) comprise the four female doctors of the Church, a title given to saints whose writings and teachings are viewed by the Church as particularly valuable and instructive for all Catholics to know. The recent death of Ethiopian pianist (and nun) Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou occasioned widespread praise for her work.

Such examples are often offered as a rejoinder to criticisms that the Church is misogynist. Far from it, Catholic apologists assert—the Church has always appreciated the inherent dignity of females. Catholicism was promoting women’s lib before there was women’s lib! It is, for what it’s worth, an attempt to beat feminist detractors of Catholicism at their own game. 

What this argument implies is that Catholicism’s credibility rests on demonstrating its alignment with the values of secular contemporary culture. The Church is good because it has always valued women, because it supports women in the workforce. But that tack, whether intentionally or not, tends to make Catholicism beholden to the flimsy, groundless mores of the zeitgeist. 

According to the criteria of modernity, porn would seem more empowering and expressive than consecrated religious life. The nun is beholden to rigid rules, schedules, and superiors. Her sins are forgiven only through the mediation of a male priest who, in turn, is a representative of an exclusively male ecclesial hierarchy. The porn star, alternatively, is ostensibly free to choose her own schedule and what sexual acts she is comfortable performing. She alone is master of her destiny, and she may enter and leave the profession as she sees fit. And she can make millions.

Well, sometimes. Women employed by “Big Porn” are constantly coerced into more extreme and degrading sexual acts, often participating in simulated, if not real, violence upon their persons. “OnlyFans promotes itself as giving porn performers power, but in reality it empowers sex traffickers, child exploiters, and ‘revenge porn’ posters,” declares the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. OnlyFans is not a safe platform but a “pimp,” asserted a 2021 New York Times op-ed that noted accusations of incest, bestiality, and child sexual abuse on the platform.  And most OnlyFans accounts take home less than $145 a month, per one independent study.

Yet even if pornography was always a means for ambitious female entrepreneurs to consensually and lucratively express themselves, much would hinge on the relationship between empowerment and expression to human flourishing. Are human experiences good only if they “empower”? Try asking a sleep-deprived mother that question.  Are human experiences good only if they “empower”? Tweet This

There’s little that is empowering about a nine-month pregnancy, a traumatic delivery, and postpartum hormonal fireworks. And yet, many women will tell you the experience of motherhood, for all its demands, is one of wonder and joy (as well as vulnerability). To view motherhood through the lens of power and self-realization would be inchoate, if not deeply deficient. The same can be said for other ennobling human activities, such as volunteering or caring for the disabled or elderly. 

Empowerment seems a flawed, even farcical, method of determining the value of a human act. The religious life, for example, is undertaken as a means of knowing (and denying) one’s self for the sake of the divine. One might say that virtue and faith can be empowering, since they broaden the aperture of our moral imagination and give us more control over our various appetites. Yet I’d imagine few women embark on the mystical, transformative adventure of the consecrated life for that paltry sum. No, the turn is not inward toward the finite, ever-hungry self and its desires for esteem, money, or pleasure; the turn is out—toward the infinite, all-loving God. 

The question of nun or porn star, I’d submit, foregrounds modernity’s diverging opinions over what most exemplifies our humanity: might or meekness, self-expression or self-emptying, the material or the transcendent. Proposing the dilemma that provocatively to our friends, neighbors, and coworkers might help dispel the mist that tends to obscure the severity of the choice before us.

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