Correction: The statistics cited in Sarah Elspeth Patterson’s research are from two separate studies headed by Dr. Ronald Roberts of Kingston University, London. The statistics on student debt are based on data collected from the New York Federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. Additionally, the study regarding discussion of sex work in the classroom is not conducted by Widener University, but independently by Patterson.
“I started stripping when I was 19 because I had huge debt. I was in a private college and I had student loan and credit card debt, and I decided that what was going on was ridiculous,” said Jane Doe, 32, a doctoral student at USC.
Doe, now pursuing her Ph.D in literature and creative writing, said she had a friend that had made her way out of debt by stripping and did not seem emotionally damaged by the experience.
“I loved it,” Doe said. “Of all the shit jobs I had ever had, it was the only shit job that was not a shit job.”
Doe’s story is not atypical; according to a recent study on discussing sex work by Widener University’s Sarah Elspeth Patterson, M.Ed. The study notes that “10 percent of students know of students who engage in sex work in order to promote themselves financially, with 16.5 percent indicating that they might be willing to engage in sex work to pay for their education.”
Sex workers, as defined by the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP), are those who earn money by providing sexual services. This includes prostitution, erotic dancing, pornography, phone sex operators, fetish modeling and any other “transactional erotic labor.”
SWOP is a national social justice network dedicated to the fundamental human rights of sex workers and their communities, focusing on ending violence and stigma through education and advocacy, according to swopusa.org.
Sex work while enrolled in school
For Jessie Nicole, 25, sex work was the only employment option that allowed her to make ends meet and remain a full-time student.
“I was broke,” Nicole said. “I had a scholarship that paid my tuition and 70 percent of my books, but that doesn’t pay your rent, that doesn’t give you food, and you still have 30 percent of your books.”
Nicole, now the director of SWOP’s Los Angeles chapter, began dating “sugar daddies” when she was a 19-year-old undergraduate at Florida State University, but turned to escorting when she moved to Chicago for graduate school.
“One of the easiest things about escorting in grad school was that I could pay to live and work a couple of hours a week,” Nicole said. “That was so crucial to me. I had a thesis to write. I did a nine month master’s program. [My] time [was] really precious.”
Though sex work helped pay for both Doe and Nicole’s schooling, the cost of education left each of them in an incredible amount of debt.
According to the Widener University study, 2010 college graduates are carrying an average of $25,250 worth of debt, and student loan debt has increased 511 percent from 1999 to 2011.
“I did sex work to live and be a student and then I graduated and couldn’t find a job because I have a master’s in humanities,” Nicole said. “The economy is not kind to women in their early twenties with master’s degrees in humanities. So I kept doing sex work. And I’m still using sex work to pay off my student loans. College expenses don’t just go away.”
Doe, who took a break between earning each of her degrees added, “(Sex work) was about school debt, even when I wasn’t in school. My student loans were $800 a month.”
Though Doe has the ability to set her own schedule as both a stripper and a “sugar baby,” between her schoolwork, and participation in Occupy Los Angeles – where she was arrested during the police raid – the money she makes when she works does not allow her the ability to save.
“I don’t usually work a shift where I make less than $400,” Doe said. “There have been nights when I’ve walked $800, $1000, and there have been some nights when I’ve walked out with $200. But $200 for a shift at a job isn’t that bad. If I wasn’t doing Occupy I’d probably be working a lot more.”
Nicole said she also cannot afford to save the money she earns.
“Sex work helps pay for you to live, but it doesn’t let you save money and it doesn’t let you prepare for after graduation,” Nicole said. “It’s instant gratification most of the time. It’s, ‘my rent’s due. I’m going to see a client.’ Then pay your rent and that’s it. So you don’t have money saved up.”
Miss Claw, 18, is a digital animation student at Gnomon School of Visual Effects and a professional submissive at a Los Angeles dungeon, a gathering place for bondage/discipline and sadism/masochism (BDSM) play.
She has been part of the BDSM lifestyle since high school and now works at the dungeon to pay for her extra expenses.
“My parents pay my rent, tuition, gas and groceries,” Claw said. “I pick up everything else. I don’t have to be in the adult industry. But I love my work so much. Now that I’ve had this job, I could never go back to a regular job.”
According to Nicole, who conducts dialogues about the misconceptions of sex work with SWOP Los Angeles, many who critique and condemn sex work see the industry as coercive and degrading.
“(Sex work) is a job like any other job,” Nicole said.
Nicole said that she has never engaged in “survival sex,” prostitution that is one’s only viable means of staying alive. Survival sex is most common among street workers, who are primarily women of color or transgender, she said.
“The lines are drawn so clearly on class, on education, on race, on gender, gender identity,” Nicole said.
The study suggests that, because sex workers are not immediately identifiable by appearance, it is easier for them to stay “closeted” and avoid the stigma and legalities of sex work. Because of this, it is difficult to gather accurate data, though according to Nicole, there are more student sex workers than one might think.
“I didn’t (out myself) when I was in school,” Nicole said. “When I did come out, I found at least three other friends that were doing sex work in Tallahassee at the same time that I was. I was like, ‘are you fucking kidding? Is this just my group of friends or is everyone carrying this around? Why didn’t we work together?’”
Nicole was quick to note that although student sex workers make up a large portion of the industry, they are not representative of the whole.
“(My experience) is normal in a sense that this is in every fucking college in the country,” said Nicole. “But it is not representative of the sex industry. There’s a radical feminist argument that says, ‘well, you’re sex workers of privilege so you’re not representative so your story doesn’t count.’ That’s not what we’re saying, and it’s really unfair to point at someone and say that their life doesn’t count. My life experience still matters. I know of a lot of people who have had a very similar experience to me.”
Doe concurred with Nicole, adding that she is a sex worker who has “started from a position of privilege and stayed there.”
According to Doe, there is a class and racial disparity between sex workers.
“(Student workers are) mostly white, as far as I know,” Doe said. “There’s a really disturbing class divide amongst women who do sex for pay, between indoor and outdoor workers, and between whose bodies are most criminalized. And we aren’t. Very rarely do we go to jail for it. Black women and Latina(s) in particular, a lot of them are not going to have stories like (ours).”
For Claw, fighting general misconceptions about sex work means telling her own story.
“People think that in sex work you are compromising yourself in some way,” said Claw. “It’s helped me grow and learn in ways that nothing else could.”