When I was a freshman in college, my friends and I were commiserating over our financial situations when a pretty brunette I had known since high school unexpectedly stated, “I would strip for money.” We make a few teasing remarks (“I’m pretty sure people would pay me to keep my clothes on!”), and we all laughed it off. But, as much as we laughed about the idea of actually taking our clothes off for money, we understood the appeal: work nights and weekends, make a bit of extra cash, and have plenty of time to attend class and study.
Who could blame anyone for choosing that path? Most of the people I knew as an undergrad were broke; dumpster diving had become an accepted norm among students, as we were looking for any way we could save a few pennies. We had too little work experience and tightly packed schedules full of lectures, course requirements, and internships. Most of us were relying on shrinking financial aid to get us through school. And a few of us, myself included, were first-generation college students from relatively impoverished backgrounds. Money wasn’t exactly abundant in any of our homes, and we couldn’t call mom and dad for help if things got rocky.
Despite our joking remarks about stripping (or becoming a call girl, or signing up for questionable "dating" sites), none of us were ever forced into an economic position in which we felt that was our only option. But studies show that more students than ever are turning to sex work to deal with the rising costs of university life.
From stripping to pornography to prostitution, students are finding that sex sells, and pays a lot more than being a barista does. According to the Huffington Post, the UK’s National Union of Students found that 20% of young women working in that country's lap dancing clubs are students, while a separate study by the UK's University of Kingston and Leeds has found that 6% of students are working in the sex industry, and 16% view sex work as a viable option in trying times. The appeal such work is, of course, money; according to British tabloid the Sun, some young women easily bring in £800 (over $1200) a night.
Although it may be profitable, sex work is stigmatized, and because it is often unregulated, it can be extremely dangerous. By engaging in sex work, young women are often opening themselves up to situations which can lead to harassment and violence, increasing their risk of STDs, and risking their reputations to obtain the university education that is supposed to improve their lives.
The stigma around sex work is severe; friends, family, and colleagues may not accept a woman who has been paid for sex. She may be shunned, she may be looked down upon, and she may be condemned. In the United States, Sarah Tressler, a reporter with the Houston Chronicle, made headlines when it was discovered that she was earning extra money as a stripper outside of her day job. Her colleagues lambasted her, and she lost her writing gig, despite being a qualified reporter. If Tressler had been earning money in an industry that was accepted as "legitimate," she clearly wouldn't have been fired for doing so. Tressler wasn’t any less of a reporter because she was a stripper, nor was she ashamed of her work — stripping was a way to afford a journalistic career which, let’s be honest, is far from lucrative. So what will happen to the young students currently turning to sex work to supplement their incomes and support their studies? What happens if an employer or a colleague discovers a history of sex work? Sex workers are too often subjected to discrimination, and unfortunately, degradation. These students are working for a degree, but risk losing respect from others. It seems ironic that these young women are being asked to work for an education and to earn respect by improving their intellectual selves, while skyrocketing tuition costs pressure them into an industry that is condemned because it profits from sex.
We need to make higher education more affordable, and create an educational system that allows for both time in the classroom, and career-building paid work opportunities. And we need to recognize that sex work can be, has been, and will continue to be a way in which individuals earn a living. As such, we need to protect sex workers from violence, and work to destigmatize the industry by having frank discussions about sex and sexuality.
I don’t expect tuition costs to drop any time soon, nor do I expect sex work to become legal or or socially accepted tomorrow, but we should begin to address this problem. We are creating a system that asks students to sacrifice everything for an education, but we offer no support to them. I’ve decided to go into debt — a great deal more than I ever anticipated, or want to discuss — in pursuit of my education. I knew when I signed the loan papers that I was indefinitely postponing ever purchasing a home. I’ve mastered using public transportation in lieu of owning a car. And I’ll sleep in a one-room flat without heating if it means I can still eat and pay my bills. I can’t condemn the women who are choosing to enter sex work, because even as I’m sitting here writing this, I can’t help but think, “£800 a night?”