Students Stripping, Doing Sex Work and Seeing Sugar Daddies? In Hard Economic Times, This Media Obsession Is Based in Reality
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In 2003 CNN was writing about strip clubs "recruiting student bodies," offering tuition credits to exotic dancers who maintained a B average at school (no joke!). And here's a 20/20 piece from 2005 on a similar topic. In Britain: " Female Students Turn to Prostitution." In Ireland, same thing.
The image of the hard-working student turning to stripping or sex work to pay the bills is popular in movies and songs, as well--particularly if the student is female and young, and the situation conforms to gender norms. While it has more than a grain of truth to it, I was curious as to why this image is such an enduring one in our culture. My AlterNet colleagues and I came up with a few explanations:
1) It speaks to several pervasive stereotypes in our culture: the dirty schoolgirl and the hooker with a heart of gold. Both these stereotypes combine the virgin and whore dichotomy in a way that is palatable in a misogynist framework. The gold-digger stereotype is an even more insidious one that these stories, particularly the sugar daddy story, feed into. The fact that men or LGBT students may be involved in similar kinds of sex-work scenarios to get through school tends to be ignored by these mainstream narratives.
2) What better way to illustrate an extreme class and wealth gap than to show the dynamic between young people desperate to get through college and the lavish lifestyles of the men who pay for their "company?" The difference between sinking and swimming for one group equals pocket change for another. This is a vivid illustration of disparity, particularly given the fact that it gels with the tropes above.
3) In America, this archetypal story fits into the so-called American "ethos" of pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps to achieve the American dream. It sums up so much about our culture--this in fact an image of a woman on her way up the ladder literally servicing a man at the top, for the chance to ascend a rung or two. She is pursuing the dream despite the degradation involved, and she is far easier to mythologize, than say, the immigrant pedaling through the streets of a city with deliveries, the dishwasher, the teenager flipping burgers, or the woman caring for a wealthier woman's children. The woman turning to sex is a story that fits into that American ethos without reminding people of the way they benefit directly from that degradation --something all those other tales of depravation for a chance at social ascension would do.
Joanna Chiu, who wrote about the 2010 UK study and interviewed several students in Canada who had indeed turned to sex work to pay the bills, included information about safety in her piece that is sadly lacking in many mainstream narratives about this issue. The HuffPo piece did mention that young women send each other texts or let each other know where they're going to be on the safe side.
As additional safety precautions, the student escort only agrees to work with clients after a telephone screening process, does not see clients late at night and makes sure his roommates are aware of what he’s doing—and would recommend that other students do the same. Ricketts says that students who are considering sex work need to be extremely conscious of their safety.
Besides the potential for sexual harassment or rape, top student concerns regarding sex work include encountering social stigma and other repercussions even after they are no longer engaged in sex work. O’Doherty also warns against students revealing their real identities if they choose to enter into sex work.