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Students Stripping, Doing Sex Work and Seeing Sugar Daddies? In Hard Economic Times, This Media Obsession Is Based in Reality

The recession brings stories of students turning to the sex industry in order to pay their school bills and loans.
 
 
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With every recession, the stories of students turning to stripping, sex work and "sugar daddy" relationships in order to pay their school bills and loans begin to proliferate in the media and in popular culture. 

Times are tougher now for students than almost any time before in recent memory. Even Pell Grants have been under threat during the debt ceiling negotiations, while student loans are increasingly mounting, and a once-crucial bachelor's degree is hardly a fast-ticket to economic security in this economy. Higher education, as Sarah Jaffe reported recently, is a bubble about to burst, leaving students indebted and jobless and in dire straits.

In 2010, a UK study found a surprising number of students would consider this type of work to pay the increasingly mounting bills that accompany a path through higher education. A new piece that helped launch Huffington Post Women's section revisits the issue of "sugar daddies," in particular websites that facilitate relationships between young students in need of cash and older gentleman in need of, er, "companionship."  

Journalist Mac McLelland memorably wrote about her experience venturing into the sugar daddy realm online in 2008. At the time, she noted that she was not alone:

Clearly I'm not the only one intrigued by such a setup. Every time I log on to SugarDaddy.com (a.k.a. SugarDaddyForMe.com), around 2,000 other members are also online. SeekingArrangement.com, "The meeting place for mutually beneficial relationships," has 100,000 users. Sugardaddie.com, "Where the classy, attractive and affluent can meet," has 200,000. "These websites make it very efficient," says historian Ruth Rosen, the author of a book on prostitution. "Because it's very clear; you don't have to use coded language."

McLelland's three-year-old story prefigures Amanda M. Fairbanks' recent piece in HuffPo, which focuses mostly on one site, SeekingArrangement.com, now up to 800,000 users from the 100,000 McLelland reported. Fairbanks' story focuses not just on the monetary benefits young women might reap from such an arrangement, but how necessary those infusions of assistance are in this downturn. Fairbanks profiles a young woman named "Taylor" who took desperate measures in desperate times.

... faced with about $15,000 in unpaid tuition and overdue bills, Taylor and her roommate typed "tuition," "debt," and "money for school" into Google. A website called SeekingArrangement.com popped up. Intrigued by the promise of what the site billed as a "college tuition sugar daddy," Taylor created a "sugar baby" profile and eventually connected with the man from Greenwich....
Saddled with piles of student debt and a job-scarce, lackluster economy, current college students and recent graduates are selling themselves to pursue a diploma or pay down their loans. An increasing number, according to the the owners of websites that broker such hook-ups, have taken to the web in search of online suitors or wealthy benefactors who, in exchange for sex, companionship, or both, might help with the bills.

Fairbanks reports on these sites capitalizing on the "exploding" number of students registering for membership: giving them "college" badges on their profiles, upgrading their memberships for free, and so on. This fits into the new economic reality: student who took out huge loans hoping for high-paying jobs and watching the jobs disappear. (For the older male members on the site, the chance to hook up with young, educated women is worth the cash they pay.)

While it's undoubtedly true that an "increasing number" of people are turning to these sites in the economic downturn, the question of our fascination with this dynamic also bears investigating. The reality is that there are dozens of stories out there profiling women, in particular, who strip or sell their bodies to get through hard times, and that these stories attract more attention than stories about people being down on their luck.

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.

Given that this is a story both based in reality and also mythologized, such safety concerns and strategies to leave potentially dangerous or coercive situations seem vital. The Sex Workers Project's Resources page is a good starting point.

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.
 
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