May 8 17 10:53 PM

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Psychology Today

Micheal Aaron, Ph.D.
May 5th, 2017

Sex Work and Higher Education: A Mix of Disparate Identities

Source: Women, Light, Night, Lighting, Prostitution, Red, Sex, labeled for reuse, Max Pixel
Recent research on student sex workers shatters societal misconceptions.

This is the first installment of interviews with speakers from the 2nd Annual AltSex NYC Conference, which was held on Friday, April 28 in a midtown NYC theater. Ute Anderson and Alexander Petro, two students at California State University, Northridge presented their groundbreaking research on student sex worker identities, a little-known and poorly understood population. Societally, we may be surprised to hear that many university students engage in sex work, as sex work is often unfortunately associated with pathology and criminality. Ute and Alex's research sheds light on the subjective experiences of sex workers, illustrating the commonplace experience of sex work as another valuable form of labor.

Ute and Alex, used with permission
Source: Ute and Alex, used with permission

Q: You have been conducting research on student sex workers. Tell us how you both decided to collaborate on this project and what brought you to study this subject?

A: Our decision to research the multiple identities of student sex workers stems from the lack of objective research on this population. We wanted to give student sex workers the chance to express their identity from their own perspective. This allowed for an in-depth analysis of how they viewed themselves as sex workers while navigating the challenges of a higher education setting. We brought our strengths as a team into the research utilizing Alex’s skill in photography and Ute’s insight into the sex work community.

Q: Tell us more about the kinds of questions you asked in the questionnaire and what were some of the most prevalent themes that emerged?

A: Our questions aimed at discovering our participants’ experiences in different settings and how that has impacted their identity. We used broad open-ended questions to inquire about participants’ identities, motivations, and opinions. We also wanted to explore the logistics of sex work experienced by this population, the impact of their work on relationships. However, we never directly asked our participants about any of these concepts but instead, we kept to a general theme in our questions in order to let participants decide how much or little they would like to share with us.

Q: Along the same lines, what were some of the most common reasons that you found that your student respondents engaged in sex work?

A: Some students were introduced to sex work first and then decided to enroll in school later on in life; some started sex work as they started the pursuit of their educational goals. Most of the participants said that sex work allowed them to independently manage their schedules and they appreciated the flexibility of their work which gave them more time to attend classes, complete their homework, and focus on some self-care activities.

Q: Sex worker and higher education are two disparate identities. How did you find that your respondents navigated or integrated the intersection of these two identities?

A: Some of our participants were graduates with a Master’s degree, others were enrolled in undergraduate or graduate schools. We found that younger students had developed a means of keeping their identities separate from each other. They hadn’t quite figured out how to be comfortable with the intersecting characteristics of both identities, it seemed as though some elements of each identity clashed with the other.

School settings, despite being viewed as liberal, are representative of the larger population in terms of the level of comfort with sexuality as a topic of discussion. Older participants acknowledged that the amalgamation of identity, self-awareness, and self-expression became more concrete as they matured. These findings go in line with major theories of identity formation. Generally, we would expect an older person to be further progressed in the process of identity integration than a younger person.

Sex Worker Rights, London Slutwalk 2011, labeled for reuse, Wikimedia Commons
Source: Sex Worker Rights, London Slutwalk 2011, labeled for reuse, Wikimedia Commons

​​Q: Did you find that the subjective experiences of student sex workers were different than those of non-student sex workers? If so, how?

A: One of the reasons why we decided to start the project was that we suspected that sex workers who are students have a different experience than other types of sex workers. One of the limitations of the existing literature is that sex work is usually investigated with participants that are working on the street and in connection with pathologies such as homelessness, drug use, STD exposure and criminality/trafficking. Most of the participants talked about their own privilege as sex workers – may it be due to their ability to work indoors, their socioeconomic class, or their ethnic background. Student sex workers are also able to use their education as a marketing tool, which exposed them to a different segment of the sex business and they had access to technology such as the internet and computers. The use of these technologies made it possible for sex workers to remotely communicate with clients and/or find opportunities online, which they regarded as a safer way to find work compared with chance encounters outside.

Q: What do you think are some of the broader implications of your research, especially in mental health and university settings? 

A: We wanted to highlight society’s lack of comfort with sexuality and sex work. Not all sex workers are on the streets, homeless, forced into sex work or engaging in illegal activities. This leads to student sex workers seeking counseling services as an uncomfortable space where they must disclose personal information about themselves and run the risk of feeling uncomfortable and judged.

Society’s association of sex work with sex trafficking paints a picture of victimization, which carries into the treatment process of a therapy session, thus offering a skewed perspective on what treatment goals should look like. Our intent is not to downplay the effects of sex trafficking, but the lack of diversity and inclusion in the research about sex work is disappointing and falls short of exploring the whole range of the topic.

When student sex workers at a university setting seek mental health services there often emerges a certain level of bias, and discomfort from both the client as well as the therapist. Society perpetuates a narrative of what a sex worker’s identity should look like. Our research aims at deconstructing those biases and educating people on the intricate intersectional qualities of student sex workers. We would like to encourage therapists to be aware of sex work as a complex topic and let sex workers tell their own stories on how they individually experience their involvement in the sex industry.

"I would no more be a Master than a slave. It does not conform to my idea of Democracy." Abraham Lincoln 1856.