Students Who Do Sex Work

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A freshman at Duke University was outed as a porn performer by a fellow classmate earlier this year. The story was quickly picked up by national outlets. When the student revealed her porn alias, Belle Knox, a few weeks ago, she spurred another flurry of coverage.

As Knox said in an xoJane article, much of the attention she's received is focused on the question, "But why do you do porn?" A more revealing question, though, might be, why does everyone want to know why she does porn? Or, to put it another way, why is this story so fascinating to so many people?

Knox does have an answer to the question of why she, as a student, works in porn.

I couldn't afford $60,000 in tuition, my family has undergone significant financial burden, and I saw a way to graduate from my dream school free of debt, doing something I absolutely love. Because to be clear: My experience in porn has been nothing but supportive, exciting, thrilling and empowering.

For Knox, porn is a way to deal with the burden of college debt by doing a job she enjoys and even finds exhilarating—as opposed to her work as a waitress in high school, where she "felt like I was being degraded and treated like shit."

Knox's explanation is very clear and thoughtful. And because sex work is marked as different or special or iconic or unusual, there's a tendency to want to make any clear, thoughtful description a kind of iconic answer which speak for all sex workers. But there's no reason to think that all student sex workers have the same experience, anymore than you'd think that all student waitresses feel "degraded," as Knox did.  

When I talked to other students who were working as sex workers, their experiences were rather different than Knox's. One woman I spoke to, who asked to be identified as L., is, like Knox, working on her B.A. She is, she says, "a fetish and (mostly amateur) porn model as well as a pro switch—a dominatrix who also submits." The relationship between her work and her schooling is, she said, "very complicated for me."

I started modeling three years ago simply because I wanted to. It was a process of trying to reclaim my sexuality and sexual presentation after a series of sexual assaults. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to ameliorate a lot of the trauma I was dealing with, which exacerbated my mental health issues. I was in college full time at that point, getting by financially with a combination of loans, scholarships, and money my parents had set aside for my education. My mental illness progressed to the point that it started affecting my academics, and I was eventually hospitalized. I had to take a medical leave.

Without the scholarships and loan deferments, my parents couldn’t afford to keep supporting me. I might’ve moved back in with them, but our relationship is incredibly strained; child services was involved with our family a lot when I was a kid. I waited for years to get out of that house, and I knew I couldn’t go back. I struggled to find work. I applied for every job I could find and rarely got a phone call. I couldn’t make enough money through modeling without taking on jobs I wasn’t comfortable with. I was desperate and down to the wire on rent payment when I answered an ad to ‘become a dominatrix.’

I’ve been working in the industry ever since. My experience hasn’t been positive, and I’d rather leave sooner than later. Thankfully my health has improved and as of last summer I was feeling functional enough to return to school. I didn’t want to. One of the men who assaulted me works for an organization affiliated with the school, and I knew that returning to a women’s studies program as a sex worker would be rough. I was also nervous about how I’d be treated returning from a mental health leave. But I knew that if I ever wanted to leave the sex industry without having to scrape by on minimum wage, a degree was a necessary (though not sufficient) prerequisite. I decided not to push myself too hard and to return only part-time. That meant I didn’t qualify for scholarships, and so I’ve had to keep working.

Knox feels empowered both by her work in porn and by the chance to go to Duke, her "dream school." L, on the other hand, would rather get out of the industry. She'd also rather get out of school. She feels the administration treats her as a "second-class citizen" because of her mental-health issues, and would treat her even worse if they knew about her sex work. Her women's studies department, she says, views sex workers as "some fundamentally debased Other" rather than "as human beings who exist among them." She's only staying with the major because changing would require time and effort she can't afford.

Another student sex worker I spoke to, Christina Parreira, had, again, a very different experience from Knox’s. Parreira (@SinCityGrrrl) has an M.A. in clinical psychology and is enrolled in a Ph.D. program in sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She does cam work, some porn, stripping, and some fetish work. Unlike Knox and L., Parreira is out about her sex work. "The department seems to be a sort of hub for sex workers and sex work research, so it has been a non-issue," she says, adding that she was forced to conceal her work in an earlier doctoral program, and that, "It’s a relief to be in an academic environment that does not discriminate against its students based on occupation."

When I asked Parreira about the relationship between sex work and schooling, she said this:

The question makes the relationship sound much more complicated than it is. For me, it’s not a matter of needing to go to school to escape sex work for another career. Sex work just seems like a logical choice for a young woman who wants to indulge in several years of graduate school while simultaneously enjoying a middle-class lifestyle. I’m going to be honest, I could have probably been just fine without sex work and scraped by on meager assistantships, but I like money. I associate money with security, and I like not having to worry. I especially like that I can focus on school without having to work an extra 10 hours a week for low pay.  Sex work was a logical decision for me, and a way to work on a Ph.D. while also being financially comfortable. When I finish school, I’ll pursue a career in academia, and I may or may not still engage in sex work from time to time, depending on my financial situation. My hope is that in the future, I will make enough money in my primary job as a professor/researcher without having to rely on a second job/sex work. 

Where Knox presents sex work as empowering and L. finds it unpleasant but necessary, Parreira says that sex work "was a common sense decision for me."  She adds, "I would never do sex work for free, but then again, I wouldn’t do any job for free."

In her recently published book Playing the Whore, Melissa Gira Grant argues that it's important to understand that all sex workers are not the same, and that attempting to define their work and their lives in totalizing terms is one way that they are stigmatized or controlled. With that in mind, I think it's important not to try to see Knox's experience, or L's experience, or Parreira's experience, as somehow the most real, or typical, or right. The fact that Knox finds porn empowering doesn't mean that porn is always empowering. The fact that L. would like to leave the industry doesn't mean that all sex workers want to leave the industry.

The one thing that they all do agree on, though, is that the stigma against sex workers makes their lives more difficult and dangerous. Even here, of course, the risks are different for each of them. Since she was outed, Knox has been harassed and threatened online; when she contacted police, they minimized her concern: "These brutal suggestions that people should kick me in the face if they saw me were nothing more than ‘childish threats,’ I was told." L., for her part, is condescended to by her department and professors and fears she could face expulsion if her school finds out how she's paying its bills; Parreira has fewer barriers at the moment, but still recognizes that sex work may, as she says, put up "mini road blocks in my professional (academic) future."

In short, varied as their relationships to school and to sex work are, Knox, L., and Parreira would all be better able to pursue their education and their futures if they weren't marked and stigmatized because of their jobs. All three of these women would, I think, agree with Parreira when she says, "My hope is that society will eventually evolve to a place where it can respect and recognize sex workers as the human beings and laborers that we are, minus all of the stigma and moralistic judgments."

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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