It’s Sunday night, and Susan is watching Jersey Shore. While Snooki and Vinny trade inane blows in the background, she grabs a mottled blanket and slides away from the television to make room for her dog on the couch. The program goes to commercial break, and as Susan wraps herself in wool, she momentarily shifts her gaze toward the canine lying at her feet.
“Last night was horrible,” she declares. “It’s a big ego blow when fat, old weirdos who never have a chance in their life say ‘no’ to you. Like, come on.” She rolls her eyes and falls silent. The complaint is one that women around Penn are likely echoing at that exact moment as they break down their weekends with their girlfriends. But unlike the regular crowd at Blarney or Smoke’s, striking out with men holds an entirely different connotation for Susan.
Three or four times a month, Susan dons high heels and boy shorts. She ties up a collared shirt and spends some extra time checking her makeup in front of the mirror before heading to a private club in Philly. She buzzes a doorbell when she arrives, looking into a camera that checks her identity before she is eventually let in. Normally, once she enters, Susan is greeted by a coterie of men eager to approach her. Saturday night was different.
“It was just so hard to make money,” she sighs. “It’s never hard to make money.”
As a foot fetish model, Susan (a College student whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) is just one of an increasing number of college students working within the sex industry. Research indicates that in light of recent tuition hikes and increasing student debt, sex work — a contested umbrella term that includes activities like erotic or fetish modeling and webcam work, as well as prostitution and stripping — has become an attractive alternative for the typical low–pay jobs offered to undergraduates.
Given Susan’s financial success, it’s easy to understand the trend. Prior to working foot parties, Susan spent three years working as an exotic dancer. During one three–month period, she accumulated $10,000. After that point, she says, it was difficult to leave sex work for something deemed more legitimate.
“Before I did the foot thing, I stopped dancing for a little bit,” she says. “I had three jobs, and I didn’t make in a month what I used to make in a day.”
Though working as a fetish model has been considerably less lucrative, Susan still averages 800 bucks a weekend. “I get mad when I don’t make 500 bucks in four hours,” she explains. “I get so aggravated.”
That money comes directly from the men in attendance at weekly parties. The partygoers, most of whom Susan describes as “older guys or ugly guys,” pay a $50 entrance fee to the organization that sponsors the get–togethers. For that price, they gain access to a dim room rife with both catered food and sexy women. If a girl catches their eye while the men mingle and scan the crowd, they have the option to pay $40 to the house for a private room equipped with a bed or a long couch. After that point, the money goes directly to the models.
Susan gets paid a base rate of $20 for a five–minute lap dance. For anything else that men request during these private sessions, she says, the price is negotiable. Typically, that “anything else” refers to the opportunity to massage, lick or suck her feet. Often, she is asked to put her feet in a man’s face or walk on his chest.
Still, it’s the more unique requests that Susan finds most interesting.
“Last night, this one guy…” she grins and shakes her head. “He brings a mirror with him and has me pretend that I’m Regina George from Mean Girls. And so I have to stand there and say ‘I’m so pretty’ and act like a snotty sorority bitch, while he rolls on the floor and has me choke him with my feet.”
Another man asks to buy her socks and then wants the girls to “literally knock the crap out of him and say the most racist stuff possible.” (Though Susan elaborates, the phrases she spouts off are hardly fit for publication). Yet another prefers that the women wear Uggs when they tread across his torso. “I don’t get it, but I’ll walk on you all day.” She pauses before adding, “It’s easy money.”
And while finances might not be Susan’s only motivation for pursuing this line of work — she unabashedly admits that “the foot thing is kind of fun” — money is her primary reason for continuing in such a stigmatized job.
On the most basic level, working as a fetish model has helped defray the cost of her apartment and funded a spring break trip. But Susan also credits her work with alleviating the financial pressures of student life at Penn.
“People have a lot of money here, and it’s just depressing, and then they just assume that anyone can buy what they can,” she explains. “My work puts me on the fringe a little bit, but because I have that extra money, I can fit in other ways. I don’t have to pick which BYO to go to. I don’t have to spend less at bars.”
For Julie (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy), working in the sex industry was a way to conquer the uncertainty and lack of confidence that plagued the beginning of her time at Penn.
“At that point of my life,” she explains to me, “I was thinking: ‘if you don’t pass organic chemistry, what is your life worth?’”
A family tragedy that occurred shortly before Julie’s freshman year had gotten her collegiate experience off to a rocky start. “I kept feeling like everyone was happy and drunk all of the time,” she says. “I couldn’t relate.”
After two years at Penn, Julie wasn’t doing well in her classes, and she left school to figure out what direction she wanted to go in with her life. Though she searched for a job as a waitress or hostess, a slate of rejections left her feeling insecure about her “not–so–impressive” resume.
That’s when a friend from high school told Julie about a mutual friend who was working in a BDSM dungeon. “They trained her for free, and she was up and running in a week,” Julie says. “I didn’t know a lot about it,” she admits, hesitating momentarily before offering a sheepish smile. “But the friend of ours who — well, I thought ‘if that girl can get a job, I’m pretty sure I can.’”
BDSM is a form of consensual sexual roleplaying involving bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism. These activities typically take place at a “scene,” where participants take either a dominant or a submissive role. The former — generally known as the master or the mistress — has the controlling role and subjects the latter to acts of bondage, flogging and general humiliation.
Professional “dungeons,” staffed by dominators and dominatrices, have emerged to provide a space for BDSM enthusiasts to act out their fantasies. Typically, according to Julie, an aspiring dominatrix will “apprentice to a practicing mistress and pay her a fee for her troubles.” In Julie’s case, she simply sent off her measurements and sat for an interview before she was given the job.
While most of the women at her dungeon also had other work, Julie was one of few full–time employees. Because of her hours, she was soon making $500 a week and taking a client a day. But while Julie enjoyed knowing she could support herself, she was already living rent–free at home, and the money was not so important. Instead, she found her work as a dominatrix to be more fulfilling than her time at Penn. “I found out I could do what I wanted,” she explains. “That kind of confidence was important to me.”
That’s not to say that the attributes that make Julie a successful Penn student didn’t carry over to her work. “You have to be relentless,” she says, “a go–getter.” Moreover, Julie’s lack of experience in the BDSM community led to a steep learning curve that required the use of her naturally acquisitive mind.
After being hired at the dungeon where Julie worked, new mistresses would sit down with their more experienced co–workers to have their “limits tested.” The experienced mistress would read an item from a checklist of standard BDSM activities, and the new hire would have to say “yes” or “no” to indicate what they were comfortable with. “Everything on that list was something I’d never done before,” Julie admits.
Despite her unfamiliarity, she got acclimated quickly, working in both dominant and submissive roles for her clients, who were mostly doctors, businessmen and lawyers. As a dominatrix, she was quickly administering humiliating acts to men that she had previously never considered. She found it appropriately powerful.
“I would dress guys up in bras and panties and stockings, and I’d have a little vibrator or a whip,” she says. “You would just torture this guy and threaten to rape him. It just felt like fun for me, and it felt like fun for the guys too.
“Sometimes, I would have a big strap–on, and they would have to blow me. If you watch somebody do that to your fake penis, it starts to feel good after a while,” she adds. “As a woman, I just imagined what the biggest jerk in the world would do to a girl… and I would do that.”
Even assuming a submissive position proved invigorating for Julie. “The submissive gets to set the standards of what goes on. As the one working, I was taught that I was always in control.” She pauses briefly. “Some of the best masters, after a session, they just cuddle you. They hold you, stroke your hair. I felt good afterwards — just crying, it was a release of stress.”
After a year, Julie was on a hot streak. But just as quickly as she entered the BDSM scene, circumstances changed and drove her to leave. After receiving countless calls asking about the appearance of his employees, the dungeon’s owner decided to post pictures of the girls on the dungeon’s website. Julie knew that she wanted to eventually return to Penn and pursue other work, and she didn’t want to have to worry that a picture of her as a dominatrix was publicly available on the internet. Surprisingly, she was the only employee at the dungeon to have that concern.
Besides, at the time, she was just ready to be done. “That kind of erotic, seductive interaction,” she says, “can get very exhausting.”
George (a male Penn student whose name has been changed to protect his privacy) faced that experience first–hand when an e–mail to a closed listserv outed him as a gay male escort. Before long, the information was posted on a social networking site.
“You have to be prepared for the fact that your life could end at any moment,” he says, staring at his hands. “That [experience] devastated me pretty entirely.”
The exclusion that George experienced following that incident mirrored the circumstances which originally led him to his work as an escort. “I came to college having felt excluded because of my sexuality and identity, which was still something I was mitigating,” he says. That struggle over identity, he believes, is also what led his clients, “almost all straight or closeted men,” to seek out a sex worker in the first place.
After his employment was revealed, the stigma attached to being a sex worker proved inescapable. Rather than quit, George continued to work as an escort “because it became the only thing that I could cling to in terms of control.” On a call, George could just walk out on his clients. At Penn, he was ostracized and labeled by Penn’s gay male community. The irony of a community of purportedly welcoming individuals who were probably socially alienated before coming to college does not escape him.
“[At the time], it was like, ‘Well, what do I do?’” he explains. “‘I can’t go out, so I’m going to go out and make $1,000 a week, and you all can suck it.’”
Eventually, George says, he just decided he was done with the job. “I don’t think people my age do that kind of work — for gay male escorts, at least — for more than two or three years,” he muses. “I didn’t need it anymore.”
George also grew tired of the secrecy associated with being a sex worker. “It basically meant I couldn’t see anybody ever. And maybe I wanted to date somebody and not have to worry about secrets.”
That concern is one that Julie also understood. “I met my boyfriend when I had been working there about six weeks. I was warned that he’d think I was doing other things or that he’d feel uncomfortable with me having my clothes off in front of other guys.”
When asked if he would ever consider returning to the sex industry, George immediately says no, adding that he does not want to go “back to [the] bad mental space” he associates with his time as an escort. But despite his emotional and psychological struggles, George does not seem to harbor any regret for his choice of employment.
“Did I do it for a specific reason? Sure,” he says. “Do I think it was bad? No.”
Julie, who, like George, no longer works in the sex industry and has no plans to return, shares that sentiment. “This part of my past is a thing that I can whip out. It feels like cards that I can play,” she explains. “I’m not itching to get back into this business. But knowing I could support myself was nice.”
For her part, Susan plans to continue working as a foot–fetish model, only stopping when “something else fulfills that part of my income.”
And despite the occasional judgmental looks and passive–aggressive comments made by some of the people who are familiar with her line of work, she is far from ambivalent about her choice to get into the business. “Fuck it. It’s providing me with a good life,” she scoffs. “And who cares what they think?”