Students enter college expecting “the best four years of their lives.” Many are on their own for the first time: decorating their dorm rooms with posters, registering for classes they're passionate about, and choosing which frat to party at on Friday night.
But this newfound independence can come with its own challenges. A college like Penn costs upward of $80,000. At times when work–study cannot pay the bills, some students turn to alternative strategies.
Sex work is not traditionally associated with higher education, but for between 2.1% and 7% of college students, it's the form of work they turn to. While each sex worker has a unique experience, most students engage in sex work to achieve financial stability, according to a 2021 Iowa State study. Amid days of attending classes, studying for exams, and sometimes working an additional day job, students involved in the sex industry find themselves with an extra list of responsibilities.
Macy, a graduate student at Penn, has been a sex worker for the better part of the last decade. When asked how they chose their work name, Macy—who uses both she/her and they/them pronouns—responded with a chuckle.
“I met a hot girl named Macy at a queer dance party,” Macy says. “I liked the name, so I stole it.”
Macy began working in the sex industry during their junior year of college. It all started on Tumblr.
“I was following someone who talked about camming, and I was really broke,” Macy says.
With no financial support from family and an underpaid work–study position, Macy began performing online sex work to pay her tuition and rent. She was drawn to the sex industry because it allowed her to make money “on [her] own terms.”
Sex workers engage in several forms of work that can be online or offline. Camming involves charging clients on websites and social media platforms for live or recorded sexual performance. When sugaring, sex workers spend time and offer sexual services to older, wealthy men in exchange for gifts and money.
Over the years, Macy has delved into many different areas of the sex industry, nearly all online.
They entered the industry with camming. A few years later, they briefly tried sugaring, but found that they didn’t enjoy it. After talking with another Tumblr user who'd moved from sugaring to pro–domming, they also made the switch.
Pro–dommes take part in domination, which can sometimes include topping, BDSM, or kink. “The main characteristic from my experience is just performing control over my client,” says Macy. “I say ‘performing’ because the reality is that clients have more power in those situations because we are doing criminalized work.”
Some of the risks involved: Clients may not pay, and are in a position to call the police on the workers or physically harm them without repercussion. If employers or colleagues discover her second job, Macy could be fired.
When interacting with clients, Macy has a number of strategies to help protect themself, including screening clients and ensuring work and personal social media photos don’t overlap. Like most sex workers, she has limits on what she can do, and is comfortable doing, with clients. As a prerequisite for an interview, Macy sent a series of ethical guidelines designed to protect their identity and the image of sex workers.
Throughout her sex work career, Macy has always had a day job. She emphasizes that sex work is among the most “humanizing” forms of work, as she's able to set her hours and pay rates to align with her perception of the work’s value. The income allowed her to start seeing doctors and therapists at a time when she did not have health insurance.
“I’ve began to see [sex work] as a form of resistance to a lot of the really exploitative labor conditions that we live in,” Macy says.
Throughout our conversation, Macy repeatedly acknowledges the privilege she holds as a white sex worker. Black, brown, indigenous, and trans sex workers are disproportionately impacted by violence and policing, and are not always in the position to set their own wages or work as they choose.
“My safety, access, and income as a sex worker is deeply informed by white supremacy and the way I benefit from that as a white person,” Macy says.
At the beginning of their sex work career, the stigma around their line of work affected Macy’s ability to share their experiences with most of the important people in their life. Their boyfriend at the time was the only person who knew.
“There wasn’t OnlyFans; there were really janky old camming sites,” Macy says. “I didn’t feel comfortable or safe sharing what I did for money. Peoples’ attitudes about sex work were really harmful, and that was something you could count on from everybody you talked to because of the lack of understanding and awareness.”
By 2020, Macy felt more comfortable sharing her story with friends and even a few select family members. She credits celebrities who have become more open about their sex work experiences and the sex workers’ rights movement, largely led by trans sex workers of color, for the shift in narrative that’s happened over the past couple of years.
“I was proud to identify as a sex worker and still am proud,” Macy says. “But not everybody has earned my story. I will always recognize that a lot of our experiences are very sacred and are meant to be held within our community.”
However, Macy remains selective with who they choose to share their story with. “Anytime I hear people—even jokingly—refer to one another or themselves as whores who are not sex workers, I [know] that's not a safe person for me to talk about my experience,” Macy says.
The myths that surround sex work contribute to the stigma that sex workers face. Common narratives tend to portray sex workers either as victims with no other choice or empowered women who love the work. Macy contests this simplistic binary, emphasizing that the reality is more “complicated and nuanced.”
“In my mind, all forms of labor are coerced to some degree,” Macy says. “I don’t want to go to my day job, but I also don’t want to starve and die. For many people, sex work is the best available option to meet those basic needs. We should let people speak for themselves about their reasons for entering the industry and believe them.”
With the exception of Nevada, where prostitution is legal in regulated brothels, sex work is illegal in nearly all parts of the United States. Many sex workers are caught in “cycles of surveillance and criminalization,” according to Sex Workers and Allies Network, including charges related to trespassing and loitering aimed at street–based sex workers.
These laws have detrimental impacts on the everyday lives of sex workers. Arrest and conviction records make it challenging for sex workers to find other kinds of work, access housing and other public benefits, vote, and qualify for financial aid, among other challenges. Further, sex workers disproportionately lack access to health care and are less likely to report violence due to the criminalized nature of their work, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
COVID–19 only exacerbated the inequities that sex workers face. According to the research program “Sex Work & COVID–19,” sex workers were forced to choose between their health and basic needs as sex work venues closed, client interest declined, the virus spread, and were excluded from COVID–19 relief.
“I was extremely lucky because my work is primarily online,” Macy says. “I continued, although a lot of my clients were financially strained themselves. But many people work exclusively in person and don’t have the luxury of online work. They had to make the difficult transition to online or continue in person while doing their best to stay safe. The pandemic really hit many of us hard.”
While Macy views decriminalization as an important step towards providing sex workers with access to safety and support resources, they believe legislation is only a small part of the solution.
“The liberation of all sex workers would take a complete upheaval of how our world works,” Macy says. “We would have to revise how we relate to each other and uproot all forms of systemic oppression to make conditions safer for sex workers.”
The California legislature has taken steps to improve working conditions and better the everyday lives of the state’s sex workers. In July 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Safer Streets for All Act, which will help to prevent discriminatory arrests and harassment based on dress and career choice.
The act, which took effect on Jan. 1, repealed California Penal Code Section 653.22, which criminalized loitering for the intent to engage in sex work and permitted unjust profiling of trans women and cisgender women of color, according to the ACLU.
“Anti–loitering laws are usually used to disproportionately arrest and imprison Black and brown folks, sex workers, trans people, and people at the intersections of all those experiences,” Macy says. “It’s an amazing step forward, but decriminalizing is the goal. When it’s criminalized, it is just really, really hard to offer people services who are being harmed in the industry.”
Many other college students like Macy are impacted by the stigma and bias that surrounds sex work, and sex work on college campuses remains neglected and underresearched. The Iowa State study highlights the stories of seven college students involved in sex work, urging campus officials, administration, and health care services to provide support and visibility for sex workers on campus.
In a message to the campus community, one participant writes, “There are sex workers on your campus. We are here. In your classroom, downtown at the bars, in restaurants. We’re your roommate, your coworker, your friend. It’s not that we don’t want to tell you, we just don’t know if we can or how we could. We have to stay safe and stay hidden.”
But just because they’re hidden, doesn’t mean they’re not there. “Sex workers are everywhere, and the reality is that most people probably know at least one,” Macy says.
Macy isn’t aware of any services at Penn that specifically support student sex workers.
They also believe in the importance of minimizing the financial burden associated with attending university as means of supporting student sex workers.
“When I was putting myself through college, I had very few options to pay the bills,” Macy says. “If I wasn’t under the pressure of absurdly inflated tuition rates, I might have been able to sustain myself working ten hours a week in my work–study job. Anything that Penn can do to relieve the economic pressure will create a safer and more supportive environment for people, regardless of the work they’re doing.”
Ten years after their entrance into the sex work industry, Macy has started to wind down, working with only two of her long–term clients. The work is no longer the source of her rent, but instead contributes to forms of joy, including treating her friends, paying reparations, and donating to mutual aid efforts.
“When you’re in a field for ten years, you get pretty good at it,” Macy says. “I’ve been able to develop myself as a worker and build really strong relationships with some clients. My relationship to sex work has gone from a place of scarcity to one of abundance, and that’s really beautiful for me.”
To support student sex workers, check out this resource: supportforstudentsexworkers.org