Home Politics The Price of Knowledge: Discrimination Against Sex Workers In Academia

The Price of Knowledge: Discrimination Against Sex Workers In Academia

(Image via plasticdollheads.com, courtesy of Gemma Ahearne)
(Image via plasticdollheads.com, courtesy of Gemma Ahearne)

This essay is based on research interviews I conducted with current and former sex workers who are undergraduate or graduate students at universities across the globe. Their names and other identifying information have been changed.

I am subject to the capricious whims of my patriarch, a pimp of sorts, the man who decides the parameters of my labor. He is benevolent; soothing my insecurities with promises of better pay and better working conditions, someday. Things will improve, he promises. Someday, I will be able to keep what I earn, I’ll have adequate health care, and I’ll be treated as my patriarch’s equal. But first, I must pledge my allegiance to indentured servitude despite its accompaniment of crushing debt. I must allow for my assimilation into an exploitative system for a mere chance at cultural capital. I must sell my body and mind for the privilege that comes with letters after my name. I love my patriarch, though—he punctually answers e-mails and often praises my free labor. He plies me with booze to show his affection and, as evidenced by his gentle hazing, clearly favors me.

I am, of course, an academic.

There has been much ado about sex workers in academia lately. Noah Berlatsky wrote about the the value of sex worker led research in academia at the Pacific Standard; Livemint covered groundbreaking new research on Asian sex workers, HIV, and violence recently released in collaboration with regional sex workers’ rights organizations; and Lime Jello articulated the problems of studying sex workers here at Tits and Sass. Of course, there has always been immense curiosity, gross fetishization, and erratic speculation surrounding those of us who dabble in both the realms of the body and the mind. And true to my liberal art discipline’s form, I think it all says something larger about society.

I started working in the sex industry a great while ago and while my relationship to the sex industry has morphed after all these years—from an idealized notion of “liberation” in my younger days to a sense of disdain for and annoyance with the work—I still see myself as a sex worker first and an academic second.

It was pure happenstance that I fell into academia at all. By the time I learned what graduate school was, I’d worked as an independent escort and stripper for years. Upon being accepted to a Ph.D. program, it felt only natural for me to write about the situations and spaces which I occupied. The impetus for my academic curiosity was never about “access”—in fact, I find the concept of “accessing hard to reach populations” exploitative and condescending. I’ve always been one for internal exploration over armchair ethnography that privileges “the sociologist’s gaze.” There’s very little one can know about the world while rejecting self-reflection with the impunity of a toddler. All this to say, I study my precise social location: the experiences of sex workers in academia.

Aspasia, a Classical sex worker said to have influenced Socrates.  ("Aspasia Surrounded By Greek Philosphers" by Michel II Corneille, via wikimedia)
Aspasia, a Classical sex worker said to have influenced Socrates. (“Aspasia Surrounded By Greek Philosophers” by Michel II Corneille, via Wikimedia)

It’s no secret that the overarching narrative of “woman” comes from the Western world’s conflation of virginity and purity. Indeed, almost every Western religious origin story begins with the miraculous, virgin birth of an extraordinary man. The lesson is rather transparent: only within the context of bridled female sexuality do men have the capacity for excellence.

Female-identified whores stand in stark contrast to bridled sexuality. Whores, supposedly, have indiscriminate desires, are infinitely desirable, and point their moral compasses in the direction of pleasure. We have also had privileged access to the public sphere, the sphere of knowledge, much like other women who have—for reasons of economics and/or structural oppression—existed outside of the domestic realm.

But the whores of history were only granted access to the realm of ideas through their relations with prominent men. Despite gender relations being slightly more tolerable these days, knowledge still comes with a price. In my research, I ask, what is that price for contemporary sex workers?

Sex workers in my study often feel as though their erotic labor—more so than any other labor or sexual identity—contributes to discrimination against them in academia. And that discrimination is hard to ignore: Lena, for example, was unwittingly outed as a sex worker when her school newspaper published a still image from a porn video in which she’d performed, but no one was reprimanded for this blatant invasion of privacy. In fact, the video spread throughout the college and even landed in the hands of alumni.

Invasion of privacy seems a constant theme for sex workers in academia. From colleagues publishing intimate information about us to invasive questions about the particulars of our erotic labor, sex workers in academia are generally treated as though we don’t have boundaries.

Most sex workers I interviewed said they entered the sex industry because of financial need: Noel is from a lower-class family and saw education as her way out, a way of garnering “cultural capital.” Sex work was her only means of accessing education. Sarah was, in her words, “a teenage throwaway.” Jamie was a single mother who often found herself nearing homelessness with her children. Sex work was a means of supporting her family while education was her ticket out of sex work.

Yet, as she explained it to me, Jamie’s class and sex work became almost inseparable in academia. One of her committee members, attempting to “put [her] in [her] gendered, classed, and sexualized place” after she asserted her professional boundaries, looked her up and down “with that upper-class, white male gaze” and lashed out, “Too bad you’re a welfare case!”

(Image via plasticdollheads.wordpress.com, courtesy of Gemma Ahearne)
(Image via plasticdollheads.wordpress.com, courtesy of Gemma Ahearne)

Both Bailey and Jenna had “limited life choices” because of childhood poverty and other trauma. And both feel as if colleagues perceive them to be less intellectually rigorous because of their work in the sex industry: “Like we were supposed to just accept our fate as poor,” Bailey says. This belief in sex workers’ intellectual inferiority is, of course, self-propagating.

Indeed, whorephobia in academia is a politically correct form of classism—a means of protecting the public sphere, the sphere of knowledge, from so-called sexual deviants: upwardly mobile poor women. And yet, even whilst dehumanizing us, our colleagues, students, and professors routinely proposition us. That’s not to say sexual propositions are inherently oppressive or objectifying. But when they stem from masculine entitlement and are enacted in a professional environment, they are sexual harassment.

Critiqued for propagating patriarchy, sex workers are often charged with the task of dismantling it. We are accused of “pimping” and otherwise sexually exploiting women through our work, making us responsible for the bad behavior of men. Furthermore, this sort of sex worker exclusionary feminist reasoning makes us more susceptible to the abuses specific to patriarchy: if we are responsible for our own sexual harassment, as an example, what’s stopping men from sexually harassing us with impunity? Factor in the persistent cultural belief that sex workers are sexually insatiable and it’s no wonder that sex workers in academia experience a great deal of unwanted sexual attention.

My first experience, in a series of many, with unwanted sexual attention in academia superseded my coming out as a sex worker. Seated in my superior’s office, flanked by grey walls and harsh lighting, I proudly displayed the literature review I’d been working on for my mentor. “That’s nice,” he said with a smile. “But I called you in here today to talk about your… other work.” I knew exactly what he meant. So I quoted a price so high even a white, middle-class, tenured male professor couldn’t swing it. He later apologized and said he thought of me more as a daughter than a fuck buddy, anyway. (Gee, uh, OK… thanks?)

And I’m not alone. A significant portion of sex workers I interviewed experienced some degree of unwanted sexual attention in academia. And in the rare instances wherein an interviewee said she had not been propositioned by her superior(s), she nonetheless feared that her relationships with colleagues might be perceived as sexual. Samantha and Jenna, as examples, both noted that male professors refused to meet with them privately, despite meeting privately with other students, after both women came out as sex workers. “It’s like they’re afraid I’m going to…fuck ‘em,” Jenna said.

The belief that sex workers are always ready to fuck is not insignificant. It represents a continued insistence on the virgin/whore dichotomy. Ostensibly, there exist only virginal, domestic women and those other, fuckable women. This dichotomy sustains the public sphere as a boy’s only club where women, upon entering, become mere objects of consumption in a marketplace. Furthermore, both caricatures depend almost entirely on the idea that women must be classified and subjugated by men.

For people like me who study the sex industry while also working as a sex worker, it is more challenging to be taken seriously than for those who, say, study vegetarians while also practicing vegetarianism. Furthermore, as Drs. Fiona Ingleby and Megan Head recently pointed out, the job prospects and general experiences of women in academia are markedly different from their male colleagues,’ namely because of the persistent assumption that women are inherently “ideologically biased…” This lament goes ten-fold for sex workers in academia who also study the sex industry.

At a pivotal point in my graduate student career, my superiors questioned me at length about my “ideologically-based research” on the sex industry. Their critique was meant to put me in my rightful, submissive place amongst my academic dominants. Flushed and drowning in sweat, I declared that only sex workers could speak to the experiences of other sex workers. This declaration alone almost cost me my credentials.

The gatekeepers of knowledge and the marketplace have always had a vested interest in suppressing the masses. Access to education and income are two primary ways that oppressed peoples have historically escaped the pangs of poverty. For this reason, the fact that sex workers in higher education are reporting higher instances of discrimination and harassment is significant. With the resurgence of sexual moral panics masquerading as anti-trafficking efforts, sex workers have been painted as either manipulative, vindictive harlots or intellectually inferior victims. Both these characterizations prohibit sex workers from fully participating in the public realm as scholars and agents.


  1. This is so on point, the idea that sex workers are both available for all of their little questions and curiosities but also people to be feared and kept away from speaks to the instrumentalization of sex workers as objects of study rather than humans. Great piece.


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