Home Interviews Tap Dancing For The Man: Leaving Academia For Sex Work

Tap Dancing For The Man: Leaving Academia For Sex Work

via flickr user Iain Farrell
via flickr user Iain Farrell

Leaving academia isn’t just for sex workers, but there are a good number of former academics among our contributors and readers. Once you’ve done sex work and experienced the particular freedoms it affords, academia’s constraints can seem more chafing and its endgame more pointless. This post in particular prompted us to have some of them talk about their experiences with higher education and why they left. Thank you to our participants, who will introduce themselves:

Charlotte Shane: I’m in the US and I went to school here, mostly. I got one graduate degree (M.A.) and then went for another. The second time was when I became…A DROPOUT. I’ve been sex working in one form or another since the start of my first grad school stint. I also have various straight jobs, but none of them are dependant on any degree. (Not even high school, I don’t think.)

chelsea g. summers: Possessing a checkered academic past, I didn’t graduate college until my mid-30s, a few years after I started stripping. I worked the last year or so of college as a stripper, the year between undergrad and grad school, and the first two years of grad school. When I started my Ph.D. program, I quit stripping because I realized my students had fake IDs. It was fine if they were hot for teacher, but I didn’t need them to see the evidence that teacher was hot. Plus, I did my work at a Jesuit college here in New York City. I left my program with an M.Phil in 18th-century British Literature and a staggering amount of debt.

Lux ATL: You can find me on Facebook and Twitter. I spent 12 years in higher education, earning a B.A. in English, an M.A. in Creative Writing, and a Ph.D. in Literary Studies. In 2013 I finished my Ph.D. and officially became a doctor.  I taught Freshman Composition from 2006 until 2014. I also spent my entire adult life working on and off as a stripper and occasional nude model. I started stripping when I was 18 and have continued to strip, with breaks in between, until present. I am currently 32.

What were some of your biggest frustrations with academia? Did you feel they were related to your specific area of study?

Charlotte: I didn’t research much at all about my second grad school program. I just liked being in school, wasn’t sure what else to do with myself, and wanted to focus on women’s studies—really, I would have rather done sex work studies, but that isn’t yet a thing, and I was naive enough to think women’s studies might include a non-shaming, non-carceral approach to sex work. Above all, I applied to the program because it was in the city where I wanted to be due to my boyfriend at the time. Incredibly stupid on all counts.

Firstly, the program was headed by a man. I am not making that up. Secondly, the ideology was fully second wave there. And basic beyond belief. Extremely white and privileged in its concerns. Lots of “is Oprah feminist?”-type conversations. It was an expensive, unfun frivolity.

I think liberal arts academia tends towards the insular and useless, but I still believe it’s a beautiful idea—learning in groups of peers in a structured way, studying great ideas, talking about “texts.” In practice, it’s got all the same systemic problems every other place does (the racism, the sexism) but it prides itself on being enlightened and better than that, so in some ways it’s even more toxic. I hated my first bout of grad school but was (again) naive enough to think maybe it would be better at a different school and in a different subject.

chelsea: I fucking love being in school. I’m the most devoted student. I love wrestling with books, doodling in class, writing esoteric papers, surprising jaded professors—the whole academic kit and caboodle. I also really loved teaching, especially teaching writing. My program, while it had its issues, was fairly idyllic, but when the reality of writing my dissertation smacked me in the face, and I had to wise up to spending years on a thing that would be read by, like, four people including my mother, I just couldn’t. I got blocked, and I started a blog about sex. It was really very popular.

After leaving the program, I got a job (amazing, I know) as the director of the writing center at one of the community colleges in NYC. It was—bar none—the worst work experience of my life. My dean was abusive. My school’s philosophy was infantilizing. My colleagues were bureaucrats. Nothing made me more delighted than giving my notice. These days, I miss teaching very much, but I’m entirely soured on academia.

Lux: Giving my notice gave me great pleasure as well!

As a naïve young adult, I had some sense that the academy would be a place where I could exercise my talents, write professionally—ideally, write novels—and teach literature classes “on the side” for my income. However, by the time I entered the Ph.D. program, the veil began to lower and my disillusionment with the academy grew.

My frustrations with the academy: elitism. Insularity. Navel-gazing. Lip service to proletarian equality in the incomprehensible language of the intellectual elite. I’m from the English department, but I think these problems are pretty pervasive across disciplines.

via flickr user Duke University Archives
via flickr user Duke University Archives

Did you leave because it wasn’t going to pay the bills?

Charlotte: I’d have stayed in the program if I felt I was getting something practical out of it, such as actual knowledge or improved thinking/writing/arguing skills. Obviously a women’s studies degree is not marketable in any way, so it’s not like I realized that after enrolling. There were several factors at work in my leaving, the largest of which was that the program itself was a profound disappointment. I sometimes even had trouble respecting other women in the program because our discussion topics and focus seemed so petty and worthless. I also didn’t see any return on investment, and continuing to pay tuition made no sense. The other factor was my major love affair with in-person sex work, and the oodles of cash I was making, and I didn’t want anything to interfere with me pursuing that.

chelsea: I took a pay cut from my academic job when I accepted the job I have now. This is how much I loathed my academic job. That said, I’ve paid about $2,000 of my six-figure student loan, and it keeps me up at night. Unless I write something enormous and wonderful (which is something that my schooling makes possible, in part), I’m never, ever, ever paying it off.

Lux: As a grad assistant, the money was laughably exploitative. As an instructor with a Ph.D., the money was the best I’d ever made at any legitimate job in my life, but that salary equals that of a high school teacher and is modest by most standards. I make at least $20k more a year stripping than I do teaching at university level, Ph.D. in hand

I’ve always made a killing stripping and have used this money to fund all the great advancements in my life, from world travel to artistic pursuits to starting my own business. While stripping gets seriously old with all the FUCKING ASSHOLES in the club disrespecting me while I feel they are infinitely stupid but am not at liberty to call them out on their stupidity because I want their money—whoa sorry mini-rant—anyhoo, while stripping gets old, it is still the only job I have ever genuinely enjoyed.

Or perhaps you left because of other reasons?

Charlotte: I came back to campus briefly the year after I left to talk to a grad class about sex work. I was fairly out as a sex worker when I was studying in other departments—not my own—and I connected with a professor (again, not in the women’s studies department) who was really into SW activism/rights. That professor was the one who asked me to come in and speak on my experiences. So I did, and there were people in that class who I used to be in the women’s studies program with, which was a little weird. But after class, they were all like, “I understand why you left! That sounds awesome. I’m jealous of the money you make. Things here still suck.” It was hilarious and validating. As we all know, no little girl wants to grow up to be a prostitute, but apparently some women’s studies grad students do.

chelsea: I left my grad program because I wanted to write things that people would read, and I couldn’t stand the endless progression of mystifying hoops I’d have to jump through for the questionable privilege of teaching a three-four load to disaffected students. I left my academic job because it was a toxic, horrible, soul-killing environment, and an institution that holds all the childlike whimsy of a penal colony.

Lux: Check my blog for the full story. Five minute read. The short answer, excerpted from above blog: “The academy does not feel like home. It’s too staid for me, and honestly, and probably most importantly (second only to my quality of life): I don’t believe in it[…]The bottom line for me, though, is this: I’m not willing to sacrifice what a successful career in the academy demands. I love other things more. I know what will make me happy and it’s not compatible with the academy.”

I second chelsea regarding the desire to write things people would actually read.

What do you get to do in life as a sex worker that you couldn’t have as an academic?

Charlotte: Travel a ton. Earn ridiculous amounts of money. Make my own schedule. Take time off whenever I want. Study whatever I want, albeit on my own, and more importantly, write whatever I want

chelsea: I left stripping in August 1999, so I’m looking at my 15-year anniversary this summer. I miss it regularly. I sometimes muse about prostitution because I’m bored, middle-class poor, and sex deprived. I don’t think I’d actually do it.

Lux: Free time. The ability to leave work at work. Enough income to save money—not just live from paycheck to paycheck. An excuse to wear false eyelashes and go hard on the stage. I’m a performer and love to entertain, so that aspect appeals to me as well. The ability to write whatever I want and be whomever I want without fear of being fired.

from chelsea's Pretty Dumb Things
from chelsea’s Pretty Dumb Things

What do you miss about academia? What makes you feel intellectually fulfilled now?

Charlotte: I think I miss the idea of what I thought academia would be or could be. But thinking about this question for a bit helped me realize I really don’t miss it at all.

I’m lucky to have incredibly bright friends who keep me informed and challenged right now, and I think I’ve grown a lot more out of school than I did inside. But that might be an age thing and not necessarily a functioning of leaving academia. It’s unlikely I’d be as liberal and as open-minded as I am—is that bragging?—without other sex workers provoking me to think more about the prison industrial complex, ableism, transphobia, racism, etc. I love that I know people who help me see things in more critical and intelligent ways than most books or teachers in institutions do. I remember my best professors from undergrad. Grad school is sort of phoned in, in my experience, because the attitude is, “you’re all adults now, you can figure this out on your own. Read this thing and write that thing and we’ll call it a day.”

chelsea: I really miss teaching. I love being presented with problems and showing people how to figure them out. I miss showing people that they actually can write convincing, interesting essays. I miss sharing the love of excellent grammar. I do not, however, miss grading. Grading is the Sisyphean curse of teaching.

Lux: Grading is hell indeed. I miss nothing about academia. I’m so thrilled to be out. I’m more intellectually fulfilled now than ever.  Once I left the academy, the fear of being outed for my true identity as a sex worker disappeared, and I was able to speak honestly as a stripper with a PhD—my full authentic self. Turns out, people were very interested in that identity, and indeed, loved me for it. I gained a bigger audience from Facebook and Twitter and the Doctor Outta Here blog than I ever enjoyed when writing about 1850s literature for academic journals. As an academic I wanted to change the world. Now I actually do.

Outside of academic parameters, I am able to speak frankly and without jargon on a down-to-earth level. I’m able to express my hopes and dreams for women—because as corny as it may sound, empowering women is my number one passion—and galvanize folks, gain supporters, help change peoples’ minds.

What are the similarities between sex work and academia?

Charlotte: Having to stroke the egos of old white men in order to get ahead.

chelsea: Ha, yes, ego-stroking absolutely. Also this performative aspect—both stripping and academia require you to act as if you’re really, really interested, even when you’re not. Finally, I’ve only ever felt comfortable in two places: the strip club and the academy. The latter because they’re geeks like me, and the former because they’re freaks like me. Or the other way around, really. Both are equally true.

Lux:  What are similarities between sex work and academia? Simple. Tap dancing for The Man.


  1. Pretty damning stuff about academia! Makes me feel kind of sad because I genuinely love my department and being a PhD student. I do sometimes encounter the issues complained about here (unwarranted snobbery and backwards old white dudes), but mostly when I interact with other institutions or publications. There are still some bubbles out there that truly are just a bunch of very smart people trying to cultivate cool ideas in younger smart people, with no bullshit =^_^= But I suppose it’s not relevant to the site to interview someone under the header, “I’m happy in academia and my sex work career was a non-starter”…! I hope everyone gets the opportunity to find the career path that suits them and makes them happy.

  2. Great article!

    I’m a current college student (age 21) just starting on the academic hamster wheel (sophomore year). Initially (at 17), I wanted to be an anthropologist, so I headed for Europe, hitchhiking, couchsurfing, olivepicking and cavedwelling my hippieish way to understanding humanity. I figured that self-directed field school was the most direct and debt-free way to learn. I’m stubborn and ghettofab that way.

    It wasn’t until I escorted in Istanbul, however, that I began to realize how interconnected the world is, and how diverse mankind can be. (But of course, we all have the same needs, and money is a universal language.)

    In the daytimes I taught beginner English at a brand new little school, but I felt ungrammatical and uneducated. I dressed up in my professional-looking outfit and I felt like a phony. Whiteboards, tape recorders, substitute teaching a class of 12 that repeated everything I said in Turkish, refusing to do assignments because I was at least six years younger than any of my students… I was not cut out for the struggle and self-doubt.

    At night I would get my outcalls, and there I was my element! Here, I was overqualified. I had lived on three continents, spoke four languages, and knew how to flatter a tired businessman. There was no struggle; I knew my sexual, emotional and intellectual boundaries. I could describe them clearly and live by them.

    Academia does not have vocabulary for emotional and intellectual boundaries. The expectation is that you let school hijack your life, your mind, and your emotions (“exams this week, I’m ugly and sweatpants-y, I can’t come out” or “what does that bitch MEAN, C-minus?”)

    It’s got its moments, though. And every superhero, even a sex worker, needs a dayjob.

  3. I start a PhD program in women’s studies in September. I love my school and department, even if there have been a few administrative hiccups (during the changeover from one GPD to the new one, the new one told us the wrong course requirements and a bunch of MAs took an extra course than was necessary). My department is super sex worker friendly (I’m one of four sex workers doing research about sex work at the MA level and there are at least two or three more at the PhD level). My supervisor has written a number of things about sex work in the Caribbean and she’s wonderful. But, I will say this, there is a serious disconnect between academia and activism and I still get frustrated by students who find out I’m a sex worker doing sex work research who then want me to educate them. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

    • That’s so awesome that there are out SWs in your department and that it is SW friendly. Jealous! Do you know if the PhD students intend to look for academic positions when they finish? Because one of the things I struggle with is knowing that finding a Tenure Track job is so difficult in the first place, and I can’t imagine that hiring committees would look favorably upon a history of sex work.

  4. Sex work, for me, affords me the opportunity to pursue higher education. Through my work I have the freedom and money to continue my studies. Working outside of the adult entertainment realm I have found it difficult, if not downright impossible, to continue my studies.
    Without a degree, the jobs I have worked are the typical- waitress, receptionist, sales. Being a single lady, I am usually required to work 2 jobs just to make ends meet. Working a sales job, I make more money but I have found that I am required to work a zillion hours, and so my grades suffer.
    One of the perks of being an entertainer is the fact that I can work toward my degree without any debt, and I can truly apply myself. My grades are excellent and I have time to really learn.
    I truly enjoy my work and feel no shame from it. I have grown in many ways through my work and it has forged a deep understanding in me of the human condition in general. I have had the opportunity to meet some truly beautiful and wonderful souls, and every day I learn something about myself and people as a whole. I look now for at our similarities, I don’t waste time pointing out our differences.


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