Devin, a recent Dalhousie graduate, sometimes earns over $1,000 in a single day. She vacations in Europe, has a house cleaner and enjoys frequent shopping sprees at Betsey Johnson. The key to this psychology major's uncharacteristic financial security? Sex work and lots of it.
Like it or not, plenty of students find the best way to deal with mounting student debt is through working in the sex industry. This may entail taking their clothes off and gyrating on a pole, panting heavily into a telephone receiver, stepping on someone's face while telling them they are pathetic, supplying pleasant dinner conversation to older gentlemen in five-star restaurants or slipping into a latex suit while somebody films them eating a banana. The job descriptions are as diverse as the workers themselves. It's not for everyone, but many student sex workers say it's the ideal student job, citing the freedom to set your own schedule, good wages and fast cash. The cons? No workplace benefits, no paid sick days, the stigma associated with the job and the increased criminalization of sex work.
But for Devin---not her real name---a dominatrix and exotic dancer who graduated from Dalhousie with honours three years ago, the perks outweigh the cons. "I've paid off over $20,000 of my student debt and have a bunch of money in the bank for grad school," she says. Devin's story is not unusual. Studies show that plenty of students and recent graduates lead double lives, earning extra cash in the sex industry. Ninety percent of off-street sex workers polled in Vancouver in a 2007 Simon Fraser University study reported that they had some post-secondary education. Joe Marcello, a local agent at Atlantis Entertainment Agency, which provides exotic dancers for events, says stripping your way through university is appealing because "you can make a handsome sum in a few short years." He estimates that 80 percent of the exotic dancers who work for his company have some post-secondary education.
When we imagine sex workers, most people whip out the same female stereotype: she hangs out on shady street corners late at night, is hooked on drugs and is homeless. If none of these characteristics apply, people assume she has intimacy issues and is not mentally stable. In any case, she's always a victim. This may be the grim situation for some, but is not universally the case.
Michael Goodyear, a professor with Dalhousie University's department of medicine who runs an international network of sex work research, says that more often than not, these stereotypes don't apply. When media cite statistics about sex workers, they often rely on studies of street-based survival sex workers, painting everyone in the sex industry with the same brush.
"Most studies have been, up until very recently, focussed on the outdoor market because it was a sample of convenience, even though it only represents about 10 percent of all sex workers," he says. Studies on the indoor market paint a different picture. A three-year study of indoor sex workers by PEERS, a non-profit society established by former sex workers in Victoria, found that 57 percent reported feeling "mainly happy" about their line of work.
A recent gender and women's studies graduate with a wry sense of humour, who we'll call Lucy, felt working in soft-core fetish films was her best bet when it came to funding her education. After class, a "producer" would pick her and a friend up at her doorstep and take them to a house in Dartmouth that looked more like a Victorian teahouse than the set of a fetish video. He'd toss aside the grandmotherly furniture, quilts and cross-stitch, and slap wrestling mats down on the floor, recalls Lucy. She acted in custom-order videos for his private clients. This entailed dressing up as trashy female wrestling stars and getting one another in fake holds, while delivering scripted bits of lewd dialogue.
"Sometimes we had to redo the takes because we'd just burst out laughing because it was so campy!" recalls Lucy, laughing. "I could never take WWF seriously. This was like all the drama of WWF times 10 and with more tits."
She preferred the work to waiting tables and bartending, where she earned less money and had to adhere to a schedule that interfered with schoolwork. "When someone tells you, 'Hey, you can wrestle with your friend for a couple hours and earn a couple hundred bucks,' that sounds way more appealing to me than working at [a local bar] until 6am in a corset, while drunk 19-year-olds throw quarters at you," she says.
Devin began working as a dominatrix while finishing her psychology degree. "I had personal experience with BDSM and knew there was money to be made," she explains. She posted an ad on Craigslist and before she knew it she was getting paid to spank clients and literally walk all over them with boots on. Devin has immaculately groomed violet toenails that poke out of her kitten heels. She found having her feet worshipped was both easy and lucrative. Clients pay $300 an hour for the privilege of licking and sucking her toes.
Devin insists that any student working as a freelance sex worker take safety precautions, as the underground industry has definite risks. She suggests screening potential clients by meeting them face to face in a public setting, such as a cafe. "If someone gives you the creeps it's never worth the money." If you're going to work in someone else's home, tell a friend where you're going, text or call a friend when you get there and make sure the client knows that someone knows where you are, she continues. "Always leave their name, phone number and hotel number with a friend," she says. "Call your friend when you're finished too, so they know you're OK." You can also get your friend to sit in a parked car outside and wait for you. Another thing to be mindful of is whether or not you're being videotaped. "If they want to limit the action in a certain part of the room, that's a tell-tale sign," says Devin.
After graduation, Devin started stripping regularly at Club Blush in Saint John. "What else are you going to do when you get out of school with a $30,000 debt?" she asks bluntly. "I was working at Dalhousie university and they were paying me $12 an hour as a research assistant," she says. She decided to give stripping a try after a friend suggested it, since she was comfortable with nudity and sexuality and wanted to set her own hours. She began dancing in clubs around New Brunswick on the weekends and became a top earner, walking away with up to $1,200 a night.
But there are downsides to stripping your way through school. Devin, who now dances all over Canada, says the cheap or free accommodations called "girls' houses" can get "pretty disgusting." You can wind up taking bed bugs home with you. Dancers also risk getting ripped off by clubs that make them pay the club for stripping in their establishment. (The fee is around $50 at some New Brunswick clubs.) "It's highway robbery," she says.
Devin views sex work as an important social service. "I know that I have sexual tastes that are outside of the norm and I think that sexuality is a really integral component of mental health that people often deny," she says. She finds both stripping and dom work empowering.
Lucy had some negative reactions to her experience as a fetish film actor. While making the wrestling videos, she recalls the "money shots" were those when the loser of the fight flashed the whites of her eyes in defeat, referred to as "white flags." As a feminist, the idea that men found unconscious-looking women sexually stimulating troubled her. But she still thought the job was better than most student work. "We get paid for all sorts of things in life that we think are unethical or immoral, such as lying to people in telemarketing and manipulating people to buy more," she says. "Every student has a job that requires all those things, which I think are way more immoral than pretending to be psychotic and wrestling with your friend for a few hours."
Regardless of how we feel about the vast array of jobs in the sex industry, one thing's for sure: sex work is not going away. If you want it to? "Good luck," laughs Goodyear. "People have been trying to eradicate sex work for about 10,000 years." Sex workers are here to stay on our streets, maybe even in our own families and in our universities. If you're accepting of sex workers and treat them as human beings, you risk falling victim to colourful stories, a unique life perspective and possibly the temptation to try it yourself.