Is There a Place for Sex Workers in College?

This is the question that has been ringing through the halls of college campuses around the country after the firestorm of Duke University’s freshman, Miriam Weeks’ exposure as porn star “Belle Knox” last month. Her story also prompted a debate about whether this issue is about feminism, exploitation or all of the above…

The fact is that there are college students, across the United States, that are sex workers. After Belle Knox was exposed, more college students involved in the sex industry are making headlines. A student at Portland State University, “Red,” works as an exotic dancer. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Red explained that when she told a few peers about her occupation, wrote about it for a class, and told one of her professors, she witnessed her disclosure majorly backfire.

After discussing the stigmas and hardships associated with working in the sex industry, Red talks about her experience of being a sex worker while studying at Portland State University. In the interview, she said that she wrote an autobiographical paper about her life as a sex worker for an anthropology class, which “went over well…but my professor was a woman…” Red then explained:

“I later told a history professor…I was asking for a recommendation and he asked me what I did…I thought he was a great guy and I thought we had a really good rapport so I told him…and after that, my grades immediately went down.”

Red noted that this is an example of the kind of “uphill battle” student sex workers face today. After noticing this major, unearned, and unprecedented drop in her grades for the class, Red admits that she was “just too embarrassed to argue about it…I never told anybody again.”

The root of this issue is judgment. It seems like sex workers are struggling to encourage people in the academic world—professors, teachers, other students—to not confront the “Red’s” and “Belle Knox’s” of the world with judgment. Thankfully, steps are being taken to support sex workers on college campuses. Just recently, Women’s Resource Center at Portland State University was opened and has initiated a student sex worker outreach project. The program has taken major strides to initiate training for professors and colleagues in an effort to spread practices that help work with students in the sex industry. The PSU Women’s Resource Center:

“supports the right of all students to seek and access safety in all aspects of life, including in the workplace. For students working in the sex industry, this can be a unique and isolating challenge. Students working in the sex industry can face some additional challenges that can affect their academic life and/or their safety in the campus community.  These challenges present tangible barriers to student success and over-all well-being.”

The conversation about sex work is a complex one. Hegemonic discourse surrounding this issue seems to try to shove people into one of two camps: Everyone who works in the sex industry is empowered OR everyone who works in the sex industry is a victim. What we, as a society, fail to do is take an approach from a place that does not judge, and above all, does not force people to see sex work as “good” or “bad.” Society, instead, should be focusing on providing resources, safety, and support for those who choose to pursue a career in this line of work.

3 thoughts on “Is There a Place for Sex Workers in College?

  1. This post really brings up a lot of food for thought. I for one am glad that colleges are now taking the initiative to make programs like that of Portland State to have programs that educate faculty and staff on how to work with students who work in the sex industry. I feel that the history professor who Red confided in is a prime example of how people judge those who work in the sex industry. While I would never want to be a part of that world that dos not mean that anyone involved in it is a bad person. I really think there is a gray area between the sex industry exploiting or empowering women. If a woman chooses to be in the industry based on her own accord that is her choice and she is empowered but she can become exploited if people try to take advantage of her in her personal/professional life. This topic really confuses me on where I stand and what I believe in but I am glad you brought up that this is catching the attention of college’s and they are working on implementing educational programs. Nice job!


  2. I am really surprised they had an awesome program like that at Portand’s Women’s Resource Center because, at least in my experience, sex workers are so marginalized we don’t even want to bring it up, let alone have a conversation about it. I think the issue with how we approach feminist discourse concerning sex industries is we focus on the women participating and their motives rather than the industries themselves and the power structures they create. Sex Industries needs reform in order to avoid having women exploited. We need to look at the larger culture and how it shapes women’s experiences in sex industries.


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