Sex workers are not only sex workers. Like any other work, sex work could be a primary or supplementary source of income. Like any other workers, sex workers can also be students, parents, friends, volunteers, whatever; our work does not define us. The patchy criminalisation of sex work across Australia, in addition to the stigma surrounding sex work, makes demographic information on the sex workforce difficult to collect. However, the Scarlet Alliance estimates that there are roughly 20,000 sex workers operating in Australia, and the Sex Worker Outreach Project suggested that, of the estimated 10,000 sex workers based in NSW, the average age was 26, and approximately 16% were students.
While we can assume that a significant amount of university students do sex work, there is little research on how many university workers are moonlighting in the sex industry. However, employment in universities is increasingly precarious, and women comprise the majority of casual and sessional teaching staff. This may push some to supplement their income or search for ‘fall back’ work, and sex work – with its flexible hours and (generally) good pay – may prove appealing. I found that sex work complemented intellectual work surprisingly well; I could read in between bookings, and the time I had spent worrying about rent while juggling short-term contracts was mine to direct elsewhere. My thinking and writing felt freer than it had in months, and I have met other sex working students and academics who felt similarly.
There are, however, drawbacks. The most obvious are the criminalisation of our work, and the heightened vulnerability of sex workers to violence and victim blaming. Then there is the perpetual stigma, which can take forms ranging from hypersexualisation to patronisation to garden-variety whorephobia. I have learned that this doesn’t always come from the puritans and the misogynists: your ‘nice’, ‘woke’ (cis-het) man friends might proposition you; your feminist friends might accuse you of objectifying of all women. As much as you might, like me, love your work and be proud of your sex working foreparents and comrades, you might find the closet safer. This might be especially so in the academy.
We are by now well aware of the degree to which sexual harassment in universities is normalised and largely unchecked. Juniper Fitzgerald, a sex working academic herself, argues that whorephobia in the academy leaves uncloseted sex workers at heightened risk. I seek to research sex work in future, but this presents me with a dilemma: I could pretend I’m a not a sex worker, and join the cacophony of non-sex worker voices who claim expertise on the subject; or, I could out myself, and potentially find myself subject to (more) inappropriate comments, invasive questions, and an additional fear of being the last woman in the office after 5. This is not right.
I address this little post to both sex working and non-sex working university colleagues. My hope is that those in the former category read this and know that, however isolated they may at times feel, they are not alone. For those in the latter category, some solidarity would be tops. Many sex workers have written about how non-sex workers can be allies. To add some brief university-specific pointers, allies in the academy can, for example: take care to avoid whorephobic language and content in their teaching; make a point of engaging with the writing of sex workers when dealing with issues related to sex work; and hold to account colleagues who seek to silence or malign sex workers (for those unfamiliar with the term ‘SWERF’…). Sex workers are no less entitled to respect and safety than anyone else in the academy.
Sadie Slyfox is a sex worker, a university worker, a student, a socialist, a Sagittarius, “””Someone’s Daughter”””, and a pseudonym.