According to statistics provided by Governor Andrew Cuomo in a January 2017 statement, college students in New York owe approximately $30,000 in student loan debt.
Nationally, the figures aren’t much better, with 44.2 million Americans carrying $1.31 trillion in student loan debt.
For some who might be considering a college education, this figure serves as a deterrent.
Still others remain committed to getting an education, and have reworked their lives in a way that allows for them to do exactly that.
Janet Duran, co-founder of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance (NJRUA), started out working as an exotic dancer while she was in college.
The NJRUA “…is a working alliance of activists and allies who are dedicated to promoting, defending, and advocating for the human rights of sex workers in the state of New Jersey. This alliance is committed to the belief that people of all genders have the autonomy and right to decide for themselves whether or not to be in this line of work. Recognizing the violence and other forms of human rights violations that stem from criminalization and stigmatization, we wish to counter this through public education, documentation and community organizing.”
“It was pretty much a secret,” explains Duran of her dancing, “Some guys new I danced, but a lot of girls danced in college.”
Now, the NJRUA organizes outreach efforts on different college campuses in New Jersey, so students in situations similar to Duran’s know that they’re not alone. They post or distribute fliers on college campuses, and stress the fact that the NJRUA is not affiliated with the schools. They also try to get support groups going for students who are working as sex workers.
Perhaps most important is the way the NJRUA tries to change the conversations taking place on campus regarding sex work by trying to remove the stigma.
“Do away with the anti-prostitution thing,” says Duran regarding the anti-sex worker rhetoric that is popular on some college campuses, “Don’t make it so obvious that you’re against us. You can’t get rid of us. No one wants that minimum wage job and you don’t have time to study. It just doesn’t work that way.”
She recalls the way some guys she met in college would try to move in with her because she was independent and always took care of herself.
One time, she went right to class with $1200, after working an all-nighter.
Duran’s biggest piece of advice to students who take up sex work: “If you want to disclose [being a sex worker], fine, but always be on your toes. Always keep your guard up. Always look at what people’s true intentions are. Don’t ever give people the benefit of the doubt.”
Jara Krys turned to escorting while a student at the University of Pennsylvania. She took up sex work so she could afford to medically transition from male to female.
“I didn’t really understand how sex work worked,” she concedes, “I wasn’t using the right channels at the time…Having this schedule where it’s almost like a 9-5 is not necessarily conducive.”
The 9-5 schedule was only half the battle. Krys also had to fight anti-sex worker stigma. She recalls a time when she met with one financial advisor who knew she was alluding to her sex work in a conversation.
“Well, you shouldn’t say that,” Krys says that the advisor tried to indirectly tell her.
Eventually, Krys noticed that her grades began to slip, so she decided to take a break from school.
Krys has a number of ideas about what could make things easier for students engaged in sex work. For example, she suggests that whatever support structure is in place for student sex workers be run by an external entity as opposed to the school, “…so that the students don’t feel that they’re going into a trap.” She also says that student health policies should be a bit more “open” about the types of services they can provide students engaged in sex work, and that grants be established to help subsidize the cost of health resources for students engaged in sex work.
She does understand that the roll-out of such programs on college campuses would have to be strategic.
“The way that you’re going to see that more is with schools that are much more privileged and won’t lose much from the experiment,” she says.
There have been school-based efforts to change the conversation on sex work. For example, the UK has The Student Sex Work Project. The project works “…to promote learning and understanding about student sex worker needs and associated issues, and to provide an innovative sexual health service to a marginalised population through an ethical, empowering research led framework.”
Here in the US, Portland State University has its Student Sex Worker Outreach Project.
On their website, they note that, “On campus conversations about the sex trade are often focused on trafficking and victimization which may not match up with every student sex workers complex and varied experiences.”
The Student Sex Worker Outreach Project tries to offer the non-judgmental support that is often difficult to find on college campuses.
Janet Duran has her doubts on the efficacy of such programs, given current attitudes towards sex work. She says that there’s more pressure and judgment in the school environment. Instead, she suggests making use of support structures that are not affiliated with the campus community, and where you know that those in attendance are sex workers.
“As long as you have that peer pressure and that judgment, it’s not going to work,” she says of campus-based efforts to support student sex workers.
Duran’s number one idea for making campus-based programs in the US as effective as their British counterparts: decriminalization.
“As long as it’s a crime, no one will want to talk about it…It’s legal in the UK,” she says, when asked to point out any differences in the efficacy of US and UK based efforts to support student sex workers, “We don’t have that luxury here. We’re just not that lucky. We need to be. We’re just not.”