by Sian Ferguson

Sex workers face a lot of microaggressions at universities, just as they do in nearly every other area of society. My college anthropology lecturer said that sex tourism is based on narcissism and immorality. Student activists say that alleged “sell-outs” are “prostituting” their beliefs. Slurs like “whore” are used as pejoratives more than they’re reclaimed in university spaces.

But there’s one particular harmful sentiment that’s reached a meme-level of popularity: the joke that, if university is too hard for you, you can simply drop out of university and become a stripper, a cam worker, a porn star or some other kind of sex worker.

During every exam period I’ve ever faced, memes like these circulate at viral levels, even amongst “progressive” student circles.

And it needs to stop.

In my first year of studying journalism, I wrote an article on my fellow university students who are also sex workers.

I learned two things. Firstly, there are a surprisingly high number of students who also engage in sex work. Research undertaken in the UK by The Student Sex-Work Project suggests that one in every 20 students knows someone who’s participating in sex work. The sensitive nature of sex work means it’s difficult to figure out just how many university students are also sex workers, but the more I researched it, the more I realized the numbers were higher than I imagined.

Personally, I found it easy to interview sex workers. When I initially looked for people to interview through my university connections, 12 sex workers showed interest in talking to me.

Twelve at a university of 7,000 may seem like a small number, but those were just the students who saw my call to interview and were willing to talk to me. Nearly all of them seemed to know a few other people who participated in some kind of sex work. Most of them engaged in cam work.

While it’s difficult to collect definitive qualitative data, one thing’s for sure: many people underestimate just how many university students participate in some form of sex work.

The second thing I learned was that being a student who is also a sex worker is complex. We occupy a space where we’re often invisible. Even in South Africa, where student organizing is increasingly active, sex workers remain a group unrepresented — and often not even mentioned — in activist spaces.

Related: Artist Stephanie Sarley Makes Fruit Sexier Than We’ve Ever Seen

Joking about dropping out of college and performing sex work points to a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of sex work. This misunderstanding lies beneath most of the microaggressions we face in academic spaces.

Implying that sex work is only something one does when one isn’t at university erases all the college-going sex workers who are already invisibilized on our own campuses. It also erases the fact that a lot of sex workers are actually educated because — like people in other fields — we’re not a monolith.

It suggests that sex work is a “last resort” people only turn to out of desperation. Is that the case for many sex workers? Hell, yes — but there are many who choose to do sex work for other reasons. More often than not, the decision to enter sex work is made like the decision to take on any job: after weighing up all the available options.

As with many other careers, people choose to do it for a range of different reasons. Some of us don’t think of it as desirable work. Others enjoy it. For some people it’s a lucrative career; for others, it isn’t.

Sex work isn’t necessarily an alternative that’s any easier than university. Sometimes it is. But presenting any form of sex work as “easy” erases the oppression we face, and detracts from the fact that sex work is indeed work. For many people, it’s not a black-and-white issue: sex work has both perks and drawbacks for us all, just like any other career.

The joke is the tip of the iceberg. It represents what’s wrong with academic spaces that exclude sex workers.  When we’re made to be the butt of a joke because of our work, it sends a message that it’s okay to dehumanize us.

Attending university is a privilege many do not have, and I know I’m luckier than many other sex workers who don’t have access to higher education. At the same time, university is a really painful place for so many of us.

Making universities safe for sex workers will take a lot of work. It’s going to be a gradual process. But in the meantime, can we please stop saying we’re going to drop out of college and become sex workers?

Sian Ferguson is a queer freelance writer based in Grahamstown, South Africa. Her writing deals with social justice, mental health, witchcraft, activism and more, and her work has been featured on various sites, including Everyday Feminism, Greatist, Matador Network, Ravishly and more. She’s also an editorial team member of the new literary journal, Type/Cast. You can follow her on Twitter and find all her work here.

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