When you hear the phrase ‘student life’ what do you think of? Getting drunk on cheap beer? Jumping through 265 hoops to get youth allowance? Living in a festy rental? Something which probably comes to mind is the likely crappy job you’ll have to get to pay for these things, because even with a student deal they don’t come cheap.
Whether it’s working at a fast food joint or braving retail during Christmas, getting a student job is a rite of passage.
Sex work is a pretty touchy subject, if you’ll pardon the double entendre. Discuss it with some friends or family and you’ll likely be met with a few uncomfortable sideways glances, and sometimes heated debates on the pitfalls or merits of the sex industry and its employees.
Talking honestly and openly about sexuality generally makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But discussions around sex work are often laden with stereotypes and missing the voice of sex workers themselves.
We’re typically presented with two tropes of young sex workers in the media. The first is the lost girl who’s fallen in with the wrong crowd and, after becoming a manic junkie, ends up brutally murdered by the side of the road. You’ll recognise her from every second episode of CSI. The second’s a glamorous, comfortable, cosmopolitan young lady. She lives a decadent lifestyle with piles of money and a constant stream of good looking clients in the heart of London, a la the UK series Secret Diary of a Call Girl. It should go without saying neither of these stereotypes bear much resemblance to the everyday lives of sex workers.
But as B*, a first year healthcare student and sex worker of two years tells me, it’s mostly just like any other occupation.
“It’s quite the same as the retail or hospitality or admin jobs I’ve had,” she says. “Sometimes you’re really into it and sometimes you really can’t be bothered and you wish you were doing something else.”
B’s uni life is like that of any other student. It’s come to the point in the year where you’re a bit over it, assignments are piling up and everything’s beginning to feel stale. Not to say B isn’t interested in her degree; she is, and there are times she really looks forward to starting her career in healthcare.
“I go through phases where I think ‘Oh my god, I’m hating work I can’t wait until I have my degree and I can do a different kind of work,’” she says.
“Then, at other times, I’m like ‘why am I studying?, I really like my job and the freedom and flexibility’.”
Sex work has flexibility you simply don’t get in other industries with set rosters says B. “I’ve got complete control over when I want to work, how long I want to work for, I can cancel and pick up shifts at short notice,” she says. “It’s a lot more flexible than any other job I could have while I’m at school.”
This flexibility is something Dante, a gender fluid sex worker who’s studying a degree in community development, notes as a reason for working in the sex industry.
“It’s a really great thing to do while you’re at uni because it provides you with a lot of flexibility,” Dante says. “And the money is really good.”
Dante started as a sex worker two years ago when they were unexpectedly hit with a bunch of bills.
“I had to come up with a lot of money really fast about a month before I was due to go overseas,” Dante says.
“I was dating someone at the time who is a sex worker who said to me ‘listen, why don’t you give this a go?’. You may hate it and never want to do it again or you may love it so give it go’.”
Dante followed their advice and has now been working in the industry for two years.
Dante and B’s friends know about – and are very accepting of – their work, but both tell me this doesn’t mean there isn’t stigma towards sex workers in the community.
B has told two of her close friends at uni but has to keep her work secret from the rest of her fellow students.
“The field I want to work in is quite small and it’s a pretty conservative kind of field,” she says. “If people knew, that would stick with me and tar my reputation permanently.”
Some sex workers find themselves in similar situations, as there seems to be a relation with healthcare. B puts this down to “the nature of body work”.
“I know a lot of other sex workers who have day jobs as healthcare professionals, there is a lot of crossover,” she says. “When you’re working with bodies and things that people would perceive as being gross you’re just kind of used to doing that”.
Unlike B, Dante’s small circle of uni friends know about their work, and they say that in their queer-friendly community it’s completely fine to be a sex worker. But they’re still uncomfortable telling people who aren’t in the community because “there’s definitely still a lot of stigma around it”.
Sex workers cover a wide range of specific occupations and it’s not always working out of a parlour doing full service says Dante. “You can do massage, you can do fetish work.”
Dante says, “there’s lots of things that you can do within it, especially if you have a lot of boundaries around your body and things that you feel comfortable doing or not doing”. The best thing to do is lots of research, Dante notes, saying it’s important to “talk to people… and find out what works for you”.
* B is a pseudonym and Dante has used their work name to protect their identity.