Debt ceiling pushes some graduate students to consider sex work

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Reia Chapman, MSW student at Savannah State University

By Shanelle Matthews

During her enrollment in nursing school from 1955 to 1958 my Nana gave blood, shined shoes and mended people’s clothes to pay her way through. Back then the cost of tuition hovered around less than $100 a semester. Today the average student can expect to pay, at minimum, around $5000 a semester for an undergraduate education.

Among the many aspects of the new Debt Ceiling Deal introduced by Congress on Tuesday, it will scrap subsidized student loans forcing graduate students to pay interest on the principle balance of their loans while enrolled in school.
Personally, I can’t afford it. No matter how I spin it, my financial situation isn’t flexible enough to adhere to Congress’s requirement. Upon the realization that my plight for higher education may be stifled because of irresponsible spending by negligent political leaders I took my grievance to Facebook. The responses surprised me, but they shouldn’t have – the answer is as old as time.

While giving blood in the 1950s may have been lucrative enough to help my Nana pay for school today sex work seems to be a feasible option for some students. Reia Chapman, an MSW student at Savannah State University in Georgia said that she supports student’s decisions to engage in sex work to pay for higher education.

“I didn’t grow up in an environment where sex work was an acceptable means of employment and sustainability,” Chapman said. There are a lot of biases and stereotypes we hold about it but I’ve just started to appreciate the empowerment in a person who decides that that is a viable option to get what they need.”

Sex workers, sometimes pejoratively referred to as street economists, brave hairy and dangerous politics around the criminalization of their trade. Unlike other countries, prostitution is illegal in the U.S. and due to the stigma and polarization of their work, sex workers often face high levels of violence and isolation.

“I don’t think it’s instinctive for people to identify their bodies as a means of collateral but when forced with tough decisions people stretch themselves to consider options they wouldn’t normally. I mean as opposed to robbing a bank …” Chapman said.

I asked my Nana if she thought anybody in her nursing school participated in sex work to pay their way through. She said that sex workers and college students were two different classes of people and she couldn’t imagine anybody doing that back then. The dehumanizing attitude toward sex workers and other street economists says that sentiment still exists today. We don’t assume college students are stitched from the same moral fabric as those involved in informal street economics but according to the Sex Education journal published in the UK, 16.5 percent of undergraduate students would consider working in the sex industry.

“There are all different types of ways to participate in the sex trade,” said Chapman. “I’ve never considered actually participating in sex work but I think that I would definitely be open to massages and role playing.”

Kristye Russell, a pharmaceutical student at the University of Michigan, said she’d consider reworking her family planning and have children before she graduates so she could use the tax break to help pay for school.

“I will just have to have one or two babies before I graduate so that I can use the refund for having dependents to pay back the interests on my loans estimated to be at $220,000 when I graduate,” she said.

Other options considered were donating eggs, surrogacy and giving plasma.

“If you think about it you either get taxed, and I mean TAXED for not having children, or you get taxed for seeking a higher education to be competitive in a severely handicapped employment market, I was planning on having children anyway,” Russell continued.

Concepts of bodily integrity and sustainable self-determination aren’t new but the rising breach of economic security to people seeking higher education informs us that now, more than ever, people are considering allowing their bodies to work for them. Although sex workers incomes cannot be accounted for, revenue generated from global sex trade exceeds 100 billion dollars and while money isn’t the only motivator it has certainly peaked the interest of some.


  1. Hey Shanelle, thanks for opening up this important conversation. I started the Huffington Post article about this very same topic and am fascinated by what's talked about and what's not (though I haven't finished it yet). It's absolutely critical that we don't have these conversations without the voices and experiences of people with personal experience. And by that I don't just mean self-identified call girls. I knew someone who was sleeping with a wealthy older man in college because he bought her a used car. I knew another undergrad who had unspoken arrangements with men to help pay for food for her kids. (You know, sponsors!) :)

    I sometimes think that the decision to exchange sex acts for money can be similar to abortion in that we might not know what we would do until we're actually in that situation. It feels dangerous to me to just open up the conversation hypothetically, you know? It invites judgments from people with no lived experience. But what people think is certainly important. JD from HIPS said one of the smartest and most useful things I've ever heard about this when he said "I don't care what you think about sex work and the sex trade; you can think whatever you want, I'm not here to change your mind. What I care about is how what you think affects the people I work with." Maybe that's the most useful way to direct this conversation - to get RJ activists to start thinking about how their opinions, their organizational culture and partnerships impact the lives of those most marginalized and at risk. I'd love to keep talking about this with you - add it to the list of things we'll talk next time we're together. It would also be great if you pulled in voices from Different Avenues, Women With A Vision, YWEP, etc. for this online conversation. It's critical that these conversations have race and class analyses, which is often missing from the mainstream sex worker rights movement.