Life in the Margins

HPHR Fellow Heather Tillewein

By Dr. Heather Tillewein

Student Sex Workers in Higher Education

According to the National Center for Education Statistics1 in fall 2021, there are projected to be 19.7 million students attending colleges and universities. Out of those 19.7 million students, there are projected to be 11.3 million female students and 8.5 million male students attending college or university in the fall 2021. In the academic year of 2017-2018, the average price of tuition for full-time undergraduate at a public university was $24,900. The average tuition for a private nonprofit institution was $51,900 and for a private for-profit institution the average cost of tuition was $33,200. The average tuition cost includes required fees, books, weighted cost of room, boards, and other expenses that might occur during the academic year.2 Students may rely on external occupations to negate the increasing cost of tuition and living. One source of income students may choose is to work in the sex industry.


Based off of statistics collected by the Student Sex Work Project, in which 6,773 students participated, 5% of students had worked in the sex industry.4 A main motivation for students to work in the sex industry is due to economics, such as being able to avoid debt, pay student fees, and cover basic living expenses.3,4 Other motivations include funding education, job flexibility, and curiosity.3,4 Students sex workers also note that flexible hours allow them to focus on education.5 While students choose sex work to negate increasing costs of education, many report the impact sex work has on their lives.


In a similar vein, there is a “toll of stripping”, which describes the negative impact that exotic dancing has on the life of exotic dancers.5 The participants in another study stated that exotic dancing can negatively impact self-concept, self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, and can potentially lead to drug and alcohol abuse. Student sex workers also highlighted the negative aspects of sex work, such as secrecy, unpredictable earnings, fear of violence, and negative judgment from friends and family.4 Moreover, student sex workers feared judgement from peers and professors and felt the need to keep their sex work a secret.5


Interestingly, the Student Sex Work Project was completed in the United Kingdom and Scotland. However, there is little to no research on student sex workers in the United States. With the unknown prevalence of student sex workers in the United States, there is a gap of services and resources that can be provided to this particular student population. The Student Sex Work Project identified that: universities do not include student sex work in their policies; university staff are often unaware about available support for students sex workers; staff are concerned about the reputation of the university and professionalism; and staff are often unsure about what aspects of sex work are legal and illegal.4


Thus, universities need to have trainings available for staff to combat sex work stigmatization and discrimination in higher education. Since financial hardship is a motivator for students to enter sex work, resources need to be allocated to give financial support to this student population. University staff need to be trained on the following: legality of sex work, diversity among the student sex worker population, nondiscriminatory support for student sex workers, and the normalization of the sex industry. Furthermore, mental health services need to be provided to specifically target negative self-esteem, self-concept, and interpersonal relationships of student sex workers. Many university services need to be more accessible for student sex workers due to the students’ random working hours. Expanding hours to late nights or early mornings could allow for more services to reach student sex workers.


The time has come for normalization of sex work for students in higher education and for universities to start supporting the student sex work population.


  1. National Center for Education Statistics (2019). Fast facts: Back to school statistics. Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372
  2. National Center for Education Statistics (2019). Price of attending and undergraduate institution. Retrieved from:  https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/pdf/Indicator_CUA/coe_cua_2019_05.pdf
  3. Roberts, R., Sanders, T., Myers, E., & Smith, D. (2010). Participation in sex work: Students’ views. Sex Education, 10(2), 145-156.
  4. Sagar, T., Jones, D., Symons, K., & Bowring, J. (2015). The student sex work project: Research summary. Swansea, MA: Swansea University, Centre for Criminal Justice and Criminology. Retrieved from www.thestudentsexworkproject.com
  5. Trautner, M. N., & Collett, J. L. (2010). Students who strip: The benefits of alternate identities for managing stigma. Symbolic Interaction, 33(2), 257-279.

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