Sex is all over Western’s campus. Between public displays of affection, sexuality studies and the newspaper you are reading, sex is far from invisible. Sex as work, however, is a different story.
A Western student’s experience with sex work is usually limited to a handful of visits to the Beef Baron or Solid Gold. This was not the case for Marc*, a former Western student who worked as a stripper to pay his way through school.
“At the beginning, I did it because I wanted to,” Marc said. “But also because it was a means to an end.”
Sex workers are often viewed as objects towards fulfilling a fantasy, not students sitting beside us in our classrooms.
“I would go to school and learn about psychology and these different tricks and then I would implement them at my club,” Marc said. “The more time I spent at school, the better I was at the strip club because I knew how to hustle people.”
Treena Orchard, a professor in Western’s Faculty of Health Sciences, has studied sex workers around the world. She commented on the reality of students who participate in sex work.
“They have dual identities,” Orchard said. “Student by day and someone else by night. People want to know about sex and a lot goes on on this campus that a lot of people don’t know about. It’s not just the Saugeen stripper.”
Barb MacQuarrie, community director at Western’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women, attributed the lack of knowledge in this area to the harmful stigmas that exist.
“I think it’s been happening for quite a long time,” MacQuarrie said. “I think that because we stigmatize sex work, people have been unwilling, and with good reason, to disclose what they do to earn money.”
Undoubtedly, sex work is a financially profitable profession. For a student with rent, tuition, books to pay for and everyday living expenses, it is much more lucrative than many other options.
“What we have to realize about sex work is that it is a way to make money,” MacQuarrie said.
“In anyone’s choice, whether it is a student or anyone else, that is something they are going to take into consideration. It is economic activity. Some people find the hours more flexible and more amenable to their schedules. Some find it better paying than a job at McDonald’s or Tim Hortons so for them, it is a viable option.”
“I had to figure out a way to get through university,” Marc said. “My parents couldn’t provide that for me so I did it. And in a way, my family is actually very proud of me for figuring out a way to do this.”
Marc’s story as a student involved in sex work challenges some of the common perceptions about sex workers.
“I think we want to see sex workers as not anybody we know, not anybody we’re connected to,” MacQuarrie said.
“We want to see them as desperate people, as having really hard lives and not being able to overcome obstacles. The reality is very different. There are many sex workers who are very competent people. They are making choices about the kind of work they do and whether we agree with those choices or not is really not the point.”
“A lot of people look at the world in black and white,” Marc said. “I have this crazy, wild stripper side and I go out and I party — I am kind of a wild guy. I am also very grounded. I am studying for my MBA, I am on the Board of Directors of a charity in Toronto and I have a lot of layers to me. People have a hard time with that.”
Little statistical data has been produced on students who work in the sex trade. However, revealing the relationship between the life of a student and that of a sex worker helps bring the dialogue a little closer to home.
“They’re people. That’s extremely important,” Orchard said.
“It’s a deceptively simply statement but that is the most profound message. You can’t really change the way people act towards this group of men and women until you change the way they think about it.”
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity