T
he job was a one-year teaching position at a private university. Not tenure-track or anything, but good. Jobs were increasingly rare in my field so competition was going to be stiff, and since I still had a year left in my Ph.D. program, the odds were slim.

To my surprise — to everyone’s surprise — I made it to the final round, which meant flying across the country to be evaluated by the department over the course of three days. I stood at a podium and presented my research. I guest-lectured for two undergraduate courses while the faculty observed from the back of the room. I sat down with students to answer their questions, then the grad students, then the dean, who spoke at length about the guiding principles of this university and what made their curriculum so unique. I was taken to lunch and dinner and drinks, where I was introduced to people whose names I would promptly forget, and when I flew home to my cramped apartment, I got the call.

The job was mine, she said. Congratulations. The one-year contract, full-time. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, the pay was only going to be $1,200 for the year.

Twelve hundred.

“Twelve hundred total?” I asked, hoping I’d misunderstood.

“Yes, but think of it this way,” she said. “It’ll look great on your c.v.”

She was right — it would. And that sort of thing did matter. As academics, we were defined by the list of grants, awards, fellowships, and publications to our name. But this particular university charged students $55k a year for tuition. It was inconceivable to me that they couldn’t afford to pay their instructors.

And then I wondered: Was this normal? This was a high-profile position. Everyone knew about it. And she didn’t sound particularly embarrassed to offer that figure. Were other people being offered teaching contracts like this? If so, how did they survive?

“Some people get help from their family,” she said, eager to offer advice she’d clearly given before. “Your family lives in the state, right?”

They did, but I didn’t see how that was relevant.

She went on to say that since I didn’t have any children, my expenses were lower than some of the other candidates, and the hiring committee figured that if my parents lived within commuting distance, I could live with them. So this was among their criteria, the likelihood that someone would accept $1,200 as a full-time salary. They did the math and came to the conclusion that I was the most exploitable.

What they didn’t know — what nobody knew — was that I was also an experienced sex worker. I’d been juggling two lives, relying on sex work to pay my bills when teaching jobs didn’t. For years, I’d been carrying this secret like a live grenade, knowing at any moment it could blow up my life. And yet, right then, it saved me.

I turned the job down.

Why?

Because fuck you, pay me — that’s why. What the fuck?

Where academia taught me to bend and accommodate and play politics to advance my career, sex work gave me a spine, so when my advisor later called to convince me to take the job, I had no trouble saying no a second time. It would be a favor to her, she said, and I could always take out a loan. She explained that it wasn’t just about the prestige of that position, it was about making connections with the right people. If I turned this job down, I’d be burning a bridge.

For refusing a job that didn’t pay a living wage? Let that bridge burn.

The guy who eventually took that job was married. His wife was a freelancer and was able to pick up a second job to support them both. Unfortunately, it turned out the cost of living was higher than they expected, so they also had to take out a loan. When I ran into him at a conference a few years later, he said if he could have done it over, he would’ve turned the job down.

It’s one thing to go into debt for acquiring an education, it’s something else to go into debt forgiving one.

I wish I could have warned him.

got into sex work the summer my laptop died. I was a grad student in a fully-funded program so I had a monthly stipend to live on, but it was just enough to pay my bills. That summer, I was also in the middle of an intensive language course, so I didn’t have much time to spare. I needed a job, ideally one that paid well for a short burst of time.

I pretty much knew it was going to be sex work. Any other job would’ve conflicted with my schedule or interfered with my studies. Eventually, I found myself meeting a woman I’ll call Janice at a midtown Starbucks.

She said she’d be easy to spot and she was. Six feet tall with platinum-blonde hair that fell to her waist and black-rimmed glasses, she was somehow both intimidating and absolutely disarming. I shook her hand and we sat at a table by the window, where she had an open portfolio, a pad of paper, and three phones.

I liked her immediately. She was friendly and funny and loud, and she spoke openly about pretty much everything but the job itself. I knew from the ad that I needed to be comfortable with my body and willing to have fun — but that was vague.

“You also need to have a good imagination,” she said. “And it helps if you can improvise dialogue. Can you improvise dialogue?”

“Not really.” I squinted at her. “So is this a… phone thing?”

“We can’t really talk about it in public.”

It was frustrating. “Do I need to shave my legs?”

She laughed. “Yeah, you should shave your legs, but you do not have to take off your clothes. They’ll try it, but they know the rules, so you need to be good at saying no. Are you good at saying no?”

I was terrible at saying no. But I really wanted the job.

While she had some reservations — she was worried I might be a pushover— she jotted down the address of her studio and told me to come by the next day. I needed to do my hair and makeup but she’d provide the costume.

Oh shit, I thought. There’s a costume.

I hardly slept that night and the next morning, I shaved my legs carefully and completely, like I imagined a professional might do. While I knew this decision was risky — the last thing I needed was for my department to find out I was doing sex stuff for money while wearing a costume — it felt sort of powerful, too. Like this was a part of my life that was mine and mine alone and, frankly, nobody else’s business.

I showed up at the commercial building and took the elevator to a clean, bright studio where Janice greeted me in full makeup and a leather corset, her hair pulled up in a high ponytail. She led me through a sparsely furnished waiting room and down the hall, past a series of closed doors. Inside, I could hear a woman shouting.

In the quiet of the dressing room, where a woman in her thirties was doing her makeup, Janice finally told me what I’d been hired to do. It was erotic roleplay, which meant I would play a character in someone’s sexual fantasy. Sex was prohibited and so was nudity. In fact, the rules were that I had to leave the room if the client tried anything sexual.

This was to keep it legal, she said. Vice cops occasionally came through to see if there were any arrestable offenses being committed. I’d later learn that this didn’t matter. Cops regularly arrested sex workers for less, because they could. And they did.

For my first session, I was supposed to be a Greek goddess and the job was to wrestle the client to the ground. She assured me that it wasn’t real wrestling — she had fitness pros for that. This was erotic wrestling, which meant the guy was going to let me win. Then she handed me a gold lame bikini, a gold headband, and a pair of platform heels, which I’d only wear when I greeted him because heels weren’t allowed on the mats.

The client was polite and well-mannered. I was nervous. I didn’t know what to say so I threatened to turn him into a deer and hunt him for sport — it seemed like something a Greek goddess would say — and when he laughed, I wrestled him to the ground, sat on his chest, and declared victory. The whole thing was ridiculous and fun and when it was over, he thanked me profusely and tipped me $200 on top of the hourly rate.

I couldn’t wait to do it again. I was practically begging Janice to send me more men to tackle.

I bought a new laptop a few days later. I can’t begin to describe that feeling — like soul-deep relief. I didn’t have to worry about unexpected expenses anymore. I could pay my bills early and put my mind at ease. I could buy name-brand cereal.

I slept better, I studied better, and I loved the job. It was a great way to get out of my own head and focus on someone else. And the women I worked with were amazing. Some were like me and worked part-time to support their career. Actors, artists, grad students, musicians. And some were multi-hyphenates who also worked as strippers, dominants, escorts, fetish workers, and cam performers. They were the hardcore pros, the ones who dispensed rapid-fire advice on everything from waterproof makeup to accounting.

They came up with my stage name, which would be the first of five. They helped me expand my erotic skill set by training me in domination. The more I did it, the more I loved it. It wasn’t just the money — I truly loved leaving the library to change into another persona, one where I felt free to experience a side of myself that I couldn’t experience anywhere else.

I eventually broke out on my own as an independent but remained close with those I knew. We shared blacklists and warned each other about questionable situations. We shared tips on privacy and supported each other when things took a dark turn. We all experienced some form of discrimination. Four were kicked out of their apartments. One was fired from her day job. I think all of us had experienced some attempt at extortion.

Sex work was weird that way. If nobody knew what you did for a living, it was fine. But if they did? Suddenly your landlord’s kicking you out on the street they don’t want a sex worker living in the building.

I eventually had three phones, like Janice, and switched between two very different lives.

As a grad student, I learned to keep my face perfectly neutral whenever the subject of sex work came up. Tabloids had built a whole business out of humiliating sex workers and whenever one was assaulted or arrested, people talked about it. I’d sit there drinking my coffee and while colleagues laughed at some stripper’s misfortune, I’d be horrified by how they talked about her and imagine how they’d talk about me.

Sex workers, I learned, were not seen as human beings. I think I always knew that, but it still surprised me when I’d hear that language coming from someone I considered a friend. I learned that it didn’t matter where someone stood politically. I knew die-hard feminists who thought we pandered to the patriarchy and hardcore socialists who thought we were either victim of capitalism or whores to capitalist greed, which was strikingly similar to what the evangelicals believed, which was that we were needed to be saved from ourselves because we were incapable of making our own decisions. They all believed that only some people deserve bodily autonomy. It was disturbing how many people I knew felt that way.

I was sitting in a seminar once when a male colleague said that prostitutes were victims by nature because nobody would choose to have sex for money unless they were destitute or emotionally damaged.

“Would you have sex for money?” I asked. “If a woman offered you a thousand bucks to have sex with her, would you do it?”

Sure, he said, but that was never going to happen and anyway, it was different for men.

Right. Because only men get bodily autonomy.

I also noticed that nobody seemed to care what sex workers thought. People felt perfectly comfortable condemning a thing they didn’t understand, and if a sex worker dared to contradict them, they were ignored. So we didn’t deserve bodily autonomy and we didn’t deserve a voice. Everyone felt entitled to speak over us. And for us.

So it’s unsurprising that the only people I really trusted were sex workers and clients. When I was nearly outed in the media, several of my submissives checked in with me to make sure I was okay. A stripper invited me to stay with her out of town until the drama passed. An escort helped me lock down my privacy and a client sent me money, sensing I’d have to lie low for a while, and he expected nothing in return.

I had one civilian friend who knew both of my identities. We’d known each other for years. He was sex-positive, feminist, supportive. But when I called him during that particular crisis, he said to me that he couldn’t talk to me anymore because if I did get publicly outed, his own reputation would be destroyed by association. He was fine with me being a sex worker, but not if anyone knew about it.

The drama passed, my secret was safe. My friend wanted to reconnect. I said no because by then, it wasn’t hard to say no to people anymore.

I knew what I did and didn’t deserve.

The year I turned down that exploitative teaching job, I landed a two-year fellowship at a cultural institution.

While I was having lunch with a few other scholars in my field, the subject turned to money and how hard it was to get by. Several of them were juggling adjunct positions, one had taken out a loan to pay herself a salary when the university wouldn’t. She was worried she’d never been able to pay it back, and then cracked a joke I’d heard a hundred times before.

“I should just start working nights as a stripper.”

“You should,” I said between bites of a sandwich. When the whole table went quiet, I remembered that I wasn’t among sex workers anymore, I was among civilians for whom sex work was an insult. “There’s nothing wrong with getting naked for money.”

That fellowship I had? I landed it because of my stellar research, which was funded by both grants and sex work. Because of that extra income, I was able to spend more time at archives. I was able to attend more conferences and keep up with the current research. Other people had trust funds and spouses and rich families — I had clients. Sex work made it possible for me to be a better scholar.

She was insulted, of course. She said she’d never degraded herself that way. So I asked what was more degrading, getting naked for a stranger or being forced to take out a loan because your employer won’t pay you a living wage?

That’s the thing.

Do you know what’s actually degrading? The wealth disparity. The unchecked freedom of corporations to exploit their workers. The American healthcare system. The criminal justice system. The immigration system. The fact social media has flattened conversation to willful misreadings and one-line dunks and the fact it takes a herculean effort to convince grown-ass adults to get vaccinated during a pandemic. That’s degrading.

And what’s also degrading is how sex work is treated, the fact that we still vilify and infantilize women (and straight-up brutalize trans women) for the choices they make as adults about their own bodies. And the responsibility for that degradation and mistreatment falls entirely on civilians. Entirely. 100%.

Do you know what isn’t degrading? Tits.

For reasons I’ll never understand, we’re still preoccupied with what a woman does with her body as if those choices are up for public scrutiny. We feel entitled to say what she can and cannot do, whether she’s allowed to earn money with her sexuality, and how. Some forms of sex work are still criminalized and that criminalization is still justified by the rhetoric that we must save women from themselves.

With the recent OnlyFans ban of explicit content, I’m now seeing a fresh flare-up of anti-sex-worker rhetoric, the jeers of “get a real job” and “this is what you get” coupled with the disingenuous hand-wringing among evangelicals and carceral feminists who claim they want to save all the self-sufficient and entrepreneurial independent contractors from this imagined exploitation by depriving them of income.

My history with sex work is long. I’ve only had one brush with exploitation, and that was from a prestigious university that extracted $55k in tuition from its students yet offered a meager $1,200 salary for a full-time teaching position. Thanks to sex work, I was able to sift through the exploitative dreck until I found a job that paid a living wage and put my degree to work. This was a luxury afforded by financial security — many of my peers weren’t so lucky.

If you ever need someone to save, save the underpaid academics.