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NASPA Journal About Women in Higher Education

ISSN: 1940-7882 (Print) 1940-7890 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/uwhe20

Female College Students Working in the Sex


Industry: A Hidden Population
Heather Haeger & Regina Deil-Amen
To cite this article: Heather Haeger & Regina Deil-Amen (2010) Female College Students
Working in the Sex Industry: A Hidden Population, NASPA Journal About Women in Higher
Education, 3:1, 4-27
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.2202/1940-7890.1039

Published online: 17 Feb 2010.

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Female College Students


Working in the Sex Industry:
A Hidden Population
Heather Haeger
Ph.D. Candidate
Center for the Study of Higher Education
Regina Deil-Amen
Assistant Professor
Center for the Study of Higher Education

This study carefully examines the perceptions and experiences of


several women who are part of an overlooked groupcollege students
who work in the sex industry. Interviews were conducted with students
working in strip clubs or pornography. The reasons why they choose
such work and how this choice impacts them are explored. Findings
reveal that the women clearly recognize the time and monetary
benets as a main motivating factor for their employment in the sex
industry, and they downplay the threat of violence as the main cost.
The women perceive the primary cost to be the stigma they faced and
the cognitive dissonance it produces as they negotiate their student and
sex worker identities. They employ a variety of coping strategies to
manage the negative effects of stigma, including cognitively separating
themselves from the norms of the industry, justifying why they do such
work, focusing on other more positive roles, avoidance through substance use, and leaving the industry. These strategies help resolve the
cognitive dissonance created by their participation in sex work. This
paper will highlight the ways in which faculty and staff can assist
student sex workers in developing healthy coping strategies, accessing
help, and persisting in their college enrollment.

Submitting author contact info: Regina Deil-Amen, University of Arizona, 520621-8468, 1430 E. Second Street, P.O. Box 210069, Tucson, AZ 85721, USA
reginad1@email.arizona.edu
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Faculty and student affairs professionals interact frequently with undergraduates, yet often know little about their private lives or work lives.
Some identities beyond that of a student may be easily seen or understood,
such as a students gender, race, or physical ability. Prior student development research has examined how these more obvious student identities
affect their college experiences (Davis et al., 2004; Kuh, 1993; Terenzini,
Pascarella, & Blimling, 1996), but the relevance of less obvious and more
hidden, or latent identities has yet to be explored. Since out-of-class experiences have been shown to impact students cognitive development
(Terenzini et al., 1996), it is important to understand the implications of
working in the sex industry for college students, particularly the ways in
which students cope with the disparity between their identities as students
and as sex workers.
Although the image of a student working in a strip club to pay for her
college tuition is prevalent in popular culture in movies such as Flash
Dance or Players Club and books such as The Ivy League Stripper, this
population is markedly absent in higher education literature. It is unknown
whether this pattern of behavior is becoming more prevalent, but some
recent work by Roberts et al. (2007) suggests that the combination of
rising tuition, increasing debt burdens, and the low-wage work available to
college students may be making female involvement in the sex industry
a more attractive option to contain debt and avoid poverty or long work
hours. In a rare study, Lantz (2005) found that female students in Australia
who worked as prostitutes and strippers entered the sex industry to pay for
their education in the face of decreasing state and federal aid programs. As
budgets continue to shrink while the costs of higher education rise, more
students, particularly women, may turn to the sex industry.
Due to the taboo, the existing higher education literature neglects this
relatively invisible population perhaps. Despite the lack of research on this
specic population, research on the sex industry as a whole, combined with
socialpsychological frameworks, can help faculty and staff better understand the issues facing college students working in this industry.

Literature Review
Research on the sex industry emphasizes the exchange value involved
in the buying and selling of emotional labor (Hochschild, 1983). According to this theory, women exchange a fantasy version of themselves and
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the attention they give men for money, and that attention and the
feigned emotional intimacy sex workers provide are more important than
the sex or eroticism they are selling (Wood, 2000). Several researchers
have compared sex work to other jobs in the emotional labor market.
Vanwesenbeeck (2005) compared levels of burnout for women in the sex
industry to nurses, whose jobs require signicant emotional labor. Sex
workers only scored higher than nurses on one of the three levels of
burnout, and this was found to be mitigated by the level of social
support sex workers had. Similar research compares sex workers to psychiatrists and supports the idea that the consequences of working in the
sex industry are similar to those of working in other areas of emotional
labor (Parkinson, 2003).
Research on other stigmatized populations on college campuses nds
that there are dramatic consequences in trying to hide the stigma (Cass,
1979). Research on homosexual college students also stresses the impact
that living with stigma has on students and the challenges of disclosing
this part of themselves to their families and peers (Rhoads, 1997). Lantz
(2005) explores how students fear disclosure of their sex work to classmates and professors because of the associated stigma. Rosenbloom and
Fetner (2001) examined this issue of classroom disclosure among students
working in strip clubs, and found that when students feared being stigmatized by their peers or instructors, they limited the amount of information they shared.
Frameworks utilizing the concept of cognitive dissonance support the
notion that women who work in the sex industry while attending institutions of higher education could experience conicting feelings about
themselves and their actions. Based on multiple experiments, Festinger
(1962) proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance, which states that individuals hold a number of thoughts or cognitions about various topics. If
these cognitions are aligned and can easily be held about the same topic at
the same time, they are referred to as consonant. Conversely, if two cognitions contradict each other, the individual experiences cognitive dissonance (Cooper, 2007; Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999). An example of a
person experiencing cognitive dissonance is someone who believes that
smoking causes lung cancer and views themselves as a healthy person, yet
continues to smoke. Since their behavior and beliefs are contradictory to
each other, dissonance is produced. Dissonance is inherently psychologically uncomfortable; the greater the dissonance, the greater the pressure
to reduce it. Given the social stigma associated with working in the sex
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industry, it is not difcult to imagine that a college student sex worker


could experience cognitive dissonance. Furthermore, even if women
working in the sex industry did not feel it was degrading or in contradiction with their morals, they could still experience cognitive dissonance
from the threat of being stereotyped by others (Harmon-Jones & Mills,
1999). Previous research has not explored the experiences of sex workers
using cognitive dissonance theory.
The purpose of the present study is to explore how a group of
female college students working in the sex industry make sense of the
costs, benets, and behavioral strategies relevant to their choice to nance
their education in this way. In order to better understand their experiences, it is important to know how and why female students choose to
work and remain in this industry, how they manage the dual roles of
student and sex worker, and the potential cognitive or educational implications of that negotiation.

Objectives and Methodological Approach


Observations and in-depth interviews were conducted in a city in
the Southwest, with seven women working in strip clubs and one woman
working in pornography. All of the women were Caucasian and ranged
in age from 23 to 32 years. Two of the women were parents of young
children. All but one participant (who was enrolled at the local university) attended a community college. All of the women had aspirations to
further their education to a bachelors or masters level. Fewer university
students were recruited than expected, and this is possibly due to a
greater fear of repercussions from disclosure among university students.
Two graduate students and one undergraduate student at a large research
university were contacted but declined to participate. During the interviews, the women answered questions about their experiences in higher
education and in the sex industry and their perceptions of the industry
and their self-concepts. Pseudonyms are used to protect their identity.
The interviews were transcribed and analyzed, with informal codes
created inductively (Patton, 2002). Deductive and inductive reasoning
were used to organize the data into key themes. The linguistic analysis
focuses on content as well as context and implied meaning of the responses in order to gather a more complete interpretation and move
beyond the surface meaning of the interview (Wooftt, 2001). Data
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fracturing was used to expose similarities and differences in the responses


(Bazeley, 2007). Looking at repetition as a sign of signicance also
informed the coding (Bazeley, 2007). To continuously probe assumptions about sex work, students, and their experiences, assumptions were
made explicit to determine if they were supported by the data or not
(Corbin & Strauss, 2008). Theoretical comparisons and contrasts were
used to tease out the nuances of the different responses within the same
general code (Bazeley, 2007).
The initial theoretical framework was developed as grounded theory,
based on the data, but further exploration in social psychological theories
illustrated signicant similarities with cognitive dissonance theory. This
theory was tested against the data and t with the experiences for all of
the participants, along with explaining a number of other themes in the
data that had previously appeared unrelated. The social stigma and cognitive dissonance that this work produced served as an overarching theme
for the data (Corbin & Strauss, 2008).

Findings
The eight students who participated in the study included ve
women who were solely exotic dancers and three more women who had
more varied work experiences both within the sex industry and outside of
it. Daisy who wanted to become an art therapist, Giovanna who was pursuing her nursing degree (each 23 years old), Rose who was majoring in
history and planned to become a teacher or a writer (24 years old), Jamie
who was interested in teaching in an elementary school (29 years old),
and Jennifer who was studying forensic sciences (32 years old) all worked
as exotic dancers in strip clubs. Natalia, a 26-year-old dancer at a strip
club who has also worked at a peep show in an adult bookstore and regularly performs with a burlesque troupe, was an undecided major at the
time of the interview. Megan, aged 26, began working as a nude model
and then started working for a pornographic website to support herself
while she nished her bachelors degree in anthropology. Megan ran her
own pornographic website for a year and a half and also participated in
two pornographic movies. She had recently stopped working in pornography and was working at the university during the time of the interview. Finally, 29-year-old Rachel, also an exotic dancer, has tried to leave
the sex industry multiple times. At the time of the interview, she was
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working full-time as a truck driver for a local construction company and


working in a strip club a couple nights a week. Rachel was attending a
community college part-time because she could not decide on a major.
The themes that emerged from the students responses were (i) similar
motivation to stay in the sex industry due to its benets, (ii) negative
consequences of sex work, including cognitive dissonance about their
roles as students and as sex workers, and (iii) coping strategies employed
to reduce dissonance (see Table 1).
Benets of Working in the Sex Industry
All of the women echo the same sentiment that the money-to-time
ratio along with the exibility of the job makes it difcult for them to
leave and work elsewhere, particularly since it was so compatible with the
demands of attending college. Jennifer describes the benets of working
in the sex industry:
I like the money and the lifestyle it affords me. I made almost a
hundred thousand dollars last year, and I only had to claim $16,000.
I have a lot of jewelry, a kick ass car, a $640,000 house and two
investment properties that Im xing up . . . This is the perfect job
for school. The exibility and the money, you cant get better.
Similarly, Rose describes how she entered the industry and why she stays:
My rst job after high school was a smut peddler. I worked at
[a local adult book store]. When I would get off early, Id go next
door to [a fully nude, 18 and over strip club]. I got to know everybody there. The DJ was a buddy and dared me to get up on stage.
I made excuses why I couldnt, so he called me a chickenI had to
defend my manhood, prove I had the balls, defend my pride.
I did it and made thirty dollars in three minutes. The money to time
ratio has always drawn me back to it. If youre willing to devote the
time, you can make a lot of money.
Some of the women work part-time because of the amount of money
they can make in so few hours. This allows them to go to school fulltime and work less than they would have to in other jobs. Others work a
great deal to maximize their earnings, like Daisy notes, You can work as
much as you want here. You can work open to close, as much as your
little heart desires. Rose also points out that The schedule is very
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exible. Theres a schedule, but they never enforce it. Its not a big deal
if your kids sick or you dont feel like working. Similarly, Natalia feels
that working in the sex industry helps her as a student and a parent.

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Very exible hours for me. If I was having a bad night, I could leave.
Or if I had a lot of studying to do, I didnt have to go in . . . that
was incredibly helpful. It helped pay for my daughters daycare while
I was in school . . . Yeah, so mostly the money was really good.
In these ways, the women all feel that sex work is an ideal job for managing the costs and time demands of being a student.
Consequences of Working in the Sex Industry
Beyond the exibility and money, there are a number of negative
consequences to working in the sex industry while in college. Both while
lming for an adult video and while participating in a photo shoot for a
bondage website, Meagan experienced degrading and violent treatment as
illustrated by her description of the photo shoot.
My arms were numb and I was gagged, and I was like that forever,
and I couldnt say anything so I just breathed and held it . . . This
was violent and violating. It didnt feel sexually violating. It felt sexist
and women-hating.
However, these horric experiences were not shared by the other women.
In addressing the costs and negative consequences of working in the sex
industry, the overwhelming response is that the stereotypes that others
held about them and the draining and degrading nature of the work are
the greatest consequences (see Table 2). It is these consequences that
seem to strongly affect all of the women. Rose states, Its easy to get
burnt out. Its very emotionally taxing, especially because of the stereotypes; those people can be very degrading and make me lose faith in
humanity. Similarly, when discussing how working in the sex industry
affects them as students, the primary response was that the stigma they
face and the draining or degrading nature of their work affect them the
most. Most of the women do not feel that sex industry work directly
affects their education in negative ways. Instead they feel it affects them
personally, which hinders their ability to focus on their education or
perform well academically. The one exception was Rose, who discusses
how working in the sex industry affects what time of day she can take
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classes, Its hard to take morning classes if you work the closing shift.
Some girls work in the days, but I never made good money then. My
classes have to be after 10 am. Aside from the impact on scheduling
classes, all of the women agree that the stigma associated with working in
the sex industry has the greatest impact emotionally and academically.
In discussing the stigma they face, all of the women name the same
stereotypes that upset them, but they also express that they feel the stereotypes were true for other dancers, but not for them. Daisy, in discussing
how people treat her differently when they nd out that she is a stripper,
states, Ya know Im intelligent, and articulate, Im not stupid like the
other girls. Similarly, Jamie is upset because people think that were
sluts and do drugs. Some of the girls here will do anything for money.
They dont have morals. Giovanna also lists stereotypes that upset her,
and adds that not everyone is like that, implying that some of the
dancers are like that. Natalia mentions that There are a lot of girls who
do the extras but, and a lot of girls who have to do it, but not everyone,
and its gross. Jennifer also adds that Some girls are nasty and dont
know where to draw the line. Some of the other clubs are really nasty.
Megan states, in regard to her experiences with a manager in pornography, I mean there are women who fall for this and its really sad for
me. He expected me to be as submissive or stupid as the rest of the people.
These responses [author emphasis added] illustrate that the stigma they
face affects all of the women, but they also buy into the stereotypes about
the other women with whom they work. The women clearly draw on
their status as college students who are intelligent and not stupid as
one of their distinguishing characteristics.
Cognitive Dissonance: Conict between Perception of Self
and Behavior
The disparity between how the participants view themselves as
respectable women and how they view other women who work in the sex
industry shows that they experience cognitive dissonance between their
perception of themselves and their perception of the sex industry. All of
the women aspire to complete their education and have other professions
in areas such as nursing, teaching, and counseling. The act of selling
their sexuality causes a great deal of stress, especially in contrast to their
identities as students.

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Some research has shown that the stress produced by cognitive dissonance is even stronger when the source of dissonance affects the persons
sense of self or their sense of morality (Steele, Spencer, & Lynch, 1993).
Other research has illustrated the impact of stigma on educational outcomes and on persistence in college. Osborne and Walker (2006) found
that students who face signicant stereotyping in the college environment
are more likely to drop out than their peers. Daisys feelings about herself
and how she acts at work illustrate the stigma that she faces, the dissonance that the women experience, and the consequences of it.
I never liked people looking at me. Outside here Im bland and
plain; I dont draw attention to myself. If I go to a [night] club its
really hard for me to dance and I have to like work myself up to it.
How do you dance here?
I have to block it out. I have nervous breakdowns every couple
months (laughs).
Why?
Everyone stereotypes you. You get insulted on your looks, my teeth,
being white, insulted on every level. Youre getting groped, touched,
they blow in your ear, treat you like an object, ya know . . . Ive
changed a lot or whatever since Ive been dancing. I used to do a lot
of volunteer work, be more active and stuff . . . I dont look at things
differently; its just that, it goes along with the breakdowns. I feel like
Im a horrible person because of what I do. Its a very degrading job;
its all about your looks; it makes you feel horrible, you know, doing
it just to get by. You should be doing something closer to your heart.
Daisys idea of what she should be doing and what is close to her heart is
working in art therapy. She sees herself as a caretaker and a compassionate person. In order to embody this sexualized fantasy woman, she has
to disassociate herself from what she does at work. Megan also feels that
the work she is doing is not as rewarding as other work that would be
closer to her long-term career goals. She alludes to the idea that any occupation involves the selling of your labor in exchange for money, but she
highlights the potentially less alienating nature of other options for such
an exchange, such as her current work tutoring university students:
The industry of porn, no matter where it is or what its posing
under, is a patriarchal institution, and if Im gonna whore myself
I wanna do it [working with] students at [the university] who I can
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have a connection with, and also in a way thats spiritually fullling.


There was nothing spiritually fullling about porn. It was something
I felt I had to do.
Megan stresses that now that she has graduated, she prefers working at a
university instead of working in pornography.
Although Natalia and Megan report not having the same sense of
conict between how they perceive themselves and how they perceive
their morality, the social taboo against sex work is enough to cause dissonance. Natalias comments about other women in the industry and
Megans statements regarding how she feels about her career in sex work
illustrate this concept. At rst, Megan did not feel shameful and often
told friends and classmates that she was creating a porn site that showed
positive images of women and lesbian relationships. However, the reactions she received, particularly from those in her college environment,
illustrate the social stigma she encountered and the impact that has on
her. Even the friends that had initially supported the idea of what she
calls sex-positive porn were uncomfortable when she actually started
working in the sex industry. Megan describes the reaction of her friends:
Youre doing what? Do you mean youre fucking men? You
have a website? And very quickly, in a subtle way I learned, maybe I
shouldnt be so ippant about it . . . It was a matter of how I talked
about it when it was a reality . . . Its like communism, ya know, its
different on paper than in reality.
Her sentiments are supported by research on cognitive dissonance which
suggests that a conict between social norms and behavior can also cause
dissonance that can be as detrimental as dissonance caused by a conict
between personal beliefs and behavior (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999).
So even when a person does not hold beliefs that are incongruent with
their behavior, they can still face cognitive dissonance and the stress that
it produces as a result of being in conict with social norms and dominant patterns of socialization. The dissonance that this kind of socialization produces is evident in a number of conicting views that Megan
holds about herself and the sex industry. Several times, she mentions
feeling proud of what she is doing and that she has a political and feminist agenda that justies her work (interestingly, an agenda related to the
ideas she came into contact with at her university). However, Megan also
names a number of occasions for which she feels remorse or shame, as in
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her discussion of her experience with a photo shoot for a bondage


website and in the following statements about making an adult video:

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The only time I was actually really like, Wow Im such a slut, Im
such a whore. I have a degree, and, like, what am I doing with my
life? Im ruining myself . . . and I cried and was like What am I
doing and why cant I get a job in biology?!
She goes on to afrm her commitment to seeing sex work as a positive
experience for her:
If I could, like, by day, work in some DNA lab doing PCR
[Polymerase Chain Reaction] and, like, guring out the genome of
some tribe somewhere and go travel for that and then write and go
through academia and then, at night, and maybe on the weekends,
do some really sexy lesbian porn and make a lot of money. Hell yeah
Id do it.
After discussing the effort she makes to portray women as strong, unique,
and intelligent, she responds to the question of whether her clients have
ever commented on her being a powerful or intelligent women or the
sex-positive theme of the site with:
Never. Not once, nothing. And really that makes a lot of sense. Why
are they looking at these pictures? To jack off. They dont give a shit
about my politics . . . Everythings sexualized.
These statements reveal the dissonance between an idealized view of sex
work reecting an agenda of empowerment and the realities of the social
stigma and its impact on her feelings about herself and her work.
When cognitive dissonance is produced by a discrepancy between a
persons actions and what a person believes, or what is commonly seen as
socially acceptable, either their behaviors or their beliefs must change in
order for the dissonance to be resolved (Cooper, 2007; Festinger, 1962).
This may be especially true for students working in the sex industry
because they are trying to manage the dual roles of student and sex worker.
Sex workers who are not students may be able to change their beliefs about
themselves and their identity more closely aligns with the role of sex work.
Goffman (1963) points out that members of a stigmatized group can either
embrace that identity and try to ght the stigma and stereotypes associated
with it, or they can try to protect themselves from the stigma by hiding it.
As students, all of the women fear what would happen if anyone at the
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college knew about their work. As students and sex workers, the women do
not embrace the identity of sex worker, but instead nd ways to manage
the conicting roles and cope with the dissonance they produced. All of
the women express dissonance and employ a variety of coping strategies, to
varying degrees of effectiveness.

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Coping Strategies: Separation


As noted above, the women do not view themselves as the same as
the other women who work with them. This serves to separate them not
only from the other women, but also from the profession as a whole.
Similarly, Megans feminist agenda allows her to differentiate herself from
the rest of the porn industry even though she admits the content of her
website did not differ greatly from standard pornography. This distancing
from their coworkers and from the industry itself can be seen in the fact
that the women do not have friendships within the club or the industry.
They lack the social networks and support systems one might expect
within other work environments (Vanwesenbeeck, 2005). Rose describes
her relationships inside of work as very casual, Im civil and friendly,
but we dont have each others phone numbers or anything. I dont even
know most of their real names. Very separate, it never works out well.
This was a common response.
Another way in which many of these students distance themselves
from the sex industry is to separate their lives outside of work from who
they are at work. This changes neither their behavior nor their beliefs
about the behavior, but it is done in conjunction with other strategies to
allow them to still work there but feel positively about themselves.
Jennifers feelings about her work illustrate this, I feel drained by it; its
exhausting. I try to separate myself from it. I dont talk about work
outside of work; you cant take your work home with you. This theme
is also evident in Roses discussion on intimate relationships:
Relationships, thats tricky. Its hard to have a boyfriend because they
dont understand that its not real or there is a moral conict. I have
two rules for dating. 1-You meet a lot of people at work, I wont go
out with anyone who has bought a dance from me with his own
money. 2-Dont go into my bar when Im working. Go to another
club, get dances, Im not jealous. It only works when they dont
come in to see you.
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When asked to explain her rules, she adds that:

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If they buy a dance, theyre a paying customer, then its part of the
fantasy. They bought into the fantasy . . . I have a hard time being
real with them if they buy into the not real part of me.
This clear distinction between the real person and the fantasy that is portrayed at work carries over into personal relationships and especially into
the classroom. Although the women vary in their degree of disclosure to
friends and family, they all avoid disclosure within their college environment. For example, Rose is adamant about being open and honest with
her family and friends and feels that If there is anyone in my life who I
dont feel comfortable being open with, Id have to evaluate why they are
in my life, even my family. My parents are very moral. They are Christian,
but they are completely supportive. However, when asked about disclosure to classmates and professors her answer is markedly different.
I dont tell them anything. Some of the students . . . dont understand and they treat me differently because they dont understand.
[I] got a lot of unwanted attention, mostly from younger guys who
have never been to a strip club before. Its all about the fantasy for
them.
None of the women feel comfortable telling their classmates or their teachers. Consistent with previous research, they only disclose that they
work in the sex industry in more intimate settings, like summer school,
where they know their classmates better and only in classes in which
topics relating to their work are being addressed. Only one student has
seen a professor while she was working. Daisy describes her experiences
with seeing classmates or professors while working:
I try to avoid them, but I know they see me. I had a teacher that
came in a lot before I started school. The rst day of class I found
out he was a teacher . . . I stayed in class because I needed it. I think
it was awkward for him but not for me. He never called me by my
stage name in class or by my real name in the club but he would
always come up to me in class. Like hed ask a question and someone
would raise their hand but he would come up to me and ask me
what I thought and Id be like They have their hand up.
This also demonstrates the importance of keeping her fantasy self and her
real self separate. Because this teacher used the appropriate name for her
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in both circumstances, Daisy was able to keep the illusion of separation.


Research supports the notion that separating the behavior that is threatening to their sense of self from their identity is a strategy to reduce dissonance (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999). Although this strategy helps to
reduce stress from the dissonance they are experiencing, it may be particularly problematic for the women as students. A great deal of literature
has focused on the need to be engaged in the campus community and to
build social ties within the college (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005;
Vanwesenbeeck, 2005). Separating their work persona from their personal life and from their identity as a student may prevent them from
building these connections, and in trying to prevent themselves from
being exposed to the stigma associated with sex work, they may also
prevent themselves from building meaningful relationships with members
of the campus community.
Coping Strategies: Justication
In addition to separating themselves from their persona at work,
some of the women change their beliefs about their profession to resolve
dissonance. The justication they use is that they are entertainers and
that sex sells. Rose states:
People have a negative view of stripping, but Im an entertainer and
like any entertainment, it uses sexuality, except maybe family board
games and stuff, mine is just more in your face. There is nothing
wrong with capitalizing on your beautyIts everywhere, and this is
an easy way to do it. You deal with jackasses everywhere. If youre a
waitress, in retail, a barista in a coffee shop, you deal with the same
crap. Ive done it all, but here you get paid a lot more.
Jennifer, although she claims she doesnt try to justify what she does,
holds similar views about her work:
I feel like an actress. Thats what I am, an entertainer. Yeah I rub dick,
thats what you do here. Every woman does it; I do it and get money.
You can try and justify it, but when it comes down to it you rub dick
. . . and you get a lot of money. Everybody sells sex in some way.
By relating what they do to popular media or other womens behavior,
there is less of a taboo and stigma associated with it, and thus less cognitive dissonance.
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Research on cognitive dissonance has found that the greater the


personal commitment or self-involvement implied by the action and the
smaller the external justication for that action, the greater the dissonance
and, therefore, the greater the need for self-justication (Harmon-Jones
& Mills, 1999, p. 112). This implies that when these women are making
large amounts of money, this external reward can be a justication of its
own and serve to ease dissonance. When the money is not sufcient justication, other means of justication may be benecial. Natalia and
Megan reported making the least amount of money and also had the
strongest commitment to sex work. Megan entered into the industry to
make money quickly and nance a trip to Africa, but only made an
average of 1,000 dollars a month. Because the original monetary justication was not enough, her feminist agenda in pornography also served to
protect her sense of self. Viewing sex work as just another form of entertainment, or viewing it as a means of empowering women can serve to
protect a students sense of self and ease the contradictions she is facing.
None of the students are able to fully justify their work in the sex industry, possibly because of their dual roles as students and sex workers.
Instead the women employ this strategy in conjunction with others in
order to reduce dissonance.
Coping Strategies: Avoidance
The least effective means of coping with dissonance appears to be
the use of drugs and alcohol. Jamie experiences a great deal of dissonance
but uses few strategies to resolve it other than separating her identity
from the other women who work in the sex industry. She describes
herself as big on morals, values and manners. Most of these girls dont
have morals and manners. Im Christian and it means a lot to me [she
holds the cross on her necklace]. Im liberal though. The additional cognitive stress of her strong religious beliefs and lack of coping skills has a
number of consequences. When asked how her work affects her, she
responds:
Bad. Its emotionally draining. I dont want to deal with it. I used to
do meth[amphetamine] a lot. It got bad. Ive been clean two years,
clean from meth. I still drink (she picks up the glass from the shot of
tequila she just had). I have to drink to dance, well I kinda drink all
day, smoke all day too, but I dont get drunk. Some girls get drunk

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to dance, I dont do that. I drink throughout the day; Im not an


alcoholic, I dont have a problem with it. I just do it to enjoy it.
I have ADHD [Attention Decit Hyperactivity Disorder] and PTSD
[Post Traumatic Stress Disorder], I tried meds but they dont work.
I guess I self-medicate, thats kinda a joke. It just helps.
Although none of the other students self medicate in this way, they
often mention that it is prevalent in the sex industry. This coping strategy
could severely impact students working in the sex industry and affect
their ability to complete their educational goals, not to mention the risks
of addiction.
Coping Strategies: Strong Intimate Relationships
Previous research suggests that women in the sex industry value intimate relationships more and have more conservative values about sex
than average college students (Tollison, Nesbitt, & Frey, 1977). All of
the women in this study are in or have just been in committed, monogamous relationships. Rose states, Im engaged. I tell my anc everything. I tell him exactly what I do so I dont feel guilty. Rachel also
explains, My boyfriend is supportive; not all of my friends are. He
makes his money and I make mine, so it doesnt matter. The fact that
all of the women feel that it is important to mention their partners illustrates the value they place on the relationship and its importance in their
lives. As suggested by Tollison et al. (1977), the relationship protects
their sense of self from the sexuality of their work. Despite the protective
factor of the relationship, the women all acknowledge that dating was
difcult because of their profession, especially with regard to the separation of their work self and private self. When asked about disclosing the
details of her profession within her relationship, Daisy responds:
I just nished a relationship . . . with a Mormon [laughs] for a year
and a half. I told my boyfriend what I did. He would get mad over
stupid stuff. Like I do this trick . . . he didnt want me to do that. He
had moral issues with what I do.
The womens responses illustrate not only the protective aspect of their
relationship, but also the added stress involved in negotiating a relationship under these circumstances.

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Coping Strategies: Change in Behavior

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The most obvious way of resolving this dissonance would be to leave


the sex industry. Megan is the only woman in the sample who has left
the industry. Rachel has wanted to leave the industry but has kept
coming back to it for various reasons:
I want to get out of it, but its hard . . . The environment, the people
make me want to leave; the money is the only good thing that comes
out of it. Its been kind of an addiction: the money, the self-esteem
boost, the attention. What girl doesnt like tons of attention? No set
schedule, theres a lot of freedom in it . . . Youre pretty much selfemployed.
The reason that she has had a difcult time staying away may be the
moral ambiguity she is experiencing. When asked how her work has
affected her morals and values, she replies:
I guess, I, um, my morals and values, I dont really have them in
place I guess. That makes me sad to say that, Im 29I should know
that . . . I dont think Id be dancing if I knew. I actually grew up in
a strict Catholic family. I went to a Catholic high school. Religion
was just shoved down my throat and it just didnt t. I guess I went
the opposite way. Thats sounds like a stereotype I guess: the rebellious Catholic school girl.
Rachel is still in the process of dening her beliefs and determining their
consistency with her behavior. It is unlikely she will be able to resolve the
stress caused by this without solidifying her value system.
Other participants talk about staying in the sex industry because it
allows them to be nancially stable while going to school. With the
current state of the economy and the rising costs of higher education,
it may be increasingly difcult for students to decide to leave the sex
industry and nd other ways of supporting themselves and nancing
their education. Further research could examine other students who
resolve dissonance by leaving the sex industry to see if this may be the
most effective means of resolution. Other behavior changes to reduce
or eliminate cognitive dissonance could include staying in the sex industry and stopping other behaviors that are dissonant with sex work. For
example, a student could drop out of school and more fully invest
herself in the sex industry. Because only current students were included
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in the sample, it is not clear if this strategy would reduce cognitive


dissonance.

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Combination of Strategies
The students who employ a combination of strategiesjustication
plus separating their personal lives from work plus placing a high value
on monogamous relationshipsreport the least amount of negative side
effects from their work. Megan, Jennifer, and Rose all use this combination of strategies and reported fewer negative consequences of their
work, whereas the other students reported using alcohol or drugs to be
able to work in the sex industry, being emotionally drained by their
work, or having frequent breakdowns. When dissonance is not resolved
and coping strategies are not used, ones self-concept changes to t the
behavior (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999, p. 142). In this circumstance,
women working in the sex industry would likely start to embody the
stereotypes they are trying to avoid and will begin to disassociate from
aspects of their life that are contradictory to working in the sex industry.
This implies that, if students are unable to resolve or cope with the dissonance between their different roles, they may be more likely to drop out
of school and root their identity in sex work.
In addition to this risk, the burden of keeping their work lives a
secret to friends, professors, and classmates undoubtedly causes a great
deal of stress and prevents these students from nding social support and
connection at work and at school. This is particularly problematic
because research on emotional labor suggests that having strong social
networks mitigates the negative effects of working in an occupation that
demands high levels of emotional labor (Vanwesenbeeck, 2005). The isolation and lack of engagement in college among these women are issues
that postsecondary institutions should consider, as social and academic
integration and involvement in college are key mechanisms of persistence
at both residential universities and community colleges (Astin, 1984;
Braxton, Hirschy, & McClendon, 2004; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991,
2005).

Discussion
The purpose of this study is to better understand the experiences of
women who are both students and sex workers. All the participants stay
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in the sex industry because of the benets of the money-to-time ratio


along with the exibility of the schedule, both of which are considered
assets in their pursuit of higher education. However, a number of consequences exist that potentially directly threaten their college student roles.
Rather than an emphasis on physical and sexual violence because of the
workwhich is a concern in the sex industry more generallythe more
dominant concern of these students is the negative stereotyping and the
mixed feelings they have about what they do at work. The students comments about themselves and about the other women in the profession
illustrate that they are experiencing cognitive dissonance caused by the
conict between how they view themselves and what they do at work,
and this dissonance was more pronounced due to the burden of having
to manage their student identity as well. For instance, even the two
women who did not feel that sex work conicted with their sense of self
or morality still displayed signs of cognitive dissonance between the social
taboo and their behavior because they are forced to confront the potential
for stigma in their postsecondary environment.
All the students employ a variety of coping strategies to help resolve
the dissonance they experience (see Table 2). These strategies included
(i) separating themselves from the sex industry as a whole, (ii) justifying
why working in the sex industry is acceptable for them, (iii) attempting
to avoid the feelings generated by dissonance by using drugs and
alcohol, (iv) placing a high level of importance on their intimate
relationships to protect their sense of self, and (v) changing their behavior by leaving the sex industry. These strategies are most often used in
combination, and knowledge of these strategies can be useful in understanding the particular experiences of students engaged in the sex
industry.
Although the sample for this study was dominated by community
college students, published accounts in electronic media and books by
university students who have worked in the sex industry demonstrate
similar themes. They discuss dissonance between their beliefs and
actions, along with the coping skills of distancing themselves from the
other women, separation of work and personal self, and justication of
their work (Grasse, 1999; Mattson, 2005; Rufn, 2006). Their methods
of justication differ in that they are more focused on defending their
work against feminist critiques of the sex industry. Overall, the ndings
of the present study illustrate the unique challenges faced by this population of students.
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Implications for Research and Practice


It is critical that those working with students create safe environments for student sex workers to be open about their lives and remain
engaged in their education, both in and out of the classroom.
Pedagogical strategies that promote disclosure include creating a safe classroom environment where students discuss topics of exploitation, sex
work, and feminism and are encouraged to write journals or share experiences without fear of being stigmatized. Fear of disclosing their profession
poses a serious barrier to reaching out for support, but it is sorely needed
for these students, many of whom have strained relationships with their
families and little support from their coworkers. Research on emotional
labor demonstrates that strong social support can mitigate the psychological costs of working in the sex industry, and the literature on student
engagement clearly demonstrates the importance of having meaningful
social connections to the campus community (Pascarella & Terenzini,
2005; Vanwesenbeeck, 2005). Student services professionals can be inuential in helping this population of students build supportive social networks on campus both to reduce the negative effects of working in the
sex industry and to increase their likelihood of persistence.
Student affairs professionals can also support students by helping
them develop healthy coping strategies to manage their dual roles as
students and sex workers. The women in the study all employ a
number of coping strategies, but not all of them are healthy or effecttive. Besides the risk of isolating themselves, the strategy of avoidance
appears to be the most damaging. The women who use this strategy
would be at a much higher risk of alcohol and drug abuse or dependency. Popular current programs providing short interventions targeting
recreational substance abuse may not be effective for this population.
More holistic and intensive treatment may be needed to help these
students not only to overcome substance abuse, but also to develop
healthier ways of coping with working in the sex industry. If students
are not able to cope with the dissonance, they may also need assistance
in nding other means of supporting themselves and nancing their
education.
The present ndings also suggest the need to further research
more systematically the threat to student engagement and integration
posed by student work in the sex industry. Student sex workers may
suffer distinct consequences of their work that need to be considered, but
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they also share the disadvantages that other working students and
nontraditional-aged students face as well. For instance, Bozik (2007)
demonstrates that students employment can decrease their likelihood of
persisting in college, especially if they are working over 20 hr a week and
are nancially dependent on their income. Research suggests that students
in this age range, who delay their enrollment or stop attending college
and return later, are at a disadvantage in degree completion (Deluca &
Bozick, 2005).
Further research should directly examine how working in the sex
industry inuences academic outcomes and persistence, and relevant
support programs should be instituted that perhaps overlap with
support provided to working and nontraditional-aged students. The
combined effects of working to support themselves and their families
and being nontraditional-aged students put them at an increased risk of
dropping out of college (Bozik, 2007; DeLuca & Bozick, 2005). Facing
the added stigma of working in the sex industry poses an additional
threat that could prompt college departure despite relative academic
success (see Osborne & Walker, 2006, for a discussion of similar
pressures for students of color). It is also informative to consider
Megans desire to work in a DNA lab as a preferable alternative to her
work in pornography. Gray (1997) nds that only one in three college
graduates nd employment relevant to their major. This small sample
of student sex workers shares the same needs in this respect as a
majority of college students. Developing more opportunities for all students to become involved during college in employment that is related
to their intended career is an objective more institutions should identify
and pursue.
To help students who are sex workers achieve their goals of completing their education, the college cultural environment must be a supportive and nonjudgmental one. Since this population is not easily
identiable, and may not want to be identied, every student must know
that they will not be penalized for disclosing latent identities. As the
negative experiences of some students who have been outed for
working in sex industry have shown, disclosure is not necessarily safe and
a student may suffer serious consequences if she is found out (Chronicle
of Higher Education, 2001). If institutions of higher education continue
to stigmatize women working in the sex industry, they will perpetuate
these womens dependence on this line of work by decreasing their
chances of graduating and leaving the sex industry.
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Appendix
TABLE 1. Consequences for students working in the sex industry.
Cause of cognitive
dissonance
Belief

Description
I am a good and moral person. I am a college student who will have a professional
career
Working in the sex industry; threat of being stereotyped

Behavior

TABLE 2. Means of resolution.


Coping strategy
Justication
Distancing
Separation
Avoidance
Intimate
relationships
Change in
behavior

Description
Working in the sex industry is a means to an end, and the end justies the means; or working
in the sex industry is entertainment and sex sells
Belief that they are not like the other women in the industry. Focus shame on the other
Keeping work persona separate from their true self and from their identity as a student
The use of substance abuse to decrease the experience of dissonance
Value placed on relationships to protect sense of self from the sexuality of the workplace
Leaving the sex industry

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