Exotic funding

The politics of shedding clothes to pay for school

The image of students performing at strip clubs garnered media attention in 2007, when the Gazette, the daily student newspaper of the University of Western Ontario, reported that a strip club near the University of Guelph called The Manor offered $5000 toward tuition at a wet T-shirt contest. The strip club claimed no nudity was necessary in order to participate, although the Gazette claimed these contests, decided by applause, often rewarded contestants for going the extra mile – in the nude.

Is there anything to the idea that McGill students strip or engage in sex work to pay their bills? Or could it be simply a rumour born of the numerous visits college students pay to downtown strip clubs? More importantly, if a student had chosen exotic dance as a means to pay their tuition, what would have led them to such a decision? To find out the answer, I decided to get the story from the source: I went to a strip club.

Les Amazons, a gentleman’s club known for its cheap alcohol and even cheaper food, has always been popular among college students, and Friday night was no exception. I pretended that my friend, who preferred to remain anonymous, was into college girls and wanted to purchase a dance from one. The bouncer promptly directed me to a young blonde French Canadian dancer named Jessica.

Jessica explained that she began work at Les Amazons four years ago at the age of 19 when she heard stories of girls earning $800 a night, and her job at the pub PJ’s next door no longer seemed adequate. She said she had a base salary of minimum wage, with an additional $10 for every dance. She was not currently attending college, although she had graduated from a veterinary technician program; she preferred not to mention the school. Jessica had worked as a veterinary assistant but the salary could not compare with that of Les Amazons. According to Jessica, five other girls were attending college or had already graduated from programs as diverse as management and law, with one of the dancers working as a border patrol agent during the day and another as a real estate agent.

Interestingly, Jessica was aware of McGill’s rowdy reputation, saying she had heard the parties “were really sick,” and inquired whether such rumours were true. She also criticized girls who got nude at parties, saying they were essentially behaving like exotic dancers without being hired to do so. “You’re either a dancer or you’re not; there’s no in-between,” she said.

Aware that exotic dancing is not a profession with great prospects, Jessica intended to attend veterinary school in the fall. She also explained that most girls had entered the business after finishing CEGEP and, knowing it was temporary, had the intention of amassing savings in order to attend college in the future. Jessica also added that her parents were aware of her job and although they did not approve, the knowledge that she did not consume alcohol or drugs and had enough to purchase a house and a car reassured them.

Is it possible the same incentives that lead a student into stripping can also lead them into sex work?
Émilie Laliberté, general coordinator of STELLA, an organization which describes itself as “by and for sex workers,” claims that the incidence of students performing sex work to cover their tuition is high. STELLA was founded in 1995, with the intention of promoting the decriminalization of sex work, fighting discrimination, and providing safety and support for sex workers. Ms. Laliberté also clarified that these students choose sex work as a last option, believing that they cannot continue through any other means. Ms. Laliberté also maintained that just as many students choose exotic dancing as a means of paying their tuition as those who choose sex work or escort services.

Julia Krane, an associate professor at the McGill school of social work, said that she had “taught and interacted with a number of students who have engaged in various forms of sex work while studying,” although she declined to explain further.

It seems that the sex industry is an option that students or recent graduates often seriously consider, though the circumstances under which individual students approach sex work differ.

There is evidence that exotic dancing and sex work are industries that students enter to supplement their incomes, and there’s a lot more to be considered. There are also other sectors with more flexible hours not investigated in this article, such as the phone sex industry, that may be more convenient for a student schedule. By talking about these issues and trying to understand student motivations for entering the sex industry, hopefully some of the taboos around these jobs can be removed. Then students will be able to come forward with their stories to give a more accurate portrayal of the realities that these workers face.

Related stories:

The Peak, CUP – Working in the sex trade: a postsecondary student bares all
Shedding a red light on history, 11/9/09
Sex workers just ask for respect, rights, 3/17/08