Are women turning to Prostitution to Pay for College?
The Atlantic recently ran an article with the provocative title “How Sugar Daddies Are Financing College Education?“. The article starts off with a dramatic and movie worthy story/scene about a young woman at Princeton University who is whisked away to NYC in a limo for a midnight dinner, late night sex, and then promptly returned to campus in time for her 10 AM class. Her benefactor is allegedly a 60-something Wall Street Banker. Our beautiful young Princeton student and her sugar daddy met on a website called Seeking Arrangement. The website advertises itself as promoting “mutually beneficial relationships” between “sugar daddies” and beautiful, young, well-educated women called “sugar babies.” I think most people would read this as being prostitution or at least high-class escorting in everything but name and we are meant to do so.
If the Atlantic article is to be believed, there is an epidemic of young woman turning into rich, older patrons in order to pay for their education. The article gravely informs the “In 2013, Seeking Arrangement announced that approximately 44 percent of its 2.3 million ‘babies’ are in college.” Rose Woodhouse calculated this to mean that 1 million of the 6.5 million female college students in the United States are in Seeking Arrangement and this does seem very hard to believe even if you account for inactive and unused accounts. I still don’t think this is anything new. I’ve heard countless friends talk about how they have a friend or a friend of a friend who paid for college and/or graduate school by being an escort or a kept-woman of some kind. Sometimes even men get in on the act. I’ve also heard more than one woman talk about how they wish they were brave enough to do something like be an escort instead of relying on soul-crushing student loans. I’ve also had a few guy friends tell me that they lost their virginity to sex workers and/or went to sex workers on occasion. None of these people fit our stereotypical images of Johns or Sex Workers so the use of sex work is probably more wide-spread than anyone thinks because of the illegality and taboo.
So I am a bit skeptical that we have an epidemic of young women who are paying for college by becoming high-class escorts for horny old rich dudes but it probably does happen more than we think about. I think the reason the Atlantic published this story is that it can be all things to all people. Sex stories allow us to be tantalized as well as maintaining a moral high ground. Conservatives can read this story and have their views confirmed about the decline of morality in the United States because we are not church-going anymore and also the evils of liberal Hollywood culture and movies that glamorize prostitution. Liberals like me can (and in my case did) read this story as a parable for income inequality and the New Gilded Age. I read this story as being about how we used see affordable higher education as being part of the social contract and that it was a public good for education to be affordable in the United States but thanks to the anti-tax far-right revolution, tuition has skyrocketed and now women are turning to prostitution to pay for their college educations because you can’t do it with working in the campus library or coffeeshop anymore. Libertarians and sex-worker advocates can read this story and see evidence that prostitution is not the great evil that prohibitionists make it out to be. These women are not exploited outsiders standing a street-corner at 2 in the morning, they are bright young women making an independent and rational decision. Everyone can gawk and be intrigued and repulsed by the opening image of a limo pulling into Princeton at 11 PM on a Tuesday night and rushing a woman to NYC for late night dinner and sex with a Wall Street banker. We can also wonder if he will give her a job and apartment upon graduation or at least some connections.
In this case, I think the liberal and libertarian/sex-worker advocate interpretations of the story have elements of truth to them. One thing that dissatisfies me in American public debate over social issues is that it is not enough to support a policy, you have to support it for the “right” reason or you are a bad person who will buckle to the opposition at any second, a potential turn-coat. In general, I think the prohibition against sex work and narcotics does more harm than good. The evidence for this is axiomatic in my eyes especially for the War on some Drugs. This does not necessarily mean I think it is advisable for people to do meth or heroin because both drugs can do serious damage to a person both physically and emotionally. People lose their families and careers because of drug addictions. We should be able to recognize as mature and intelligent adults that it is perfectly reasonable to say that the drug war is bad policy but this does not make a good decision to do meth or heroin. The same is true for sex-work probably. The harm of prohibition is great and worse than legalized sex work but that does not necessarily mean we should always see sex work as being a simple business arrangement between a client and someone offering a service. I don’t think it says anything great about American society that college tuition has become so expensive that high-end escorting seems to be the best way to finance an education unless someone is lucky enough to be able to pay full-freight or gets a substantial scholarship. We should be striving to make tuition more affordable so students (men and women) don’t feel the need to go for desperate measures to pay for their higher educations.