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Sexy Academics: When Sex Work and Education Collide

Mama K’s Avatar Article by Blog Slixa Late Night

The thoughtful advice and opinions of the author of this article are meant to be informative and entertaining and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Slixa.

Those of us who choose to work in the sex industry are often looked at as not having other options. Taking this path because the other choices of entry level gigs were just not going to cut it. Choosing the most lucrative of limited options. Most often people working as talent or providers are assumed to be hustling to pay for their education to "better" opportunities. What if I were to tell you that there are people in the industry who have not only chosen to be there, they also have completed degrees and thrived in “respectable” day jobs only to find that their true passion is intertwined with human sexuality? Their studies even delving into the realms of sex work, the two overlapping and enriching each other.

One of these sexy sapiosexuals is Dr. Kate Frank, who I interviewed recently about her anthropological study of group sex practices and resulting text. Kate is open about working in strip clubs, to the extent that it informed her early work and inspired her more recent studies into subversive sexual cultures. Look for this interview coming soon on Slixa Late Night.

Kate is not alone in her sapiosexual pursuits, what follows is a glimpse at the complex lives of some amazing women and men who are turning private entertainment on its head. This is a peek at their multifaceted stories. This is the reality of the sex industry that I’ve seen first hand. These are just a fraction of the educated, intelligent people, who have worked it out, combining the skills of their minds and bodies to enlighten, titillate and educate as adult providers and entertainers.

The out-and-proud, well-educated women and men who work in the sex industry are a tip of a vast iceberg. For every porn performer, ex-topless dancer, and dominatrix recalled here there are many more who conceal their secret identities, while working day jobs, caring for their families, shopping for groceries, or writing their dissertations.

Sex workers are humans at the end of the day, and even if the way they are portrayed can seem beyond the “normal”, their daily lives are often more “normal” than extraordinary. That said, the women and men I’ve encountered in the industry often embody a rare blend of beauty, brains, lightheartedness, and compassion that one might expect to find amongst nuns and nurses. It's probably rare to see a provider who also has a day job as nuns, but I’ve known nurses and doctors, and those who study faith and religion, Phds and attorneys or law students, educators, writers and humanitarians.

See "(Porn)Stars and the Real Girl" for another look at how popular media gets it all wrong. 

Studying Sexuality

Many people who are drawn to the study of human nature, psychology, or anatomy also often find themselves wrapped up in studying our sexual proclivities and curiosities.

As an anthropologist, Kate Frank worked as a nude dancer in a range of different clubs not only to pay for her expenses, but to actually study the patrons and the culture taking place. She took an ethnographic look at regular customers and communicated with them as both dancer and serious researcher. The result was her first book, G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire, where she investigated the male client’s perspective and motivations for frequenting strip clubs, particularly in these clubs where the physical contact was minimal (no touching or lap dancing) and sexual release was not an option. She wanted to know why they kept coming back? What was it about these clubs that they enjoyed? She met them outside of the club with her researcher hat on to find out.

Her more recent work, inspired by the sexual counterculture and curiosity fostered inside and out of the strip club scene discusses the broader concept of group sex. She has combined her education and postdoctoral studies with her voyeuristic -- and anthropological -- interest in the sexual counterculture.

Mireille Miller-Young, Ph.D, has also brought sex work into her University of California classroom. Her research highlights the intersection of gender, race, sexuality, commodification, feminism, and the many places where they diverge in the lives of multidimensional multifaceted individuals. She has been working on research culminating in a film which will "present the narratives of women of color performers as they give voice to their experiences of the racial and gender power dynamics of labor in hardcore media." Touching on many of her research interests which include black feminist theory, black sexual politics, the racialized political economy of sex work, and American film and visual cultures. These two are not alone, more than ever before porn is being taught at the university level and sex, specifically sex workers are informing research and students around the globe. 

Selling Sexy to Study

The more common stereotype of dancing or working as a provider to pay your way through school has played out in movies, after-school specials, and headlines. You might remember Melissa Febos, author of Whip Smart: Memoirs of a Dominatrix, who wrote her sordid tale of working as a pro-domme during school, post graduation. As cliche as Melissa’s story seemed, there are many other varied stories out there. Melissa's work on the dark side became a way to parlay herself towards a bright future and massive book sales.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, many sex workers are out and proud via the web and social media. Ms. Sandy Bottoms describes herself succinctly on twitter as: “queer-femme-sex worker-law student-activist”. She shares her world via tweets, for example:

@MsSandyBottoms: Working on a constitutional law practice exam while listening to The Misfits in a tutu is sort of like doing Halloween. November 1, 2013

Proving once again that studious doesn't have to look square. 

Postgraduate (Sex) Work

I’m in the middle of a bastion of it: the sex workers I know in the Bay Area and online are definitely cutting a different mold, as discussed in the East Bay Express article titled, "Redefining Sex Work".

This new breed of adult entertainers, women like fellow Slixa contributor Jolene Parton, are “educated, empowered, tech-savvy, and activism-oriented, honest about who they are and proud of what they do. They have iPhones and nose piercings and college degrees.” The article goes on to talk about the Bay Area like a magical place where those in the sex industry come for community, support, and to counter the ever present challenges of being an adult provider. At its minimum; societal stigma - at max; legal concerns or physical harm, including the challenges of legislation like Proposition 35, framed as anti-trafficking, but blatantly anti-sex worker.

Like Ms. Sandy Bottoms, I was taking constitutional law practice exams at one point in my life. It was around the same time I learned about Joseph Kramer’s new school, and decided to take some online classes, which were a sharp contrast to the intellectual pursuits of law school. My keen interest in sexuality was briefly satiated as I attempted to enlist my law school classmates in practice masturbation coaching sessions. It wasn't until I had nearly completed my degree that I moved from voyer into participant in the world of adult entertainment. Post graduation was when I found my path into the sex industry, but that’s another story for another time.

Bottom line:

Sex workers are working towards degrees in psychology and sexology, working part time as teachers, real estate brokers, or life coaches. There are doctors and nurses and lawyers and educators out there moonlighting in adult fields too. When these lives can't overlap, and people who have this secret duality are outed we read about it in the news and often they lose their jobs. We’ve all heard the stories of the teachers being put to task for having sexy pictures on the internet. Some people believe that as our world becomes smaller and more transparent via the internet, these identities won’t be as easy to hide. At the same time, they won’t be as shocking or rare because the more stars admit to sex tapes and more nude photos show up in politicians social profiles, the more the strength of the stigma will decrease. It’s like the unspoken rule between worker and patron: we’re both here.

The position of the educated sex worker still comes with stigma, backlash and the possibility of being outed, thus limiting career options. A commenter on Scanlime’s vibrator hack that I wrote about in "Arse Elektronika: Like an Orgasm for Your Brain," called posting about hacking her vibrator a potentially “career limiting move." Not to suggest that Scanlime is a sex worker; her works mere proximity to sex and sexuality still seems to make some of the squarer and fairer squeamish and judgy.

These days most people who take the plunge into sex work leave their political aspirations on the diving board. Although Australia is leading the way with their political “sex party" (no, not that kind of party!). Born out of an adult-industry lobby group, the Australian sex party has libertarian leanings and are known for championing sex worker's rights in the country where prostitution is mostly legal.

If you're looking for more from the perspectives of educated sex workers, I recommend Tits and Sass, which is an invaluable resource for "witty commentary on the public image of our industry" and critical discusion from the sex worker perspective. With such gems of useful information as "Dear Tits and Sass: Security Clearances," where they tackle the question of security clearance for sex workers who might like to work for the government. 

More! More! MORE!

With the recent popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, the boom in curiosity about kink, and the acceptance of some previously subversive sexual styles, mainstream news has taken notice. College educated domina Snow Mercy has a Phd in biochemistry. She can be seen on Lisa Ling’s Our America for Oprah’s OWN network, giving a tour of her dungeon space and talking about why she chose to be a pro-domme even after recieving her degrees.

Other sex workers with degrees featured recently on Huffington Post (scroll down to the photoset at the bottom) include Dana Vespoli, who has a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Mills College in Oakland, California and Nina Hartley, who is trained as a registered nurse and remains relevant in the porn business after 30 years. 

Smart and sassy porn star Betty Blac has two degrees, her Bachelors is in Media Studies from Mills College and a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Sydney.

The Unsexpected Story

In Darren Robert's book about the lesser known and unexpected sides of the adult industry, titled The Unsexpected Story, he features two porn starlets who both graduated from college and matriculated into the adult business. Joanna Angel, graduated from Rutgers with a degree in English Literature. She worked her way into adult as a performer and producer, now a successful business woman.

Jessica Drake’s story starts out just like the ones in the movies, a stripper putting herself through school, but her path diverged when she found her way into adult films and made it her career. Not interested in being just another porn star, her hard work has lead to success as a 'contract girl' and sex educator. Jessica's tenacity and overwhelming kindness have brought her admiration and respect around the world.

I can only imagine there are many more deep thinking, fiercely intelligent members of society who have chosen to sell sex, since we all know that it sells, everything. Many intelligent, educated providers are coming out of the woodwork or peaking around the corners at events such as CatalystConWoodhull Sexual Freedom Summit, and Desiree Alliance conferences. These are safe spaces where we can flex our smarts and also feel secure just being.

Nerdy porn couple the Mayhems provide yet another example of what happens in the Bay Area. They study, debate, fuck, challenge strive and work really hard to take a critical look at everything they do. While giving the internet an eyeful and an earful.

These educated, intelligent people have chosen sex work. Weighing the benefits against the stigma. It’s not always easy, and although the stigma is real, the stereotypes aren’t. The group of individuals mentioned here are only a small slice of the pie chart. These are the examples I've encountered in my own life, the folks who have crossed my narrow path, who are open about who they really are, and allow their sexuality and intelligence to overlap.

Although we all come from different backgrounds, each of us has a complex story interweaving sexuality, intelligence, work ethic and negotiating fine lines. You never know what's churning in the big brains at your local strip club, dungeon, or found right here, in the lovely entertainers advertising on Slixa. Providers are individuals with lived experiences that you can’t see unless you look passed their overwhelming sex appeal and realize that beauty, sexuality, and brains go oh so well together.


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