Degree Date



Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Work and Social Research


Individuals in the United States who work in the sex industry while in undergraduate or graduate school are in the unique position of straddling between the two seemingly disparate worlds of academia and the sex industry. This position has the potential to put them at greater risk of isolation due to stigmatization and the threat of criminalization. Limited empirical data has been gathered regarding student sex workers’ financial, personal, and professional goals; how they manage life challenges and who they turn to for support, or what student sex workers need. To address this gap, a qualitative content analysis was conducted with 17 cisgender female student sex workers, ages 19 to 33 years. Using semi-structured interviews, demographic surveys, and contextual interviews with five key informants, this study sought to understand how the participants constructed their lives as students and as sex workers and how 21st century neoliberal economic policies and sensibilities factored into their constructions. Four themes emerged: 1) Doing what is socially expected; 2) Doing what the 21st century economy demands; 3) Embracing a stigmatized identity: “I am a sex worker” while also resisting the stigma attached to it; and 4) Needing and deserving acknowledgement rather than being saved or judged by social workers and academic institutions. With knowledge gained from this study, social workers are in a position to support student sex workers and raise staff awareness on campuses, as well as impact national policy debates regarding sex work criminalization.