What Happens When Sex Work And Academia Collide?

I recently read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a “professor-dominatrix scandal”. In brief, various faculty members and grad students in the creative writing department at the University of New Mexico were involved with phone sex work, and the whole thing blew up with accusations, resignations, and so on. Notably, many of the people at the university involved in this thing were women, and they suffered terrible consequences at the hands of their colleagues.

Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

One of the smarter, more nuanced analyses of the situation is titled “The Scarlet SW for Sex Worker”. The author correctly points out that of the faculty members involved, one woman apologized, quit the phone sex job immediately, and was not found at fault by the university’s administration–however, the other faculty continued to persecute her. Her colleagues insisted that she was a prostitute (even falsifying a letter from “concerned parents”) and that she be treated as such, although her sex work actions were legal, temporary, and did not actually involve selling sex acts (the technical definition of prostitution). This woman has been labeled as “being a prostitute” rather than “doing sex work.” This is an important distinction, as feminists have noted: within patriarchal power structures, shame is attached to women’s beings, whereas the same is not true of men. Engaging in sex work even briefly–a trend that is growing amongst college students who just need to pay some bills–is still enough to attach a lasting stigma.

My opinion on this issue is complicated, as I’m a Ph.D. candidate hoping to someday be a professor. Clearly there can be conflicts of interest when a professor is engaged in activities that might put them in intimate contact with students–but ought they be punished as stringently for pursuing an unconventional and sexualized side career or hobby? How does one even begin to distinguish between hobby and sexual preference, as with kink and BDSM, activities that sometimes carry into a larger community that extends outside the bedroom to include online discussion boards and conventions?

Fortunately, some sexual minorities have become accepted to the point where they will not be persecuted in most circles of academia (gay and lesbian professors are increasingly accepted even when out of the closet, for instance), but what about the rest? Is it possible that one person’s well-managed non-monogamous set of relationships triggers another person’s “I don’t know what this sexual thing is, it must be bad/pernicious!” reaction?

I also worry that the subtle lines between various kinds of sex work might be blurred, as was the case with this example. Where might fetish modeling fall on the spectrum of sex work that can get a professor in trouble, or a long-past (or even current) feature in an erotic art film, or even displaying how knowledgeable one is about the various kinds of sex work out there? (this last one is a realistic risk for those of us who study sex–in some situations our knowledge of how a scene works might implicate us in it, and even if one is citing anecdotal evidence of a scene, that could raise questions of why you’re so interested as to be seeking anecdotal evidence in the first place)

Finally, I am concerned about the conservative notion that adults engaging in sexual acts are somehow harmful to children or youths (or “students,” who in both undergraduate and graduate education, can vary greatly in age). Let’s face it, there wouldn’t be future generations to educate if people, including teachers, weren’t having sex. It’s not that sex itself is harmful to kids, but that people have varying opinions on how best to manage children’s or students’ exposure to sex (ranging from zero to giving the “birds and bees” talk ASAP). In many cases, a teacher’s sex life probably isn’t relevant to what goes on in the classroom (again, with exceptions, like teaching queer theory or about coming-out stories)–but on the flip side, that does not make it acceptable to demand that teachers be sexless automatons who deny having any desires ever. If some of those desires deviate from the norm (and what is normal, anyway?) or find non-standard outlets, teachers should not be punished.

As a corollary to my above statement, I believe that students should not be faced with their teachers’ sexualities in every single classroom setting–unless it’s a class about sexuality, for example, or a class where students are supposed to draw on personal experience and reflect on their lives, in which case it would make sense for the professor to do the same. Occasionally there will be moments of classroom TMI regardless of the topic, and that’s just how it is in any human interaction. Students sometimes have to listen to their professors’ political or religious views, for instance–but the important thing is that professors be fair and acknowledge when they veer into the realm of opinion and personal preference, and that they not grade unfairly based on who agrees with them.

Our sexuality is part of what makes us human, and hence academics, who are most certainly human, should not have to cover up this very important aspect of their identities. This is a timely issue, as Sarah’s MSP post on a former sex worker who was removed from her teaching job proves. Some situations may require more delicacy than others, and certainly, someone who aspires to be an academic–or politician, or anyone else in the public eye–should consider whether their actions might affect their work, and if so, whether they care.

But having a stance toward transparency goes for everything, not just whether you’ve engaged in sex work. And this is part of why I love this post by Katie West, wherein she describes why she is not, in fact, concerned about her being naked on the internet affecting her teaching. (thanks to Damien for the link)

Even after having ranted for a while, I’m not certain how exactly to grapple with these issues, but I do hope others are thinking about this, and paying attention to the details, rather than condemning sexuality in its many forms.

Follow us on Twitter @mysexprofessor. Follow Jeana, the author of this post, @foxyfolklorist.

About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.