Johanna* needed money. Her mother had become too ill to support herself, leaving Johanna to care for her and the rest of the family while a full-time student at New York University. Tuition for her junior year had hit $63,000 — the third highest of any university in the country. In her first two years she’d scraped by with a waitressing job at a pizzeria, two scholarships worth $32,000, and help from her family — a $30,000 gift from a cousin and a $15,000 federal loan in her mother’s name.
But her fortunes faded quickly. Her cousin’s money ran out just when the cost and time commitment of Johanna’s frequent trips home were becoming untenable. Her grades slipped; scholarships vanished. She was fired from the waitressing gig for missing too many shifts for class. Johanna considered switching to a less expensive school, but because of the idiosyncratic nature of her course load (she is enrolled in one of NYU’s specialty majors), her credits wouldn’t transfer. She took out another $19,000 in government loans to cover the mounting shortfall. But those payments would one day come due, and the rent on her Lower Manhattan apartment wasn’t getting any cheaper.
So it was that on a cold February day last year, Johanna found herself on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 39th Street. She kept her right hand in her pocket to keep warm. Eventually her phone rang: Go in the door next to the hair salon, the voice told her, and walk up to the second floor. There, a security guard checked her ID and opened the door. The familiar hum of the city streets faded quickly as Johanna entered a dungeon equipped with bondage wheels and cages suspended from the ceiling; through another set of doors was a room designed to look just like a doctor’s office, set up for needle play. All of the windows were boarded up.
Between sessions, women waited in two dressing rooms; that first night Johanna counted around thirty in each. Of the women she spoke to, Johanna says that all were students or recent graduates working for tuition money or to pay off student loans. Many were students at Sarah Lawrence, CUNY, and Cooper Union. Most, Johanna claims, were from Tisch, NYU’s arts school. (Reached by telephone last week, workers at the dungeon confirmed to the Voice that many of the women working there are university students or recent graduates.) Three weeks later, Johanna agreed to her first “sub session”: She was chained to a hook and suspended naked from the ceiling while a man whipped her repeatedly with his belt. This lasted an hour. She received $80, plus tip.
The Voice first met Johanna the following September, when she was among dozens at Washington Square Park protesting then–NYU president John Sexton’s controversial use of university funds — for everything but easing the burden of tuition on students. Johanna was reluctant about speaking in public; her friends and family didn’t know what she was doing for a living. Nevertheless, she agreed to participate, taking the dais cloaked in two headscarves, a ball mask, and a long-sleeve shirt, despite the heat of the late-summer afternoon. “My story is a common one,” she said into the mic. “And that is why I need to tell it.”
Public opinion on sex work has liberalized rapidly. A recent New York magazine story revealed that in 2012, 38 percent of Americans believed it should be legalized; by 2015 the share had grown to 44 percent, and the wave shows no sign of having crested. At the same time, we’ve seen an explosion in the number of services like TheEroticReview.com, Ashley Madison, MyRedBook, Adam4Adam, and Peppr — which markets itself as the “Uber for escorts” — connecting potential workers to potential clients. (One of those services, Backpage.com, was once affiliated with the Village Voice, but after a change in ownership last October, the paper no longer accepts such advertising.)
Among the largest and oldest is Seeking Arrangement, a matchmaking website founded in 2006 that helps 2.6 million registered “sugar babies” find the sugar mamas and daddies willing to pay for their company. In a somewhat counterintuitive public relations move, Seeking Arrangement in 2015 released numbers claiming that more than half its U.S. providers were students. The same dataset also revealed that more than 1,000 undergraduates and graduate students at NYU alone — 2.6 percent of the school’s 45,000 full-time students — had active accounts, more than any other American college listed in the report, including Columbia (1.8 percent), the New School (1.7 percent), and CUNY (0.25 percent).
Seeking Arrangement’s data trove offered what may well be the clearest glimpse to date of the size and scope of college students’ engaging in sex work in this country. But it represents a fraction of the overall phenomenon. The numbers, for example, do not account for sex workers, such as Johanna, who arrange meetings through the myriad other services available. They also exclude those who signed up with a personal email address. (Presumably in order to be able to advertise its “college students,” the site’s targeted “Sugar Baby University” promotion encourages people to register with their college addresses by offering free premium accounts. “No minimum GPA required,” reads the landing page.) In other words, we can safely assume that the figure Seeking Arrangement gives for student providers substantially underestimates the overall number citywide. After all, a recent YouGov poll reported that 6 percent of Americans have been paid for sex at some point in their lives.
It’s important to understand that this phenomenon is not exclusive to NYU. If there’s anything the Seeking Arrangement data make unequivocal, it’s that student sex workers are everywhere. Student sex workers willing to talk to the press, however, are not. Johanna and the other student sex workers who agreed to speak on the record are students at NYU. But it’s also true that the financial realities of getting a college education at NYU can be particularly punishing and may contribute to the fact that, if Seeking Arrangement’s numbers are to be trusted, a higher percentage of its students seem to be turning to sex work in order to make ends meet.
Sexton was the president of NYU for thirteen years and is widely credited with transforming the school from an excellent local institution into a world-class global university. NYU attracted twice as many applicants in 2012 as it did in 2002, the year Sexton took office.
But his tenure was also marred by financial scandal. In 2007, an investigation by the New York State attorney general found that NYU, along with four other universities, was secretly taking kickbacks off of student loan interest rates from Citibank — NYU’s preferred lender, which at the time serviced most of the school’s loans. In 2010, the university administration announced a controversial plan to spend $6 billion on some of the world’s most expensive real estate around New York City, a move that seemed to have little to do with higher education. A 2013 New York Times report revealed the university was funding faculty vacation homes and paying exorbitant salaries to the administration’s higher-ups. And in 2015, an investigative report by Nardello & Co. found a series of labor rights violations at a new campus in Abu Dhabi — built to the tune of $1 billion.
The university has long been accused of focusing on adding to its already massive real estate holdings at the expense of its students. In response, NYU claims its financial aid budget has tripled over the past ten years and that student debt has decreased by 30 percent in the past five. Yet a data analysis by ProPublica in 2015 revealed that the university saw a 91 percent increase in revenue from student fees and tuition over the past decade and that student debt rates are roughly unchanged from ten years ago. On a scale of 60 to 99, the Princeton Review rates NYU’s financial aid awards a 63, the lowest of any major university in the nation even as its tuition ranks among the highest.
Nationally, of course, more students than ever are going into debt to finance a college education: The national student debt burden recently surpassed $1.2 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In 2009 the average NYU grad owed more than $28,500 in federal debt, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, and a report by the Brookings Institution found that in 2014, NYU student debt was the second highest in the country among attendees of nonprofit colleges. Furthermore, low-income students at NYU whose families make less than $30,000 per year typically owe more than $23,000 in federal loans upon graduation, according to the ProPublica analysis. (These numbers don’t include loans taken from private banks.)
Some students critical of the campaign against Sexton argue that the school has every right to choose how to distribute its money and that students are fully informed of all school-related costs upon admission. It is up to the students to decide whether attending is financially feasible. Following her speech at the September rally, Johanna was accused by her peers of being entitled: She’d opted to attend an expensive school and the consequences were her responsibility, they commented on social media. Johanna stands by her decision, arguing that in an age when the prestige of one’s degree matters more than ever, her choice was practical. “I realize that names don’t always matter,” she told the Voice. “But to a lot of people it does.”
In an email sent out last month to NYU students and faculty, NYU’s new president, Andrew Hamilton, vowed to freeze housing and meal plan fees and nominally reduce the cost of attendance. Hamilton also blamed the school’s high tuition on its prime Manhattan location and relatively small endowment. However, while NYU students pay almost $18,000 for one year of room and board, Columbia University, located just uptown in comparably tony environs, charges just $12,000. And although NYU’s $3.2 billion endowment is substantially smaller than Columbia’s $8.2 billion, ProPublica’s Debt by Degrees database lists dozens of colleges with smaller endowments than NYU, including Syracuse University and Fordham, that charge their low-income students a fraction of what NYU does.
When reached for comment about the details of this article, Matt Nagel, NYU’s director of public affairs, emailed the Voice two statements that addressed the issues of student debt and sex work. In response to Johanna’s public allegations, he wrote: “It’s not really our practice to respond to the claims of masked individuals at a protest rally. But the bottom line is this: if a student comes to us in difficult financial straights [sic], then we are usually able to assist them, and we work with students on these issues all the time. The claim that someone has to turn to activities that are harmful to himself or herself is at odds with NYU’s concern for the welfare of its students and the services we have in place to support them.”
Some student sex workers say they enjoy what they do and don’t do it just for the money. Nay Nay*, 21, who studied acting at Tisch, began working as a lap dancer at the St. Venus Theater in Hell’s Kitchen after quitting her job at the NYU Call Center due to poor pay. As a lap dancer, Nay Nay took home an average of $600 per night for a six-hour shift, which allowed her to dedicate more time to schoolwork, as she’d only have to dance one or two nights a week. “I find a weird kind of empowerment in it,” she explained to the Voice over Skype from New Orleans, where she now lives. “I like that I have the choice to do it, I view it as ultimately my decision, and if I enjoy dancing, then I can do it.”
“Why on earth wouldn’t someone do it?” asked Norma Jean Almodovar, 64, the founder and president of the International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture, and Education, a nonprofit that advocates for decriminalizing sex work and reducing violence against women in the trade.
Almodovar was a cop with the LAPD in the 1980s when she decided to take a stand against the “idiotic” laws and poisonous social stigma that punished people for taking part in the sex industry. “You know what cops call murdered prostitutes?” she asked. “NHIs. You know what that means? ‘No humans involved.’ I found that extremely offensive, that they could say that about anyone — much less because the cops had sex with them all the time.”
Almodovar quit to become a full-time activist, ultimately making a name for herself as one of America’s most outspoken sex worker advocates, and took call girl jobs on the side. She has no regrets. “Why take out these huge student loans if you have options such as doing sex work which can generate more money in one night than you can earn in a month?” she said. In her case, she often forged strong bonds with her clients. “Not only is it financially rewarding, but it’s emotionally rewarding. It was the best job I ever had.”
Max*, 25, who was a sex worker while studying film at Tisch, strikes a more ambivalent tone. Sex work was not part of Max’s plan when he decided to transfer from a large private university to Tisch’s competitive film program. He said he received $16,000 in scholarship funds for each of his junior and senior years and took out another $110,000 in student loans. Extracurricular costs in the film program are extremely high, however, and students can spend upwards of $15,000 on their senior project, according to an administrator at Tisch. These films play a significant role in students’ job search, and Max said several of his classmates from privileged backgrounds spent between $30,000 and $40,000, making it difficult to compete.
Max did what he could to get by. He budgeted $2,400 for his junior project and waited until the year after he graduated to complete his senior project so he wouldn’t have to worry about funding it while he was in school. He moved out of the dorms, which cost $1,600 per month, into a “shoebox apartment” in the East Village that was $500 cheaper. He got a job as a busboy and signed up for a meal plan that could be covered by student loans. It still wasn’t enough.
Max said the decision to move into sex work came naturally to him and his friend Stephen*, with whom he allied for safety reasons. Max and Stephen carefully selected their clients from the fifty or so responses they received each day to their Craigslist ad.
“We’d see who we could get the most amount of money from for the least amount of actual sex,” he explained matter-of-factly. Despite having created this boundary for himself, he still occasionally struggled with bouts of shame and guilt — when, for example, he inadvertently found photos of his clients with their wives and children. The work has also affected his personal life. Max has been in three romantic relationships since he gave up sex work, but each time, he says, it’s just as difficult as the last to disclose his past. “To have to have sex with someone who you knew used to be bought and sold is maybe not something that they want,” he said.
According to Rosara Torrisi, a sex therapist at the Long Island Institute of Sex Therapy and Ph.D. candidate in Widener University’s Human Sexuality Program who counsels a number of sex workers, it is not unusual for them to encounter difficulties with romantic partners. She says her clients often struggle to distinguish their work–sex life from their love–sex life and encounter resistance from partners who have a hard time understanding what they do. “There’s a certain amount of jealousy and concern about honesty,” she said. Sex workers often experience anxiety and occasionally depression, exhaustion, and even PTSD if they’ve been in a violent situation, Torrisi said. “It’s a very isolating profession. There are very few people you can openly talk to about this.”
While there are dozens of outreach programs and advocacy groups in the U.S. that provide emotional and structural support to sex workers, there are no organizations that are directed specifically at students. Except for one. Oregon’s Portland State University is the only college in America with a student sex worker outreach program. However, when reached for comment, no one involved in the effort was permitted to speak publicly about the organization; the university’s administration had asked that they refrain from speaking to the media.
“I know they don’t necessarily publicize [student sex worker programs], because they get a lot of criticism,” said Almodovar. “I think the best thing is both to give student sex workers a safe space where they can meet and discuss issues and give them an opportunity to interact with academics who have a lot to learn from people in sex work.”
In the end, sex work is sometimes not the panacea it seems to be. Max, for his part, graduated three years ago and $110,000 in debt. With interest, that figure has since climbed to $130,000. As he put it, “I don’t know that that’s ever going to get paid off, ever.”
Johanna’s days at the dominatrix den were short-lived. Customers, mostly men, would come in and fill out an elaborate form describing their fetishes and what kind of woman they were looking for. Were it not for the fact that Johanna fit the type that was most in demand — an “all-American college student” — she likely would not have been able to book many sessions at all. As it was, she typically never worked more than one session per night, and she often didn’t work period. In March, Johanna quit and turned once again to Craigslist.
After a few stints cleaning apartments naked for $180 per hour, Johanna settled on a job at a massage parlor, where she would give sensual massages for the following three months. As a “body rub girl,” Johanna received $110 per hour, plus tips, and would earn an extra $90 to meet a client at his hotel room.
Overwhelmingly, she says, the men treated her with kindness and respect. There were a few instances, though, where she was touched inappropriately. In these cases, the women have the option to blacklist clients. Still, when a married insurance mogul and former athletic director of a well-known university repeatedly asked for more than what her services offered, she didn’t blacklist him. He tipped too well. So well, in fact, that when he left her $2,000, she decided she was financially stable enough to leave the sex trade.
But it wasn’t long before she needed money again. Which explains why, on another cold February afternoon — this one five months after the Voice first met her — Johanna is waiting anxiously at a coffee shop in midtown Manhattan. She is sipping a large chai with milk, clutching her phone in her left hand.
The phone chimes: I may have a 2p for you. It’s her boss, Kate*, who texts Johanna with her scheduled bookings. Kate owns a number of parlors across the country and manages them from San Francisco. However, unlike at many other massage studios, Kate monitors her businesses closely: All employees must be referred, all customers vetted. Potential clients must provide a phone number, which she screens, and either the contact information of a sex worker they’ve hired in the past or a link to one of their social-media profiles.
Located in an ordinary apartment building in the lower 30s, Kate’s operation is clean and organized. There are cribs and strollers to make it look like someone lives there, in case the managers come by, and the massage beds collapse for easy storage. The showers are spotless, and the living room, where Johanna often studies while she’s on call, features comfortable couches and good Wi-Fi. Five women work there; Johanna is closest with Rachel, a mathematician and business owner, and Gwen, a nursing student. Johanna puts in four-hour shifts, taking drop-ins Monday through Thursday, plus a nine-hour shift on Fridays. She makes between $200 and $1,000 per day, which she hides in old textbooks around her house.
Five minutes pass; Kate never confirms the impromptu appointment. After deleting Kate’s text, Johanna heads over to the apartment anyway: She’s booked for a 3 p.m. and wants to get there early to get ready. Johanna wears little makeup, but she wants to shave her legs.
“It’s true, I did this to myself. Would I choose it again? I don’t know,” she says. “I’m not done with my education. I could be a slave to the banks for the rest of my life, or I can spend a few years doing this and I could be free.”
*All starred names are pseudonyms.