I spent years crafting the perfect college transfer application. I needed to go to an elite university. The teachers told me it was the best way out of the low-income neighborhood I grew up in. So I worked in a scientific research laboratory studying avian malaria and I got scholarships and grants. I attended dermatology grand rounds at a major medical school. On weekends, I helped nurses with unruly patients as a volunteer at the hospital. But I knew my hard work would be for naught if the admissions counselors found out I was a prostitute.
I grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, notoriously nicknamed the city’s Skid Row. My parents couldn’t afford much other than the single queen size bed we shared. My thirst for escape increased each time a mouse swooped down on our dusty carpet. We couldn’t afford an exterminator. We couldn’t even afford to know our rights to a safe apartment. My desire to escape only increased when I saw that my parents and I disagreed about sexuality. I needed a safety net.
I could have worked for minimum wage. But I saw that my friends who worked in fast food restaurants always had trouble paying their rent. $15 an hour, or $2,400 a month, wasn’t enough to survive in a city where the average one-bedroom apartment costs $2,800.
I researched other options online. Supposedly, I could make thousands of dollars in a few hours of work through prostitution. It was the only proof I needed. This would allow me to spend the rest of my free time strengthening my application for university.
I knew the dangers of prostitution. Prostitutes often disappeared and fell victim to serial killers. However, I risked breaking friendships and family ties if I told them that I was a prostitute.
Even the police were dangerous. Human rights organizations have reported that where sex work is criminalized, police have harassed, bribed and abused sex workers. And, if I was caught, I would be charged with a misdemeanor. Recidivism – the likelihood of criminal recidivism – was inevitable with what I was doing: survival sex. My misdemeanor could be promoted to felony. It is not uncommon for colleges to ask for an applicant’s criminal history. I could have been automatically kicked out of most colleges with a prostitution charge.
But prostitutes no longer had to wait in the street to pick up clients. I could place an ad on an online prostitution directory and screen clients by email or text.
Most of my clients were wealthy older men. I have always introduced myself as a pre-med student with a 4.0 GPA. I believed my clients would take me more seriously if they knew I had dreams beyond prostitution. Maybe I also needed to remind myself that prostitution was just a pit stop.
My first client was a professor and researcher at a prestigious university. One day we passed through the university where he worked. I told him that I wanted to be transferred there. He replied, “You know you have to be smart to get in, right?” I fought back tears as we stared at the San Francisco skyline.
His comment was not surprising. Prostitutes are rarely considered in an educational context. Maybe it’s because Americans only learn about sex workers through movies like A pretty woman, who often portray us as uncritical sex objects.
I had similar conversations with other clients throughout my two years in prostitution. Over time, I believed them. I slumped in my chair for hours during my volunteer shifts at the hospital. I only conducted a few experiments a week in my research lab. My lead investigator noticed it and kicked me out of the lab. He thought I was lazy. I couldn’t explain. He would have been repulsed if I had told him that prostitution burned me.
My perfect college application was falling apart. Fortunately, the application season started before significant damage was done. Plus, I had saved enough money to survive in San Francisco in case my parents kicked me out. I could quit the sex industry and restore my academic self-confidence.
I knew the college application process could be a rigged game filled with nepotism and promoting wealth, but I was determined to win. Supposedly, resilience was a sought-after trait in college applicants. So I was tempted to write about my experience as a prostitute in my university dissertations. It showed that I would do anything to survive. However, confessing to a sex crime constituted suicide for the applicant. I wrote about wanting to escape poverty and my parents instead.
The essays helped me get into some elite universities. Eventually I chose Vanderbilt University, which gave me a full scholarship. I was still unsatisfied. Part of me was invisible.
I can’t stay invisible. Second, universities will remain ignorant of the legal and educational barriers that harm sex workers. At Vanderbilt, I shared my experiences of prostitution with as many students and faculty as possible. In doing so, I hope to lay the groundwork for discussions about improving access to education for some of our most marginalized communities.
I am aware that I am unlikely to convince extremely wealthy students at elite universities to support sex workers online or at in-person protests. And it’s disheartening how people’s interest in sex work advocacy seems to stop with the conversations. Listening to sex worker stories is a waste of time if listeners don’t tell them and advocate for policy changes.
Telling my story is a double edged sword. It can cost me future job opportunities and increase my risk of targeted violence. I accept this risk hoping that my story can trigger a change.
Prostitutes are not goldfish. Very soon, I will have degrees in molecular and cellular biology and in medicine, health and society from an elite university. Yet I am technically a criminal for the justice and education system. I don’t want to go back to the sex industry. I no longer find it fulfilling or entertaining. But I am at a crossroads. Even after attending an elite college, honing my skills, and doing awesome extracurricular activities, I struggle to enter the journalism job market. Most other careers in my scope are notoriously underpaid for entry-level positions. The cost of living is high in the city. I can reluctantly return to prostitution to supplement my income.
The perspective of sex work is slowly changing. OnlyFans and other online sex work outlets have begun to normalize transactional sex. There are growing calls to decriminalize prostitution across the country and remove all laws involving transactional sex. This could solve the legal and educational barriers that repress student prostitutes. But decriminalization cannot go without destigmatizing sex workers.
For this to happen, we must first be seen. Do you see me?
Danny Nguyen is a writer and undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University majoring in Molecular and Cellular Biology and Medicine, Health, and Society. You can follow him on Twitter @dannypropaganda.
All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.