By Elizabeth Limbach

After tying the man’s hands behind his back, Maggie twisted open a bottle of red nail polish and made him paint her toenails with his teeth.

She was forceful. He loved it. He paid her $200 to satisfy his foot fetish that night, and she made it home just in time to write her anthro paper.

Maggie, a professional dominatrix, is also a fourth-year student at UC Santa Cruz. “I definitely have a big streak in me that likes to be in charge,” Maggie explained. “I started playing as a dominant, and after awhile it occurred to me that I could make a bit of a career of it.”

Although it is typical for dominatrixes to work through “dungeons” or bondage studios, Maggie opted for self-employment and started gaining clients in the Bay Area through word of mouth. Her business was legal (she never engaged in sex), the pay was good, and what’s more, she enjoyed her work.

“There were times when I got paid up to $300 just to have a man massage my feet for an hour,” Maggie said.

The money, however, was not her motivation for going into the field. As one of the handful of sex workers who do the work by choice and for enjoyment, Maggie worries that the public is too quick to assume that sex work is always an act of desperation.

“Anytime a woman is a sex worker, people want to look for the reason why she’s doing it,” she said. “They say ‘oh, she’s only doing it to feed her drug addiction,’ or ‘she was abused as a child,’ or ‘it’s really hard to pay for college.’ Somehow it is still too far out there for someone to say I really like what I do and I don’t have to justify it from somewhere else in my life.”

In addition to being a dominatrix and a double major in literature and anthropology, Maggie has worked as a campus tour guide, resident advisor, and a summer orientation leader at UCSC. She also runs free anonymous HIV testing at the UCSC Health Center.

Maggie does not deny that the sex industry has a dark side, but insists that she represents a subcategory of sex workers that defies cultural stereotypes.

Because of assumptions that all sex workers feel degraded, victimized, or exploited, it is hard for Maggie to explain just how rewarding she finds her work as a dominatrix. She argues that sex work can be just as empowering as any other occupation.

“I think that it can be empowering if you like what you do, and feel that what you do is important, no matter what that is,” Maggie said. “If you make the best smoothie in the world and you get to make people happy because they love your smoothies, that is empowering. I get to help people have orgasms, and I think that’s the most amazing thing in the world. So I definitely feel empowered by it.”

Jody Greene, associate professor of literature at UCSC, believes that there are as many different kinds of people doing sex work as there are people doing any other kind of work.

“What would surprise people is precisely that plurality of people, and the diversity of [those], doing sex work,” Greene said.

However, Greene, who has done considerable research on the institution of prostitution, sees an important distinction in privilege between those who do sex work by choice and those who are forced. She said that those who work voluntarily do not represent the population of sex workers as a whole.

“It is an enormous privilege to do the kinds of sex work that not all but many of the students who do sex work are engaged in, in which they have a lot of control,” Greene said. “But that is just the class system as it also appears in any other industry.”

Green continued, “I’m sure there are many student sex workers who are not engaged in this relatively privileged ‘Craigslist’ form of sex work, but it’s going to be much more difficult to get those students to talk about their work and why they have to do it, and harder to find them, period.”

While she noted that “privileged” sex workers were not representative of the whole, Greene agreed that self-employed, empowered, or “by-choice” sex workers are not a part of the cultural imagination. Greene was reminded of a graduate student she knew at Yale who paid her way through graduate school by go-go dancing, and recalls that the girl “seemed the most well adjusted of all the graduate students” she knew.

Not your average after-school job

One fourth-year UCSC student, who wished to be known as Yoshimi, recalls a time when she seriously considered doing sex work.

“I have several credit cards to pay off, I don’t have a job or much time for one, “ Yoshimi said. “But if I could have worked two nights a week and made a couple hundred dollars, it would have made up for any job I’ve had in the past.”

As an involved union activist, Yoshimi found the idea of working at the Lusty Lady, a unionized strip club in San Francisco, very appealing. After serious consideration, however, the self-proclaimed “Dickies and sweaters kind of girl” decided against it.

“I’m not going to do it because ultimately I wasn’t interested in that field,” Yoshimi said. “[But] I would never judge someone else because of their reasons for doing it, because I can understand why they would resort to a job like that.”

But Barbara Silverthorne of the UCSC Career Center insists that there are many viable avenues available for money-seeking students that don’t include sex work.

“If students are having trouble finding a job, they can work with a career center adviser to improve their resume and cover letter,” Silverthorne said. “It is a lot of work to apply effectively, and some students already have those skills and some don’t. We are here for all of them.”

While she could not comment on student involvement in sex work, Silverthorne was able to provide a thick stack of pamphlets on internship and career resources that the center provides.

But UCSC first-year and male stripper Kahau stresses that sex work was never his “last resort.” He made his occupational choice because he loves to dance, although he said that people often find this hard to believe.

“Dancing really just lets your energy flow,” said Kahau. “It’s a nice outlet to have, and to get paid for it is even better.”

Kahau took a job offer from a San Francisco adult theater after he won an amateur strip contest, and spent the summer after his high school graduation performing. Having just come out of the closet, Kahau began stripping during a stage in his life when he was exploring and enjoying his own sexuality. Working at the theater was especially gratifying for him because he was able to bond with the employees like they were one, big “dysfunctional family.”

Kahau is unlike many of his coworkers, however, in that he is able to spend his earnings at will because his parents pay his tuition. He puts a portion into savings, and donates the rest to organizations of his choice, including a few for developing nations, sustainable development and restoration, keystone species, political environmental organizations, and Bay Area restoration. He has also begun a student group called Stripping for a Cause.

While sex work is rarely coupled with activism there are those who identify themselves with both.

Jenna Jasmine is a Los Angeles-based escort, but first and foremost she considers herself a full-time activist. In fact, she attributes her interest in sex work to her activism as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley where she once helped to organize a conference of Asian women that included a panel of sex workers. The event not only changed her opinion on sex workers, it chaged her career path as well.

“In planning for the panel I was introduced to women that helped me understand that doing sex work was OK,” Jasmine said. “You could be intelligent and you could be a sex worker. You could be an activist, an educator, strong, phenomenal, independent—all of these things.”

Sex work helped Jasmine through school financially by “filling the gaps” between financial aid checks, but she soon learned that being a self-employed, full-service escort was a full-time job that conflicted with the demands of graduate school. She temporarily limited her clientele, but still found the time to establish the UCLA chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP), a national organization run by and for sex workers. She continues to run SWOP-UCLA even though she has graduated and has since made her prostitution and activism into a full-time business.

Although she says her profession is an integral part of the feminist movement, Jasmine is still careful not to glamorize the work.

“It’s not all rosey,” Jasmine said. “The risk of getting robbed, raped, abused, killed, or murdered either by a trick or the police is always there when you’re a prostitute.”

In fact, the danger of sex work is one of the main issues Jasmine and her colleagues in the Prostitute’s Movement, which she also calls “The Whore Revolution,” are concerned with.

They focus on decriminalizing prostitution in order to increase health and safety among sex workers. However, Jasmine still finds her work satisfying despite its inherent dangers.

“It’s kind of like owning a liquor store in South Central LA; it’s a high-risk profession,” she said. “[But] I’ve had really great experiences, too. That is what brings the work around and makes it rewarding for me; when I’m really happy about the work I’m doing and the people are happy about me. Then it is a positive, healthy, sexual experience.”

“Sex sells, but who is selling my sex?”

Jasmine wants more sex workers to have “positive, healthy, sexual experiences” because she says that corporations, men and pimps currently own sexuality.

“Sex sells, but who is selling my sex?” Jasmine asked. “You think you’re so free because in Afghanistan women can’t even show their faces. But there are girls in bikinis in every video on TV, and who owns those images? That is Viacom and TimeWarner selling my body, not me selling my body.”

Jasmine claims that being self-employed is the key for empowerment. UCSC third-year Sean Michael Rau also finds empowerment in the control he has over his own sexuality.

During his freshman year at Santa Cruz, Rau was a model and photographer for the soft-core porn site SuicideGirls, which includes the subgroup SuicideBoys, and celebrates a positive sexual community and alternative atmosphere.

“It doesn’t advertise itself as porn,” Rau said. “It’s more of an activist, self-empowering, women-in-power thing. They are really into women showing themselves as they want to be shown.”

Because of the site’s setup, Rau had complete control over the content and distribution of his images. He said that he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“If you are in charge of how you are being represented, and you are the one benefiting from it, then go ahead,” Rau said. “I would have never done SuicideBoys if someone else was in charge.”

When Rau submitted a series of erotic photos of himself with a male friend, the two became the first SuicideBoys to do multiple-male photographs. Rau, a photography major, aspiring artist and self-described “very sexual person,” considers his work an empowering outlet for sexual expression.

Jasmine, however, understands that not all sex workers are as lucky as she and Rau.

“I’m not saying there aren’t women who are forced into horribly abusive situations,” Jasmine said. “These circumstances do exist, especially globally because it’s a crime and there is a black market that is created.”

Sexuality and sex workers are indeed exploited every day—whether it is under the radar as an unwilling prostitute or on a corporate scale like Girls Gone Wild—but Jasmine explains that there are in fact sex workers full of ambition and sexual prowess.

“It’s the problem I have with Girls Gone Wild,” Jasmine said. “I have no problem with girls going wild, that’s great. But who is profiting off these girls going wild? Not the girls. If these girls could go wild and get smart, we could have a revolution!” 	

While these students’ stories do not attempt to speak for all sex workers, Maggie hopes they will expose her peers to the range of personalities involved in the sex industry by providing a positive, empowered sex worker perspective.

“It’s the person sitting next to you in class, and it’s the person who wrote a great paper that your professor liked, and it’s someone who is leading your campus tour,” Maggie explains. “It’s not necessarily who you think

it is.”

_Check out "part one": and "part two": of this three part series_