CORRECTIONS: In the article below, we incorrectly identified Barbara Silverthorne and misprinted Danielle Keck’s weekly salary. Silverthorne is Acting Career Center Director at UCSC and Danielle Keck makes between $200-500 each week in Santa Cruz. We regret the errors. [12/5/2009]

Illustration by Rachel Edelstein
Illustration by Rachel Edelstein
Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.
Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.

She was stranded in Reno.

After being kicked out of her family’s house with no money, no familiar faces, and no place to stay, Danielle Keck* was stuck. With nowhere else to turn, she dropped her bags off at a hotel and set to the streets.

Her only way to get back to school was to earn enough money for travel, food and tuition. She was left with only two options: exchange her body for cash, or sleep on the street. She chose to have a roof over her head.

“I never thought I was going to get to go back home, in all honesty, or even come back to college,” Keck said. “Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do when you have nothing. I mean, maybe it’s a little degrading, but it’s all you have, especially if you have nothing.”

Despite the seemingly extreme situation, Keck is not alone. Education is expensive. The University of California tuition has undergone an increase of nearly 10 percent in the past year, with expectations of further increase in subsequent terms. With the addition of grant programs suffering significant cuts, can students afford a university education anymore?

Danielle Keck found a way.

Keck is a third-year health science major at the University of California, Santa Cruz with a GPA that sets her well on her path to grad school. She is also an escort. A prostitute. A “lady of the night.”

She currently has an income of $4,000 to $5,000 per week, but she claims even that is barely enough to scrape by. She pays for bills, rent, insurance, groceries and tuition on her own.

The fiscal situation that students and their families have been pressed into because of state-wide budget changes have altered lives, and while Danielle Keck stands out, she does not stand alone.

The Money

The local job market is shaky, with very few businesses hiring. A mere 11 percent of the UCSC student population currently holds a paid position on-campus, according to the UCSC Career Center, and only a handful actually make enough to pay their way through school.

“Hiring everywhere is down, but we still have a lot of opportunities for employment. I think you have to work harder to get the jobs, but they’re out there,” said Barbara Silverthorne, UCSC Career Center Internship Program Manager.

The life of the average college student has always been synonymous with economic instability. But when instability turns to desperation, desperate acts are certain to follow, and even those are all too often ground down by the current crisis.

“This is what really makes me angry,” Keck said. “I would have had my tuition paid in full by now, but with the University spike I have to bust my ass even more. And then on top of that I still have some other things to pay for.”

Yudof’s recommended 15 percent increase in in-state undergraduate fees for spring, coupled with a further 15 percent increase in fall 2010, would rocket the UC’s yearly tuition cost above $10,000 for the first time.

Factor in the cost of room and board, among various other living expenses, and a California resident will be paying over $24,000 for one year of university education.

Project You Can, a new UC-wide student scholarship fundraising effort for low-income students, is attempting to alleviate financial stress on low-income students, as are the changes to the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, a program that waives university fees for students with a family income of under $60,000.

While low-income students may be exempt from paying fees, the middle-income bracket has been left hanging out to dry.

This drastic swell in expense is calling budgetary allocations into question.

“The real problem here is that the California state budget has been cut back,” said Dan Friedman, UCSC professor and undergraduate program director of economics. “That’s why tuition has gone up. That’s why my colleagues and I have taken pay cuts. That’s why the job market is so poor. The state budget got trashed.”

Friedman proposes that the federal government go in and help states maintain their spending on essential programs such as education.

“The stimulus is way short of what it should be for helping states. The situation shouldn’t be as bad as it is,” Friedman said.

The Struggle

Because of this bad situation, many students have turned to a market that they know will always pay well: sex.

According to Ed Vincent, talent department recruiter for, a popular pornography site based in San Francisco, the number of students who have applied to work for the Web site has increased notably within the past year.

“There’s been so many recently that we’ve added three new types of shoots per week for amateurs who want to see if they want to work in this industry,” Vincent said. “We do about 12 to 15 shoots per month just to accommodate all the new people.”

Vincent described numerous examples of models who have used the job to pay for college — be it undergraduate studies or, more recently, graduate school in New York.

Johnny Lang*, a second-year at Cabrillo College, began sex work at 16. He studies social anthropology, and has become a strong advocate of safe sex. He believes that more and more students will soon turn to sex work out of economic necessity.

“I would rather have a regular, decent-paying, hourly job than being a sex worker because obviously it’s a lot more safe,” Lang said. “But if tuition hikes keep going up the way they are and the economy keeps heading the way it is, I’ll eventually be forced into sex work more than I am now, which puts me at further risk.”

He paused, and then added, “It’s a scary reality. It’s a scary reality, but it’s real.”

More and more often, students are turning to dangerous and risky ways to earn cash to stay afloat. Keck understands these risks and has faced the ugly truth underlying these hard economic times. She recounts a particularly powerful memory with a callous frankness.

“I had to fuck an undercover cop so my ass would not go to jail,” Keck said. “I had to have sex with him. He said I had two options: either I screw him, or I’d go to jail. And he showed me his badge and everything.”

When he booted her from the car, he threw a $50 bill at her, saying, “Well it would really be a shame to see you go to jail considering you’re a very nice girl.”

“If I had his gun I would have shot him in the face multiple times and I wouldn’t have minded going to jail for that,” Keck recounted, visibly disturbed and furious.

The psychological effects of this fiscal coercion run far beyond the present dilemma, according to Eileen Zurbriggen, associate professor of psychology with a focus on sexual assault and trauma.

The list of symptoms that prostitutes are at high-risk for are the same as women who have been sexually abused or raped: depression, anxiety, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and dissociation, to name a few.

“The repetition — repeatedly having to have sex with people you wouldn’t want to be having sex with for your own pleasure — is a huge damaging aspect,” Zurbriggen said. “The more repetition, the more you’d expect it to have consequences.”

She expressed her sympathy for the students who have been backed into this situation, emphasizing the possible long-term damage they may suffer.

“I think it’s really a shame that any student feels that they financially don’t have any other choice than to do these things,” Zurbriggen said. “The loss of privacy that results might not seem like a problem now, but it might become an issue later. I would hope that students would be supported well enough to not have to do any of these things.”

The hazards that Keck and others in her situation have to struggle through are damaging — both physically and psychologically. Our students are stuck in a hole — a hole that only seems to get deeper and darker with every passing week. A hole that they are scrambling to escape out of.

Affordability is becoming less and less attainable in the university sphere. For Keck and Lang, budgetary problems have changed what it means to be a college student.

“I have to get through school and get through life on my own,” Lang said. “It’s just even worse that I would have to go beyond sex work and into debts or loans to find resources to get tuition.”

While families and students wait for an extended hand, Keck and Lang will continue to sell themselves for their education.

“This life corrupts you. Sometimes when I’m at school I just think, ‘This is time I’m losing to earning money right now,’” Keck said. “But then part of me lets that go and is like, ‘Education is better.’ I don’t want to be doing this for the rest of my life, you know?”


*Indicates name has been changed.