Sex and the University: The Hidden Cost of Student Debt.
For the last decade, I have used the painting of a prostitute, Manet’s Olympia, to introduce my students to C19th modernism and modernity. When her self-possessed, naked figure first appeared at the Salon of 1864, she caused an uproar – not because she was a prostitute but because of the social critique this implied. Manet relied on a traditional view of prostitution, as a debased status, to suggest that under capitalism all work – because it becomes wage labour– is a form of prostitution. By exposing herself so unromantically, Olympia exposed the mechanisms of modern capital.
Undergraduates, whether they agreed or not with this interpretation of the painting, always understood the argument. But this year, it fell flat. A change in student attitude towards sex in tandem with anxieties over the unaffordable cost of education–student debt– rendered it inaudible. Men and women alike, my students saw nothing debased about prostitution – almost unanimously, they favoured its legalisation. In Olympia, they saw not a critique of capitalism, but a celebration of an empowered prostitute making a free market choice.
Moreover, the discussion of prostitution struck a personal chord with many of my students. I was already aware of the existence of “sugar daddy” websites, where students sign up and offer “companionship” in exchange for financial assistance to cover their college tuition. But I was astonished to discover their prevalence.
Almost all of my students knew someone who had registered on a Sugar Daddy website, and many of these exchanges of companionship for tuition money were quite formalized. For example a student would agree to be available for holidays, events, and dinners over the period of academic year. And they found nothing demeaning, debasing, or wrong about this method of financing college tuition. Many, in fact, deemed it a far superior choice to other work such as waiting tables or student-work opportunities which “took precious time away from studying.” This was a job, preferable to most low paying “McDonald’s-type” jobs, which gave students time to study, allowed them to buy books and stay in school and could also provide networking opportunities that might secure a career path after college.
For them, thinly veiled prostitution was an intelligent investment in the future—almost sacrosanct –as choice connotes freedom to this generation of students, freedom in the sacrosanct choice to buy and sell in the market. Indeed intelligent within the logic of a market economy, as several students offered, because selling sex while still young, they were maximizing a competitive advantage.
Publicized stories of prostitution or pornography for tuition money which came out last year, are awkward for American universities, not because of they expose students’ sexual mores, but because they expose the fragility of the Student Debt Economy. One group of female students at a NYC university appeared in their underwear under the triumphal arch on Washington Square holding a banner “Student Loan Took Cloths Off My Back” and “Come Out of the Student Debt Closet.” University Administrations by and large have remained silent on the issue, except to deny that there is a relation between tuition and prostitution, despite students’ experience of its normalization.
Yet, in what seems to be an compensatory measure, they have introduced measures protecting student “safe spaces” such as codes that prohibit student-professor relations; trigger warnings about on academic syllabi about potentially distressing material, videos defining sexual consent, and a plethora of wellness services offered by Student Life with the prerogative to insure that students will not be exposed to ideas and experiences that will make them feel “unsafe.”
Anxieties over student debt is encouraging not only financialization of a student’s body, and thus arguably hindering their ability to form meaningful relationships past their college years; but by creating compensatory measures to stabilize a fragile system through “safety” measures, it is undermining the intellectual ability of students to critique the mechanisms which is producing those very unsustainable conditions.