Students start sex work to pay tuition at Westminster College

This map provided by SeekingArrangment.com, a website that connects sugar daddies to sugar babies, illustrates the website's 3.25 million active users by heat concentration. According to its website, 44 percent of sugar babies—individuals who date older people for money and gifts—are female college students and Utah ranks No. 29 in the nation for concentration of female sugar babies. Photo courtesy of SeekingArrangement.com.

This map provided by SeekingArrangment.com, a website that connects sugar daddies to sugar babies, illustrates the website's 3.25 million active users by heat concentration. According to its website, 44 percent of sugar babies—individuals who date older people for money and gifts—are female college students and Utah ranks No. 29 in the nation for concentration of female sugar babies. Photo courtesy of SeekingArrangement.com.

One October day, Kaylee dressed in high-waisted short shorts and a homemade striped crop top to meet Jay at a local coffee shop. They agreed to meet over coffee before Kaylee gave him the advertised $150 "fuck of his life." 

Luckily, Jay offered Kaylee a drink after arriving at his place. She said alcohol makes people stupid, but she needed it, because she said fucking a guy she just met for money is also stupid. 

After making sure she gave him exactly what he wanted, Kaylee said Jay took her out to dinner and then she went home—a typical day of work. 

Kaylee, who asked The Forum not to use her last name for her protection, said she toyed with the idea of becoming a sex worker for months before she ever decided to do it. She would go on Tinder and ask her matches how much they would pay for sex—$50, $150, $200? 

“I was trying to see my supply and demand,” Kaylee said. “I was taking my microeconomics class into my life,” she added with a laugh. 

Kaylee, a former Westminster College student and sex worker, texts a new client to set up a session. “I couldn’t tell you what the first guy looked like," Kaylee said. "If I saw him in the street right in front of my face I wouldn’t know, or like the next 10 [guys]. That week, it was like four days of four [guys] each [day]." Photo courtesy of Kaylee.

Kaylee, a former Westminster College student and sex worker, texts a new client to set up a session. “I couldn’t tell you what the first guy looked like," Kaylee said. "If I saw him in the street right in front of my face I wouldn’t know, or like the next 10 [guys]. That week, it was like four days of four [guys] each [day]." Photo courtesy of Kaylee.

Kaylee said she felt like she wasn’t in control of her sexual relationships and the lines of consent were often blurred, which is why sex work originally interested her. 

“Money wasn’t the main reason, of course, but a lot of it was also my sex life at the time,” Kaylee said. “I would sleep around a lot and I never felt like I was in control of whether or not we had sex because I wouldn’t be able to say no, and so I would just have sex with all of these people and I felt like I was getting nothing in return at all.” 

However, after a string of events left her thousands of dollars in debt, Kaylee said she felt like the only option she had was to become a sex worker. 

Before starting at Westminster College, the former first-year student was struggling to find a job and a secure place to live in Salt Lake City. Kaylee said she was stressed about paying tuition but wasn’t too worried because her financial aid would cover most of the expenses. However, the Financial Aid Office informed her at the start of the Fall 2016 semester that her FAFSA didn’t go through and that she owed the school more than double what she had already thought. 

After discovering her FAFSA didn’t go through, Kaylee said she wanted to escape her problems for a few days, which landed her uninsured and in the hospital. 

“I took a lot of pills. I overdosed on a couple of pills. Not because I wanted to die; it was more like I just wanted to sleep for a couple of days and forget about my problems,” Kaylee said. “So I purposely looked up enough to sleep for a while, and my brother freaked out and took me to the [emergency room]. And I don’t remember it very well, but I was really pissed off that that happened because now I have $4,000 dollars of hospital bills for nothing.” 

After returning from the hospital, Kaylee said she wanted to go to her classes but struggled with attendance. 

“When I came home, I couldn’t go to school,” Kaylee said. “I couldn’t focus. I wanted to shoot myself in the face.” 

That’s when Kaylee said she decided to become a sex worker, and she logged onto Tinder and began advertising to her matches. 

“I couldn’t tell you what the first guy looked like," Kaylee said. "If I saw him in the street right in front of my face I wouldn’t know, or like the next 10 [guys]. That week, it was like four days of four [guys] each [day]." 

Kaylee said she’s unsure of how many men she’s slept with as a sex worker but estimates it’s as high as 30, with many of the men returning more than once. 

Tiffany Perry, a senior political science and psychology dual major, is the president of the Tipping Point, a club that promotes awareness of human trafficking and sexual assault. Based off her experiences working with trafficking victims, Perry said the trend of college students turning to sex work to pay their tuition and other bills — which experts call survival sex—is alarming. 

“If someone is at a point where they are selling their bodies for sex, there is something else going on,” Perry said. “This isn’t just something somebody is doing for fun. They have to be in a very desperate situation and that’s what leads to exploitation.” 

Han Kim, a public health professor at Westminster, said he also thinks Kaylee’s situation is oppressive and exploitative—a less direct form of trafficking. 

“The fact that people think it’s okay to purchase sex for money to me is still a form of oppression, particularly for women. Of course there are men who are trafficked as well, but it’s mostly women,” Kim said. “And the fact that there is coercion involved, whether it’s a pimp that sweet talks you into becoming a commercial sex worker or being in a financial situation where you think the only option is to be a commercial sex worker... those are both coercive elements. Like I said, very few women do this by choice—because they want to do it.” 

Both Kim and Perry said they are concerned about the shift of sex work solicitation from street walking, where sex workers solicit customers on street corners, to online platforms. 

Kaylee texts one of her regular clients for a session. Kaylee said sex work interested her because she felt like none of her relationships were consensual and sex work is, but she felt she had no choice but to enter sex work after a series of events left her thousands of dollars in debt. Photo courtesy of Kaylee.

Kaylee texts one of her regular clients for a session. Kaylee said sex work interested her because she felt like none of her relationships were consensual and sex work is, but she felt she had no choice but to enter sex work after a series of events left her thousands of dollars in debt. Photo courtesy of Kaylee.

"One thing [the internet] has done [is it] has expanded the commercial sex worker industry," Kim said. 

In his research with Westminster College alumna Amanda Howa, Kim said sex workers simply need to create a profile with their information and then customers can look for exactly what they want: hair color, eye color, height and weight. 

Though Kim said he is concerned about the new online industry for sex work, he said he thinks it may have made things safer. Many sites offer a rating system for both the sex worker and the John (the customer) and online platforms remove pimps or madams from the equations, according to Kim. 

Kim said he equates the online sex industry to "Airbnb for sex workers," with individuals acting as free agents to find work. 

Research indicates that sex workers often have a history of sexual and psychological abuse, struggling with housing, job security and substance abuse—furthering the cycle of violence, according to Perry. 

For Kaylee, the abuse wasn’t direct, but she said growing up alongside her sister’s severe schizophrenic disorder left its mark. 

Once Kaylee got older, she was given a prescription for an emergency anxiety medication called clonazepam, which she said she has attempted suicide with on multiple occasions. 

Perry said this cycle of violence could increase drug use and mental instability, which causes more damage to personal relationships and makes it harder for sex workers to leave the industry. 

Kaylee texts one of her regular clients for a session. Kaylee said sex work interested her because she felt like none of her relationships were consensual and sex work is, but she felt she had no choice but to enter sex work after a series of events left her thousands of dollars in debt. Photo courtesy of Kaylee.

Kaylee texts one of her regular clients for a session. Kaylee said sex work interested her because she felt like none of her relationships were consensual and sex work is, but she felt she had no choice but to enter sex work after a series of events left her thousands of dollars in debt. Photo courtesy of Kaylee.

Kaylee said she doesn’t feel like any of her relationships with family and friends have changed, and many of them know she was a sex worker. However, she said some of her relationships with male friends have become more platonic and she is now in the “friend zone”—a change she said she doesn’t mind. 

Since becoming a sex worker, Kaylee said she hasn’t had many relationships outside of work. Despite gaining sexual confidence in her work relationships, she said she still lacks it in her personal relationships. 

However, Kaylee said she is sometimes concerned about what future partners may think of her past. 

“[Being a sex worker] makes me feel like I’m more interesting as a person,” Kaylee said. “But it also makes me feel like I am no longer adequate for some future relationships that I may want to be in.” 

Regardless of her fears, Kaylee said she won't keep her history a secret. 

“I’m not going to have a partner that doesn’t know that [I was a sex worker]," Kaylee said. 

Kaylee said her work confidence comes from being an actress, but the illusion falls once she stops acting. She also said the relationships she has when she isn't acting are more meaningful. 

“I like sex that's [about] feelings [and] consent worthy," Kaylee said. 

Kaylee isn’t the only student who has resorted to survival sex; across the nation, a popular fringe sex work trade called sugar dating has also popped up. Although the reverse is also common, sugar dating usually involves an older man dating a younger woman who receives gifts and money in exchange for her time. 

According to SeekingArrangment.com—a website designed to connect sugar babies to potential sugar daddies—44 percent of its users are female college students. 

Christian Diaz, a junior biology pre-med major at Westminster, said he became a sugar baby when, like Kaylee and thousands of other college students, he couldn’t pay increasing tuition costs and other expenses. 

“Personally, I would have never been a sugar baby had I come from a higher social class in which college is an expectation rather than a privilege,” Diaz said. “I value my education and thus I was put into a position where I was searching for a way out of my financial burden.” 

Diaz said he never sought a sugar arrangement but was approached with the idea of one during his first year of college at a Halloween party. 

At the party, Diaz said he was approached by an older man he described as beautiful and foreign. The man introduced himself as Tom, which is the only name Diaz knew him by, and asked if he knew what an “arrangement” was. Diaz said he initially told Tom he wasn’t interested in sugar dating but eventually accepted the arrangement because of the increasing need to make ends meet. 

“The only reason I ever decided to actually go through with sugar dating was because I needed money, specifically to pay for college here at Westminster,” Diaz said. “Coming from a low socio-economic class, I am used to having to fight my way out of poverty by whatever means necessary. Tom was the easiest and best way out.”  

For many college students, sugar dating isn’t the first option, but it's often seen as morally acceptable and can become a viable option. Diaz said this is because sugar babies receive gifts and money in exchange for time spent with the sugar daddy. Sex isn’t required, however, it’s often expected—making it a fine line. 

"Just because you are a sugar baby does not necessarily mean that you have sex with an older gentleman or woman," Diaz said. "In my personal experience, daddies think that it’s demoralizing to objectify their sugar baby, even though the entire experience is somewhat objectifying. If they wanted to do that they could just find a prostitute. Being a sugar baby implies a relationship, not a transaction." 

Though Diaz said sex is expected but not required, Kim said it is still trafficking regardless of how direct or indirect the sex work is. 

"The fact that this is being done and the fact that these sites get away with calling themselves 'seeking arrangements'—calling them dating sites—is disgusting to me," Kim said. 

Like Kim, Perry said these sites are exploitative and present a new set of issues. 

"The exploitation is not visible, which also means that when the victim does come forward and does seek out [help], that exploitation and that abuse isn’t visible," Perry said. "It’s going to be much harder for them to seek out services." 

According to Perry and Kim, demographics show that primarily young women and LGBTQ+ youth are trafficked into sex work 

“If someone is looking for a victim, they aren’t going to be looking for the most privileged person in the group. They are going to be looking for someone who is the most susceptible to victimization and exploitation," Perry said. "Generally the victims that we see have experienced that prior trauma, they are in an unsafe situation, they don’t have housing [and] they don’t have food.” 

Like Perry, Kim said he thinks the key to trafficking is victimization—prior trauma. 

"Look at people who are trafficked. It’s usually people who are emotionally and physically abused as children," Kim said. "It becomes a lot easier for these people to be enticed into commercial sex work." 

Kim said he stresses that susceptibility to trafficking is a matter of past trauma and not sexuality or gender identity.  

Diaz said he has no prior trauma and became a sugar baby because the opportunity presented itself at the right time. 

Diaz and Kim also said heterosexual men are less susceptible to trafficking because they are afraid of expressing their masculinity in a sexualized way while women are oversexualized. 

“Women have been oversexualized, so it’s easier for them to think of themselves that way,” Diaz said. “Previously they were demeaned to that way. It’s just being useful. Whereas men, that’s not portrayed in society.” 

Although Diaz said he doesn't regret his decision to become a sugar baby, he said there is still a stigma surrounding the practice. 

“I wonder what people are going to think of me when they read this article,” Diaz said, shrugging his shoulders. “But at the same time, I don’t really care because I’m the one who is benefiting in the long run. Overall, there is a negative stigma because people assume it’s prostitution. The reasons I’m doing it are pretty shallow—some people enjoy the company of an older man [and] also don't mind getting money, gifts or living that lifestyle.” 

Diaz said his financial situation is stable and he isn’t currently in a sugar relationship, though he said he has been contacted multiple times on Grindr, a dating app for gay and bisexual men. 

“I do not condone this type of relationship to my peers because it can be very dangerous. You don’t know who they really are and you never will,” Diaz said.  

Kaylee has also left the industry—and school, taking a medical leave from Westminster. She said both the Financial Aid Office and Counseling Center know about her history and the school wouldn't give her a refund, despite her appeal. 

The Counseling Center and Financial Aid Office were unable to comment on Kaylee's case in adherence to federal and state laws. However, they were informed of Kaylee's comments. 

Jenny Ryan, director of Financial Aid, said she was unaware of Kaylee's situation but said the College tries to help students financially as much as it can. She said if a student doesn't receive a full refund it's usually because the college can no longer return federal aid. 

For weeks after leaving school, Kaylee said she continued sex work to make ends meet. 

“I was really hoping [Westminster College] would save me, so I could stop being a prostitute,” Kaylee said, beginning to choke up. “But they didn’t, so I’m still kind of one,” she added with a sigh. 

However, during late December, Kaylee said she left the sex industry and now has a stable job. 

She said she won't return to Westminster because of the issues with her tuition refund but said she would love to come back. 

Like Diaz, Kaylee said she wouldn't want to see her friends enter the sex industry, even if they were in a situation similar to hers. 

“It’s kind of like doing a drug for the first time because you get a lot out of it—moneywise—I would say..." Kaylee said, trailing off. "I don’t know, because I had a lot of family members who said I would pay you not to do that. Probably take advantage of your family or friends who would do that. I still feel like they wouldn’t. I feel like it’s a lot of threats. They said it was call, a cry for help. So I will deal with it on my own.” 

Kaylee said instead she would enter the sex trade again for them. 

 “I would do it for her because I’ve already done it and if they could avoid doing it for the first time..." Kaylee said, trailing off. "Because you know, well fuck it. Literally fuck it."