***Trigger Warning: sex/sex work***
My mother is fifty-four years old and she is still trying to pay back her student loans. When I was young, I learned never to pick up the phone when the caller I.D. read ‘Sallie Mae’. Today I know I can never take a loan out from them because they think I’ll turn out like my mom: always running away. Always letting the phone ring off the hook because we just paid rent, we don’t have groceries, there’s no propane, the car is broken, and we simply don’t have any more to give.
I come from a low income household. Sometimes I think we’re stable until I hear my mom talking in angry whispers on the phone with my dad; I open the cabinet to get silverware and there are rat droppings, and I know we can’t afford to fix this problem (along with all our others). All of this causes my spine to coil into my back.
So what happens when the college gives you the ‘maximum amount of financial aid possible,’ and you still can’t afford what’s left over? You call the office and say, “I don’t have $1500 laying around that I can give you. Every cent I have is going toward my education. Every cent my parents have left over is going to my education, and every time they make a payment; I know I’m making it so much harder for them to make it through the week like a functional family.”
And the office of financial services says, “Sorry, you’ve maxed out the amount of aid that we can give you. Take out another loan. You’re going to be on account hold until you pay us in full.” Every time I get this answer it’s like I’ve been punched in the gut. They don’t care about me. They don’t care.
Continuously, students struggle to find the means to pay for this education in many different ways. Does the office of financial aid know the ways in which students at times pay for the costs of tuition? Despite identifying as an asexual queer person, would the office of financial services care that I almost flew to Philadelphia to have sex with a man in front of two other people because the amount they were offering would provide some financial security for next semester?
The couple offering the deal backed out, and I still don’t know what I’m going to do about paying my tuition.
Today, with the rising costs in tuition, some have resorted to sex work as an option to find ways to have some more money to pay for these incredibly high costs. I am not here to say that sex work is something to be ashamed of. Some sex workers see the work as empowering, or, at the least, a manipulation of a system that sexualizes their bodies, regardless of what they do or say. At least this way people can be making money off the sexualization of their bodies. People need to make money to survive, and sometimes the only way to survive is to feed into the objectification of oneself. But who has the possibility to do what with their bodies, and in what context? And what about those who don’t want to be involved in sex work, but find that it is the only way they can pay the bills, or tuition?
Sex work can be empowering – but for me, it wasn’t. It made me feel disgusting, self-conscious, like an animal in a cage who had to pretend they wanted to be there. My narrative is not the same as others who have resorted to sex work and were comfortable or found the work empowering. My narrative is not the same as those who choose to do sex work and enjoy it. Sex work is about personal choice, however if a person feels like they’ve been backed into a corner to do sex work because of the wildly high costs of an education, that is a problem inherently.
This is one of the ways that power systems in a capitalist society make people feel so powerless and desperate that they are willing to commit crimes to get by; even though most of them would have never done so if this society had not led them to. They are crimes of necessity. Thievery, sex work, producing or selling drugs; a lot of these crimes are committed by people who see no other alternative. These are the only ways some people can pay for their college education, or even pay for their survival. When we live in a capitalist society, the worth of a person is based on how much money they have. People need money to survive. This spirals into an even bigger problem where inherent racism and sexism in institutions flare up because people of color are the most likely to be arrested and prosecuted for these crimes of necessity. Specifically, trans women of color who are the most likely to be arrested and charged for sex work.
What does this mean for the survival of students who are not only low-income, but also embody other identities, such as being of color or trans? Many students who participate in sex work do so only after they get to campus. When students are led to sex work or selling drugs in order to pay tuition, higher education becomes less of an investment in our futures and more like a business investment. We are told that we are investing in our futures when we take out student loans, but this is only true when we are privileged enough to pay them back before we’re fifty four, sixty eight, ninety. Otherwise, we are simply investing in a school, and abandoning ourselves under the crushing weight of financial insecurity.
When talking about recent tuition hikes, specifically at Mount Holyoke, it is important to think about what an extra $3,000 a year can mean to some students. How many more times will someone participate in crimes of necessity when they don’t want to because of this tuition hike?
This is not the place to shame sex workers or people that participate in crimes of necessity, but rather to critique the systems that made me feel like sex work was the only possibility. Already, before coming to college, students who have already involved in crimes of necessity with a criminal record are told that if you have a criminal record you can’t attend a prestigious college; or, any college in general. Mount Holyoke is closing the gates to people who may benefit the most from this kind of education; specifically trans women of color who have participated in sex work. We preach about accepting trans women, and yet we do not offer access to an entire group of marginalized people. Why is that? Because if we help trans women of color receive the education they deserve, our ranking in a misogynistic system drops?
Mount Holyoke cannot be a more accessible college for low income students if it continues to be run like a business. This place is a business and a product of a capitalist society which emphasizes productivity and money over the health of its people. Mount Holyoke is not going to fight for truly affordable education because they will not be making money if they do. They are going to give low income students more loan opportunities and call that an “affordable investment”.
But Mount Holyoke has the potential to be a place of change. This school can be a forerunner in the fight for affordable education and an accessible education. This can be a place where people who have been involved in crimes of necessity can feel safe, and welcome, and receive an education. I want to believe that this place can make a difference in how our society is run and who can go to college. Mount Holyoke does not exist within a bubble; it acts within a greater system of power and oppression. Academia – and in the same vein, rankings – are inherently misogynistic; for this reason, Mount Holyoke is never going to gain the academic respect and legitimacy that the administration is so desperately trying to achieve. Rankings exist within our patriarchal system of society, and because Mount Holyoke is a traditionally women’s college we will never earn the respect as an institution that we deserve simply because we are a space for women. Mount Holyoke is never going to be seen in the same light as an Ivy League school, even if the academics are on par.
Instead of trying to appeal to this misogynistic system of restraints, we have the opportunity to simply stop caring. We have the opportunity to say “fuck rankings” and build our own system where low income students can become the change makers and world leaders that this school so constantly boasts about. Mount Holyoke can invest in the futures of these disenfranchised groups rather than carrying on the system which oppresses them.
Never fear / change, right?
Start changing then, Moho.
Image courtesy of Forbes.com