A study released earlier this year made the headline-grabbing claim that 5 percent of students are sex workers.
The Student Sex Work Project, based at Swansea University, was set up to explore the specific experiences of student sex workers and review support networks and advice centres inside Higher Education.
The study has reignited debates around sex work, choice and sexuality. Sex work is defined as “the exchange of sexual services, performances and products for material compensation”.
It looks at the experiences of “direct” and “indirect” sex workers. Direct sex work is popularly understood to be prostitution, while indirect sex work is that which does not involve intimate contact with a client, such as erotic dancing, webcam services, porn acting and glamour modelling.
The project, carried out over a year predominantly in Welsh universities, made some surprising discoveries.
It found that 5 percent of men identified themselves as sex workers compared with 3.4 percent of women. This is supported by an earlier research project that found that 40 percent of those advertising sexual services through the internet were male or transgender.
While there may be more male sex workers than expected, it is mostly men who are actually buying sexual services.
Most of the data came from an online survey aimed at students and asking about their experiences of sex work.
It is hard to argue that confirmation bias does not play a role in the relatively high number of sex workers. If a student sees a survey about sex work, they are more likely to participate if they feel like it relates to them.
Nonetheless, this is clearly a real phenomenon.
Students today are attempting to educate themselves at a time of severe public sector cuts. The tripling of tuition fees in 2010 has meant young people entering into higher education with an average £44,000 debt looming over them.
The rocketing cost of private student halls and rentals means that students are turning to part-time work to supplement student loans. It is these increased pressures that have been credited with the rising numbers of students turning to sex work.
Indeed, half of respondents said their primary motivation for entering into sex work is to supplement everyday living costs, and five of the top ten reasons given relate to covering the cost of living or of education. Beyond the 5 percent who had engaged in sex work were another 22 percent who had considered it.
The study identifies how student sex workers keep their job secret for fear of stigmatisation in personal, professional and academic circles. Some 51 percent said the biggest negative aspect of their job is “secrecy”. This isn’t an unfounded fear — respondents disclose the high likelihood of being ostracised if their involvement is revealed.
When interviewed, some HE workers said they would pursue disciplinary action if a student was found to be a sex worker.
One relates a time they told a sex worker that “posing for pictures while scantily clad could put herself at risk and bring the reputation of both the university and the profession for which she was being trained into disrepute”.
Any type of disciplinary action by universities would do nothing to combat the factors that contribute to people entering the sex industry, and in reality is more likely to push them out of education and job prospects.
Another key finding is the lack of support for student sex workers; no British university has any guidelines or policy on student sex workers. This is particularly important as student sex workers access counselling services more often than other students.
The fear of violence was an important “negative aspect” of sex work, noted by nearly half of direct sex workers and one in four indirect. Only two in five overall said they always feel safe while working.
Sex workers live dangerous lives — those selling sex on the street are 12 times more likely to be killed than other women in the same age demographic. Former sex workers report high levels of post traumatic stress disorder and domestic violence.
This is partly a result of the conditions of secrecy — and therefore vulnerability — under which many sex workers operate. Sex workers also face barriers in accessing legal recourse and support services.
Having a robust critique of the sex industry does not mean condemning the people working in it. It is important to draw a distinction between, for example, the women working in brothels and lap dancing clubs and the bosses and pimps who profit from their labour.
It is worth noting that the experiences of those who enter into sex work as students are not necessarily representative of sex work as a whole. The students surveyed are likely to be in the industry for six months or less, work fewer than ten hours a week and are more likely to be working in indirect sex work.
The Student Sex Work Project is a helpful exploration of this aspect of student life, but does little to analyse the sex industry or the society that has created it.
Nonetheless, it has uncovered a disturbing factor in today’s student experience, and one which clearly needs attention. It highlights one outcome of the marketisation of education over the last two decades — one which university support services are currently not equipped to deal with.