Thousands embrace sex work to fund university costs, study finds

(Reuters / Toby Melville)
Roughly one in 20 UK students has worked in the sex industry to earn money while at university, a new study has found. Many students are motivated by financial reasons, while others are driven by curiosity.

The study, which is part of the University of Swansea’s ‘Student Sex Work project,’ is the culmination of three years’ research involving 6,750 students.

In a climate of high tuition fees and rising living costs, over 50 percent of student sex workers in Britain are motivated by the need to earn money, the report said. Some 45 percent wish to avoid debt, it added.

The research found more men than women engage in sex work, while both sexes engage in ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ activities. Direct sex work involves contact with clients and includes prostitution. Indirect work, however, includes modeling and phone sex.

For men, the most common sex occupations were ‘naked butler’ stripping, erotic dancing, performing in porn films and selling sexual services online. Women tended to engage in glamour modeling, erotic dancing, stripping, selling sex via phone lines and selling sex online.

The study found 4.8 percent of UK students have worked in the sex industry, while a fifth of students have considered turning to sex work.

Economic and other motivations

A motivating factor for 56 percent of student sex workers was the need to pay for basic living expenses. Some 64 percent said they wished to fund a particular lifestyle. Avoiding or reducing debt were also major financial motivations uncovered by researchers.

Young people studying in the UK today can expect to leave university with about £50,000 of debt when maintenance loans are factored in. This figure could be larger when personal debt is included.

More than half of UK universities charge £9,000 per year for tuition fees, the maximum allowed by law.

According to the report, the findings “make it clear that for a significant number of student sex workers, sex work is embarked upon to assist with [university] fees and/or to avoid/reduce mounting student debt.”

Thus, as long as students are expected to contribute high amounts of money to their education, and considering the rising cost of student living, it is unlikely that the number of students who turn to sex work will go down.”

Money was not the sole motivation however, with 54 percent of students citing curiosity as a reason for entering the sex industry. Some 59 percent said they thought they would enjoy the work, while 44 percent were motivated by sexual pleasure.

Although the majority of students reported feeling safe in their work, a quarter of respondents did not and half of those engaging in direct sex work said they feared violence while on the job.

University support needed

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Lead researcher, Dr. Tracey Sagar, called on universities to act on the findings.

We now have firm evidence that students are engaged in the sex industry across the UK. The majority of these students keep their occupations secret and this is because of social stigma and fears of being judged by family and friends,” she said in a statement.

We have to keep in mind that not all students engaged in the industry are safe or feel safe.

"It is vital now that Universities arm themselves with knowledge to better understand student sex work issues and that University services are able to support students where support is needed,” she added.

Sagar and co-researcher Debbie Jones were alarmed to discover that a fifth of students working in the sex industry sought counseling. That figure jumped to 51 percent for those engaged in direct sex work.

We know through our research that some students are disclosing to University staff, but we also know that staff and support services can feel unconfident or unsure about their ability to offer the right support,” Jones said.

This is why the next stage of the project is to develop and implement training packages for University staff and student support services,” she added.

Sagar argued it was important to include men in any initiatives. “Sex work is widely but wrongly perceived to be an occupation that is predominantly taken up by women,” she said.

This means that males may fall through the student support net because they are not associated with sex work occupations.”