More students are turning to sex work but universities are ignoring the issue, experts say

By Eleanor Busby Education Correspondent

Universities must stop ignoring the plight of a growing number of students turning to sex work and should start offering non-judgemental support, campaigners demand.

Students and experts have accused institutions of “simply burying their heads in the sand” over the issue, despite the increasing amount of young people who are turning to sex work to fund university.

Rising living costs, higher student fees and access to online apps which remove traditional barriers into sex work have all been cited as reasons they are turning to prostitution during their studies. 

But despite the evidence, many universities are “turning a blind eye”, and in some cases actively blocking groups trying to support students involved in sex work.

In one case a student, who was forced to turn to sex work, was evicted from her home and threatened with expulsion by her university.

The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), a campaigning group which supports the decriminalisation of prostitution, told The Independent the number of students who have reached out to the organisation about having to turn to sex work has risen in the past year.

Laura Watson, spokesperson for the ECP, said serious financial hardship and cost pressures is the driving reason for rising sex work on campus.

“We have found that people are mostly working for everyday needs. But some people are definitely working to pay off the tuition fees,” she said. 

A student at a university in the southwest of England, who did not wish to be named, turned to “full service” sex work when she was just 18 because she could not afford to pay the rent. Her student loan did not cover it.

The student, who has no financial parental support, tried other work but her learning difficulties made it hard to hold down a job. “It became apparent there was no other option,” she said. 

And she has noticed a rise in young people seeking sex work. “The financial situation for students is getting more and more bleak and rent prices are really rising,” she said. 

The now 22-year-old wants to pursue her studies to do a master’s and hopefully a PhD. But she feels she will have to continue with sex work to be able to fulfil these aspirations. 

“I love academia and education and always have. And in my opinion it will be the only way I can get out of sex work. It gives more opportunities for someone who doesn’t have a lot,” she said. 

But the student, who is involved in activism for sex workers, has faced significant hurdles along the way. She was evicted from her accommodation and her university threatened to kick her out. 

During a fitness-to-study meeting, university staff said they were going to take disciplinary action against her because she was bringing “moral disrepute” against the university, she said. 

She said: “I was very open with them about the sex work in the meeting. It was quite striking that the meeting was set up to help me – and then I was being met with punishment at the end.

“I thought, you want me to escape sex work but then in order to punish me for doing sex work you are going to remove the only opportunity I have, my degree, to escape sex work.”

And she is not alone.The ECP have fought a number of cases recently where universities have threatened to throw out students if they do not stop doing sex work, Ms Watson said. 

The University of Brighton launched an investigation at the start of the academic year after its student union faced heavy criticism for allowing a sex worker outreach stall at their freshers’ fair. 

Critics suggested that the presence of the support group – which also had a stall at the University of Sussex – was advocating and encouraging sex work among students.  

Collating official figures on the number of sex workers is difficult because many are worried they will face negative consequences by becoming more visible.

But figures from money advice website Save the Student this year found more than one in 10 students use their bodies – including sex work, sugar dating and webcamming – to make money.

“Sugar daddying”, where younger women are paid to go on dates with often older men, is becoming increasingly popular, data suggests. Last year, sugar daddy website SeekingArrangement saw hundreds more subscriptions from university students.

The rise of technology has meant webcamming has also become a more attraction option to students due to its flexibility and ease – and because there are less risks than face-to-face work. 

Another student at a university in Wales, who did not wish to be named, said she would not have considered sex work if it had not been online. 

“I have an anxiety disorder, and meeting new people is quite a stressful thing. Face-to-face doesn’t appeal to me at all,” she said.

The 23-year-old, who started making sex videos in her second year, said her friends were not surprised when she told them about her work. “It is probably becoming more normal because it is more accessible with the internet,” she said. 

The student makes around £70 a week for recording videos, and the money pays for her food and petrol. 

She said: “I would like to think there is less of a stigma among students because most students probably know someone who does it. I think more people are choosing it.”

But there is still a lack of support for students who do sex work. “It doesn’t get spoken about,” she said. “It would be nice to have a support network within the university.”

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The National Union of Students (NUS), as well as some student unions (SUs) and societies, have tried to raise awareness and support sex workers to reduce the discrimination they face.

But very few universities signpost support networks for sex workers on their websites. And some SU officers who asked for resources were “blocked” by the institutions, according to ECP.

“Universities are worried about the bad press,” Ms Watson said. “They are relying on good press and people’s money coming in.“

The student sex worker in the southwest of England told The Independent: “Most universities have a tendency to deny that students are sex workers.”

She added: “The first step would be to address it. Only from acknowledgement would be a realisation that this is something that is happening and something we need to tackle. 

“Universities have a duty to their students to provide support regardless of the backlash.”

Sarah Lasoye, women’s officer for the NUS, said: “Universities as a whole need to take a much less judgemental outlook on the types of work that students are doing.”

Their priority should be making sure these students are safe and healthy, she added.

Ms Lasoye said: “A motivating factor for students who are working in the sex industry not coming forward, or seeking help if they need it, is the fear of punishment.

“More work is needed to ensure all institutions are offering non-judgmental support.”

She added: “Universities have a responsibility for the welfare of student sex workers – simply burying their heads in the sand is not a solution.

“Institutions should look to the handful of students unions who are leading the way – those who are working with sex worker advocacy organisations to both raise awareness and provide the practical support that these students need.”

A Universities UK spokesperson said: “Recognising that they are adults, all universities have a duty of care to their students.

“This means protecting their welfare in order to support them as learners, encouraging legal, safe and healthy behaviours but not dictating what these behaviours should be.”