A major study has found that male students are more likely to engage in paid sexual activity
Shocking research by Swansea University reveals that 22 per cent of students have considered turning to sex work, and five per cent have actually worked in the sex industry.
About 6,750 students from across the UK took part in an online study by the Student Sex Work Project at the University’s department of Criminal Justice and Criminology.
Dr Tracey Sagar, who co-led the study, said stereotyping was a problem when offering support to students, and there are several findings in the study which dispel commonly held stereotypes.
For example, the researchers found that men were more likely to have engaged in commercial sexual activity than women – five per cent compared to 3.4 per cent – which Dr Sagar called a ‘significant finding’.
The students’ motivations for becoming involved in sex work were also surprising. Of those who had actually worked in the industry, 63.5 per cent said they did it to fund their lifestyle, 56.9 per cent to fund higher education, and 39.3 to reduce debt at the end of the course. However, 59 per cent said they thought they would enjoy the work, and 43.5 per cent said they wanted to get sexual pleasure out of the work.
However, even where entering the industry was initially a choice, a significant number of respondents said that as time went on they found it hard to leave. Of those who were involved in direct sex work (selling sexual acts rather than stripping, for example, or administrative roles within the industry), 24.6 per cent said they found it hard to very hard to leave.
Some cited the social stigma which made them feel most comfortable remaining in the industry, while others said large gaps in their employment history would make it difficult to find other kinds of work. However others said they found the work ‘addictive’:
“As sleazy as it is, I like it when guys come in and leave happy. I feel like I’ve actually helped them in a way. Plus the work isn’t always doom and gloom. I like it sometimes. And it’s money for having no skill whatsoever.”
Students who engage in sex work generally do it on an irregular basis, the study found, and most earn relatively low sums of money from it, enough to cover living expenses. Half of the respondents (51.3 per cent) made less than £300 per month and a minority of 13.4 per cent earned more than £1000. This is a useful finding as it dispels the stereotype which tends to polarise sex workers, either as street workers with addiction problems or as high-class escorts selling sex for designer shoes.
The authors of the report recommend that higher education institutions ‘should take an explicit non-exclusionary stance towards students who work in the sex industry and matters of reputation should not be given preference over the protection and well-being of students who work in the industry’, in the hope that removing the stigma may make it easier for students to leave the industry.
And despite the varied motivations which students cited, the findings will no doubt raise uncomfortable questions for those who advocate high tuition fees. Although there is clear freedom of choice in many of these students’ stories, the fact that so many young people are turning to sex work in order to live well at university should be a matter of serious concern.
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.