The Student Sex Work Project, the largest study on student attitudes to student participation in the sex industry, has released its findings. The report by Swansea University academics found that nearly 5% of UK students have worked in the sex industry, more male students than female students are likely to be involved, while nearly 22% of students have considered working in the sex industry.
The academic research with more than 6,750 students across the UK was carried out by Dr Tracey Sagar and Debbie Jones of Swansea University’s Centre for Criminal Justice and Criminology and funded by the Big Lottery Fund.
The research reveals that students take up a range of occupations in the sex industry. Occupations included direct sex work, where there is direct contact with a client such as prostitution, escorting and selling sex from off street establishments, and independently through the internet. It also includes indirect sex work which does not involve direct contact with a client such as phone chat sex, web cam work, erotic dancing, stripping and glamour modelling. Some students are also engaged in auxiliary and organisational occupations such as drivers and escort managers.
The researchers found that some students were motivated by economic factors:-
- 64% were motivated in order to earn money to fund a lifestyle
- 56% wanted to pay basic living expenses
- 45% wanted to avoid debt
- 39% were motivated to reduce debt at the end of the course.
Students also showed other motivations:-
- 59% thought they would enjoy the work
- 54% were curious about working in the sex industry,
- 45% wanted to work in the industry
- 44% were motivated by sexual pleasure.
Starting and leaving sex work
The research also focused on the length of time students worked in the industry and how difficult they found leaving the industry. Over half reported that they had worked in the industry for less than six months with over half again reporting that they worked only a few hours a week (less than five). The survey also showed that leaving the sex industry is hard or very hard for a quarter or less of students (25% for those involved in direct sex work and 7% for those involved in indirect sex work).
Some 76% of students engaged in the sex industry reported that they felt safe in their work ‘always’ or ‘very often’, but 1 in 4 did not feel safe. The fear of violence was noted twice as often among those engaged in direct sex work as compared to those engaged in indirect sex work (49% and 25% respectively).
Positive and negative aspects
Good money was identified by 83% as a positive aspect of sex work, 77% mentioned flexible hours and 46% cited sexual pleasure. When the study asked students what the negative aspects of working in the industry were, 51% reported having to keep sex work a secret as a negative of the job, 50% identified unpredictable earnings, 50% unpleasant customers, 36% cited fear of violence and 35% reported negative judgements from family and friends.
Student sex workers’ fears of stigmatisation and consequently having to keep their occupation a secret is the most important negative aspect of undertaking sex work for them. Not all harm caused by sex work is related to the work itself but also through societal responses to it.
As a female sex worker who took part in the study explained: “For my whole life now…it’s turned into a giant secret…I have to be careful what I say, I have to be careful where I am. I have been recognised by guys I have been with and they have walked past me and even innocently have said “hello Sharon” … one of my best friends said “why do people call you Sharon all the time?” (…) When this happens three or four times people are like “what is that girl doing?”
Dr Tracey Sagar and Debbie Jones who led the study emphasise that the research shows that engagement in the sex industry may not be an issue or problem for the majority of student workers but some have negative experiences that can impact on their health, safety and general well-being. They stress that this is particularly important given that the data also showed that 15% of students who took part in the survey accessed student counselling services but that figure rose to 21% for students who were engaged in sex work. Furthermore, 51% of those who were engaged in direct sex work had contacted a professional in relation to their work and 41% expressed a need for support.
Dr Sagar said: “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. And, 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.”
Mrs Jones added: “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. This is why the next stage of the project is to develop and implement training packages for University staff and student support services.”
The importance of providing the right support for student sex workers is emphasised by Dr Sagar. She said: “Our research has not been about encouraging students into sex work it has been about supporting students who are in sex work. And this is the reality, students are engaged in sex work occupations – this is a fact. Another fact is that some of them need advice, support and sometimes assistance to step away from the industry. At the moment students feel so stigmatised and judged that they are afraid or at least very reluctant to disclose their occupations to staff and services at Universities that could help them.
“Stereotyping is also a problem. A significant finding of the research is that more males are involved in sex the sex industry than is commonly thought. Of the men that responded to the survey, 5% said they were involved in the sex work, whereas nearly 3.5% of the women that took part in the survey said they were involved with sex industry. Sex work is widely but wrongly perceived to be an occupation that is predominantly taken up by women and this means that males may fall through the student support net because they are not associated with sex work occupations.”
Mrs Jones explains the project’s next steps. She said: “All students should feel that they are able to seek help if they need it and this includes students who are engaged in the sex industry. We are very thankful to Swansea University for taking the lead and supporting this research project that will now go on to develop guidance and training that will be available to all Universities in the UK.”
The Student Sex Work Project is a partnership between Swansea University, Terrence Higgins Trust Cymru, National Union of Students Wales and The University of South Wales, Integrated Sexual Health Clinic Cardiff and Vale University Health Board.
Steve Jones, National Director at Terrence Higgins Trust Cymru, said: “We welcome this research, which helps us to understand the hidden nature of sex work among the student population. It has long been the assumption that young people who enter the sex industry do so to fund basic living expenses. However, this research shows young people’s reasons for entering sex work, and their motivations for remaining in it, are more complex.
“We believe student sex workers require dedicated, non-judgmental support, not just within sexual health services but also within universities themselves, to ensure they have the knowledge and confidence to protect themselves from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Hopefully this research is the first step on that path, and will lead to further projects to ensure that any student entering the sex industry can feel secure enough to ask for help should they need it. We are proud to have been a part of it.”
Rosie Inman, NUS Wales Women’s Officer, said she wanted to ensure the financial accessibility of university is such that sex work is a choice and never a necessity.
She said: “NUS Wales recognises that sex work can be a choice for students, as the nature of the work allows them the flexibility to keep up with the rigours of study, while funding their living costs. However we are concerned that so many students reported that covering basic living expenses was a strong factor in their decision to enter sex work.”