Shouldn’t student sex workers be supported, not stigmatised?

The biggest ever study into student sex workers reveals that over a fifth of students have considered getting involved in the sex industry to support themselves through their degree.

Approximately 6,750 students from across the U.K. took part in Swansea University’s Student Sex Work Project and nearly five percent of them are or have been working in the sex industry.

You might assume “sex worker” means an escort or prostitute but, for the purposes of the study, the definition covered stripping, erotic dancing, glamour modelling, webcam work and phone sex chat.

What motivates these students to choose stripping or escort work over getting a weekend job in Starbucks? Two thirds of them said they wanted to earn enough money to fund a good lifestyle, while 45 percent wanted to avoid getting into debt. But others didn’t do it for financial reasons at all: 59 percent said they thought they would enjoy the work and 44 percent said they simply enjoy sex.

When asked about the safety aspects of this type of work, 76 percent of students involved in the sex industry reported that they felt safe in their work “always” or “very often” but 49 percent of those involved in direct sex work (prostitution and escorting) had a fear of violence.

However it seems that safety isn’t the only issue for the students themselves.

Dr. Tracey Sagar, who co-led the study, said in a statement on behalf of The Student Sex Work Project, “We now have firm evidence that students are engaged in the sex industry across the U.K. 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.”

“Society doesn’t accept me and so I feel very segregated,” said one respondent, who provides escorting and webcam services. “A lot of people just have a prejudice against the sex industry,” said a male student who has worked in the porn industry. “If I told them that I worked in sex work not one of [my friends] would talk to me at all,” said a female student who works in prostitution.

Clearly students’ reasons for working in the sex industry are varied and safety is an issue. It’s naive to think that young people are going to stop choosing this line of work — which can be very lucrative and flexible enough to do alongside studying. Surely it’s time to accept that this is going on and provide more support to students involved in the sex industry?

Unsurprisingly the report concludes that students engaged in direct sex work are in need of more specialised help, whether it’s a developing a greater awareness of sexually transmitted infections and safety risks, accessing a support system to confide in or building the confidence to leave the industry.

Rosie Inman, NUS Wales Women’s Officer, agrees: “The main priority must be to maintain the wellbeing of students involved in sex work, not to stigmatise them.”

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