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We should be protecting and caring for student sex workers, not making them feel wrongvia

Why universities must support student sex workers

Research shows that students feel afraid to confide in staff, who say that they’d punish sex workers for harming the uni’s reputation

There are many reasons why students turn to sex work while studying. It might be for rent money, to reduce student debt, for sexual pleasure, or just curiosity. Whatever the motivation, we know more students are doing it. A three year study conducted by researchers at Swansea University showed that 5 per cent of students work in the sex industry and almost 22 per cent had considered it. That sounds like quite a lot, doesn’t it?

Given the number involved, universities should be adequately equipped to handle and understand the issues that student sex workers face. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case. The Swansea University study found that student sex workers are being discriminated against. Some professional staff and students’ union staff interviewed by researchers said they would take action against student sex workers in case they put the university’s reputation at risk.

The researchers also discovered that no university it analysed had specific policies in place regarding student sex work. Neither did they have formal processes in place that staff can carry out if a student discloses they are, or is found to be, working in the sex industry.

We spoke to some student sex workers about the reasons that they have kept their line of work a secret. Alex*, a UCL student, hasn’t told his uni he is a sex worker. “I feel like I wouldn’t share it with them unless I had political motives. For example, you’ll always get a few sex positive people in the student groups,” he said to Dazed. “You don’t really know your tutor personally and you really don’t want their judgment. Especially as it’s probably going to be, ‘poor you, you poor thing’.”

Beth*, a recent graduate from King’s College London, said that while her tutors were nice, under no circumstances would she have told them about the sex work. “I was going through some mental health issues and needed deadline extensions so I told them that but not about the sex work. It was just easier. I’ve heard horror stories about tutors spreading it around or kicking students out. Why would they need to know?”

We conducted our own anonymous survey to allow more students to speak out about their relationship with university staff. One student from the University of Oxford said they would not tell the uni about sex work under any circumstances. “I couldn’t trust them not to pass on the info or evict me from my halls,” they wrote.

“I live in accommodation provided by the college so they might kick me out and make me rent somewhere privately.” Another from the University for the Creative Arts said they have not told any staff about it because they’d be judged not on their uni work but on their “personal work." These are all tales of being afraid, of fearing consequences and ostracision.

It wasn’t all disappointing news. Some told stories of the university being helpful. One King’s College London student said they told the health service about doing telephone sex chats during an STI check and it was “like they were treating any average student”. The student added: “They were professional and polite. Maybe too polite but that’s probably because I was being paranoid.”

However, the overwhelming message seemed to be that due to stigma it was too risky to tell universities. It seems that there is a disconnect between an outward campus message of progressiveness and acceptance but a lack of training and understanding from staff in reality.

When a 2013 Durham University study on student sex work was released, Ms Judith Evans suggested the need for support services to be available to students experiencing stigma as a result of their work within in the industry. She advised: “Given the risks of physical, sexual, psychological and emotional harm that might come with sex work, it’s pervasive existence amongst this population reinforces the need to inform students of the risks involved and support students considering, or currently participating in, sex work.” Still it seems not much has been done. The same call for change happened as a result of Swansea’s research this year.

Some student sex workers told Dazed survey how university staff could be more helpful and accommodating when it comes to their care. Answers ranged from "train staff about the law around sex work" to "put sex work on the agenda for training peer supporters" to "support decriminalisation and engage with the students". "Speak to them and listen to them without judgment" was a common request.

With the government making it more difficult for those from lower-income backgrounds to make it through university and more students needing to have jobs alongside studying, it becomes increasingly important that attitudes towards sex work change. We can’t pretend it’s not happening.

*names changed to protect identity