"I could never have done this course without sex work," Twitter user @SexWorkerPsych tells me over the phone.
An aspiring psychotherapist, she's found, at two different universities, that discrimination still happens, so she tweets candidly about her experiences but stays anonymous for fear of harassment. For the sake of this article, we'll call her Lucy. Like more than 10 percent of students in the UK, Lucy used sex work to pay her way through university – and it's not hard to see why.
A combination of rising living costs, crippling tuition fees and low maintenance grants are taking their toll on students, who are increasingly turning to cam sites and sex work more generally to make the cash they need to get by. You might ask why students aren’t taking up bar or retail work instead, but sex work tends to offer more flexibility than other jobs, and research conducted by the English Collective of Prostitutes shows that there’s scope to make more cash in less time. Factor in the reluctance of companies like Waterstones to pay a living wage, the rise of zero-hour contracts and the easy access to digital sex work offered by sites like Chaturbate and OnlyFans, and you’ll start to see why it might seem like a more viable option.
While the popularity of student sex work is rising, however, the stigma attached to it shows no sign of disappearing. "When I applied to study psychotherapy I wrote an extensive description of my work as a dominatrix on the application form," laughs Lucy, describing the "A4 page of detailed bullet points" she provided.
Despite being accepted onto the course, Lucy soon found herself being both fetishised and stereotyped by lecturers, who she says read her as "straight, white and middle class – the perfect psychotherapist!"
"As the year went on it became obvious that wasn’t the case," she tells me. "Whenever my job was mentioned, [staff] wanted to make it really clinical and hands-off. They wanted to disconnect the sex from the sex work, and when I didn’t fall in line with that they tried to lead me into that victim/abuser binary. They hypothesised that I had been abused by men, and that I was re-enacting that in my work."
Lucy's resistance to this lazy armchair psychology ultimately cost her the degree. "I earned the grades to pass, but they failed me anyway," she tells me. "They said I didn’t speak up, that because I’m not from a minority group I don’t understand diversity and inequality, that I’ve got a problem with authority."
"They literally blasted me for six pages," she adds, referring to feedback on a report.
Stories like these are often shared by sex workers on social media, and they highlight the extent to which stigma can punish student sex workers in particular. "Most people don’t consider it as a reputable profession, so they treat you like a second class citizen," Sarah*, also a sex worker, tells me via email. "I would never want to be ‘out’ at university. The students and staff you meet might end up being your boss in the future. They might even want to blackmail you."
This fear of being discovered led Sarah to reply to a Gumtree ad for a "hostess" role, which turned out to be for a gentlemen’s club. “I had considered other options,” she explains, “but I was dissuaded from anything online by the idea that it could be traced back to me. This seemed like a safer way to make sure nobody would find out."
It soon transpired that both the club’s clients and owners expected the hostesses to double up as escorts. “I stuck to just talking for a while,” recalls Sarah, “but eventually I was pressured into [more]. There was a rule that men had to pay for two bottles of champagne before women could leave with them, so I had to get pretty drunk while I worked. That put me in a vulnerable position when I did go back to their hotels – I still have PTSD and anxiety."
The late nights and regular shifts also took their toll on Sarah's studies. Within weeks she was falling asleep in lectures and missing assignment deadlines, but she still desperately needed the money. “I didn’t feel like I could stop – it would have meant going back to having barely enough money to eat.” She says that some support services were available, but the decision of whether or not to use them can be agonising for sex workers who aren’t "out" – there’s a tangible fear that anonymity might be breached, or that support staff might judge them harshly and let their biases cloud treatment if they do "come out" during a course of therapy.
Even those who are immediately open about their circumstances risk judgment, discrimination or a lack of understanding from the support workers being paid to help them. "My psychotherapist told me she felt like my pimp," Lucy laughs. "My experiences tell me that people who aren’t trained to help sex workers often come from a place of bias, so the situation can become really voyeuristic and patronising.” She found this out for herself when she sought help through university, eventually going outside the institution to source help from third parties like LGBT+ support service Pink Therapy and the Psychotherapy and Counselling Union.
Lisa Mckenzie, a working class academic and author, echoes the claim that students across the board aren’t receiving the support they need, attributing the problem largely to staff cuts. But she argues that sex workers face other issues when it comes to feeling unwelcome in classrooms they’ve paid to be in.
"There are groups of middle class feminists who believe that sex work is never a choice; that workers are always victims," Lisa explains. These feminists are colloquially known as "SWERFs" – sex worker-exclusionary radical feminists – and their theories are still referenced by politicians who advocate for policies like the "Nordic Model", which has been shown to push sex workers into danger by criminalising their clients. "Essentially, student sex workers can find themselves walking into feminist classes and learning theories which aren’t supportive of them," Lisa continues. "I’m sure it would be really difficult to sit there and listen to those debates."
Universities can also feel like hostile environments for working class students in general. “I’ve always felt like an interlope in academia,” Lisa explains, recalling a university welcome assembly that described her council estate as an area to avoid. “It makes you think: 'Am I welcome here?'"
Some universities – usually those within the Russell Group – inadvertently strengthen this class divide by limiting the hours students can work. Oxbridge universities in particular have come under fire for taking this a step further by banning part-time work. It’s unclear how exactly rules like these are enforced, but what is clear is that some institutions don’t understand that not all students can survive on loans, grants and bursaries alone. It’s obvious that not all student sex workers just fancy a slice of extra cash, but policies which reduce their potential income often ignore the fact that some see their work as a financial necessity.
“You can’t really talk about class disadvantages either, because you’re accused of having a chip on your shoulder,” explains Lisa, drawing heavily from her own experiences. “You’re called angry and told to get over it because, ultimately, these conversations make middle class people uncomfortable. They don’t want to acknowledge that their privileged position is being propped up by working class people in inferior positions. But we should be able to talk about it because it’s not about individuals, it’s about power.”
Sex work can be a valuable tool for working class students struggling to navigate this divide, but there’s still a lack of support and understanding that they’re not all victims. Some organisations aim to provide them with an "exit strategy", whether they want one or not, and as a result the familiar "saviour" narratives block them from unbiased support.
Still, there are vital organisations countering this narrative. "I used to work for POW [Prostitutes’ Outreach Workers] in Nottingham, and it wasn’t about exit strategies,” says Lisa. “It was about making sure workers had access to a clinic, contraception, nurses, clothes, food and shelter between shifts." But these organisations often aren’t well known outside the sex worker community, and as a result universities run the risk of referring sex workers to NGOs which want to rescue rather than help them.
As for Sarah, she eventually found the help she needed and later started working for an obscure kink website, which allowed her both security and financial stability. "Good, flexible jobs are hard to find, and employers expect to pay students a pittance," she says, arguing that sex work can be a lifeline. She knows better than most that vital support services can help student sex workers, who are ultimately just working around a system that can make life unmanageable for them. Income inequality is going nowhere; as a result, nor is student sex work. Now it’s up to universities to learn how best to support them without judgment.
*Names have been changed for anonymity.