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What It's Like to Pay Your Way Through College with Sex Work

A new study reports that one in 20 British students have engaged in some kind of sex work—we talked to a few that have about their experiences.

As told to Niamh McIntyre

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Last week, researchers at Swansea University released the findings of The Student Sex Work Project, the first comprehensive attempt to analyze UK students who are also sex workers. The report found that 5 percent of students have undertaken sex work at some point—which can mean either that they supplied "direct" sexual services, or did "indirect" work, such as modeling, cam shows, or chat lines. While 5 percent represents a small but significant minority, a much greater number—one in five—reported that they had considered doing sex work to pay their way through higher education.

Some of the report's findings were unsurprising. With the increase in student debt, as well as the slashing of university funding for grants and bursaries, sex work is an increasingly attractive prospect for cash-strapped students. A number of sex workers told researchers that minimum wage or zero-hours jobs just weren't an option, while the most common reason given for undertaking sex work was "good money."

A surprising finding from the study however, was that a greater number of male than female students are sex workers—5 percent of men, compared to 3.4 percent of women reported that they'd undertaken sex work at university, despite the fact that male and trans sex workers are often written out of popular narratives and media reportage when it comes to the subject.

A lot of students clearly enjoy sex work on its own terms. Flexible hours, good working conditions, and sexual pleasure were among the most regularly cited positive aspects of sex work. But in almost every case, this enjoyment was balanced with stigma and enforced secrecy. "I think that's my problem with it," says one student, "it's turned into a giant secret... I have to be careful what I say, I have be careful where I am."

To find out more, we asked three students what it's been like to pay their way through university with sex work. (All names have been changed.)

CLAIRE

I'm a second-year studying History and Philosophy at a university in London. I started working after my first year, trying various part-time jobs, working in a coffee shop, in a pub, and as a waitress. None paid enough. The student loan didn't even cover my housing, let alone living expenses, food, books, and travel costs. I had trouble keeping up with coursework, especially if I worked evenings. For example, at the pub, I'd earn $10 an hour for a eight-hour shift, two nights a week, so I'd bring home about $150 weekly.

I'd just moved to London from the North. My family is not well off, and can't afford to help me much; I didn't know anyone in London so when I moved here I was starting from scratch. At first I lived in an overcrowded, noisy flat with other students. After I started sex work I could afford a place of my own. I advertise through a website and have regular clients; I visit them at home, in hotels, and occasionally at their workplace. It's flexible and fits around my course, plus I can work the hours I want to—which lets me scale back around exam time or if I have extra coursework.

In my first year at university, I started hearing about students turning to sex work, and after a while I met someone on another course who'd been working as a stripper. Through her, I met another student doing escorting and she clued me up, said where to advertise, how to avoid bad clients, and work safely. She gave me the English Collective of Prostitutes' Rights Sheet, which explains laws about sex work: for example, I'd had no idea it was illegal for two women to work together.

I don't particularly like the work I do; my biggest worry is about being arrested because if I get a criminal record it would stay with me for life and be a massive obstacle when it comes to getting other jobs. But sex work is far better, higher paid, and suits my time better than any other work I know of. Friends at university are working ten-hour shifts for under the minimum wage, others are working on zero-hour contracts and never know how many hours they will get—some weeks, they get none at all, so it is very hard to budget and pay bills. I know a lot of students who've dropped out and left courses due to financial pressures.

Mostly students doing sex work don't talk about it, because if it comes out, it could affect your future and job prospects. Since I started escorting, I've heard that a former roommate exchanged sex with her landlord to cover the rent, and another woman I know was a part-time sex worker to earn enough to travel home to visit her family. Sex work among students is much more common than people think, and is likely to increase as long as fees, rent, and the cost of living is so high.


Photo by Bruce Tuten.

HARRY

The sex work I partake in is escorting. Men hire me by the hour, either for sex, company, or dates. I got into the sex industry because I had no money left to pay my bills or do anything socially. I signed up to a website, thinking I wouldn't get much of a response, but I did. And it felt good! It feels good to have the ability to make men pay for you; it gives you a certain power over them.

My friends know what I do but I don't blab about it to anyone and everyone, as there's definitely a great deal of stigma attached [to sex work]. One of my friends actually tried to get me down about it and tried to say I was "a dirty hooker on the street," but it isn't like that at all.

The type of payment I receive is reasonably good. It lets me pay off my bills and I have money left over to spend on my social life. The income isn't steady, though: the thing about escorting is that when the money runs out you aren't guaranteed to get another customer straight away, so you're often back to having no money.

I haven't had what I'd describe as a truly positive experience of sex work yet, although my idea of a positive experience in this industry would be finding a rich man to pay me thousands every month to be his boyfriend. One particularly negative experience I had was the time a married man asked me to go to his office to have sex with him there. My excuse for being there was that I was having an interview with him, and, as he instructed, that was what I told reception. Eventually, someone took me up to his office—but then they sat me in a large room and began to interview me for a job thinking I was there to be interviewed, which was pretty humiliating. I messaged him later, but he played the "I don't know you" card and even got the police involved since someone gave me his personal details.

ABIGAIL – Graduated 2014

As a student I've done various forms of independent sex work. Primarily, I worked as a prostitute and dominatrix. However, I sporadically also did phone sex work as well as webcamming.

Student loans plus a bursary from my university only covered the cost of student accommodation and the most basic of living expenses. It wasn't enough to meet the real cost of living—course materials, text books, university networking events, travel, etc. In my first year as an undergraduate, before I had considered sex work, I had to take on two jobs to afford the basics. The minimum wage these jobs paid meant that the long hours I was working weren't yielding a decent income and were affecting my studies. I was exhausted and didn't have ample time to commit to academic life.

I think sex work was a ruthlessly pragmatic decision for me. My motivation for work has always been the same—to earn money. Sex work was no different in this regard. It afforded me the time to concentrate on my studies while I was earning. I could work just a couple of hours a week and not be too exhausted to study effectively, which is what I'd found when working part time in minimum-wage retail and bar jobs. I enjoyed sex work as it allowed me to pay my bills and my rent without difficulty, and I always knew that I'd be able to afford food and to engage in leisure activities without having the stress of completely depleting my bank account.

As a graduate who has continued to work in the sex industry, this avenue of work has been useful to me as many internships are unpaid; I don't have a family who could support me, so I'm not privileged enough to work for free. It has allowed me to not get into debt while applying for jobs related to my degree. Sex work has allowed me to pay off some of my debts, just as any other job would. I don't think a 9-to-5 job would have allowed me to pay off any more.

There are some difficult aspects of sex work. I've found the worst thing about the job is the stigma sex workers face, and it's the reason I'm not "out." The misinformation and moralizing that goes on is probably the worst aspect; it denies sex workers a fully decriminalized environment that would be the safest for them to work in. I've found any negativity I've encountered as a sex worker has been the feeling of betrayal from feminists and policy makers who base their party lines and policy on pure ideology.


Claire, Harry, and Abigail's stories, along with the findings of the report, make it clear that there's a need for more dialogue about sex work in UK universities: ignorance, a lack of procedure, and a culture of silence is never going to improve safety for these students.

As Dr. Sagar of The Student Sex Work Project puts it, "Most of the students who took part in the survey and who were working in the industry did so for economic reasons, some because they just wanted to and others because they were curious or for sexual pleasure. Most students do not need support or assistance but some do—even if that is just the opportunity to offload about their work, and the importance of this shouldn't be underestimated. The biggest challenge for the project has been tackling the stigma associated with sex work."

The Student Sex Work Project is now working on implementing the provision of non-discriminatory/nonjudgemental services at UK universities for students who engage in sex work.

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