Last week, The Independent published a harrowing interview with a student who began working in the sex industry at 19 to make enough money to pay her rent and remain in higher education. She takes both “incalls”, clients who come to her, and “outcalls”, clients who she goes to meet. The horrific scenarios that could ensue do not bear thinking about but must be confronted. ‘Sophie’, using a pseudonym for her own protection, sums up what we are all thinking: “You can pull out every stop to make sure you are going to be okay, and it just doesn’t always work that way.”
Now more than ever, a university education is synonymous with thousands of pounds worth of debt. Following broken government promises, the trebling of tuition fees in 2012 now sees the average student receiving their degree with upwards of £40,000 to return to the Student Loans Company. Inflation and mounting living costs mean that despite governmental claims of their ‘generous package’ of student support, student maintenance loans are often insufficient to cover rent and daily expenditure and so for many students a shortfall still remains to be covered.
Luckier students may have parents both willing and able to contribute to this deficit, but in a grim financial climate where the economy is only just beginning to show signs of improvement, this is very often not the case. Demanding studies and a lack of readily available part-time jobs also contribute to the problem, making the flexible, cash in hand nature of sex work appealing to a growing number of students.
Sophie’s case study is by no means an anomaly. According to recent research, as many as six per cent of students will be involved in sex work at some point during their university careers; for medics, the figure is around ten per cent. Although in recent years the NUS and university unions have been more willing to discuss the issue, evidence suggests that the problem continues to grow. The English Collective of Prostitutes, which runs a helpline from its base in London, said the number of calls it receives from students has at least doubled in the past year, indicative that action must be taken swiftly to ensure the safety of these young people.
Students operating as sex workers are particularly vulnerable, often leading double lives to escape the judgement of their more financially secure peers. The Student Sex Work Project was founded as an acknowledgement that relatively little is known about sex work among students. The project is dedicated to both research and providing support for sex workers. For as long as students struggle to make ends meet, sex work will continue to be a viable option to make money quickly. Similar projects, preferably on a national level, must therefore be implemented to ensure advice can be given and safety is always paramount.
As universities receive more funding than ever before, the NUS should be ensuring that more of this money is used to provide grants and other financial support to the students who find themselves in these desperate situations. Research has also shown that the number of students taking part in medical experiments and using gambling as ways to make money is also on the increase, further indications of the dire state of affairs tantamount to ‘student living’. Ultimately, accountability falls on those responsible for ruthless funding cuts to student support; it is both distressing and unsurprising that the government remains silent on a problem that its policies are at the heart of.