Students in the UK are being driven to work in the sex industry in order to cope with the rising cost of living and university tuition fees.
More than half of those already in the industry – 67 per cent – have turned to sex work to be able to pay for living expenses, such as food and bills, followed by 53 per cent who need the money to pay for rent.
Another 35 per cent say their earnings are used to pay for university fees, while around a quarter use money earned to reduce post-graduation debt, or to avoid getting into debt.
The startling findings have come from the National Union of Students (NUS) which worked with the Sex Workers Open University and the English Collective of Prostitutes to survey young people working in the industry to shed more light on their lives and experiences.
The majority of respondents surveyed were aged between 20 to 25, and also mainly LGBT+, something NUS said provides a valuable insight into the experiences of those workers who do not define as straight.
Other key findings show just over half of student sex workers – 55 per cent – consider themselves to have a specific learning disability, other disability, impairment, or long-term health condition.
While sex work in England and Wales is not illegal, there are a number of laws which criminalise activities around it. Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it is an offence to cause or incite ‘prostitution’ or control it for personal gain.
When asked about what legal changes they would support, the vast majority of respondents – at 75 per cent – said they would support the decriminalisation of sex work, followed by legalisation (27 per cent), and criminalisation of clients paying for sex (18 per cent).
In 2014, NUS passed a motion to support decriminalisation of sex work so that workers could have access to full labour rights, including the right to unionise. NUS has said it believes the decriminalisation of sex work would provide a “range of protections” against labour exploitation, discrimination, and violence.
One of the more worrying findings is that almost half of respondents say they would feel “very uncomfortable” going to the police if they had experienced property theft, violence, or sexual violence at the hands of clients or management.
Susuana Amoah, NUS women’s officer, described how students working in the industry is often treated as “a hot topic,” yet the dialogue of what workers want and need is “overshadowed by sex work abolitionists” and “does not centre on the voices of current or former sex workers.”
One of the report’s recommendations urges students’ unions and universities to do more after less than 15 per cent thought their institution or students’ union was providing sufficient support.
The support students would like to see includes information on the industry to raise awareness about student sex workers in their institution, information on student sex workers’ rights, details about campaigns and activism around rights, and advice on how to reduce stigma.
Amoah continued: “We believe it’s important the support offered to student sex workers is based on what they identify as their requirements. A clear majority of student sex workers want sex work to be decriminalised, and more support from their students’ unions. Therefore, this is what NUS also supports.”
The report has come in the same month an academic from Swansea University revealed the findings of a similar three-year long studywhich found one in 20 UK students have worked in the sex industry to fund their studies.
Criminologist, Professor Tracey Sagar, said: “With increased calls for decriminalisation, the industry is receiving growing attention. Our research aims to promote dialogue, challenge stereotypes, and raise safety awareness around students and sex work.”
Echoing the warnings from NUS and Amoah, the professor said it must be kept in mind that not all students engaged in the industry are, or feel, safe. She added: “It is vital universities arm themselves with knowledge to better understand student sex work issues, and that university services are able to support students where it’s needed.”