What do you do when money gets tight during your time at uni? Whether you’re trying to help pay for your tuition, or supplement a stupidly low maintenance loan—which, by the way, often falls £267 a month short of average living costs—most of us are out there trying to get cash any way we can. Some work in the student office or local bars; some go into sex work. In fact, according to a recent survey from popular money advice site Save the Student, 4% of undergrads—that’s 1 in every 25 students— undertake a type of sex work to make ends meet.
What kind of adult jobs do students turn to?
It’s not always just about having sex for money. In many cases, the options vary from sugar dating and selling used underwear, to selling nude photos on Snapchat or working as a fetish model. One student, who told her story under the pseudonym Abbey, wrote that while studying Fashion Design in Manchester, she got into sex work during her first year. Writing of her circumstances, Abbey explained:
My student loan came in and I still couldn’t cover my rent, credit card and overdraft (I don’t receive financial support from my parents). I desperately needed the money and was just about to start my exams so didn’t have time for a ‘proper’ job.
I sold photos/videos online as this was the easiest way I found of making money quickly. I also offered live chat and webcam chat services. I found the whole thing more and more draining and degrading but carried on as I needed the money. It was a vicious cycle.
And though Abbey’s story is more common than you might think, not all students share her feelings on the experience. Selina, for example, turned to sex work during her first year as a student in Yorkshire, and is now pursuing sex work as a primary income as opposed to her genetics degree. Although she started off selling pictures of her feet to foot fetishists on Craigslist, she soon turned to dominatrix work via Twitter, and later, to sex for pay. Now, two years in, she says:
There are jobs available in Genetics but they’re very competitive. Working 9-5 for a low wage, when I could earn a lot more in a lot less time doing work I enjoy, seemed like a no-brainer. This summer, I went on a paid holiday in Greece, getting £100 a day for 8 days, which isn’t too bad considering I spent most of my time in nice restaurants or by the pool! I typically earn around £300 a week for adult work.
Why do students choose sex work?
As you’ve probably guessed from Selina and Abbey’s experiences, it’s as simple as the fact that student living costs outweigh their income. Selina summarizes her history by explaining that:
It started because I needed the money. I get the minimum Maintenance Loan because of my dad’s income from running his own company. The government expects him to make up the difference, but he has other priorities so is only willing to give me about half of that. If I’d taken a normal part time job (retail or bar work), I would have had to work such long hours that it definitely would have affected my grades, so I decided sex work would allow me to pay the bills while focusing on uni.
And that’s pretty much the case for every other student, too. So, for those who might ask why students don’t choose a ‘proper job’ instead, it’s important to remember that, as Abbey and Selina both reference, ‘proper’ jobs like part-time work in a bar bring their own set of problems which are uniquely distressing to students. Working during uni introduces new anxieties like long hours, insufficient time for studying, and the constant fear of making ends meet. All of these can be deadly for students’ mental and physical health—and that’s without undertaking sex work.
However, as psychotherapist Hannah Morish observes, sex work presents its own challenges to a student’s mental health:
Adult work can feel isolating because of the stigma attached to it, meaning that if the student has a negative or dangerous experience, they might feel unable to talk about it, leading to a deeper sense of loneliness. Over time, recurring experiences like this can lead to emotional and mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Universities and student unions need to review whether they have advice and safe spaces on campus or online to support students who are considering or actively involved in this kind of work.
So, if you’ve come to the end of this article and you’re asking what the take-away should be, I would submit that it is simply this: whatever your feelings on sex work may be, it is more important to criminalize a system that fails to address student poverty than to vilify young girls who are simply trying to survive. Although Abbey and Selina were impacted differently by their choices, they both got involved in sex work for the same reasons: survival and fear of under-performing in their degrees. Literally forced to choose between eating and pursuing an education, both of these girls—and many others like them— made the choice to pursue a new and scary form of part-time work rather than risk their grades by opting for a more conventional job.
So, is the rise in students turning to sex work concerning? Absolutely. But I’m more concerned about the rise of student poverty and the increasing population of universities who are doing nothing to support their students through that hardship, whether they’re turning to sex work or not. No matter how our students are seeking employment, it’s important that we remember to prioritize their health, well-being, and pursuit of an education ahead of anything else.