Epigram investigated the prevalence and perceptions of sex-related work among students in Bristol in an anonymous survey carried out last week.The survey of 140 self-selecting respondents found a small number of students did engage in this type of work and were primarily financially motivated.
Sex-related work included stripping, phone sex, pornography and prostitution. Predictably, the vast majority said that they had not engaged in any. However, the 6.5% of students who said that they did partake in some form of sex work highlights the existence of the issue.
The main motivation was overwhelmingly financial; only 29% of students who said they engaged in this type of work cited pleasure as the reason.
The survey also found that 4.3% of respondents had been in ‘sugar baby’ relationships – namely, a contractual arrangement with an older man or woman who pays for companionship, which may or may not include sex. Most students, however, did not consider non-sexual sugar baby relationships a form of prostitution.
An Epigram survey carried out in September found that less than 1% of respondents said that their maintenance grant covered their living costs and 76% said they had to work to help cover their cost of living. However, part-time work can be hard to find, is poorly paid and can take up long hours.
The University recommends working for no more than 15 hours a week in order to leave sufficient time for academic study. Sex-related work can be very lucrative over short periods of time. In March 2015, the Student Sex Work Project found that 4.8% of almost 7,000 student respondents had been involved in sex work in some capacity and that about one in five had considered working in the sex industry at some point.
Research carried out by the University of Leeds in 2010 elaborated on how ‘sex as a product is now sold alongside mainstream industries’ and found that ‘there is clearly a relationship developing between sex work, student financial survival strategies and debt.’
Mark Ames, the Director of Student Services for University of Bristol, told Epigram: ‘We are not currently aware of any particular issues relating to our students engaging in sex work. However, the University of Bristol has a variety of support services available to all students; those facing financial difficulties or any other issues can access non-judgemental support easily and confidentially. Relevant specialist services include our Student Funding Team, Students’ Health Service and Student Counselling Service.’
‘The findings of research, such as the Student Sex Work Project by the University of Swansea earlier this year, are generally used to raise the awareness and understanding of our staff supporting students, and help us clarify the balance between the support we can provide and that which is better provided by external, specialist agencies.
‘The university understands financial management is challenging for students, but there are many opportunities for students to work part-time within the university and we also provide advice about finding part time work elsewhere.’
‘I don’t think I will ever recover from what was essentially to me, paid rape with a happy hooker smile on my face.’
A motion to support student sex workers was passed in the June 2015 Student Council, which aimed to protect students from stigmatisation and provide more information and resources specifically to students who engage in this type of work.
Alice Phillips, co-author of the motion and last year’s SU Equality, Liberation and Access Officer, told Epigram: ‘I was inspired by other SUs who had passed policy on decriminalising sex work and reading the Student Sex Work Project report – which seemed to offer some really concrete ideas for how to improve things for student sex workers on campus.’The motion reflects both the real presence of this issue and highlights changing opinions among students, and perhaps society in general, about the idea of sex-related work.
Epigram’s survey found that perceptions were quite evenly divided: 36% of those surveyed thought the social stigma around student sex work is declining, while 34% thought it was not. However, a majority of students surveyed (51%) thought that it was acceptable for students to earn money through these means. Indeed, 46.4% of Epigram’s respondents have either engaged in or have considered engaging in some form of sex-related work.
The fact that nearly half of people asked have considered pursuing sex work demonstrates a growing perception that it is a legitimate means to earn money. A third-year Philosophy and Psychology student said that: ‘I think in general people are starting to think twice about making rash judgments about people who engage in sex work.’
Some respondents had much more negative reactions. One student said: ‘I was sold a lie. I can now see that what I did was because I live in a world where I have been told my worth depends on what men are prepared to pay. I have stopped now, but I don’t think I will ever recover from what was essentially to me, paid rape with a happy hooker smile on my face. Sex work is not work like any other job.’
Epigram spoke to a mature student at the University of Bristol who volunteered to share her experiences of working in the sex industry. For obvious reasons she wished not to use her real name, preferring to use the pseudonym Andromeda.
Andromeda said that she is involved in making pornography with her fiancé and that they are thinking of setting up a website where people could watch them through their webcam. She is also considering working as a professional dominatrix.
She told Epigram that her incentive for pursuing sex-related work is not financial: ‘For me money isn’t an issue, I have enough money, I enjoy watching porn and enjoy making it even more, it’s much more fun making it.’ On the other hand, Andromeda’s fiancé was more interested in making money from the work and monetising their website.
With regard to her opinion on the decriminalisation of prostitution, Andromeda said: ‘I think it should be completely legalised. All sex workers need a bodyguard and at the moment the law prevents this from happening, as they [the bodyguard] would be classed as a pimp. This is obviously more dangerous for sex workers.’ Indeed, Epigram’s survey found that more than half of respondents were unaware that the act of prostitution itself was legal and most agreed that it should be further decriminalised.
Epigram asked if Andromeda herself ever felt in danger from her sex work, she replied: ‘Obviously it can be dangerous, but I know how to look after myself, I’ve done martial arts and can defend myself. If I worked as a dominatrix, I would be the one in control; I wouldn’t even let them [the client] touch me. Of course I wouldn’t even be having sex with the clients.’
With regard to students pursuing sex work while studying, Jamie Cross, the current Equality, Liberation and Access officer of the Student Union, said: ‘My opinion on the matter closely aligns with the Student Council policy that was passed back in the summer; I voted for the motion at the time! I think everyone should have the right to do whatever labour/work they want to do with their time/bodies and I believe that sex work is real work, and a reality for students.
Sex work is referenced more and more in popular culture
‘Decriminalising sex work keeps student sex workers safer and with a greater range of opportunities. In regards to most of the actions from the policy, they have been acknowledged and will be acted on next term when I look at all the university’s guidance on a range of student situations. This is in the hope that we can create a Union hub of student approved/co-written guidance that will be made available for all, including tutors and other staff with pastoral duties.’
Nowadays sex work is referenced more and more in popular culture. Anne Hathaway’s character in the film Valentine’s Day is seen performing phone sex work. And closer to home, Belle de Jour’s blog ‘The Diary of a London Call Girl’ spawned a best-selling book and a successful TV series. At the time, when her identity was revealed, Dr Brooke Magnanti, the real life Belle, was working as a researcher at the University of Bristol. The glamorous life of a high-end escort showed a woman choosing and enjoying sex work.
These representations have, to a certain extent, normalised sex work. However these media portrayals have a tendency to glamorise sex work and may not accurately reflect the difficulties faced by sex workers operating within complex laws, which in many ways make their work more dangerous.
Do you think sex work is a legitimate way for a student to make money? Let us know on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments below.