Undergraduates have traditionally pulled pints or waited tables to pay their way through university, but a growing body of research suggests that a significant number are now turning to sex work to make ends meet.
The rise in fees which will see some students graduate with projected debts of up to £53,000 at the end of their course is being blamed for persuading young women and men to take up pole dancing, escort work or even prostitution. Experts say that university welfare officers are largely ignorant of the growing phenomenon and poorly equipped to deal with issues arising from young people’s involvement.
Research by Dr Ron Roberts, of the University of Kingston, published in 2010 suggested that one in four students know someone who had worked in the sex industry to fund their studies – up from three per cent in 1990. Dr Roberts found 16 per cent would consider working in the industry while more than one in 10 were open to the idea of being an escort.
Research by Teela Sanders and Kate Hardy, of the University of Leeds, found that a quarter of lap dancers had a degree whilst a third of the women they interviewed were using the job to fund new forms of training.
Much of the expansion over the decade was to do with the proliferation of lap dancing clubs. But the internet also threw up a new range of opportunities for anonymous sex work.
But although the idea of the middle-class sex worker has gained media currency – not least through the highly publicised exploits of Belle de Jour, otherwise known as Dr Brooke Magnanti, a 34-year-old research scientist – the reality can be very different.
In the Leeds study, women reported physical and verbal harassment from customers as they were forced to work in dangerous conditions.
Dr Tracey Sagar, of Swansea University, who is running a three-year project to provide advice and support to student sex workers in Wales, said the authorities were still waking up to the shift in student work patterns.
“Universities are not dealing with this issue. It is not on the radar of welfare or support organisations within education,” she said. The SponsorA Scholar.co.uk site appears to cater to those seeking the so-called “girlfriend” experience where sex can be accompanied by an emotional intimacy. Ms Sagar said that many sex sites flagged up a student’s educational status which was often desirable to potential clients.
SponsorAScholar.co.uk uses a variety of images of women and glowing testimonials claiming to come from satisfied customers which it is feared could attract young women struggling financially.
The website claims that most of the sponsors are “men between the ages of 28 and 50 who run their own successful business and want to have discreet adventures with a student whilst helping them fund their studies through a scholarship”. It even suggests the amount is tax deductible.
However, opponents say that the unequal power relationship between sex worker and client leaves particularly women open to sexual exploitation whilst safety groups have warned women against going off with people they do not know.