Thousands of students are sex workers – universities need to do more to protect them
‘It’s important all universities have a sex work policy to prevent students from experiencing discrimination or prejudice’
TW: Sexual assault
As a student you’re always on the lookout for a way to make a bit more money. Thanks to extortionate tuition fees and high rent costs, for some it can be a struggle just to get through the week, let alone being able to buy yourself a drink on a night out. Some students work at the supermarket, others create Depop shops selling Y2K clothing to TikTokers and increasingly many students are turning to sex work to fund their education and living costs.
A survey by Save The Student found three percent of students have done sex work. A further nine per cent said they would turn to sex work in a financial emergency. But sex work expert Jessica Hyer Griffin suggests this nine per cent figure is actually closer to the real total of student sex workers “as a result of the catastrophic effect of the pandemic on peoples’ financial positions,” Jessica told The Tab.
If these estimates are correct this would put the number of students in the UK working in the sex industry at around 214,200 people. Yet only a very small percentage of universities are actively making changes to protect their students. Jessica says her through her role as a researcher at University of Leicester she’s found very few universities have a sex work policy in place. The University of Leicester, Newcastle University, Manchester University all offer advice and safeguarding resources to their students who are sex workers. But they are the minority.
The pandemic increased the number of those working in the industry with many people, students included, turning to sites like OnlyFans after losing their jobs. Lucy was one of those. She told The Tab she joined OnlyFans during the first lockdown after losing her bar job: “Both me and my mum lost our jobs at the start of the pandemic, so I had to start finding ways to support her and my little brother, as well as pay for uni living expenses. I chose sex work because I’ve always enjoyed sex and there really wasn’t much else on the table that’s flexible around my uni schedule.”
But sex work isn’t new to students – it’s always existed. Over the years escorting has been a popular choice for students as a way to make money on the side of their studies. And now OnlyFans is the third most common choice for student sex workers. Occasionally students will even drop out of uni to continue their careers on OnlyFans. However the pandemic has created a greater visibility for sex workers and their rights. Only a few weeks ago a number of medical students urged the British Medical Association to not penalise them for engaging in sex work to fund their education. And just this week one student at a Scottish university described a sexual assault she faced as a sex worker after taking up the role trying to make ends meet whilst studying. Alice told the Daily Record she signed up to an agency which said their clients liked students and at the start things “seemed good”. However Alice was sexually assault by one of the clients and then told by other female sex workers they had all experienced it and she was lucky, she said: “The other girls said I’d been lucky, it was only a matter of time, it happens to us all and we get over it.”
It is astonishing that in 2021 students are still having to beg their universities for protection. Despite being paid thousands every year by their students, many do little to protect or safeguard their students who engage in sex work. Many of whom are driven to sex work as a result of struggling with their finances so they can attend the university. A 2015 survey by Swansea University found 57 per cent of student sex workers joined the industry in order to fund their higher education and yet in those six years little has changed in universities’ attitudes or policies.
Last year the University of Leicester produced a landmark resource aimed to provide guidance to students engaging in sex work. The safety resources include details for university staff on how to talk with students who disclose information about their sex work and signposting of further sources of information. For students there is a guide on the legalities of sex work and tips for students to keep themselves safe if they are engaging in sex work.
When it was first released it was met with criticism and judgement from many mainstream news outlets and individuals for “promoting sex work”. Sex work will always happen, the difference for the students of Leicester is that they now know they are in a safe space and can reach out for someone to talk to if needed – a right the majority of student sex workers do not have.
A number of other universities across the UK have begun adopting policies. However they are currently in the minority, something Support For Student Sex Workers’ founder Jessica Hyer Griffin wants to change.
“It’s important all universities have a sex work policy to prevent students from experiencing discrimination or prejudice. It would mean that everyone had to follow a moral code and that personal prejudice or lack of understanding regarding the law wouldn’t affect sex workers who disclose,” Jessica told The Tab.
Jessica began Support For Student Sex Workers in 2019 and the organisation is there for all sex workers, students or not. They provide mental health sessions, wellbeing activities, CV checks, career and academic advice and assistance with sexual assault reports. As the lead in the team, Jessica puts her all into the organisation – replying to emails seven days a week, accompanying people to doctor’s appointments and providing untimed mental health sessions. With students in particular she will help with their mitigating circumstances to ensure “their studies aren’t affected by the issues they face.” In short she is 100 per cent there for anyone in need of the organisation’s aid.
Jessica is aware of how beneficial this can be. She began working in the sex industry during her time at university and enjoyed it at first. However when she tried to get out and find therapy she was discharged from a rape recovery centre for her involvement in sex work. Many years later she finally found a team of mental health specialists who have massively helped her.
However the mistreatment she initially received inspired her to ensure no one else would have to go through that experience, “when I got the support I deserved after being on waiting lists for years, I realised that it is impossible to get better without support systems in place and I wanted to ensure that there was somewhere for people in similar situations to me to go so they would not be ignored the way I had felt ignored. I trained to become a mental health support worker and wanted to make sure that no one else in my position ever had to feel alone,” she said.
Since setting up Support For Student Sex Workers Jessica has worked with the University of Leicester to create the safety resource published last year. She and her colleague Gaynor Trueman have now trained 600 university staff members across the country on how to respond to sex work disclosures, sex work laws and statistics and confidentiality.
And now Support For Student Sex Workers want every university to have a student sex worker policy. Jessica said: “I would like to train more staff at more universities about how to handle disclosures relating to sex work. With the number of students in sex work rising, the need for support is rising alongside this.”
Sex work isn’t going away for students – universities need to step up and keep their students safe.
Support for Student Sex Workers offers a confidential service to all sex workers and anyone who identifies with the sex work community. Please visit www.supportforstudentsexworkers.org for more information or contact [email protected] for urgent queries and we will get back to you within the day.