Swansea University has been provided with almost £500,000 of lottery funding to investigate concerns that students in Wales are turning to the sex industry to pay for their education.

The project will run for three years with the aim to provide advice and support to student sex-workers in Wales.

The ‘Interactive Health: Student Sex Workers’ project will be led by Dr Tracey Sagar and Debbie Jones from Swansea University’s Centre for Criminal Justice and Criminology.

Dr Tracey Sagar, who is the Principal Investigator and specialises in the regulation of sex work, said, ‘We are absolutely delighted to receive this award [£489,000] from the Big Lottery Fund, which recognises that it is very difficult to develop and implement this kind of innovative work in the current economic climate.’

The project team hopes that the award will help them undertake multi-agency research which will reveal the motivations and needs of student sex workers for the first time. They will also provide the first cross sector e-health sexual health service in Wales and will develop best practice guidance for Welsh Universities and local services.

Dr Sagar said, ‘The expertise on this project is vast and we will draw on this by working with student sex workers and our partner organisations who are experts in sexual health, peer mentoring, volunteering, student engagement, support and creative dissemination, to provide a peer mentoring service.

‘We will launch a multi-media awareness raising campaign which will include a thirty minute social action drama on student sex work in Wales.’

Stephanie Lloyd, Women’s Officer for NUS Wales, discussed the steady rise in students turning to sex work as a new form of income and the main aim of the project.

‘The English Collective of Prostitutes states that the number of calls they receive from students has doubled in the past 5 years, and it has become an area of real debate and worry amongst our membership of recent years,’ she said.

‘There is no formal evidence to explain why this rise is happening- you could assume that an increase in living costs, the rise of youth unemployment, and the slashing of financial support funds are all contributing factors. You also have to consider that whilst all of these rises in living have been occurring, the money a student can borrow is still largely the same.

‘There is also a need to look at other modes of study. Postgraduates will not receive loans or grants from the government, and many studying part-time also get a very limited form of student support. This project is so exciting, as for the first time we can perform extensive research into all of these issues.’

This is not the first time the issue has been brought to the attention of the media. In 2010 a series of articles were published by the BBC to highlight a rising concern that students were turning to the sex industry to pay for their university fees.

Big Lottery Fund Wales Committee Member and Chair of the BIG Innovation Committee, Graham Benfield, said, ‘This is an exciting and much needed project and we recognise the importance of investing in evidence based project work which stands to make a real difference to the lives of student sex workers in Wales.’

The cost of living expenses is suggested as a possible reason for the pressure on students to find alternative methods of earning.

A female student who wished to remain anonymous described a message she received from an escort agency based in Swansea after signing up to a website in search of part-time work. She spoke to The Siren about her reaction after reading the content of the email.

‘There was definitely a part of me that was tempted to [apply to work as an escort] because of the financial aspects, but whether or not I’d have the balls to do it is a different story. Also the idea of working as an escort in Swansea doesn’t sound as glamorous as being a high-end escort in central London or somewhere similar.’

When asked to consider the dangers of working in the sex industry, the student admitted that she was unsure about how safe she would be if she chose to work as an escort.

‘I’d assume, perhaps naively, that if I was doing it through an organised agency then worrying about safety wouldn’t be as much of a problem,’ she said.

The student also believed that the media played a large role in glamorising the sex industry and pressurising women until they felt insecure about their body image.

‘The media definitely plays its part in making women feel paranoid about the way they look and how they’re expected to behave. The programme [Secret Diary of a Call Girl] portrays escorts as glamorous, rich and beautiful. In the show being an escort looks like an easy career choice and the lead character is portrayed as being happy and confident. It’s like the ideal lifestyle without the aggro and the need to work hard at school or university. And obviously it never suggests that there was a risky side to the job.’

Another student who did not wish to be named spoke with The Siren about his experience of ‘hiring’ an ex-student for a friend’s birthday.

‘Me and the boys hired a stripper through a website for a Swansea-based agency for £110. She arrived outside the flat in her car and was quite pleasant and chatty.

‘It turned out that she actually used to be a student at Swansea and had even lived in the Village at one point. She had a degree in something quite prestigious- possibly Latin. We bumped into her in Revs [Revolutions] a few weeks later with her boyfriend.’

The media’s glamorisation of prostitution is frequently labelled as irresponsible and misleading. ‘Pretty Woman’ syndrome – when girls and women view commercial sexual exploitation as aspirational in order to attain a fairy-tale lifestyle – is named by many as a by-product of the media’s portrayal of the sex industry- which rarely focus on the dangerous and debilitating realities of prostitution.

Programmes such as Secret Diary of a Call Girl are labelled as misleading when it comes to their portrayal of the sex industry.

Speaking to a police officer about the subject, it was made clear that the legalities and dangers of working in the sex industry, particularly in prostitution, are not to be taken lightly.

‘It is illegal in the UK to sell sex if the person has been forced into the trade. It is also illegal to keep a “disorderly house”. We deal with a lot of issues in regards to kerb crawling and solicitation- the latter of which involves placing advertisements for sex in public.

‘In regards to advice to students who have ever considered work in the sex industry: just don’t do it. There is no regulation whatsoever, so there can be no protection of your personal safety and well-being. If young men and women are selling sex they are not only risking their sexual health- they are risking their lives. They do not know if the person they are meeting is violent, clean, or about any intentions they may have. The person selling sex may have limitations, but the “customer” paying will not necessarily respect those boundaries.

‘You only have to look at known serial killers to see the danger. Murderers target women selling sex (normally as a first victim) because these women are alone and vulnerable, and a disappearance can go unnoticed for a long period of time.’

Facts and statistics

More than half of UK women in prostitution have been raped and/or seriously sexually assaulted, while at least three quarters have been physically assaulted (Home office, 2004). 68% meet the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, in the same range as torture victims and combat veterans undergoing treatment (Ramsey et al 1993). A global study of prostitution found that 9 out of 10 women in prostitution would like to exit prostitution but not feel it is safe to do so (Farley, 2003).

It is estimated that around 80,000 women are in prostitution in the UK. Up to 70% of women in prostitution spent time in care, 45% report sexual abuse and 85% physical abuse within their families (Home Office, 2006). More than half of UK women in prostitution have been raped and/or seriously sexually assaulted.

At least three-quarters have been physically assaulted (Home Office, 2004a). Up to 95% of prostituted women are problematic drug users, including around 78% heroin users and rising numbers of crack cocaine addicts (Home Office, 2004b). 68% of women in prostitution meet the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the same range as victims of torture and combat veterans undergoing treatment (Ramsay et al). 75% of women involved in prostitution began when they were under 18. 74% of women cite poverty/the need to pay household expenses and support their children as a primary motivator for entering prostitution.

(Information sourced from Eaves)

If you have any concerns or wish to talk to someone about any of the issues mentioned in this article, you can contact the Women’s Officer at: womensofficer@swansea-union.co.uk. The Students’ Union Advice Centre offers counselling to students. Alternatively you can contact the International Prostitutes Collective on: 00-44-20-7482 2496.