Students are increasingly turning to prostitution to fund their studies – or are they?

UPDATE (Feb 29 2012): The Telegraph reports on research that suggests “one in ten students know someone who works in sex trade”. The actual research is somewhat more specific: “A tenth of trainee doctors now claim to know someone who is selling their body” [emphasis added]. This was also at just one London university. Also note that this is second hand, and ‘knowledge’ of prostitution is likely to be passed on, so levels of awareness do not directly reflect incidence (knowledge of a single person’s prostitution could easily be shared by 32 other people, which is the “10%” referred to). Links to previous research are given in the BMJ Student piece (registration required) which the Telegraph has rewritten.


The BBC reported last November that the National Union of Students believe increasing numbers of students are turning to prostitution to fund their studies because of a lack of jobs and the rise in fees. The evidence appears anecdotal and parochial –but it is a story which has a powerful attraction for the media. (Witness the interest in Bristol PhD student Belle de Jour aka Dr Brooke Magnanti). So is it true or not?

The evidence in the BBC report for this appears to be:

  • An interview with an NUS official.
  • The English Collective of Prostitutes says that calls to its helpline from students had doubled.
  • The NUS says 20% of women working in lap dancing clubs are students (data source unknown).
  • A report from the University of Kingston found that the number of students at that university who knew someone who had worked in the sex industry to fund their studies had risen from 3% to 25% in ten years.

At the same time a story for the Brighton Evening Argus quoted an anonymous manager at an escort agency saying that student escorts are expected to go up – but, as Mandy Rice-Davies pointed out – they would say that wouldn’t they?

Interestingly, in the Brighton story and the others, the one organisation not quoted or who refused to be quoted are universities.

With all those caveats about the paucity of evidence, it is still a reasonable assumption that worsening economic conditions might mean that students turning to sex work. And if we think that isn’t a good thing then what are the authorities doing about it?

To find out I suggest we try to establish at individual universities:

  • Whether university / student union welfare departments keep details on the number of students who have approached them because they have become involved, or know a student involved, in sex work and if so what those figures are for the last three years.
  • As a follow-up, and regardless of whether they keep figures, we should ask the welfare departments if they have policies on dealing with students involved in sex work.
  • Finally, we could also send an anonymous query to the welfare department posing as a student thinking about getting involved in sex work for financial reasons and asking for advice.

We could also look around individual universities to see:

  • Whether student newspapers have carried any stories on this issue  – and get copies/links.
  • Whether the local paper has carried any stories on this – and get copies/links.
  • If any sex worker outreach organisations can comment on whether they’ve seen a rise in student numbers (though students are less likely to work on the streets as that tends to be used by women funding their addiction).
  • Whether local escort agencies advertising is targeting students.

Question: are we going to lump, say, lap dancing (legal) with prostitution (illegal) and escort work (a grey area)? I would suggest that we try to differentiate the different types of activities. I also think we shouldn’t forget male escort work and make sure we ask about that.

A student at the University of the West of England is asking these questions for the Bristol universities. Can anybody try other universities?

About Phil Chamberlain

Freelance investigative journalist and journalism lecturer at the University of the West of England.
This entry was posted in Data, Links and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Students are increasingly turning to prostitution to fund their studies – or are they?

  1. Pingback: Help investigate whether students are turning to prostitution to pay fees | Ones to Watch

Comments are closed.