Adjusting her skirt, Alice steps out of the house onto the dimly lit street as the sun begins to rise in the distance. She checks the street in both directions, ensuring that no one she knows is approaching to catch her out, she heads towards the route that will take her home as other girls wander past in their now dishevelled clubbing clothes, staggering to comfort from beds they only occupied for one night. When she gets back, Alice grabs her backpack, changes quickly, and heads out the door to her lecture hall, but not before she stashes a wad of cash she earned tonight. Because Alice hasn't been out clubbing with her mates, she's been having sex for money to fund the ever-rising costs of being a student. And she's not the only one.
Each year the cost of living as a student goes up, with rent rates being hiked by landlords hoping to scratch a living and the fear of overdraft fees, not to mention the prospect of up to £53,000 of debt looming once you leave University, it's not surprising that an ever increasing number of students are turning to sex work as a way to make money quickly - cash in hand that will fit around a busy schedule of studying and socialising.
Dr Ron Roberts, author of the first study aimed at measuring the extent of the situation said, "While there may always have been some incidental student presence in the industry... there can be little doubt that the growing impoverishment of the student population has [coincided] with a growth in the number of student sex workers." It is clear from the testimonials that money is a serious motivating factor in these students' decisions to become involved in sex work. "I wish the pay was anything like the high class escorts you read about in the media. Far from it. I work enough to afford to pay for my course, rent and to live. My life is anything but extravagant. Of course there are perks. It's cash in hand, I can easily work extra hours if I need too, no intense interviews, no sign of recession and there isn't a shortage of men wanting your service!" writes Sammy on the Student Sex Work Project.
The work that these students are doing isn't simply prostitution, with many turning to stripping on webcam services and working as lap dancers and strippers. The numbers are shocking, with the NUS estimating that 20% of women working in lap dancing clubs are students, and a study by the Universities of Kingston and Leeds finding that as many as 6% of students are working in sex work industries, with one in four students personally knowing another student sex worker, and 16% considering it as a real possibility in the future if they needed money to survive. With the advent of websites like SeekingArrangement and SponsorAScholar, a site which turned out to be a voyeuristic front for a sexual assault trafficking scam, it has become increasingly easy for cash strapped students to find themselves connected with richer clients willing to take advantage of their difficult situation, with claims offered that students could earn up to £15,000 per year.
Dee Gatt, a lap dancer from Roehampton University attempting to fund her dance degree, told The Sun that she "couldn't afford not to" work as a lapdancer. "I can earn anything from £60 to £800 in a night... My rent is £380 per month and on top of that I have to pay for my dance kit and all my other expenses. I used to work as a waitress but that only paid £400 per month, so how could I afford to live without getting into debt?"
Although in recent years programmes such as Confessions of a Call Girl, based on Dr Brooke Magnati's work for a London escort service to fund her PhD, may demonstrate otherwise, it is evident that this kind of work is far from glamorous, and in fact can be incredibly dangerous for students, with the possibilities of STDs, violent punters and, not least, the social repercussions of being found out as a sex worker.
Kirsty Ann, a 21-year-old psychology student from Manchester University, tried to rationalise her actions, telling The Sun: "I switch off during the act, there's no pleasure for me. It has turned me off sex, and I haven't had a boyfriend since I started doing this. I know several students who work as escorts. I can make £800 a week, at least. Is what I am doing so bad? A lot of my student friends meet a guy in a club and sleep with them that night and never see them again - at least I get paid for it." Although many of the girls felt they enjoyed their work, it was constantly reiterated by their accounts that they would not be choosing this route were they able to find adequate financial support.
A number of the girls stated that they felt their decision to become a sex worker was not something to be ashamed of, but something they wished they could be more frank with their friends and family about. "I don't like referring to myself as a prostitute but I guess that's what I am. I'm also a student. However, if I told you I was also a prostitute I'm sure the respect I've spent so long earning from friends and people around me would drop" said Sammy, with Kirsty-Ann adding "If my parents knew what I was doing to earn money, they would be horrified. They are all so proud of me, and to hear the truth would break their hearts. I prefer to say escort rather than prostitute, because somehow it doesn't sound so bad. But there is no getting away from the fact that men pay me for sex."
As a direct result of the rising number of student sex workers, and the myriad of problems that they face, the Student Sex Work Project has been founded at Swansea University. The SSWP's work has involved giving talks to students at a number of universities, running a conference to encourage research into the area and launching a website designed to offer information, advice and a safe space to talk for those students who find themselves involved in the sex industry in Wales, and the rest of the country.
The main aims of the project are to promote better understanding about the issues that student sex workers face, and to provide a space where those students can discuss their work free from judgement. The SSWP project hopes that one day the subject of student sex work will be less of a taboo, allowing those in the industry an opportunity to be open with their peers about their work and find the support that they need.