When 21-year-old Trisha* gave up her career as a sex worker, she thought she could live happily ever after. But when she started a new job in retail, she realised her final wage was just a fraction of what she used to make as a sex worker. She didn’t get to choose her hours, she sometimes had to work at weekends and, on top of everything, she was massively struggling to pay her bills at the end of the month.
Trisha started to feel down, and, within a couple of months, her financial problems mirrored her mental state. She was depressed and anxious. Used to a life where she was making roughly between £5,000 and £6,000 per month – where she could afford designer bags, hair extensions and daily meals in the finest restaurants – she found her new (poorer) life very difficult.
For many students and young professionals, money is tight. With annual tuition fees in excess of £9,000 and maintenance loans often falling short, is it any wonder that more and more students are going into prostitution?
In 2015, a survey by the Student Sex Work Project, led by academics from Swansea University, revealed that five per cent of the students were engaged in sex work.
It also disclosed that one in five university students consider becoming a sex worker to make money, and male students are more likely to have engaged in a commercial sexual activity compared to female students.
Since this report, universities are now required to provide support to student sex workers. But, in September, the Sex Work Outreach Project caused outrage when they set up a stand at the University of Brighton’s Freshers’ week, offering students advice and support if they engage in the sex industry.
The university itself was accused by The Sunday Times of “encouraging its students into prostitution” when they were – arguably – just trying to ease the situation that is already happening, and protect students from stigmatisation.
Josephine Knowles, co-director of Beyond the Streets project, says that this industry is hugely dangerous and even if it is the sex worker’s choice and they don’t want to get out of the industry, organisations like this at least try to help them stay safe and protect themselves. “The chances of getting robbed or murdered are statistically way higher when doing this kind of job. We try to help everyone even if they decide to stay in the industry. The main thing is to stay safe,” explains Knowles.
Even though the students involved in sex work continue to pursue their studies and believe that once they graduate, this chapter of their lives will be over, for many, they end up making much less money. This is when (for some) sex work can become an unbreakable cycle.
“When I decided to get out of the industry I had to think a lot more about what I spent my money on,” says Trisha. “I couldn’t afford anything extra for myself, I wasn’t living, I was just surviving.”
One of the main aspects you have to consider as a sex worker is the risk of exposure. Trisha says that particular types of work where you are exposed online, such as porn, camming or nude shooting, are generally not worth the money for her. “You don’t make as much doing porn as you make by providing escort services and no one ever needs to know that you have done it.”
24-year-old university student Chloe* agrees. She worked as a cam girl for over two months and made roughly £6,000 by just sitting behind a computer. However, even though she hasn’t done any camming for almost a year – and has since found another job – she sometimes considers going back to it.
“It was degrading,” she says. “The things that people would say to me made me very uncomfortable. I met people with fetishes I didn’t even know existed. But at the end of the day, it’s just money. I want to travel and live a life where I don’t have to worry about my finance, but I’m just too scared that a future employer might find out and not hire me, even though what I did was completely legal.”
Trisha says it makes her who she is now. “I was never really worried if anyone found out about my past. When I worked in retail for a year, sometimes I felt like people recognized me from porn, but I didn’t really care about that. I don’t regret any of my life decisions, because they got me to where I am now.”
Knowles explains that finding a job after getting out of sex work might be hard, but she wouldn’t describe the cycle as unbreakable. “The biggest problem is probably what to write into your CV after doing nothing but sex work for years,” she says.
She thinks that even though it is possible to get out of sex work and lead a normal life, it’s hard to keep the identities separate. “It can be a source of anxiety for many to fear that they will at some point see someone from their old job. We do a lot of coaching to prepare them for what to say and how to behave when this happens. We encourage them to be brave and use sentences such as ‘I moved on and this life phase is behind me, I’m in a new space’.”
*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
- Michaela Bergerova studies Journalism at the University of Sheffield. She was born in the Czech Republic, but moved to the UK two years ago to pursue her studies.