The rise in tuition fees, soaring living costs and government cuts to maintenance grants are all reportedly forcing more and more young women to turn to prostitution and other forms of sex work. So says the particularly formidable double act of the National Union of Students and the English Collective of Prostitutes. So I guess it must be true?
Wrong. I am afraid I have to disappoint but these headlines, with their sly mix of prurience and moral outrage, are not in the least bit new. The vast majority of students, those who cannot rely on the Bank of Mum and Dad, have always had to come up with ingenious ways of making ends meet.
Intelligent girls in their teens and early twenties have never been averse to using their patent attractions to part gullible men from their money. It is, of course, the oldest profession in the world. Yet even with waitressing jobs fairly thin on the ground, can selling your body really be such an easy option to wipe out the overdraft or pay off that student loan ahead of time?
According to NUS Women’s Officer, Estelle Hart, an increasing number of students are taking more dangerous measures: ‘In an economic climate where there are very few jobs, people are taking more work in the informal economy, such as sex work.’
Sarah Walker of the Prostitutes’ Collective told the same BBC Radio 5 Live programme that the group’s helpline had received an unprecedented, but infuriatingly unspecified, number of calls from students since the announcement that universities could charge tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year from 2012.
Doctor Ron Roberts from Kingston University said their own recent studies showed that the number of students who knew someone who has worked in the sex industry to fund their studies had gone up from three per cent to 25 per cent. He also said 11 per cent would consider escort work and called the statistics: ‘worrying’.
Eleven per cent? Is that all? I am pretty sure that working as an escort, ostensibly all above board, for apparently easy money, has crossed plenty more bright young female minds. Escort work would seem to be the most palatable end of a spectrum which presumably includes pole or lap dancing, stripping and goes through to full-blown intercourse in exchange for money.
Nevertheless, ‘Oxbridge Escorts’, a ‘strictly no sex’ agency set up a few years ago by Balliol classics student Nick Dekker was soon under fire on student message boards for being overtly sleazy. The enterprise was swiftly rebranded as ‘Take Me to Dinner’.
There was a strictly enforced ban against taking on jobs during term time when I was a university student in the 1980s. Nevertheless, many of my bolder friends chose to defy the authorities, usually by working a few shifts as a waitress in Brown’s Restaurant, where the only qualification needed was to look good in an absurdly short mini-skirt.
Back then, I wasn’t aware of any of my own peers capitalising on their assets in any more direct way. However, scores of cannier girls made sure they bagged a boyfriend who they knew could well afford to take them out for nice dinners and, ideally, had a car to boot. As most women realise, it is more or less the same form of exchange. Whether men realise this too is still a moot point.
I am still in close touch with several dozen young women from my old college where I helped out for a while as rowing coach, careers mentor, general sounding board and friend. In the best traditions of popular journalism, I carried out a quick straw poll which revealed that the furthest any of these girls had been prepared to go was to stoop to silver service waitressing at the local stately home.
Curiously, though, almost all of them had certainly heard of, or even knew of one or even a couple of fellow students who had indeed, worked as an escort, or funded their studies with the occasional pole dance. So nobody owned up to turning to sex work themselves, yet the anecdotal evidence that some students definitely do turns out to be overwhelming. Funny that, isn’t it?