Students, Sex Work and Stigma in Bournemouth

In March 2015, Swansea University conducted an intensive study into students in the United Kingdom (UK) getting into sex work. “The Student Sex Work Project” revealed that a staggering one in 20 students across the country, opted to join the sex industry, 56% of whom did so to support daily living expenditures, while 40% of them joined the occupation in the hope to reduce student loan debts by the end of their course.

“Sex Work” – as Dr. Tracey Sagar and her colleagues spearheading the project see it – was used as an umbrella term to include both direct (prostitution) and indirect (call/webcam services, stripping, erotic dancing or pornography) sex related commercial services.

The study has left a horde of questions and concerns surrounding the occupational choice of students. The growing market for sex work in the UK, has Universities concerned over how they can support students further, to reduce financial stress and provide mental health assistance to those in the industry. And of course, the long term medical and health concerns come as a part and parcel of this conversation as well. None-the-less, none of these concerns have seen impressionable answers (or even discussions), since the study has been out. Despite widely published and convincing statistical evidence to decriminalise prostitution, Northern Ireland still sees commercial sexual encounters as offensive while Scotland, Wales and England see advertising for sex as illegal, though independent sex work in itself, isn’t a crime in these regions.

“But no one speaks about the stigma,” Tania*, 27, and a former student of Bournemouth University (BU), shoots back at me, when I tell her that her choice of work – stripping – is not necessarily recognised as illegal after all. Eight years since the legalisation in the UK criminalised forced commercial sex work and took anti-trafficking and abuse measures, student sex workers continue to lead a life of secrets, in the fear of being persecuted by the police and the society, despite having the legal right to individually   pursue their job. I speak to two individuals, one a current student and the other a former student of BU, who joined the sex industry for different, but for valid purposes of personal choice, as they tell me about what it is like to make these occupational decisions.

An Occupation of Choice

“I joined the job, because it paid me much better than waitressing at some low key restaurant in Bournemouth,” says Kate*, who will soon be turning 21. Coming from a relatively stable economic background, Kate barely had any trouble borrowing from the government to pursue her undergraduate studies in BU. Her parents even supported her financially through the first semester of her course. “But I didn’t want to be dependent on them for too long. My parents already had to take care of my younger brother’s expenditures, and besides, I was old enough to start working,” she says.

“The Student Sex Work Project” reveals that 2/3rd of the students they had spoken to, had gotten into sex work to support “a particular kind of lifestyle.” By the time Kate was 19 and in her second year of University, she had already paid her accommodation rent for the entire year, was passing all her exams and was earning anywhere close to £300 to £400 a week – much higher than most student part-timers earn in a small town like Bournemouth.

Three times a week, Kate travelled to South of London to work at a “sexline,” as she called it – a call centre for phone sex. Almost as if this was by luck, she barely had any trouble finding the job, that not only concealed her identity as a sex worker, but also ensured that she was paid her due for work. “While browsing online for jobs in the industry, I came across the sexline and decided to apply immediately,” she finishes off vaguely. The process was easy. Customers would pay online, and get connected to the call – the evening began and ended in a virtual reality of faking pleasure.

But by the time fourth semester was ending, Kate was already in depression. “I was having nightmares of being found out, of being hated by my friends and parents,” she confesses. “At the moment, students feel so stigmatised and judged that they are afraid or at least very reluctant to disclose their occupations to staff and services at universities that could help them. Stereotyping is also a problem,” The Guardian  quotes Dr. Sagar saying.Kate only goes on to reaffirm this, as she speaks to me.She could barely muster courage to seek help with the Student Support Centre at BU, and instead self-prescribed herself to a regular dose of Prozac, which she acquired from a friend. Worried that counsellors would give away her ‘secret’ occupation, Kate never really could convince herself to speak to a professional. “I even filled in the form for an appointment, but never sent it through,” she confides.

A Forced Occupation of Choice:

In 2009, the Policing and Crime Act  decriminalised independent prostitution. This along with the Sexual Offences Act 2003, made trafficking and abuse of prostitutes a criminal violation of law. People like Tania, who were active prostitutes at that time, welcomed the legislation. She and her friends, could finally choose and dictate the kind of customers they were entertaining, without having to fear violence or persecution from either their clients, managers or the police.

Then 21, new to Bournemouth and with no money on her, she had to find a job to sustain herself and her education. Like many students coming in from Asia, Tania too found it difficult to get a “job of respect,” she tells me, in her still un-polished English. In 2008, Tania had decided to move to the UK, and hopefully avail a part-time job that could help her sustain herself. Student tuition fee back then was £6000 annually. Today it is £9000, a year.

Like many from Asia, the money the bank statements showed to support her visa to the country, was merely borrowed for a short period of time. “I was broke in two weeks and was rejected from every restaurant or store due to my appearance or accent,” she says. Tania soon made acquaintance with drug and sex dealers in the town, leading to her decision of getting into prostitution.

Most Asian countries saw ‘sex’ as a term of taboo, and getting into the industry as a prostitute, definitely took a mental toll on Tania. But what was worse, were her customers. Not giving away the location of work in her initial days, she tells me – “But they were bad.” The encounters would often involve violence, and there was no way to say if the sex would be safe. “But I had to do it. I had to survive. I couldn’t go back! My parents had spent too much already,” she narrates. Soon, she also realised, that the changed sex work laws in 2009, did little to support those like her. She was continuously discouraged by her colleagues to report any form of abuse.

The following year however, the word had spread and Tania was kicked out of her apartment. She didn’t know where to go now. She had the money, but she didn’t have the acceptance. “And I was not willing to confide in any of my classmates. It wasn’t even an option!” she continues. “And so I left University.”

Eight years later, Tania now has a house in Bournemouth and is a full-time stripper at Southampton. She gave up on prostitution, soon after quitting her course mid-2010, but she couldn’t quit the industry. “I would have faced disgust anywhere I went searching for jobs. People from all fields and industries (in and around Bournemouth), already recognised me by now. What was the point? I decided to stay here.” Tania also supports her family back in Asia today, thanks to the more-than-comfortable money she makes from her job as a stripper. They think their daughter is a reporter at the local newspaper.

What it is today

And though the UK government has decriminalised independent sex work, it has not been able to do much in weakening the stigma and inherent negativity attached to the job. Echoing these thoughts are Tania, who believes that five years ago, she wouldn’t have thought twice, before leaving her job. Today though, she happily accepts her work style and is unabashed about it. “We do have counselling, an advice centre and the Chaplaincy for mental health support,” says the current Student Union President at BU, Chloe-Schendel Wilson. But for students like Kate, who struggle with depression, despite having given up working as a sex worker, the attention needed from Universities, has to become more accessible and devoid of the fear of being ‘revealed.’ In the findings from the study it was seen that almost 41% of the students still expressed the need to find support but had not availed any, out of fear.

With talks about raising tuition fee in the UK once again, the discussion around this occupational choice, becomes ever more important today. Speaking about how the student unions could support this further, Chloe says “In terms of finances, BU can offer them hardship funds from Student Union, and we can work with the university to do the same. We can also lobby the Government through NUS to improve student loans.”

In 2012, the government planned and funded the National Ugly Mugs Scheme along with UK Network of Sex Work Projects, to ensure that harassment or abuse of sex workers is not considered as just another “occupational hazard.” The project involved training sex workers, authorities and policy makers alike, around the abetment of abuse in the sex industry. But students, specially from smaller towns like Bournemouth, aren’t really aware of such online sex worker’s organisations. When asked if she had heard about these provisions at all, Kate tells me she was “hearing about it for the first time.” Tania on the other hand learnt about it last year. It only brings her – and me – to wonder, if she could have prevented all those unpleasant experiences, if she would have known about the organisation earlier.

For many like Kate, what was to be a temporary short-term occupation, has now become a never ending cycle of secrecy. With low or absolutely no discussion around students in sex work, it comes as no surprise that both Kate and Tania, suffer from a constant fear. “It should not be a crime to choose a profession of your choice,” Kate says, exasperated by now. But both she and I know, that just like BU, most institutions around the country are not yet fully equipped to deal with mental health and social stigma around student sex workers.

As yet another academic year nears its end, we still don’t know how many more students from BU are still troubled over being or having been sex workers. We still don’t know how many more students are going to quit this year, because they cannot afford to pay their tuition, their bills or deal with the judgement of being sex workers. And we still don’t know if the next academic year, will bring any kind of positive change in these circumstances.

*Names of the participants have been changed, in order to protect their identity.

Yogita Dakshina