Debt is forcing an increasing number of students into the sex trade. Matthew Chapman reports.
Like most 20-year-old students, Sarah takes a mobile phone wherever she goes and it is constantly going off as she wanders around campus. The calls she gets, though, are not from friends or family but from men wanting to book a time when they can come and pay her for sex. Sarah, who is studying at a college in Edinburgh, is one of a growing number of students in Britain who, faced with debts, have taken to prostitution to pay their way through higher education.
"If the phone goes, I have to move away from my friends to take the call or it can get tricky," Sarah says. "If you're walking around Safeway and someone calls asking dodgy questions, you have to tell them 'I'm in a public place and I'll have to answer questions with yes or no' and usually they're OK about that."
Sarah advertises herself on the internet and claims to make up to £1,000 in a good week, more than enough to clear the debts she accumulated at the start of her studies.
At first she took on some of the traditional jobs students sign up for to earn a bit of extra money, bar work and waitressing, before graduating to the highly paid world of escorts. "I was badly in debt and being paid £3.70 an hour working in a bar," she says. "I can get £150 an hour for escorting, so I simply went for the better-paid job."
Student prostitution has become something of a taboo subject in the world of higher education. Few studies have been carried out on the subject, while the Department for Education and Employment and several universities contacted in research for this article said there was little evidence to suggest it even existed. Now, though, an authoritative source has come forward to voice what others had long suspected. Student loans are forcing increasing numbers into debt, which in turn is pressurising them into taking ever more drastic action to make money.
Staff at the country's leading clinic for prostitutes, the Praed Street Project based at St Mary's Hospital in London, say that students make up a growing number of the 2,000 sex workers they treat annually.
Manager Jane Ayres says: "We've noticed a significant increase in approximately the past three to four years of students who have entered into the sex industry with the goal of financing their studies. They have clearly said that changes in the grant system have affected their choice."
Previous studies have shown that, by their third year, most students are facing average debts of about £8,000. One piece of research carried out by Ron Roberts, a senior lecturer at Westminster University in London has concluded that 3 to 4 per cent of students in debt turn to the sex industry to earn extra money.
One area that has been at the centre of controversy is Leeds, where a recent report in the media suggested that up to 60 per cent of sex industry workers are students. Leeds University student union communications officer Ruth Clarke says the claim is an urban myth, and a University of Leeds statement dismissed it as a "wild allegation". "If this is a cynical piece of media manipulation by those who run sex businesses to recruit students, then it is in the worst possible taste," it said.
Local brothel owners have indeed begun targeting campuses in the search for new workers. Advertisements calling on students to become escorts, which is often tantamount to prostitution, are regularly carried in local newspapers.
The lure of earning up to £1,000 a week is proving to be a powerful incentive as female students sign up to work in massage parlours and have their pictures put on sex sites on the internet. The madam of several brothels across Yorkshire has even opened a venue close to the campus at Leeds University. "We get quite a few students applying and they are very welcome here," says Charlie Daniels, the 32-year-old owner of Pussycats, in central Leeds. "We are attractive to them because we offer part-time flexible hours. We invite them to come to our venue near the university and have a look around."
Students can earn up to £30,000 a year working part time in brothels in the city because they are in such demand, says Daniels. "From an employer's point of view, students are very good at being reliable, usually quite disciplined and even if they have had a heavy night drinking the night before, they still roll in the next morning. Students tend to be easy-going and it means they can easily be moulded into something that is exciting for the client."
Daniels was once a student prostitute herself and confesses to being psychologically damaged by the experience to the extent where she would pour boiling water over her hands in a bid to "cleanse" herself. She admits the students she employs have to come to terms with the stigma attached to the job. "We had a student who had been working for 18 months and she had cleared all her debts, but her friends started to go on about how dirty prostitutes were and she could not bear the thought of them or her parents finding out about what she did. After all, nobody wants their kids to be a prossie. The whole idea of putting them through university is to give them a better life."
The government has been accused of betraying students by gradually removing grants and forcing students to take up loans. The result, according to critics, is a student population that graduates under the burden of enormous stress and debt.
"For a Labour government that has prided itself on social justice and equality it is embarrassing," Roberts says.
"There is about 50 per cent of students who have a great deal of debt and we estimate that they have on average £8,000 of debt by their third year. We've found that debt in students was linked to students becoming involved in criminal activity, drug dealing and prostitution, just so they can support themselves financially."
Roberts's research, carried out in 1999, found that 75 per cent of students had difficulty paying bills and they were working on average 18 hours a week in addition to their studies. Many of his findings have since been backed up by other studies on debt.
"Nowadays there is a conspiracy of silence between the government, which doesn't want to draw attention to the appalling state of higher education, the student body, who don't want future students to hear this, and the employers, who don't want to say we are recruiting people who are simply not up to it," says Roberts.
Arguments over higher education funding are not the concern of Sarah,who is still paying off debts by escorting in Edinburgh. While her friends are at the students' union most nights, Sarah instead dresses up and waits for her mobile phone to ring. "It makes me happy that at last I am a student and that I've got some money. Most of my friends don't have any," she says.
On the surface she claims to be unperturbed by what she does to pay for her studies, but it is clear it is not as easy as she makes out. "If I had a boyfriend, I would be taking him home because I wanted to, but some of these men are strange and disgusting. I'm only doing this because I want to better myself, get past this and just move on with my life."