Red-light work a grey area for universities

Stance on staff or student links to sex trade centres on reputation, not welfare, writes Rebecca Attwood

May 7, 2009

UK universities do not have policies prohibiting staff or student involvement in the sex industry, but many hold "unwritten assumptions" that could be used to penalise "legal but stigmatised" sexual behaviour, according to new research.

Academics from the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) and Kingston University sent a Freedom of Information request to 326 universities and colleges, asking whether they had policies governing staff or student involvement in the sex trade.

Of 236 responses, none had a specific policy but 36 per cent implied that disciplinary action would be taken against staff or members of the student body who worked in, or purchased, commercial-sex services.

No institution referred to policies supporting private freedom and diversity or prohibiting discrimination, and only four referred to the health or welfare of staff and students.

Many replies indicated that the institution concerned viewed such behaviour with "taken for granted" disapproval, say the authors of "Higher and Further Education Institution Policies on Student and Staff Involvement in Commercial Sex", published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management.

The authors, led by Linda Cusick, reader in substance use at UWS, write: "It is also clear from the dominance of discussion about disciplinary procedures and behaviour bringing institutions into disrepute (in the responses) that staff/student participation in commercial sex is widely perceived as some kind of institutional threat."

The evidence "suggests that other undeclared moral judgments underlie the selection of policies considered relevant to our inquiry and were submitted to reflect unwritten institutional positions".

The authors say they are not surprised that universities lack policies governing commercial sex due to "widespread confusion" in the UK about the area and how to respond to it. But they argue that it is in need of careful management, and point out that students are "targets" for media reports exposing their involvement in the sex industry.

"Should an institution follow a newspaper lead and leap to discipline the employee or student whose privacy has been violated by the media, this would surely constitute institutional bullying and harassment and, as such, be the only action with potential to bring the institution into disrepute," they suggest.

They add that "enlightened" policies may emphasise the sector's respect for privacy, and its reputation as non-discriminatory and supportive of human rights.


A blogger who claims to be working as a prostitute while at university has detailed her life as a student sex worker.

The author, who said she is an undergraduate at a university in the West Midlands, said she turned to prostitution after her efforts to make ends meet through other means failed.

In her blog, "Diary of a Russell Group University Call Girl", she writes: "Unlike so many of the students who attend my university, I do not have upper middle-class parents to soften the blow, or a hefty trust fund to dip into."

The blogger declined to speak to Times Higher Education directly or to reveal her identity, but in an email said she was writing the diary because "I am not the only one in this position. I had been approached by several escort agencies, most of which outlined that the majority of their 'workers' were in fact students."

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs