Students on the game

July 18, 1997

A Barclays Bank survey on student debt looked at how youngsters cope with little money. For some, David Barrett finds, the answer lies in prostitution

CHILDREN and sex are a volatile mixture. Having edited Child Prostitution in Britain, recently published by the Children's Society, I am experienced at being measured with my comments on the subject. It is with no little circumspection that I am able to say that, of late, higher education has an insidious new industry developing within it - that of students being involved in prostitution to make ends meet and avoid serious debt.

How do I know this? Over the past two years various people, namely students, health workers, welfare workers and police officers, have told me. Various journalists from around the country have also sought advice about the issue and some broadsheet newspapers have run pieces on the topic. The universities affected include those on the east and south coasts and in the Midlands. Recently the Church of Scotland reminded us of the phenomenon. Can this be an acceptable position for our students to be in?

Having met students who are prostitutes their suggested resolutions to the problem tend to focus primarily on financial issues. Sir Ron Dearing should take note. But the problem needs a context too. I think the newly developing phenomena is thinly but widely spread. Safe sex is generally accepted as good practice by students who are prostitutes, and this fits the general trend that it is the young teenage prostitutes who practise unsafe sex, for which they receive a premium. But the students on the game whom I have met appear dangerously matter-of-fact about their behaviour.

A not uncommon justification given by these young people is: "It's the only way I can manage." That is how several have rationalised their actions, as a means of solving their predicament.

Some argue that consenting adult males and females involving themselves knowingly in the sex industry is nothing new. After all, for some members of society it is the only form of earned income. Others argue that it is a sad state of affairs when students feel they have to be prostitutes to make ends meet. I also detect a public ambivalence about prostitution with some sort of "well, it's the oldest profession" type of justification for its existence.

Prostitution is a risky business in terms of personal safety and health. Putting aside the legal and moral implications - for they are complex in relation to adults - it has long associations with criminal sub-cultures that encompass grievous violence and substance-abuse. Even the term prostitution has become more controversial lately; some argue prostitution is a behaviour and not a person; others prefer to use the less pejorative term "sex worker" for the men and women involved. This term also acknowledges that prostitution can be seen as a form of work.

But the risks are enormous. Pressure from pimps, including their efforts to get prostitutes hooked on drugs, violence from punters and health hazards are examples. These are not micro issues - they are all potentially life-threatening.

For child prostitutes, prostitution is often the lesser of two evils, the other being continuation of abuse at home. Perhaps for adult students it is equally simple, the other evil being poverty and serious debt and ultimately being forced to leave university because of them. The students involved are in an invidious position; if they give up prostitution they have to give up their studies but if they continue they run considerable personal safety and health risks.

Why is this happening? Within The THES the issues have been well-rehearsed; grants withering, student loans, more mature students who have domestic commitments, some families unable to support their offspring. Students have nearly always had to supplement their grants with part-time or vacation jobs, and that is unlikely to change. However, it appears for some students, debt accumulates faster than legal means of keeping it at bay will allow. Students do not want to reach the end of their courses with between Pounds 5,000 and Pounds 10,000 debts, as some are, so they are taking interventionist action.

The punters have more money than sense or self-control, so their behaviour is very unlikely to change. Some students have more economic desperation than sense, but then, I think, they do not have a real choice to exercise. It is unlikely that the Dearing inquiry will make any positive difference to student finances, either. So what can be done?

No national study has been undertaken on child prostitution, and the same goes for students and prostitution. Our knowledge of the subject is sketchy, including its extent, and largely anecdotal. A study could identify the extent of student involvement in prostitution, as methodologically complex as that is, so that a safe-sex attitude, personal safety or other useful strategies, can be identified and supported if found to be necessary.

Removing income from those who depend on it is problematic, as some lobby groups point out. I therefore propose that the Department for Education and Employment and the National Union of Students tackle this together and jointly commission a study to identify the scale of the issue and what interventions are required. They have to address the question: is student prostitution a price worth paying? I believe it has to be one step too far for the enterprise culture.

No informed vice chancellor will deny that student prostitution exists. Identifying the extent of the phenomena has many advantages, including being politically safe for a new government.

David Barrett is head of the department of professional social studies at the University of Luton.

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