As students struggle to pay their bills and stay afloat while studying, many are turning to sex work, writes Kate Iselin.
As students struggle to pay their bills and stay afloat while studying, many are turning to sex work, writes Kate Iselin.

Uni students making cash with sex

If you're getting ready to study this year and searching for a part-time job to supplement your schooling, you're not alone.

And if you're getting ready to study and considering taking up sex work to supplement your schooling, you're definitely not alone - but your career choice might be a bit more scandalous than most.

Controversy erupted at Brighton University last year when the Sussex branch of the Sex Workers' Outreach Project had a stall at the university's annual fair day, held to welcome undergraduate students.

In a tweet promoting their attendance at the fair, SWOP Sussex said, "If you're topping up your fees with sex work, or struggling to balance work and studies, or want to talk and don't know where to go … we're here for you."

While many were quick to criticise the university for allowing SWOP to hold their stall, arguing that it "normalised" and promoted sex work, SWOP argued that it was doing no such thing.

Instead, the organisation said, it was simply providing an avenue of outreach for those of-age students already considering - or doing - sex work and seeking advice.

"We understand why students may turn to sex work," SWOP tweeted. "And navigating the legal precariousness as well as potential danger mean that students are extra vulnerable and we will help."

As a sex worker myself I think the stall is a fabulous idea, and I wish that I'd had easy access to advice about sexual health, the law, and my finances when I first entered the industry. Everything I know about sex work I've learnt from other workers, whispered quickly between client introductions or shouted over the din of a busy dressing room.

I treasure every one of the more experienced workers who bothered to pull me aside as a sex-working newbie and school me on the finer points of the industry. Had I known that a service like SWOP was available to me when I first started out I would've been queuing up at that stall faster than you can say, "What's a dental dam?".

My own experiences in the adult industry have been great, but sex work is still a career choice that many take exception to, particularly when it's chosen by people who have an explicit financial need.

While we're somewhat comfortable with accepting that sex work is a fine avenue of exploration for those who've done their time in the corporate sector and are seeking a bit more thrill in their days, knowing that young people are turning to the industry to fund their educations and pay for their most basic needs of food and housing can be enough to put a frown on the face of even the most sex-positive people.

No matter what your opinion is on sex work, it's hard to deny that things are looking pretty dire for uni students in Australia.

The most recent Universities Australia Student Finances Survey revealed that of the students surveyed, one in seven regularly went without food or other necessities because they couldn't afford it, and three in five described their finances as a "source of worry". Half of the students said their jobs adversely affected their performance at uni, and one in three said they regularly missed classes because they had to work.

The median annual income for an Australian student studying full-time is less than $20,000, well below the poverty line and even below the minimum cost of living for international students as outlined by the Department of Home Affairs.

The stereotype of student living might be one of latte-sipping youngsters swapping lecture notes over their daily avo smash, but the reality isn't quite so carefree. The most recent census revealed more than ten thousand uni and TAFE students were homeless.

With this in mind, it's not difficult to see why sex work might seem appealing to some students who are old enough to enter the industry. Whether or not the reality of the work matches up with the expectation is another question, of course - working the ten-hour overnight shift in a pair of stilettos and a push-up bra is hardly an easy job.

But for someone desperate for money, it's not difficult to see why they would turn to an industry that promises huge financial incentives in exchange for a relatively small investment of time.

I wouldn't encourage anyone - student or otherwise - towards sex work, but I also wouldn't warn them away from it. Anyone considering sex work should be free to make their own informed, fully-consenting decision about whether to cross the brothel threshold.

But why do we continue to look down on those students who do choose the adult industry? Even in parts of Australia where sex work is perfectly legal, sex-working students are painted as victims of circumstance, silly young people who don't understand the future consequences of their career choices and are "only doing it because they have to".

I hate to be the bearer of bad news about capitalism, but it's a sad reality of life that we all take jobs because we need the money.

Whether you're going to work on Monday in an office, on a building site, or in a brothel, chances are that the thing that's motivating you out of bed isn't love for your boss, your colleagues, or your industry: it's money.

I'm sure there are a lot of sex workers who do what they do purely out of love for their job, but there are just as many whose presence in the industry is dictated by financial need. That's totally fine - in fact, as far as jobs go, it's pretty normal.

Over the next few months I'm sure that there will be many Australian students starting uni and considering sex work as the job that will help them pay for it.

I hope they can all approach the industry fully informed and educated about their rights at work, their relationship with the law, and the financial services available to them if they should need them.

This is information every young person needs to know - not just sex workers - and we should all be able to access it.
- Kate Iselin is a writer and sex worker. Continue the conversation @kateiselin


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