Handbook for Universities: 5. A holistic approach to student financial hardship

This is the fifth chapter in the Nordic Model Now! Handbook for Universities.

Most people go to university to expand their creative and intellectual viewpoint, to improve their long-term prospects, and to open up interesting career possibilities. It makes sense, therefore, for students to take the long view when considering how to finance it.

Universities have a responsibility to ensure that students have a realistic understanding of how involvement in the sex industry could potentially undermine their short- and long-term aims and that they have all the information they need to weigh up the risks.

Is the sex industry really easy money?

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, as the saying goes – and if it sounds too good to be true, another one says, it probably is too good to be true. And yet few people challenge the trope that a young woman can make ten times as much money in the sex industry as she could in the retail or hospitality industries.

We’ve already looked at some of the downsides of the sex industry – the ever-present risk of violence, of being stalked, the damage to cognitive ability and health, the slow erosion of mental and psychological wellbeing, and the exploitative business models rife in the industry – but what about the downsides in terms of future career and earning potential?

You might be able to make more in the sex industry, hour for hour, than in a minimum wage job in retail, for example. But realistically, could you ever put that you’ve done webcamming or any other aspect of the sex industry on your CV? Not in almost any field – not least because in this sexist world, some men would consider you fair game and harass you or worse. You can put almost any other job on your CV and, no matter how lowly, future employers are likely to value the skills and experience gained and to consider it a positive thing that you worked to put yourself through university.

In most jobs you start at the bottom, on the lowest wage and with the least responsibility. But as you show initiative and reliability and gain experience, you might be promoted or get a raise. After a year or two you could well be earning more than you did at the beginning. And after you get your degree, it could help you get another job that’s closer to your ambitions and goals.

The trajectory in the sex industry is typically the opposite. Usually, women make most at the beginning (any brothel receptionist will tell you that punters overwhelmingly want the youngest and ‘newest’ girl and are prepared to pay more for that). Punters value youth but also naivety and inexperience. As time goes by, women typically find it gets increasingly difficult. As Rae Story put it:

“Women in prostitution are sometimes fond of saying, “As long as I have my body, I have an income.” But the reality is often not like that: women got sick with mental health problems, became overcome by drug addiction, depression, or PTSD. Women who, at first, had enormous enthusiasm for giving the punters what they wanted (because it gave them a fickle, flimsy sense of being ‘good’ at something) became cynical after bad experiences, were no longer able to be as amenable to buyer’s demands (and, therefore, lost money), or simply couldn’t charge as much as they aged.”

The longer you stay in the sex industry, the greater these effects are likely to be. A woman, like our hypothetical Sky, who starts in the sex trade while she’s an undergraduate may find that at first she does indeed have a higher disposable income than a fellow student, let’s call her Mia, who got a part-time job in retail.

A few years after graduation, however, the tables are likely to be reversed. In her second year in the retail job, Mia was promoted to shift supervisor. Four years later, she’s earning decent money in HR at a major employer, which the retail job and her progression within it helped her to secure.

Sky, on the other hand, couldn’t find a job when she graduated and so she continued doing what she knew. She’s now been in the sex trade for seven years and has never had an ordinary job. She has nothing to put on her CV and is suffering from anxiety and depression. Her situation has sometimes felt so hopeless she’s considered suicide several times. She’s now in touch with an organisation that specialises in helping women out of the sex trade. This has helped her gain some perspective and stop blaming herself so much. She now sees that she didn’t have a chance because no one explained this predictable trajectory when she was starting out at university. Instead, everyone insisted that “sex work” is a normal job. She found out the hard way that it’s not. She wishes she’d got a job in retail like Mia.

Survivor voices: Esther

The principal Office for National Statistics (ONS) investigator responsible for analysing UK spending on prostitution said in evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2016 that the estimated gross annual income earned from prostitution by the 72,800 people involved was £5.09 billion, with an estimated income of £1.23 billion after costs. That’s a net income that works out at 24.2% of gross.

With that gross/net ratio the ONS estimates that the women involved were seeing an average of 29 clients a week and charging them a mean rate of £67 in 2009, rising to £78 in 2015, before dropping to £73 in 2016. This amounts to £16 per client after costs, rising to £19 in 2015, before dropping to £18 in 2016.

You may be wondering what are these ‘costs’ that so exceed the rate of taxation.

The main one is ‘protection’ money for the pimps, brothel-owners, traffickers, escort agencies, and commercial sex industry websites along with those they keep on their contacts lists. These people invariably claim that they are uniquely positioned to keep you ‘safe’, but in reality, they themselves are either your greatest source of danger and harm or they actively facilitate it.

Another major cost is renting the space where you see punters, and maybe also live. That is usually high, particularly if you want to locate yourself in a postcode associated with ‘glamour’. Then there are the clothes you wear to meet punters, which of necessity will require replacing on a regular basis.

Notice that the ONS investigator didn’t include in his calculations the damage to the physical and mental health and wellbeing of the women involved in prostitution, nor the cost to the NHS and other providers of treating them or assisting in their recovery. You may want to include this in your personal calculations, however, because damage to your physical and mental health is likely to reduce your earning power in the years and decades ahead.

You will find punters are confident that the women they pay for sex have health issues resulting from substance use – although they invariably lack curiosity about the details, lest it ruin their fantasy. Such is their confidence that they will ask you to obtain substances for them because you are a ‘friend’ with whom they have a ‘special connection’.

This same ‘special connection’ will also be a means through which they will attempt to manipulate you into lowering what you charge.

A ‘friendly’ pimp whose business also involves servicing your ‘friend’s’ need for substances, will remind you that you need to keep up with the competition. This means removing whatever boundaries you may have started out with about what ‘services’ you are prepared to provide.

Other long-term considerations of involvement in the sex industry

Provided you steer clear of assisting in the running of a brothel and drug offences, the chances of getting a criminal record are fairly slim in the online and indoor sex industry. However, if you report an attack to the police or you come to police attention in some other way, your involvement in the sex trade is likely to be recorded on the Police National Computer (PNC) and stay on your record for your entire lifetime.

While records that fall short of a criminal disposal are usually filtered out during the routine Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks that standard employers use on hiring employees, a number of organisations have direct access to the PNC for a variety of purposes – including vetting candidates for positions in the police, judiciary, national security, and other high-level positions.

Some very sensitive positions also require candidates to make a declaration about whether they are potentially vulnerable to blackmail. A hidden history in the sex industry would mean you have to answer ‘yes’.

Students who are considering entering the sex industry should be advised to consider how such risks may impact their lives in the decades ahead. Are they sure they won’t follow a legal career and aspire to be a judge? What about a political career? Or being a police officer or in the intelligence services? Might they need a firearms licence at some point in their life?

In addition, many professions in the UK and abroad have strict codes of conduct about upholding the reputation of the profession and not participating in behaviour that could put others at risk. It is possible that involvement in the sex industry might contravene such codes.

Life is prone to taking many unexpected turns. Those who have a background in the sex industry are unlikely to be able to reach many positions.

There can also be other impacts years down the line. There have been cases of children being bullied at school when it came out that their mother was involved in prostitution, and of women being recognised by old punters who contacted their employers and sought to get them dismissed. There’s the ongoing danger that some women face from their old pimps. Potential future partners might find out and use it against you, and if you tell them upfront, they might reject you.

All of this shows that the sexist double standard is alive and well. Women are judged for involvement in the sex industry but men who are punters and even pimps invariably get off scot-free. No amount of railing against ‘stigma’ or opening up the sex industry ever further is going to change this. By its very design, the sex industry is inherently unequal. It feeds men’s entitlement and advantages while entrenching women’s disadvantages. This is why many sex trade survivors are opposed to the campaign to decriminalise the industry.

Survivor voices: Christina

Exiting sex work is easier said than done. After years of working in brothels I had very little to put on a CV and my experience of working life outside sex work was minimal and outdated.

After struggling for a couple of years to even get an interview, I managed to find a job in a bar. I was terrified my past would come back to haunt me and eventually it did when a customer found out my guilty secret. People who had once been friendly towards me became cool and distant. I felt humiliated and ashamed. I went home one day and couldn’t face going back.

After months struggling to get by on benefits, I found a job as a receptionist at a brothel I used to work at. The environment was often degrading and traumatic but it somehow felt a lot less intimidating than normal life. I guess I never realised just what I was signing up for on my first shift in a brothel. It’s only years later when the sacrifices start to outweigh any financial benefits. Unfortunately, the way out isn’t quite so easy as the way in and the longer you stay on the fringes of society, the harder it becomes to bridge those gaps.

Financial education & alternative sources of income

71% of students responding to the Save the Student’s 2020 money survey said they wished they’d had a better financial education and 25% weren’t aware of the numerous scholarships, grants and bursaries available for funding their education. This is an indictment of both universities and the education system that together allow young people to be so unprepared for university and independent adult life.

Reports in the press suggest that a significant number of young people arrive at university without a clear understanding of how the student loans system works, of when and how often they will be paid, or of how they will be required to pay it back. As a result, some students burn through their first loan instalment rapidly and are then thrown into crisis when they find they have nothing left to live on until the next instalment comes through months later. Many students are unaware that universities provide a money advice service and so don’t turn to it when they begin to run into problems and before they are entrenched.

Universities therefore need to take a proactive role in helping students manage their money and apply for alternative sources of income and suitable part-time work. They could make financial education and advice part of the student orientation programme. They could create and widely distribute well-designed leaflets and posters setting out basic information about student finance, budgeting, when and where to seek advice, how to apply for bursaries and grants, options for local employment, etc. Stalls at Freshers’ Week with knowledgeable and sympathetic staff and workshops during the first term might also help students manage their finances successfully and avoid financial catastrophe.

Towards a more sustainable lifestyle

Since the 1980s and the dominance of unfettered neoliberal capitalism, consumption and materialism have morphed in the popular imagination into the prime indicators of success. Conversely, a lack of material means has morphed in the public perception into being a personal failure.

The pronounced gendered way this manifests was epitomised in the TV series, Sex and the City in the late 1990s, with designer wear and accessories being de rigueur. TV series like Keeping Up with the Kardashians have continued the theme, with the addition of ever more extreme makeovers and plastic surgery.

Girls and young women who arrive at university from poorer communities can find it challenging to find themselves in a milieu where students from wealthier backgrounds may disport designer handbags, for example, and perhaps subtly ridicule students who have cheap imitations. This can add to the pressures on young women who are unable to afford such gear.

Universities can play a role in helping young people to critique this hyper-commercialised culture and to join the dots between it and the environmental devastation that young people are quite rightly so concerned about – and to encourage a less materialistic culture.

There are many inexpensive possibilities that could help students save money while nurturing a different mindset and increasing sustainability, such as swap shops and table top sale events for clothing, books, kitchen equipment, and bedding. Storage options could be provided so that rather than students abandoning their duvets and toasters on the street when they leave at the end of the summer term, they could be stored and provided to others at the start of the next year. Repair workshops, food co-ops and classes in cooking cheap and nutritious food could also help students live well on less.

Further reading

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