Student sex workers need to be supported – not ignored

Sex work doesn’t have to be isolating, and it doesn’t need to be stigmatised.

The sex work community is vibrant and made up of so many wonderful people, yet some of them feel ashamed for doing something which is – to put it simply – a job. 

I was a sugar baby, private cam model and a full-service sex worker for five years – throughout my undergraduate degree and two years after I graduated. When I began my journey within the industry, I liked my job.

But when I wanted to leave and had no choice but to stay out of poverty, I began to feel trapped.

I would tell people that I only went on non-sexual dates for money. I would lie so they wouldn’t judge me.

When I did tell the truth, I found assistance was lacking. After I told a rape counsellor that I was drowning in debt and I couldn’t get out, I was discharged from a rape recovery centre for disclosing my involvement in the industry and ‘putting myself at risk’.

When you feel there is no way out and nowhere to go, the world of sex work can be a lonely place. I felt ashamed after being discharged. I felt isolated and helpless. It doesn’t have to be like that.

The reason I am doing well now, and why I am able to speak so openly about what I’ve been through with no shame whatsoever is because I found people who listened.

After years of being on waiting lists, I met a Community Psychiatric Nurse who believed I would get better. I met a therapist who taught me there was no shame in sex work, and I met a psychiatrist who helped me get treatment for the PTSD that had gone undiagnosed for years.

The mental health team who I spoke with empowered me to take charge of my recovery and provided me with a tremendous amount of support; the kind I deserved all along.

The experience of being alone and struggling is something I don’t want any other sex worker to go through. This is why being there for my community is so important to me.

Something that I have found through my own experiences and my work in helping others is that mental health help is a crucial element of the recovery process. Everyone deserves to have access to it.

I spent up to three years on waiting lists with severe mental health conditions and only began to get better with therapy, a mental health team and support from my partner, friends and mum.

My time spent in therapy made me into the person I am now. This network did not discharge me for being a sex worker, or for being in too bad a situation, they empowered me to make my own way through recovery.

It took hard work from myself and those around me for me to get better. The reason I work so hard to help others is because I know what it’s like to be in a difficult situation, or to be struggling really badly with your mental health, and to have nowhere to go and no one to speak to.

I also know how much your life can be improved when you do have somewhere you can go; with someone you can speak to who understands; someone who you know will not judge you for the things you have experienced.

This was the thinking behind the organisation I set up in June 2019 – Support for Student Sex Workers, a sex worker led organisation, which is the only one of its kind in the country. We assist all sex workers (student or not) and anyone who identifies with the sex work community.

We’re there for those who are in desperate need of help, those who need someone to talk to, and those who love their job, but just want to chat with people they share similar experiences with. Regardless of what they are searching for, or their experiences, we’re here for all sex workers.

It was through my organisation that I began working with Dr Teela Sanders, a sex work researcher for more than 20 years, and Gaynor Trueman, who runs the North East Sex Work Forum – both women that I am lucky to know.

Now, working with them as a student sex work researcher for the University of Leicester, I do a role I am excited about and feel privileged to have. I have never felt more valued and appreciated in a job and I feel proud to be part of a team of such encouraging and incredible women.

I enjoy it because I know we are truly making a difference and I know I am surrounded by women who have sex workers’ best interests in their hearts; women who would do anything to protect my community.

Our project is comprised of three elements: training university staff on how to be there for student sex workers, providing student sex workers with resources so they can stay safe and trying to implement sex work policies around universities nationally; so sex workers can be recognised for what they are – a group of people who deserve to be protected.

Implementing sex work policies within university structures demonstrates that they have a safe space where people will not be judged – regardless of what they choose to do to make a living.

It will ensure that there is a protocol when it comes to people disclosing they are involved in sex work and will eliminate the possibility of university staff using their own personal prejudices or lack of knowledge surrounding the topic to inform the way they handle sex work disclosures.

Having policies in place will ensure that people do not have to feel alone and like there is no place in the university support structure for sex workers to go to.

Secrecy can mean people are less likely to reach out for support

The experience of being a student sex worker can be isolating due to the stigmatisation of sex work. Balancing any job with university studies can be difficult and sex work can be a mentally exhausting job.

Many sex workers find having to keep their work secret to avoid negative judgment difficult and feel they are living a double life due to having to keep up a public appearance while keeping their job private.

Student sex workers often speak to friends over professional bodies like the university because of the perceived risks of disclosing. This can mean they may be given advice by someone who does not have knowledge of the industry and that they may not be aware of how to stay safe.

Secrecy can also mean people are less likely to reach out. This is why creating a safe space within universities and demonstrating sex work positivity so everyone knows there is nothing to be ashamed of is so important.

Our resources are informed by student sex workers and the training is led by Gaynor and me, a former sex worker.

We have trained over 600 staff members across universities around the country so far on how to respond to sex work disclosures, confidentiality, the legal framework of sex work, sex work statistics and the experiences of student sex workers.

This can only be seen as a positive thing in regards to helping sex workers – allowing them to be heard and educating staff on the matters, which they often are not aware of. 

While we have had amazing feedback from the university staff we train and overwhelming support from universities around the country, it saddens me to see that some people commenting have said we are encouraging sex work.

It hurts me that people have said we are ‘pimping out’ our students because it simply isn’t true.

When we talk about the crimes that sex workers have experienced, the stigma and isolation that can arise, and how vital it is to give sex workers a safe space to talk, we don’t mean it in a hypothetical sense – I’ve experienced it all.

Our resources are not a means of enticement into the industry – it’s harm reduction. It ensures that a marginalised and vulnerable community is informed of safety strategies and avenues of assitance, so if things go bad, they have somewhere to go where they can feel protected. 

All we want is for sex workers to have a safe space within their university so they can get the support they deserve; something I wish I had when I was a student. 

Support for Student Sex workers is a sex worker-led peer support organisation, which protects all sex workers, offering support with mental health sessions, careers and academic advice, support with rape and sexual assault reports and more – for more information, visit the website

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