Almost five per cent of students have worked in the sex industry to reduce their loan debts or fund their lifestyles, according to a major new study from Swansea University.
The Student Sex Work Project, based on a survey of 6,773 students across the UK, also found that around one in five students have considered such work and that male students are more likely to do sex work than female.
Sex work varied from prostitution and escorting to stripping and internet work. The figures mean that given a total UK university population of around 2.3 million, the number of student sex workers could be in the tens of thousands.
The study found that one in four student sex workers do not always feel safe and that they felt it necessary to keep their work a secret. Nearly two thirds of those involved said that their motivation was to fund a lifestyle and 56 per cent said it was to pay basic living costs. Two in five wanted to reduce debt at the end of their course.
However, three in five thought they would enjoy it, 54 per cent said they were curious and 44 per cent said they were motivated by sexual pleasure.
The researchers have called on universities to do more to support those involved. Project leader Dr Tracey Sagar said: "We now have firm evidence that students are engaged in the sex industry across the UK. The majority of these students keep their occupations secret and this is because of social stigma and fears of being judged by family and friends.
"And, we have to keep in mind that not all students engaged in the industry are safe or feel safe. It is vital now that universities arm themselves with knowledge to better understand student sex work issues and that university services are able to support students where support is needed."
She added: "Our research has not been about encouraging students into sex work it has been about supporting students who are in sex work. And this is the reality, students are engaged in sex work occupations – this is a fact. Another fact is that some of them need advice, support and sometimes assistance to step away from the industry.
"At the moment students feel so stigmatised and judged that they are afraid or at least very reluctant to disclose their occupations to staff and services at universities that could help them. Stereotyping is also a problem."
Gender justice campaigner Natalie Collins told Christian Today that the survey revealed the pressure put on young people to conform to a particular lifestyle. "For many people, it's about how to help them make a different choice. If they're feeling pressure not to get into debt, that's about cultural coercion: we're saying, if you don't buy this you're not valuable. It's a question of, what does choice look like?
"For the generation under 25, how you live is how you gain value – that's why people feel the pressure."
She also said that the "pornification" of culture in recent years had affected people's perception of sex work, potentially making it more acceptable.