By Aaron Brown, PhD Student, Higher Education, University of Toronto; and Elizabeth Buckner, Assistant Professor of Higher Education, University of Toronto

As university and college semesters unfold, a small but increasing percentage of students will likely also be taking on a largely under-reported and overlooked form of part-time employment: sex work.

Over the past year, there have been multiple reports of a dramatic increase in content creators on OnlyFans — a platform that allows fans to pay creators directly for content, which has been popular with sex workers. Some new users say they created accounts to navigate financial hardship during COVID-19. OnlyFans platform reported a huge uptick in users during the pandemic: from 7.5 million users in November 2019 to 85 million in December 2020.

“Sugar dating” or “sugaring” is an approach to dating in which one partner provides compensation – often in the form of money or gifts to the other, the person receiving the compensation is typically referred to as a “sugar baby.” As we enter a new academic year, higher-education institutions need to take notice and respond.

What is “sex work?”

While people might be most likely to think of sex work as prostitution, the reality is that sex work is an increasingly broad occupation that encompasses any form of sexual services being provided for compensation. While some students may engage in prostitution, they could also be participating in pornography, webcamming, working phone lines, dancing in clubs, sugar dating and so on. With the increase in platforms like OnlyFans and JustForFans, anyone can engage in sex work from their own home or dorm rooms.

Why are students participating in sex work?

While we do not know how many students are participating in sex work, international estimates suggest between 2.1 per cent and seven per cent of students engage in sex work. Students look to sex work for many reasons, often as an occupational choice. Sex work can offer an appealing choice for some because it provides a flexible work schedule, allows someone to be their own boss, provides higher wages than service-based industries like retail or because it is enjoyable.

Additionally, increasingly liberal social attitudes regarding sex and sexuality may make some students feel more comfortable participating. For others, sex work may be less of a choice. Some students may have had negative work experiences elsewhere or lack viable employment options. Others may have experienced exploitation, abuse or abandonment, which leads them to believe sex work is their only option. Students experiencing mounting debts, including from higher education, may be particularly motivated to pursue sex work.

While there may be the instinct to criminalize sex work or challenge sex work-supportive attitudes based on these factors, human rights experts, sex work advocates, and researchers all highlight the potential harms of such a response; our energy is best spent addressing the motivations for pursuing sex work than punishing those who participate.

International students

International students may also be drawn to sex work to help pay their tuition fees, which are three to five times higher than domestic students on average. Despite stereotypes that international students come from wealthy backgrounds, studies find that many — particularly those who enroll in higher education seeking a pathway to immigration — often face economic precocity, struggle with finding affordable housing and experience higher rates of food insecurity than their domestic peers. Meanwhile, their opportunities for off-campus employment are limited by their visa status, making sex work a potentially lucrative option.

Why consider student sex work in higher education?

Despite becoming more common and mainstreamed, sex work also poses risks. Sex-working students are more likely to report more sex partners and a higher prevalence of sexually transmitted infections than their non-sex-working peers, and are also more likely to report higher drug consumption or addiction. Additionally, sex-working students are more likely to seek out support services than their non-sex-working peers.

While some student sex workers may feel comfortable disclosing their work to peers and may do so as a way of managing stigma and having control, others may avoid doing so due to stigma against the sex industry, leading to social isolation and potential dissonance in their identity. It is worth considering how community and cultural values might also influence a student sex worker’s choice to disclose their work, and in turn whether they might open up to student services professionals.

Harm-reduction approach

Public Health advocates, for a harm-reduction approach to sex work, have focused on addressing the reasons why people may choose to pursue sex work and ensuring that those who do engage in the profession are able to access appropriate supports for their well-being.

This means it is essential that student wellness centers factor student sex workers into the design and implementation of their services, including mental health, substance abuse and sexual health. Similarly, supports that sex workers are likely to access must also be culturally sensitive to LGBTQ+ students and campus supports for LGBTQ+ students must have an understanding of sex worker needs.

As students navigate the costs of higher education in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must begin taking steps to address the needs of our student sex workers. From the lens of health and well-being, we need to ensure student sex workers are factored into health promotion programming and responsive health services in higher education.

Student sex workers looking for support are encouraged to contact Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network.

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