Wednesday, 20 February 2008

I've got this friend

The Times has an alarmist story about students turning to prostitution to pay their way through university. "Handcuffs and condoms are replacing textbooks for a growing number of students" it warns, citing among others "Catharine" who earns £900 a week for two nights' "work". Says "Catharine":

I could be stacking shelves in Tesco for £5 an hour but I choose to have a job where you can make a lot of money in a few hours and then actually have time to do my uni work properly.

It's not exactly news: such stories have been around for years. As long ago as 2001 a student leader in Leeds claimed that 60% of the city's prostitutes were students. It is, however, increasingly topical. Last year a report in the Cambridge student newspaper Varsity, which featured an interview with a student escort-girl, hit the national headlines. Academics at the university were forced to issue a denial that large numbers of their undergraduates were on the game. (Oxford, I'm proud to report, got there first.) A few weeks ago, the French government expressed concern at claims that as many as 40,000 students might be prostituting themselves - although on closer analysis, it appears that the story had much to do with publicity for the racy memoirs of "Laura", a French student and escort. It also comes at the time when government ministers are considering following the lead of Sweden by introducing a total ban on all payment for sex, a measure said to be aimed at sex trafficking but which would seem particularly deadly to escort agencies or the Internet sites that "Catharine" and her like use to advertise their services.

The Times report bases its alarming statistics on a survey carried out by a team led by Dr Ronald Roberts. A psychologist currently based at Kingston University, a little known institution in South West London, Roberts's research specialisms include student health and the paranormal. His initial findings on student involvement in the sex industry formed a small part of a much broader survey into student health carried out in 1999, which revealed, among other things, that 4% claimed to know someone involved in lap-dancing, stripping, or prostitution. A follow-up survey, focussing on the sex industry, was carried out in 2006, and appeared to find that this figure had increased by a half to 6%. On this basis, the Times went on to speculate that

with a third study currently underway, more than eight per cent of the current student population is expected to be participating in sex work. a trend that will see at least 8% involvement.

According to Roberts himself:

We anticipate that figure will continue to rise. What we can definitely say is that as long as student debt increases so will the numbers of students entering the industry. Since the introduction of tuition fee’s in 1998 there has been an increase in students undertaking this kind of work.

I had a closer look at Roberts's report, and the methodology on which it was based. Although it set out to "gather more systematic evidence on the involvement of UK students in the sex industry as a necessary means of supplementing their income", it actually proves nothing. For a start, it was a tiny survey. Only 130 questionnaires were sent out, to students at "a London university" which may or may not have been Kingston. The study was based on the 96 replies which were received. Of these, according to Roberts, almost half "met the criteria for probable psychiatric disorder". Either this means that half the student population of Britain is seriously mentally disturbed (unlikely) or there's something strange about the sample. If the latter, of course, then the survey is completely meaningless.

But even on its own terms, it tells us little or nothing. Only 10 of those surveyed claimed to know (or know of) a student in the sex industry. Of these, six knew of prostitutes, four knew of strippers, and six knew of lap-dancers (there was obviously some overlap). But (and this is the kicker) the sample were also analysed for membership of what Roberts termed "risk groups": a history of alcoholism, prior sex abuse, and financial difficulties. Those thought to be in high risk groups were more likely than others to know someone involved in stripping or lap dancing. But this did not apply to prostitution.

Roberts speculated that the anonymity of the survey allowed for a significant degree of self-reporting. In other words, the "friend" involved in the sex industry was the respondent herself. If this is true (and it is pure speculation) then it suggests that such students might indeed earn money stripping. None of them, however, seem to have been prostitutes.

Needless to say, six students in a sample of less than 100 claiming to know of the existence of a student prostitute doesn't equate, as the Times suggested, to a similar percentage actually being engaged in prostitution. Any more than the finding in the earlier study that 22% claimed to know a drug dealer means that almost a quarter of students deal in drugs (though it may suggest that they know a supplier).

Roberts and his colleagues themselves seem unsure of the relevance of the survey. At one point, they write that

This study confirms a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence and replicates earlier work (Roberts et al., 2000) that suggests that students are participating in the sex industry as a consequence of financial hardship.

Yet they also stress (a point ignored by the Times) that the apparent increase from 4% to 6% in respondents claiming to know a sex worker was "not statistically significant."

We also acknowledge that the limited sample statistical power of the present study cannot establish with certainty whether students are involved in sex work as a direct consequence of rising financial hardship brought on by tuition fees.

Roberts's intentions would seem to be largely political. His paper makes much of the financial hardship facing students today, deplores the government's attitude to student finance, compares student prostitution with sex trafficking, and bemoans the fact that the government, the universities and student bodies have

so far shown little inclination to recognise or address the problems that are on their doorstep. This must change if progress is to be made. The question for universities and for the National Union of Students, is why their clientele are increasingly turning to employment which entails the provision of sexual services to a paying public with the potential cost of psychological and physical harm to themselves.

So much for the evidence. To his credit, Roberts does call for more extensive research to be done in the area. The media, on the other hand, are less concerned with evidence than with alarmism and titillation. That the "student escort" exists is not in doubt. There is much less evidence that the proportion of students involved in prostitution is significantly higher than in the population as a whole. It is unknown what percentage of the roughly 80,000 sex-workers in the UK (according to possibly exaggerated Home Office figures) are in full or part-time higher education. Nor is there any research asking what becomes of these women, although there are anecdotes aplenty. Some, no doubt, graduate and give up the game. Others may find it an easy living and keep it up, Belle de Jour style, for years afterwards. And others still will drop out of education and find themselves in a downward spiral of drug abuse, psychologicial problems and self-hatred. But who knows?

An unknown, but probably fairly small, number of students moonlighting as prostitutes is not in itself a social cataclysm, but it does make a great story. It plays into several contradictory stereotypes. On the one hand, the hard-up student forced to desperate measures by dire financial straits can be portrayed as a victim of the government's reforms of student finance. Yet the notion that a prostitute is more likely to be a confident, intelligent Oxbridge girl than a heroin-addicted single mother or a trafficked rape victim is a strangely positive one.

The "student escort girl" is a figure of fantasy, of admiration as well as of pity or scorn. She embodies, I think, many of our confusions about sex, money, feminism and modern morals. She represents the ruthless careerism and pragmatic attitude towards sex that seems to characterise the rising generation, a generation that came of age in an era of "raunch culture", spiralling property-prices, sex blogs, unsentimental globalisation and pervasive porn. She is, in short, an urban myth.

But then again, I knew a girl who did a bit of escort work back in the day. She's now quite prominent in one of our major political parties.