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The screen of  a smart phone says 'OnlyFans'
Financial strain exacerbated by the pandemic could be driving increased student sex work, whether through apps like OnlyFans or other platforms and avenues. (AP Photo/Tali Arbel)

Student sex work is happening, and universities need to respond with health services

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.

Read more: Rise in 'sugar babies' mirrors increase in student sex work

In Canada, the company Seeking, (formerly known as SeekingArrangement), which calls itself an “elite dating site,” reported in January this year on a page headed “Sugar Baby University” that over 350,000 students in Canada have “chosen to elevate their university experience by joining SeekingArrangement and dating successful benefactors who help them avoid student debt and secure a better future.” The company also said “the number of college Sugar Babies seeking Sugar Daddies on SeekingArrangement rose nearly three per cent from the previous year.” The company now discourages use of the term “sugar baby.”

“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 Canadian 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.

A woman's manicured hands on a cellphone.
Students experiencing mounting debts, including from higher education, may be particularly motivated to pursue sex work. (Freestocks/Unsplash)

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, the Canadian Public Health Association, 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.

Read more: Drop tuition fees: University students face a precarious future amid COVID-19

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 enrol in Canadian higher education seeking a pathway to immigrationoften face economic precarity, 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 — particularly counselling — than their non-sex-working peers.

Moreover, 2SLGBTQ+people are over-represented in student sex worker populations, which raises questions about how we can best support 2SLGBTQ+ students in higher education. The Canadian Public Health Association also reports that First Nations, Inuit and Métis people are over-represented in sex worker populations more broadly in Canada due to the ongoing effects of colonization, and we might reasonably assume that student sex workers’ demographic breakdown could be similar.

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.

A genderqueer student talks with a health professional.
Student wellness centres must factor student sex workers into how they design and implement services. (The Gender Spectrum Collection)

Legal context

The legal context of sex work in Canada is a bit of a grey zone. Although Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, does not criminalize the act of selling one’s own sexual services, it does criminalize the purchasing of another person’s sexual services.

This creates quasi-criminalized status for sex work where every time a sexual service is provided for compensation, a crime is taking place, even if student sex workers themselves are not culpable. Bill C-36 raises questions for higher education institutions in terms of what to do should sex work be taking place on campus (such as in a residence) or through institutional resources (advertising sexual services while using the institution’s internet).

Higher education institutions may also have legal responsibilities or liabilities if sex trafficking is happening on campus. However, it is important not to conflate sex work — a consensual sexual experience and form of work — with sex trafficking, in which someone is forced or coerced into sexual service.

Harm-reduction approach

The Canadian Public Health Association advocates for a harm-reduction approach to sex work, focusing 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 centres 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 2SLGBTQ+ students and campus supports for 2SLGBTQ+ 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 or more information are encouraged to reach out to Maggie’s Toronto or Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network.

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