Writer Belle Tindall explains why we should all be concerned by the recent figures that show more and more women are turning to sex work to pay their bills.
It took me maybe three or four read throughs of ITV’s recent research for it to properly sink in. More than 56,000 students in the UK are turning to sex work in order to pay their bills while studying at university. That’s a whopping three per cent of the student population, with another six per cent considering it a viable option if ever it was needed.
Sit in that for a moment - our future doctors and accountants, teachers and dentists, journalists and architects – having to sell their own bodies to survive while learning their trade. Those who have spent their childhood dreaming up their future careers are now having to engage in sex work while pursuing them. Young people who, ten years ago were watching the Disney Channel are now selling explicit images of themselves to do the food shop. Young people, who, in ten years’ time, will be teaching our children, taking our bloods, and advising us on our mortgages, all the while dealing with the inevitable trauma of what they had to endure while qualifying to do so.
This crisis has been hidden in plain sight. And, like I say, it’s taken me a little while to process this; it’s obvious that something has gone terribly wrong here - but what, exactly? What has led to this? How has this happened under our noses? How have we failed these people? I think the answer may be two-fold.
Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, these students are living through the same cost of living crisis that has us delaying putting our heating on and prompted This Morning to infamously make "paying your energy bills" a prize that their viewers could "spin to win". It’s not news to us that inflation has sprinted ahead, while our incomes are breathlessly trailing behind, failing to keep up. Well, the same is also the case with student maintenance loans, they simply can’t keep up, they no longer cover the cost of life. The Russel Group reported earlier this year that one in four students regularly go without food and other necessities because they cannot afford them – they are, on average, only £2 a week over the UK’s official poverty line. Of course, this is felt most keenly by students who are from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.
One in four students regularly go without food and other necessities because they cannot afford them.
Our society pushes people into universities and then allows them to go hungry while there. So, what are these young people doing, how are they coping? Well, it appears that they’re increasingly being forced to engage in "survival sex". And that brings me to what I would suggest is the second root of this crisis - our culture’s sexual disenchantment.
While this phrase may be relatively new to me, the idea really isn’t. Sexual disenchantment is the (pretty recent) idea that sex is meaningless. That is the belief that sex is just one of the many social interactions we have on any given day, akin to making a coffee for a colleague in the office, or meeting someone for a game of table-tennis. There is nothing inherently unique, sacred, or distinct about it. At least, not if we decide there isn’t. Any emotion attributed to sex can be an added extra. If this is the story we’re telling each other, and ourselves, then it’s no wonder that people are viewing their bodies as something that could help them out of their profound financial troubles.
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But here’s the thing; while we may believe on some ideological level that sexual disenchantment is true, most of us simply don’t live like it is. For example, if there is no unique understanding of sexual activity, there can be no unique understanding of sexual assault. And yet - both instinctively and legally, that’s not how we perceive it. And so, I would predict that we’re about to have ourselves 56,000 very hurt individuals.
Can I be really honest with you? Ever the people-pleaser and ever the feminist, I was nervous about taking the second half of the piece in this direction. This is mainly because there’s the whole "sex work is legitimate work" argument that came out of the Sexual Revolution and has become a staple of secular feminist thought. And I appreciate what such sentiments are trying to do - they’re demanding dignity and respect for the women (and men) who, for various reasons, are in this line of work. And I would never want to heap shame or stigma upon a single one of them. But then I read the words of "David", a student who has been selling images of himself to buy food: "Every time I pull out my phone to create content I almost feel sick of the idea of what I’m doing because it’s kind of disgusting…"
That’s just not OK. No "re-framing" of terms can make that alright. That cannot be understood as normal, surely? We have to do better for David and the 56,000 others, both as a society and as the Church.
No more sexual exploitation, not on the Early Church’s watch.
Did you know that there was a sexual revolution in the first century? In 1st Century Graeco-Roman households, it was utterly taken for granted that the bodies of enslaved people were objects to be possessed, owned, and utilised for physical gratification. People in disadvantaged situations were regarded as nothing more than literal products for their powerful neighbours – it was sexual disenchantment gone wild. And it was within this context that a radical sexual revolution began to bubble up. This revolution was fuelled by the idea of imago Dei, the notion that every person was made in the very image of the one who did the making, and saved by the one who died because of his love for them. Therefore, every person is worthy of unconditional dignity and worth, of being acknowledged for the uniquely valuable individual that they are. No more sexual exploitation, not on the Early Church’s watch. After all, Christianity, in its very essence, wages war on such things.
And that’s why we should be very angry about what’s happening: not angry at the 56,000, angry for them.