Speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival, researchers Tracey Sagar and Debbie Jones claimed as many as one in 20 students sell their bodies to pay for tuition fees and living costs. File image
'What's the difference between doing [sexually explicit acts] on a webcam and working in a bar?' But her comments horrified campaigners, who called the remarks 'incredibly irresponsible and stupid'. The Student Sex Work project was a three-year study that carried out a survey of 6, 773 university students, using nearly half a million pounds of National Lottery funding.
It found sex work is just as common among male undergraduates as it is among female students. Many male students are in demand from hen parties to strip – through websites offering services such as 'butlers in the buff', the study said.
The academics claimed sex work was 'not inherently harmful' to students who 'should not be stigmatised' or disciplined for offering escort services on campus.
Professor Sagar, a former Met Police officer, said: 'The issue is, are they being exploited in their work? Are they mentally and physically exhausted in that work? Are they getting to their lectures on time?'
Asked if she thought earning money by carrying out sex acts on webcams would become as much a part of the student experience as stacking shelves, Professor Sagar said: 'Look at the data – 22 per cent are considering sex work. It's on the student radar...the indicators are there.'
She did not want to comment on whether parents should be worried about their children working in the sex industry at university, but said: 'I've got a daughter who went to university. I would want the university to have the right support services.'
Working as a stripper or prostitute at university is no different to working in a bar, researchers claim. File image
She added: 'Universities ought to recognise some of the student population are engaged with work in the sex industry and not to stigmatise them. They should offer help where it's needed. '
But last night Laura Perrins, of British political website Conservative Woman, said: 'It's an outrageous statement to compare working in a bar to prostitution.'
And Margaret Morrissey, of the pressure group Parents Out Loud, said: 'I think it's an incredibly irresponsible and stupid comment to make. What adults choose to do is up to them.
'But whilst you're still in education, you are a young person who hasn't had a lot of experience to be able to make the sort of informed decision this requires.' Mrs Morrissey added: 'It's not my right to make a decision on whether prostitution is wrong or right – personally, I think it's wrong, and I think it's one of the things that lowers the standards and morals of this country – but if that's your decision, as a responsible adult, then that's fine.
'But whilst you're in university, still being educated, learning and getting experience, then I think it is physically and morally a corrupt thing to do, or to encourage a young person to be involved in. It can lead to all sorts of terrible issues – blackmail, depression, all those things – which obviously are detrimental to young people's future.
'I have an 18-year-old granddaughter, and it would break my heart if her need for money to survive in university led her to even consider doing something like that. I do think that if anyone at the university is aware of this happening then they really have a moral responsibility to inform the students' parents.'