A Varsity photo illustration outside Senate HouseJoe Cook

Content note: this article contains mention of sexual assault and suicide

“I struggled to balance the need to perform sex work, to afford necessities, the need to attend lectures and do academic work, and my need to rest and look after my diminishing physical health. I couldn't manage it”, said Taylor*, a Cambridge student who took on sex work alongside their degree after facing severe difficulties covering financial expenses.

Taylor told Varsity that they went into sex work while in Cambridge because they could not obtain the financial support needed to cover necessary expenses. Another student who spoke to Varsity, Sam*, said that they entered sex work because they felt it would offer financial independence they could not otherwise obtain.

Taylor said that they needed the additional financial support to afford to live in private rent accommodation, along with unforeseen expenses, and costs relating to their disability. They were unable to live in college accommodation because they required mental health provisions that the college could not accommodate.

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At one point, changes in their living situation meant they had to pay a sum upfront, which they could not afford.

The nature of their disability also meant they could not work long hours alongside necessary work for their degree. They had previously left home due to a “hostile” relationship with their family. This, alongside their family’s financial situation, meant they could not turn to them to help with rent payments.

The student reached out to two different members of University and College staff to seek financial support, but their experiences with these two individuals put them off approaching anyone else in the University for advice or assistance.

They were offered some financial assistance, however it was insufficient to cover their expenses.

A spokesperson for the University said, "We take student welfare very seriously, and we encourage any student who is struggling financially or with mental health difficulties to seek help from their College or the University."

Believing themself unable to find financial support elsewhere, Taylor entered sex work: “I felt that sex work was the only reliable choice.”

By the end of the process, they said they had started to feel ashamed for being poor – a shame they did not feel when it came to sex work.

Taylor has now intermitted. Currently, they rely entirely on sex work as a source of income, their funding having stopped once they intermitted, as is standard practice of Student Finance England, which does not consider intermitting students to be full-time, and so withdraws any student loans and maintenance payments. Last year, a Varsity investigation spoke to students left financially abandoned when they intermitted due to government policy inconsistencies in providing state support.

Shortly before intermitting, they said that the pressure of balancing their degree, covering their finances, and looking after their worsening mental health caused them to be “in constant distress”, and that they “ended up attempting suicide not long before [they] had to intermit”.

“I've never spoken to staff members about it because the stigma has felt so intense”

“Sex work granted me financial security and independence in a way [I was unable to with the University], and has allowed me to survive whilst intermitting when I have no student loan, no access to benefits and cannot work more than a handful of hours a week,” Taylor said.

Their sex work has placed them in situations of intense risk. They told Varsity they have been assaulted “several times”.

“I think some men do not understand that even sex workers have boundaries and consent still matters. I have been strangled without warning, held in a location only to be sexually assaulted without payment, pressured into drinking [and] drug use”.

A University of Cambridge spokesperson added, “these accounts show just how dangerous sex work can be, and living with the risk of physical harm can lead sex workers to enter a downward spiral in terms of their mental health. We remain concerned for these students, and urge them to seek wellbeing support either through their Colleges or through the University Counselling Service.

“They will not be judged, and there are specialist community support services for sex workers, such as Streetlight, who are there to help.”

For Sam*, their decision to go into sex work was made in order to gain financial independence and stability. They said, “Coming to Cambridge and seeing how financially unstable I was compared to everyone else, as well as how many people constantly relied on their parents, sex work seemed a natural way to gain financial stability in an independent and comfortable way, since it was a bonus and not necessary for me to survive.”

Sam works mainly in sugaring – having a sugar daddy – because they said this is the thing they’re most comfortable with.

Sam’s disability meant that they had few ways available to them of earning money.

They, too, have found themself in very dangerous situations. “I find that many clients interpret ‘no’ as ‘yes’, and only stop when threatened explicitly with police intervention,” they said.

The nature of sex work often makes workers vulnerable to harm. A 2016 NUS survey of students who identified themselves as having been involved in sex work found that 47% of those surveyed had experience sexual assault while working, and 30% reported a physical assault. However, due to the taboo nature of the work, 82% of those survey respondents said they had not reported incidents that occurred while they were working to the police.

This leaves sex workers as a group who are simultaneously in need of protection, and difficult to protect.


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For Taylor, turning to sex work was something they felt to be a financial necessity, yet in doing so, they now feel unable to seek support from the University, their college, staff or fellow students due to the stigma surrounding their work.

Both Taylor and Sam fear being kicked out of the University if they come forward with their work. They are also worried that speaking openly about their work could result in ostracisation from students, and mistreatment from staff.

Taylor said, “I've never spoken to staff members about it because the stigma has felt so intense I've been afraid of being thrown out.” Their fear is, in part, due to the fact that the University has no explicit policy on students engaging in sex work.

Taylor remains unsure about whether they will be able to return to the University to finish their degree. “I sustained a lot of trauma from the chronic stress I went through dealing with all these issues and I don't think I could face it again, knowing that nothing has changed, that there still isn't any real support,” they said.

*The names of the students who spoke to Varsity have been changed.

If you have been affected by issues mentioned in this article, you can contact the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org, and the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visit mind.org.uk

  • This article was updated on 23rd November to include an additional statement from the University on seeking support.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following organisations provide support and resources: