Few industries have remained unchanged post-pandemic. There have been disruptions in almost every major industry across the globe and institutions have found novel approaches to stay afloat in the face of adversities. The sex work and porn industry is no exception. The wheels keep turning but daily practices have seen significant changes with a major boom in the number of sex workers during the pandemic and the period that followed. Sex work is moving to online platforms like Onlyfans and the field is saturated with diverse actors including students.
Sex work is legal in the Netherlands but regulating the sex work industry has seen several challenges with laws related to the legal age for prostitution and sex work being questioned in recent times. Interestingly, this coincides with a sudden spike in the number of students engaging in sex work. This makes the boundaries of the industry increasingly blurry while raising questions that touch upon the intersection between morality and legality. “ I think there is definitely this kind of underlying fear in the Netherlands of middle-class good girls, usually good white girls getting drawn into this type of work. And what does that mean for the morality of the nation?”, says Pheobe, coordinator at the Prostitution Information Centrum, Amsterdam (PIC).
A silent phenomenon
The Netherlands is a popular destination for students in Europe as well as internationally, with several provinces having a high concentration of residents with student status. Open source investigation on social media sites reveals instances of students soliciting sex work in the Netherlands. “When I heard that you can masturbate in front of a webcam in Amsterdam and get a few hundred euros for it, I immediately moved here”, said Flora, a student from Canada to the NOS.
The great puzzle however is that there are no conclusive data sets that provide a clear picture as to the number of students who are currently engaged in online sex work in the Netherlands. The NOS reported that about 6 percent of the students in Amsterdam have taken up sex work as a side job and 27 percent of them have considered it. The sample size of 363 students from which the University of Amsterdam has drawn this conclusion is small, but it reveals that there is a rising trend amongst students working as prostitutes or webcam girls in the Netherlands.
So if it’s happening, why is there no data?
Stigma associated with sex work
The sex work industry has been historically shrouded in stigma. Instances of sex workers being fired from regular jobs because of their background in sex work upon being discovered aren’t uncommon. For this reason, many who engage in sex work prefer to keep it under the covers. According to Lyle Muns, an activist who took up sex work during his student days in Amsterdam, many students who engage in sex work do not feel free to speak about it openly. “Very often people do this in secrecy. I know a lot of people, of course, but that’s also due to my job and my activism”, says Lyle.
Impact of COVID
Lyle also stresses the impact of Covid on the sex work industry and how it fundamentally changed how sex work is done. The popularity of online platforms such as Onlyfans appears to have been associated with people losing their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Many of these people including students took up sex work as an additional or primary source of income. “So I think the impact of COVID was that more students than we are aware of are involved in sex work. But how much I cannot tell in any objective way. But I know many, many and most people I know, their parents don’t know, their friends don’t know. So it’s probably more than all of us expect”, says Lyle.
Denial by universities
Universities deny that there is a rising number of students who are taking up part-time sex work according to Pheobe, an academic studying sex work, who also works at the PIC in Amsterdam. Phoebe has been a sex worker since her student days in the United Kingdom. “The kind of denial that there are sex workers in universities is huge. And the idea in both the Netherlands and in the UK that, oh, we shouldn’t be providing services in university for sex workers because then we’re encouraging sex work is a denial of the fact that there are already people working in sex work”, says Pheobe.
Conflict with the Law
Information on the government.nl website states that prostitution is legally recognised as a profession in the Netherlands as long as it is between consenting adults. However, the cabinet has recently launched a move to criminalize sex work below the age of 21. While this is not national law yet, some municipalities have gone forward and enforced it locally.
According to Lyle, this could be a major contributing factor for students not revealing that they are engaging in sex work. “Many municipalities have been increasing the age to 21, and I see several problems with that. First of all, I don’t think it will keep people from doing sex work”, says Lyle. He further adds, “ If you would increase the age to 21, you will basically criminalize it for most students because most people study from the age of 18 and they have a three-year bachelor until the age of 21”.
Distinction between licenced and unlicensed sex work and the issue of privacy
The new national law sought to be introduced by the Dutch cabinet also criminalizes sex work without a permit. Getting a licence means the personal details of sex workers become a part of public records that can be accessed at any time. Students primarily belong to the category of unlicenced sex workers. The risk of public scrutiny therefore further enhances the stigma already faced by students engaging in sex work who chose to keep such matters private. “ It means that our details are going to be public knowledge, full names, where we work, what we’re doing, which then puts us under massive danger of targeting, stalking or doxing”, says Pheobe.
Grey areas when it comes to students self-identifying as sex workers
Another issue with collecting data on student sex workers in the Netherlands is that students who engage in sex work very often don’t identify themselves as sex workers. While there are students who do sex work as a primary source of income, many students engage in it only occasionally with selective clients.
According to Lyle, “Sex work is when you offer sexual services in any kind or way and you get money for it.”. However, Lyle confirms that he is aware that many students who engage in sex work sporadically, refuse to identify themselves as sex workers.
Motivations behind more students opting for sex work:
Rising living Costs
While numbers cannot be found to substantiate claims of a rising number of students engaging in sex work in Europe and the Netherlands, experts in the field unanimously agree that the phenomenon is real. Rising prices of essential commodities, the housing crisis and the energy crisis have all contributed to the rise in students taking up sex work as part-time gigs. “I think as long as housing prices go up and as long as the cost of living goes up, you will see a positive correlation with sex work. And this is the same with university fees. We see that as university fees go up and the cost of living goes up, so does sex work”, says Pheobe.
Less working hours higher pay
Added to this is the fact that sex work, especially online, involves flexible working hours and higher pay in comparison to other student jobs. “Many students don’t engage with sex work but also have a side job. They will work in the supermarket or at a bar but make ten times lesser money. So you need to make a choice for yourself”, says Lyle.
Societal and moral judgments faced by student sex workers
According to Pheobe, a major reason why data on student sex workers does not reflect reality is how higher education at universities distances scholarship and intelligence from sex work. “I also think it’s an attribute to intelligence because people assume that sex workers are not intelligent enough to do any other work, and that’s why they do it”, says Pheobe. According to her, this is the underlying message behind universities not explicitly pledging support for students who opt for sex work to finance their education.
A legal system that is failing sex workers’ rights
Dutch law considers sex work at par with other professions on paper. In practice, however, experts have reservations as to whether the existing laws and those that are being proposed by the cabinet sufficiently protect the rights and interests of sex workers in the Netherlands. This has a direct impact on students (who are some of the most vulnerable groups in the sex work spectrum) not revealing their engagement with sex work.
Apart from seeking to uniformly criminalize sex work below the age of 21 and unlicensed sex work, the new laws that the cabinet seeks to pass will also make it illegal for sex workers to work from home anywhere in the Netherlands. So far, students who engage in online sex work primarily work from home.
This law is already in force in the municipality of Amsterdam. “For students in Amsterdam to do sex work legally, they technically have to rent another office to do that work. I can tell you ninety percent of the students who are doing sex work in Amsterdam on computers and webcams are not renting extra offices. They don’t have the money for it”, says a student sex worker from Amsterdam who wished to remain anonymous. She further adds that if these students get caught, their landlord has the right to evict them because the landlord could be framed by law enforcement authorities as exploiting the tenant (student sex worker). According to her, a major reason why law enforcement authorities may be unaware of the ground reality of the effect of these laws is that sex workers don’t want them to. “You know, knowledge is power and if you have that power, you can make it harder for sex workers. And, you know, the police haven’t got the best record in the world when it comes to sex workers”, she says.
Her sentiments are echoed by Lyle who told the GO, “They (law-makers) are trying to make criminal doing sex work at home or they’re trying to close down the legal workspaces. So if I would characterize the Dutch legal tendency and political tendencies, it’s not to give sex workers more rights rather in the last 20 years it has been about taking away rights from sex workers, sadly.”
According to Pheobe universities can play a pivotal role in de-stigmatizing sex work in the student community. Universities could set up sex worker society groups that would allow student sex workers to network, congregate and share tips and tricks to work safely in the sex work industry. “I think that there needs to be active communication with students, sex workers and the sex workers to feel that if they come forward and admit that there are sex workers, that there’s not going to be consequences for that”, says Pheobe.
The GO contacted Elies Kouwenhoven the spokesperson for the university of Groningen to enquire about the support provided to students who engage in sex work as a means to supplement their incomes. Elies said the university is unaware of a sudden boom in the number of students engaging in sex work while adding, “Everyone has the freedom to find any side job they want in addition to their studies, which includes sex work. Of course, when they need help our structures are open for this, just like for anyone else”.