sexuality: Scholarly vs. popular media source comparison
According to Roberts (et al. 2010), sexuality is becoming increasingly viewed as a commodity in the discourse of the western urban economy. Various terms that have been applied to this new emerging culture include 'striptease culture' and a 'pleasure-saturated culture' in which highly sexualized services and images such as lap-dancing have become mainstreamed and common (Roberts et al. 2010). Contrary to stereotypes that only lower-class women participate in the sex trade out of desperation, there has been a growing trend towards normalizing exotic dancing and other once-fringe aspects of the sex industry. For example, some students are resorting to sex work as a way of paying off exorbitant student loans. Previous studies have found that mitigating factors to students entering the sex industry include "family support, boyfriends, body image, self-confidence, and a lack of knowledge of (how to enter) the sex industry" (Roberts et al. 2010: 147). Thus while moral considerations may indeed be a factor, they are not the only factor dictating student choice.
To better understand this phenomenon, the article's authors used an opportunity sample of 315 full-time and part-time undergraduate students from a single university in the south of England (Roberts et al. 2010: 147). Although the majority of participants were female (67.3%), the sample was not exclusively female-dominated (Roberts et al. 2010: 148). The format was that of a semi-structured questionnaire on student attitudes. Information was also collected on the students' demographic information. Topics included financial and employment-related information as well as personal views on the sex industry. Although psychological factors did play a role regarding students' "widespread awareness, understanding and, to a lesser extent, acceptance amongst the student population of sex work as a facet of contemporary student life that exists alongside high levels of debt and long working hours outside study," overall financial considerations as motivator dominated the responses (Roberts et al. 2010: 152). One in seven students said they would consider sex work for financial reasons. Interestingly, more males than females expressed a willingness to participate in the sex industry for financial reasons.
The nature of the survey was primarily attitudinal and the possibility of students engaging in wish fulfillment should not be underestimated. Still, the fact that students offered relatively positive assessments of the potential to pay off high school fees should not be disregarded. Rather than a formal, experimental study, the researchers deployed both qualitative and quantitative analysis to the responses (which included open as well as close-ended questions) to better understand student perceptions and feelings.
Roberts, R. (2010 et al.). Participation in sex work: Students Views. Sex Education. 10 (2):
According to the Daily Mail, in the UK more and more students are relying upon sex work to pay for their daily expenses. The article reports that the National Union of Students noted that sex work, gambling and medical experiments are on the rise as a way for students to afford their educations and daily costs of living. Students have seen the "scrapping" of their EMA (education maintenance allowance) and new regulations have allowed universities to start charging higher fees. An estimated 20% of women working in lap dancing clubs are students. The NUS said they did not have a formal, statistical study to back up their claims but noted considerable anecdotal evidence in support of their contention (Increasing number of students turning to sex industry, 2011, Daily Mail). The UK government did not deny this but did release a statement noting that despite doing away with the EMA, "there is a generous package of financial support to help with living costs in the form of loans and non-repayable grants" (Increasing number of students turning to sex industry, 2011, Daily Mail).
However, the article profiles a representative university student by the name of Claire who said that after her EMA was taken away, she was given the choice of either finding a lower-paying job that would conflict with her university classes vs. escort work, which was better-paying and offered more flexible hours. "[My friend]He told me how much I could earn, how the hours would fit around me, that I could control who I saw, when I saw them and how often….I couldn't see any other option. I did this so I could go to college, go to university, for it to have a positive effect on the rest of my life'" (Increasing number of students turning to sex industry, 2011, Daily Mail). Claire did not adopt the profession because of her desire to engage in sex work for psychological reasons, according to the article, but because of financial considerations.
Increasing number of students turning to sex industry. (2011). Daily Mail. Retrieved from;
Both the scholarly Roberts (et al. 2010) article and the article from the Daily Mail have the same basic theses: students are adopting sex work because they find themselves financially strapped in the wake of recent government reforms. The scholarly article primarily chronicles the results of a research study conducted by the authors focusing on student attitudes while the popular media source instead focuses on anecdotes. Both articles acknowledge the limitations of their assertions. The Daily Mail article admits that the National Union of Students has not conducted a formal study to prove a dramatic spike in sex work amongst university students, although it does note a surprisingly high number of university women working as lap dancers (without specifically noting the source of this). In contrast, the Roberts (et al. 2010) article has an extensive literature review of previous work on the topic.
The conclusions of the scholarly article are far more modest, focusing on a study of an apparent shift in student attitudes more so than actually documenting changes in the sex industry. The two articles make distinctly different claims based upon the evidence they use: the scholarly article suggests that student attitudes towards sex work has changed because of economic reasons; the popular article states that there have been behavioral changes as the result of a specific government policy, namely the end of EMA benefits.
There is also a noteworthy difference in terms of how the two articles deal with gender-related differences. The Daily Mail article does not highlight gender-related issues specifically, although the only student it profiles is female. In contrast, although the majority of students surveyed by Roberts (et al. 2010) were female, a substantial minority were male and actually seemed to have a more rather than a less accepting attitude to sex work, particularly heterosexual sex work.
Unsurprisingly, the scholarly article takes a more cautious approach in making claims about its findings. The popular article makes a broad connection between gambling, participating in paid medical experiments, and sex work and the difficulties students are experiencing paying for university. The overall portrait it offers is one of sheer desperation. The scholarly article, however, does not make any claims about a rise in gambling or engaging in other desperate acts to pay for school. Although it does see economics as the root of changes in sexual attitudes, it is more inclined to allow for subtle cultural influences (such as the rise of a hyper-sexualized culture) that explain its findings.
The most valuable aspect of the scholarly approach is clearly its balanced, nuanced attitude. The tone of the popular article is far more sensationalistic because it draws broader conclusions from incomplete data, including pronouncements not based in statistical research and a handful of personal experiences. On the other hand, given the equally limited size and scope of the scholarly article, it could be argued that the trappings of scholarship can give too much weight to a singular research study just because it was conducted by academics. Still, at least academic scholars will admit the limited nature of their study's conclusions.
From the point-of-view of a researcher, both articles could be valuable in a study of human sexuality: the scholarly article is a survey of student attitudes conducted under controlled research conditions while the popular article discusses both changes in government policy towards student funding as well as offers anecdotal evidence of a change in generational attitudes. However, only the scholarly article has peer-reviewed evidence to back up its claims. It is less anecdotal in nature and more cautious in its claims yet in its literature review and discussion section offer a more subtle understanding of the phenomenon.
But merely because the quality of information which can be obtained from academic sources is of superior and more objective nature does not mean that researchers can entirely afford to ignore the information provided by popular sources, particularly in regards to hot-button issues such as sexuality. First of all, even if the coverage is sensationalistic, popular sources can provide a valuable springboard of ideas for research in the social sciences. And the media can also act as a kind of mirror of how the culture views a particular issue (such as 'sex for sale') even…