Guest Blog: Dr. Ron Roberts – Kingston University, London

“My name is Ron Roberts and I’m honoured that I was asked to add to the blogs which have appeared on The Student Sex Work Project website.

So, who am I? As Billie mentioned in her most recent contribution I’ve been conducting research regarding students’ participation in different forms of sex work since the millennium. Sadly this has not been welcomed in certain quarters. I thought I’d blog about this, so readers can find out what is really going on. The following bizarre story illustrates the extent to which certain groups will go to mask what is really going on regarding student’s involvement in the commercial sex industry….

On 20th June 2013 a piece appeared in The Independent on page 3 and was trailed on the front page under the banner ‘SEX FOR TUITION FEES: ARE UNIVERSITIES REFUSING TO FACE UP TO THE FACTS?’ The article mentioned some of the local difficulties I have had getting work cleared through ethics committees. It also presented information from my research that up to £355 million pounds a year could be going into the university coffers from the fees of students who work in the sex industry.

So far, so good. However, the next morning, I was woken up not by soothing music or the sound of birds singing, but a phone call from the producers of BBC Radio 5 Live. They first of all asked me about the accuracy of the story which I supported, followed by whether I would be willing to come into the studio around noon. This agreed, they then enquired as to why I thought The Independent were running the story. This seemed a daft question given that the paper had printed the story adjacent to a larger piece about IT consultant Mark Lancaster who had just appeared in court. Lancaster, through the website ‘SponsoraScholar’, had effectively been conning students to have sex with him “in exchange for a false offer to finance their studies”. The police described it as part of a “long term plan to identify and abuse vulnerable victims.”

Despite this, for some reason the Beeb were unable to make the link between the two pieces! Anyway – I was then asked by the intrepid BBC reporter, to whose phone call I had just awoken, if the work of mine that was referred to was new. I pointed out that it was in the current issue of the journal Sex Education and had been available since April. I was then told that this meant it was not news. Rather non-plussed I remarked that if it wasn’t news why were the BBC ringing me up at 9am? This sent the reporter scurrying off to her producer who eventually appeared on the line. I could only imagine what it must be like to work for this individual, who proceeded to shout down the phone for an age, showing little willingness for me to breathe let alone speak!

When I was finally able to get a word in – and it took several attempts on my part to do so – I was again interrupted with aggressive assertions that it wasn’t news. At this point I was rather confused as you might imagine! I politely attempted to ask him if the BBC considered this was not news, then why they had contacted me in the first place. I further suggested that I doubted whether the audience of Five Live had any idea until now of the extent of student involvement in sex work or how much money might be involved. Indeed – did the BBC’s remit not include the notion of informing their audience? In the view of this particularly grumpy producer it appeared not to – he slammed the phone down on me.

It would appear that some sections of the BBC evidently have a peculiar notion of what constitutes news – no surprise when one further considers that they have not exactly been forthcoming about the consequences of the Health & Social Welfare Bill or the ATOS induced deaths of thousands of disabled people. During the same week, hours of BBC coverage, and numerous pages on their web site, were devoted to research about cats (don’t get me wrong I love ’em) which included the startling revelation that some cats go next door to steal their neighbours’ cat’s food. Interesting. But newsworthy? Well, I’ll leave that one up to you.

As an addendum to this tale The Indy let me know that Universities UK who describe themselves as “the representative organisation for the UK’s universities” had tried to get them to drop the story. Ah, so much for free speech from the guardians of UK higher education! With such ‘friends’ as the BBC and Universities UK standing in the way of the public being well informed about student participation in sex work, it is just as well that the SSWP has been doing such fine work. Long may it continue”

Ron Roberts

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