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Science Careers Blog

February 28, 2012

Medical Students May Increasingly Turn to Prostitution to Pay Bills

Prostitution has long been seen as an unorthodox indicator for the state of the job market.  An essay in the British Medical Journal suggests that this might be especially true for debt-laden students with dwindling job opportunities -- including medical students.

Author Jodi Dixon, a final-year medical student at the University of Birmingham, U.K., describes a 2010 study of 315 students at London University in which 1 in 10 reported knowing a fellow student who had turned to prostitution out of financial necessity. "Jobs in shops and pubs that students usually take up to cover living costs are increasingly scarce and low paid," says Sarah Walker, spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). "For women -- it's a survival strategy they are driven into by poverty." If many students are apparently turning to sex work to cover tuition and living expenses, that would seem to indicate that tuition costs are intolerably high.

Dixon speculates that prostitution could be even more prevalent among medical students than it is in the general student population. At the root of the problem is the issue of sky-high tuition which puts a large financial burden on young people, she says. Medical students in the United Kingdom, she points out, often graduate with a large debt burden. If we don't address the issue, she says, we shouldn't be surprised to see more and more students turning to a professionally risky, physically dangerous alternative source of income. (Dixon doesn't make this point, but in the United States, tuition -- and student debt -- is vastly higher than in the U.K. Choosing a U.S. medical school at random, Stanford's medical school charges $46,593. Undergraduate medical students from outside the U.K. at the University of Birmingham pay £9000 until their final year, which is free. Graduate medical students at Birmingham pay less than £6000. So if there's a prostitution problem, it's likely much worse over here than over there.) 

Many people who go into prostitution fail to adequately consider the risks, Dixon says. It's dangerous work, often far removed from its glamorous portrayals in the media, she adds. (Take, for instance, the story of Brooke Magnanti, who worked as a "high class call girl" while earning a Ph.D. in informatics, epidemiology, and forensic science at the University of Sheffield. Her story was turned into a U.K. television series.)

What's more, in the United Kingdom, prostitution itself is not illegal, and most medical schools apparently have no policies related to student prostitution. It's unclear whether engaging in prostitution would violate a school's honor or conduct codes. Even if it doesn't, students considering prostitution should consider the potential damage to their professional reputations. In light of the realities of high tuition and low job opportunities, medical schools should think about adopting clear policies so that students are informed about how a decision to go into prostitution could affect them, she says.

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