10% of medical students are... what now?
Quite often, the story isn't the most interesting thing about the news - it's how it's reported.
Last week it was impossible to ignore the screaming headlines:
Excerpts from these articles include:
"SKINT medical students are turning to prostitution to help pay their tuition fees, a Birmingham student has claimed. University of Birmingham student Jodi Dixon said a survey revealed that one in 10 trainee medics has a friend who sells sex to cope with higher living costs and rising tuition fees."
"One in ten wannabe doctors has a friend who sells sex to meet rocketing tuition and living costs."
"Sex work among medical students is on the rise, claims a new editorial, published in the journal Student BMJ. The UK-based publication noted that students are likely seeking extreme measures to deal with their financial hardship. One in 10 students knows of another who participated in prostitution to pay their medical student loans, according to the editorial."
"Of course, many more students who are in significant debt do not seek out sex work to pay it off. Students who have been sexually abused in the past or came from a household where they watched "flagrant sexual encounters" are more likely to rationalize the pursuit of sex work to pay the bills."
"...an owner of a massage parlor in Leeds told the BBC World Service: “In my day, people went to university in order to avoid this kind of life, but now they lead this kind of life in order to go to university.” People in the healing profession shouldn’t have to become part of the world’s oldest profession in order to help others."
"Medic students are increasingly turning to the sex trade to pay for university tuition fees, a survey has found. One in 10 trainee doctors claim to know peers prostituting themselves in order to fund their studies. The figure is more than twice as high as it was 10 years ago, when only 4% said they knew of someone working in the industry."
"No matter how many college loans you may still have to pay off, be thankful if you’re not a medical student in the United Kingdom, where students are increasingly turning to prostitution to pay off debt and their tuition bills."
So what WAS the real story? Old evidence, rumour, and a lot of speculation, actually. And absolutely nothing to do with Birmingham, and very little to do with medical students.
Jodi Dixon, a medical student at Birmingham, wrote an article for the Student British Medical Journal, reporting the findings of a 2010 survey of 315 undergraduates (not medical students) at a London university, in which 25% of the students surveyed knew of a student who was working in the sex industry, primarily lap dancing and stripping. 10% of the students surveyed knew a student working as a "prostitute or escort". When asked why they thought a student would enter sex work, 93% (and this includes the 230+ who didn't know of a sex worker) thought they did it for financial reasons. Note the expression "knew of a student" - this doesn't imply that they, personally, knew a student working in the sex industry, just that they had heard of one.
Ms Dixon then went on to speculate on the links between sex work and rising tuition fees, and the implications that might have for medical students:
"In 2007, the Journal of Further and Higher Education published the results of a survey exploring students’ attitudes towards sex work, in which 130 undergraduate students from a London university were interviewed. Compared with similarly obtained data from 2000 and 2010, the proportion of students who knew of students using prostitution to support themselves financially increased from 3.99% in 2000 to 6.3% in 2006 and 9.8% in 2010, correlating with a rise in tuition fees from a maximum of £1345 (€1623; $2120) to £3000 per year. These trends suggest a direct association between increasing debt and the prevalence of prostitution among students.
The average student today will graduate with a debt of about £25 000. For medical students, who generally study for another two to three years, with more intense working hours and less time for paid employment, the levels of debt are higher. When the current coalition government’s plans go ahead to allow universities to charge fees of up to £9000 per year, the British Medical Association (BMA) estimates that medical students’ debts could increase to almost £70 000. With this estimate not including overdrafts, credit cards, and professional loans that many students depend on, final debt levels, especially in major cities, could be much higher."
It's an interesting jumble of speculations, but it doesn’t quite add to up to 10% of medical students moonlighting as escorts. While I believe in a link between higher tuition fees and sex work, I’d also be interested in knowing whether students who work in the sex industry are also becoming more vocal about it. But that might require speaking to actual sex workers, rather than passing off gossip and speculation as definitive research.