Academic Prostitution

I admit I was fascinated by the story of Belle de Jour, the high class call girl, who became famous through her blog, book and TV series. I may not have read the book but I was fanatic about, initially, the blog and, then, the series, in which a sassy Billy Piper lives the high life in vibrant London. Throughout this time I thought that Belle was a fictitious character born by the perverse imagination of a male author. You can guess my surprise and subsequent curiosity when I found out not only that she is made of flesh and blood but also that she is a respected scientist in the University of Bristol. A colleague that crossed the river of respectability and attempted the unimaginable!

I was not alone in my reaction. The story excited the imagination, if not the sexual fantasies, of a number of academics who got engaged in a heated debate about the topic. As it became known that Belle entered the profession during the last year of her PhD, there were concerns about the financial situation of our postgraduate students. Does Academia push them to prostitution in order to complete their research? Conveniently, Belle answered a resounding No! She claimed that she did not finance her studies through her nocturnal adventures. After all, the fees for her PhD were paid over the first three years, while the fourth probably came for free.

And yet, how many PhD students do you know that finish within the allocated time? At least in ancient history the fourth year is almost obligatory, as statistics would indicate. Despite the fact that a thesis takes longer than expected, research councils continue to fund only the first three years. Should we be surprised that some of our students would turn to other means for their survival? During their final year they desperately need three things: money for food, time to write and company to keep their sanity. What are their options?  If they get a job it will take them longer to submit their work, with dire consequences for their career. If they opt for the part time option, they will end up malnourished (a friend of mine survived on potatoes and pasta for the good part of the last 6 months).  And if they chose to enjoy the company of other human beings, they will lose both time and money. Belle found the perfect solution: a part time job that provided for her welfare, allowed her time to do research and brought her in physical contact with men. Who can suggest anything better?

Economic historian and numismatic consultant


  1. Golly – I do hope that Belle’s variety of employment does not become accepted as an alternative funding model, as I’m not sure many of us who have laboured through university education would have all that much earning potential.

    On a more serious note, there is anecdotal evidence of sex work as a response of students here in South Africa to a combination of the financial demands of education and the usual imperatives of the aspirational in an intensely materialistic society; though I’m not sure if anyone has done serious work on it. Given the legal, medical, social, and future employment risks, it’s more than a little worrying.

    • Terrence, I am sure that ancient historians have some hidden qualities and they may well cater for a certain type of customers. But you are right that we should not entirely rely on those. Maybe we can persuade research councils to change their policies and allow researchers to lead fulfilling and healthy lives.

  2. I can imagine the benefits. But this is a solution that is suitable only for certain people. For unattractive PhD students malnutrition is the only option.

  3. Why should somebody be attractive? I thought that prostitutes catered for all tastes. And tastes can be so different!

  4. I totally agree, I’m working on my flexibility, but hope the university might take a more flexible stance on fourth years before it comes to that!

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