Wales' student sex trade study starts at Swansea Uni
The number of students in Wales working in the sex industry needs to be researched, the former chief constable of South Wales Police has said.
Barbara Wilding said there was an "emerging" picture of students turning to sex work, such as prostitution, erotic dancing and escort work.
A Swansea University project is trying to gauge the scale of the issue.
Ms Wilding said it was important to find out if students were forced into the work.
She added that support also needed to be put in place.
Swansea University is carrying out a three year study into concerns that students in Wales are turning to prostitution and other sex work.
It is feared some may have turned to it as a way of funding their studies.
However, there is only anecdotal evidence in Wales and the university believes an in-depth study into the issue is needed.
It has been given £489,143 of funding from the Big Lottery Fund to find out how big the issue is and to help provide support.
As part of its research it is launching the website - the Student Sex Work Project - on Friday, which researchers hope will prompt student sex workers to get in touch anonymously to share their views and experiences.
Ms Wilding, chair of the board of governors at Cardiff Metropolitan University, said there was much still unknown about the issue in Wales.
"This is an emerging area and this is the area we don't know very much about at all," she said.
"In fact what we don't know really is what the scale of it is in Wales."
She said research from the National Union of Students and sexual health agencies suggested that the problem was growing.
She pointed to studies in England, including one from the English Collective of Prostitutes which said calls to its helpline from students had doubled in 12 months.
"We need to know whether we have got the appropriate response to it and what's the motivation and can we do something about that as well, because it can be a very vulnerable area of activity for anyone to get involved in," she added.
'Driven into it'
Ms Wilding, who stood down as chief constable in 2009, said during her time as a police officer working on the streets in London in the 1970s she had often come into contact with women who were prostitutes and sex workers.
"This isn't a new game," she said.
"But they were mainly people who had drug addiction or had mental health problems or in really desperate desperate financial situations. They were often driven into it with no choice.
"Whereas with students we think we are dealing with a different set of circumstances.
"They are intelligent, starting their lives."
She admitted she was "surprised" when she was told about the evidence in her role as committee member at the Big Lottery Fund Wales.
She said she had asked staff at Cardiff Metropolitan University if they knew anything about the problem.
"Recently the chaplain there has become aware of men and women becoming involved in sex work," she added.
She added it was important to find out whether students were choosing to take part in sex work or whether they were being forced into it.
Dr Tracey Sagar, a lecturer at the university's Centre for Criminal Justice and Criminology who specialises in the regulation of sex work and is leading the project, said she hoped the research would "ensure that the right policies and services are in place for young people who engage in the sex markets in Wales".
Hannah Pudner, director of NUS Wales, said the research was "more important now than ever".
"We are coming across more and more stories of female students turning to the sex industry to fund their studies," she added.
Visitors to the website can also access comprehensive sexual health and personal safety advice.