A growing number of students are turning to sex work to fund their studies as they struggle to cope with increasing debt and living costs, a new student finance survey has revealed.
BuzzFeed News spoke to student sex workers who said that they had developed sugar daddy relationships or taken to selling intimate pictures and videos online because their maintenance loans fail to cover their day-to-day expenses.
Save the Student’s national student money survey, released last week, has found that 3% of UK students are financing their studies with adult work, rising to 4% when faced with a cash crisis. The research found that almost 1 in 10 students use their body to raise money in an emergency — be that through drug trials or sex work.
Data suggests that one of the fastest-growing areas of student sex work is sugar daddy/sugar baby arrangements. In 2017, 75,000 UK students registered with the sugar daddy website SeekingArrangement, which represented a 30% increase from the previous year.
However, as numbers of “sugar babies” on UK campuses grow, students say they fear being found out and disciplined for “bringing their university into disrepute”.
For some students, sugar daddies are less of a necessity and more a means to enjoying a better lifestyle at university, allowing them to travel, go out partying more often, and live in better accommodation than many of their peers. However, others sell sex as a way to survive.
“I'm an EU citizen who spent the past five years in the US pursuing an undergraduate degree before returning. Now I'm off to London to continue my studies,” one student, Jemma, told BuzzFeed News. (Like the other students interviewed for this article, she asked us not to use her real name.)
After accepting a place at a business school in London, she placed an ad on Craigslist and received around 200 replies, of which she considered accepting offers from between a quarter and a third.
“Most wanted me to live with them, which is just out of the question,” Jemma said. “A free place to stay — their place — in exchange for what ranged from ‘the company of a woman’ to sexual acts four times a week.
“I was aiming for my own fully paid flat, which a good amount were willing to provide — some for sex, some for kinkier things (BDSM, findom [financial domination], etc), and some for the ‘girlfriend experience’.”
It‘s not the first time Jemma has funded her university life in this way — while studying in the US and in France, she turned to sugar daddies to provide her with a better standard of living.
“It is not so much about financing my studies, as I feel this would be quite an unreliable way to do so,” she told BuzzFeed News. “It is more so about the cost of living in London; I heard that London was an expensive city, but I didn’t anticipate such high costs.
“I have been living on my own for five years in Philadelphia and I was a food blogger, a journalist for Philly Bite, as well as a bartender. I have a following of about 17K on Instagram and I depend on social media interaction quite a bit to make money. That doesn’t rake in the largest income, but I was able to afford a penthouse apartment in a gated residential community right beside my university.
“With help from a ‘sugar daddy’, I could go partying every weekend, travel to different states, shop regularly, and eat out in the city three to four times a week if I wanted. I sort of became accustomed to that standard of living and it quickly became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to afford the same thing in London without some ‘aid’.
“I was introduced to this ‘lifestyle’ through friends who — retrospectively — didn’t think as big as I do and didn’t take as much advantage as they should have. Not only did I become a sugar baby, I then also went one step further and became a financial dominatrix. I’m not entirely sure how I made my way there, but I'm glad I did.”
According to Jemma, in the States it is fairly common for students to use sugar daddies — and it appears to be growing in popularity on this side of the Atlantic too.
“I do know for a fact that other students do what I do in some way, shape, or form,” Jemma told BuzzFeed News. “In Philadelphia, sugar babies are the norm, especially among college girls looking to fund their education or just their lifestyle and habits. I had friends at my university selling their used underwear online or meeting with older men just to be able to buy impressive things. This didn’t differ when I moved to Paris, nor when I made my way to visit London. You just have to know how to find what it is you’re looking for.”
Older, wealthy men are attracted to student sugar babies, Jemma said, because they are looking not just for sex, but also for someone who they can have a conversation with.
“The funniest thing I have to note is that — usually wealthier — men really want educated girls they can converse with,” Jemma said. “So of course university students are a prime target: We’re young and [intelligent]. Unlike sex workers [like] escorts, strippers, prostitutes, we didn’t have someone managing us and we had a lot of autonomy, so I suppose it feels more real and less transactional to spend time and money on us. We also didn’t actually need the money; we just wanted it.”
Jemma told BuzzFeed News that she has few reservations about using sugar daddies to finance her lifestyle. “I will obviously try my best to not get myself into any trouble,” she said. “I will obviously think things through thrice over and would never agree to something I’m uncomfortable with just for the sake of it.”
The university with the most new SeekingArrangement signups was Portsmouth, with 205 more students bringing the total up to 666 registrations on the site.
Among the universities with the fastest-growing sugar baby contingents, Kent had the most registered students with 950, followed by Cambridge with 874, and the University of Westminster with 801.
“With no regard from the institutions of the inability to pay increasing tuition and living costs in the UK, students are being forced to find alternative methods to fund their educations,” the website’s founder and CEO, Brandon Wade, said.
“Young people understand the importance of a degree and want to achieve their educational goals, but they can no longer depend on traditional means to get through school.”
For some, turning to some form of sex work at university is less about paying for luxuries and more a survival tactic.
In 2017, the average student rent came to £125 per week, or £535 a month. This brings the average annual cost of a 39-week contract to £4,875. In London, students paid an average of £182 a week, which is £640 a month.
In the same academic year, guidance from the Student Loans Company states that those students with a parental income higher than £39,796 will be entitled to a loan of just £5,213 outside London and £7,299 in the capital. This would potentially leave just £338 to cover food, bills, books, transport, and everything else — without the help of parents or some kind of work. In the capital, where that loan entitlement is increased to £7,299, just £201 would be left after rent.
Emma, a student at a university in the southeast of England, also makes money from remote sex work. She now has just a couple of regular clients but was previously earning up to £500 a night, two nights per week, from her bedroom by advertising her services on Craiglist.
Emma said she does not qualify for financial help beyond the basic loan, and her parents do not give her money as they did not support her choice of course. She knows between 20 and 25 other female students at her university doing sex work, ranging from online work, through Tumblr, Snapchat, and Kik, to meeting clients in person in their cars for sex. One of her friends, she said, has lived for two years in a flat in London, paid for by a married man who stays there at weekends.
“I’m not the only person that’s done it,” she told BuzzFeed News. “A lot of girls that I know do it — that’s how I found out about it. Because of where I’m based, we pay the same for accommodation as London but we don’t get the London weighting.”
Emma said she doesn’t do sex work as much any more and she now has two part-time jobs to help fund her studies, but she struggles to juggle these around her lectures.
“[Sex work] is not something that you want to do,” she told BuzzFeed News. “It's degrading. It’s horrible. It affects your studies as well. Some of these guys are nasty, and I don’t know what my university would do if they found out.”
“My friends don’t want to be doing it,” she added, “but it’s because they don’t have the support of a family. Having to turn to these means we have had quite a few sexual assaults on our campus, but because Craigslist is quite popular a lot of girls are doing it.
“It’s not that we’re not concerned about our safety — we’re just trying to get somewhere so we can get a job. The problem with student finance and the way it is is that it doesn’t meet the cost of living, and that’s going up.”
She added: “If student finance [companies] don’t start to listen, girls are going to go missing, girls are going to get raped — a lot more than they do now.”
Maia is a postgraduate student at Oxford University, and as a mother on an expensive and labour-intensive course, she felt she had no other way of getting through her master’s.
“The thing about Oxford,” she told BuzzFeed News, “is it’s pretty much double to do a postgrad there: tuition fees, then you have to pay college fees, which [together] is about £12,000.”
Maia got a first in her undergraduate degree and was offered a place to continue her studies at Oxford, which she thought was a “huge opportunity not to waste” — but money was a problem.
“I grew up on a council estate,” she said. “My mum died, my dad’s not around — that’s not even on the radar financially or for anything else.”
She approached some rich relatives and managed to partially finance her degree. “A distant relative said they would support my accommodation,” she said, “and I could get a postgrad loan for up to £10,000.”
She had enough to cover her rent and tuition, she said, but not her college fees or her living costs. “I thought I was this close,” she said, “so why not look at the whole sex work thing?”
Maia said she has to be “really careful”, as she is in a long-term relationship and has children, but sex work is one of the only ways she can earn money and still fit in caring for her family and completing her degree.
“I felt like I really hadn’t got any options in terms of getting that money any other way,” she told BuzzFeed News.
“I’m not bothered about the stigma,” she said. “I think if you’re a consenting adult you should be able to do what you want to do. It’s perceived in society as this scum-of-the-bottle thing.”
She signed up for SeekingArrangement and met a man who continues to finance her studies. While some were just looking for sex, she found an older man who was also looking for companionship.
“He said he didn’t want to pay for sex,” she said. “It was better to frame it as a mutually beneficial agreement.”
They got on well, she said, and go out for dinner now on a weekly basis — before having sex.
Maia is aware of the safety risks and said that the first time they met was in a pub. “I have one or two people who know what I'm doing, as an extra safeguard,” she said.
“I was very, very clear from the outset that these are my terms and consent eternally applies,” she said. “The first time was the hardest. Even right up until I met with him I was like, what the fuck am I doing? I don’t even know why I felt like that; I didn't have a problem with it, but still, you have this really perverse narrative that what you’re doing will cast you into the scum of society.”
“He never hands me the money,” she said, explaining that the man leaves it for her on the table and that they both prefer it that way. “The money is good, and he takes me out for dinner — I get a posh dinner out of it as well. I can’t afford posh dinners.”
“For me, this doesn’t feel exploitative,” Maia said. “But for a 19-year-old undergrad who isn’t confident or savvy enough, I see how it could be.
“I don’t think there’s anything else I can do that’s that time-efficient in terms of financing myself through my master’s.”
Becky, a student at the University of Southampton, put an advert on Craiglist offering remote sex work, as her maintenance loan is not enough to survive on and her parents are not in a position to help her.
She offers sexting and intimate videos and pictures for between £10 and £15 per set.
“My Craigslist ad isn’t for my tuition fees. The cost of that is already covered by loans, so that isn’t a worry,” she told BuzzFeed News. “The worry is not receiving enough maintenance loan or grant just to fund the cost of living, food, travel, etc.
“My home, family life isn’t great at the moment and I need to get home a lot. However, no one can help me fund this, hence why I put the ads out. This maintenance loan is based on your household income, but they do not take into account the house outgoings.”
Becky said she doesn’t personally know other students doing the same thing, but she has seen many similar ads on Craigslist.
“I honestly can’t remember how I was introduced to this idea — must’ve been TV or something like that,” she said. “I don't know any other students who are doing the same thing, personally. However, it is clear on Craiglist that there are hundreds of others in the same position as me.
“I’ve had a lot of response: 50% of the guys want to try and meet up, but the other 50% have responded the way I want them to. Of course it is worrying — you’re sharing your body with god knows who — but it’s easy and it’s fast, and although it feels wrong doing it, sometimes needs must.”
So prevalent is sex work among UK students that the National Union of Students now publishes guidance offering advice on safety and the laws. A 2015 survey by the organisation found that nearly 5% of UK students had worked in the sex industry, while almost 22% of students had considered it.
Outgoing NUS women’s officer Hareem Ghani told BuzzFeed News: “We know that significant numbers of students are turning to sex work in order to avoid debt and cover basic living expenses. NUS recognises that sex work can be a choice for students and allows them the flexibility to keep up with their studies.
“However, we are concerned that so many students are having to turn to sex work to cover costs while at university. There is a clear need for university guidance and policy that supports sex workers to begin to eradicate the stigma they experience.”
Sarah Lasoye, the current women’s officer, added: “The cost to live and study in the UK makes sex work, and the rights of workers involved in it, just as much a student issue as tuition fees or student housing. That’s why more should be done to defend and extend these rights.
“To do so, we will be working closely with organisations such as the English Collective of Prostitutes and Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement to advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work, and to oppose further legislation, such as the recent US FOSTA-SESTA–style legislation, which would place many student sex workers in considerable danger.”
Laura Watson from the ECP told BuzzFeed News that the organisation regularly receives calls from students seeking advice on safety, laws around sex work, and what the consequences may be if the university finds out how they are earning money.
“We’ve had to fight some cases recently of a couple of women who lost their housing,” she said, “because it was found out that they were doing sex work.”
Even where students were not breaking any laws, Watson said — it is legal for women to sell sex if they are working alone — they had faced consequences from their university or college for potentially bringing the institution into disrepute.
“I think it’s outrageous,” she said. “If they're that interested [in protecting their reputation] they should provide the support. I know in some universities you can get emergency loans, but emergency grants are very hard to come by — at many places it’s not possible at all, if you get into trouble. If the university is that worried about it, they can provide alternative resources.
Watson said that as well as the ability to earn quick money, sex work also appeals to some students because it fits around their studies.
“It is possible to earn more in less time than in other jobs,” she said. “That's why most people are doing it.”
It is understood that the government’s review of post-18 education and funding will consider how to support learning that is more flexible for students — for example, part-time, distance learning, and commuter study options.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “No student should have to face this situation or experience any pressures or barriers to them accessing higher education. There is a range of financial support on offer. Students from the lowest-income households who started their courses this year have access to the largest ever amounts of cash-in-hand support for their living costs.
“We have a world-class higher education system and following the introduction of our progressive student finance system there are record numbers of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds now going to university.”
Hannah Al-Othman is a political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Hannah Al-Othman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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