Please upgrade your browser for the best Refinery29 experience. Read more.

Saved! Access Favorites in your account profile. Removed from my favorites

Why British Students Are Turning To Sex Work

Photographed by Kate Anglestein
The back room reminds me of the backstage areas inhabited by struggling bands. The floor is sticky, the couches are sagging, there are garishly lit mirrors surrounded by a clutter of makeup and hair tools, the tiny fridge smells of mould, and there is a discarded pink thong on the floor.

By way of contrast, out front, the club is ostentatious, artificially glitzy, with polished stages, polished poles, a big shiny bar and velvet-lined, rented rooms at the back.

It’s late on a Tuesday afternoon, and the place is deserted save for a few customers – all male. There is no sign of whooping, coked up groups of stags stuffing tenners into girls’ knickers... yet. I’m told they come later on.

“Yeah, it’s dead at this time. This place gives me the creeps early on. It feels a bit like a church, like you have to whisper so not to disturb anyone. It livens up a lot later.”

This observation comes from Amelie* a young woman I interviewed at length for my book, Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives. Amelie is 19 and by day attends a top university in Bristol and studies sociology. By night (though not every night) she strips at a club, in a different town to her university – the place she is showing me around today.

I found Amelie interesting as she was quite candid about the strangeness of straddling (pardon the expression) two worlds that are so different – and the challenges that can bring. Although stripping isn't sex work, and sex work is something she has no interest in doing, she acknowledges that she operates within the wider sex industry – something that carries a social stigma. As a result, she hasn’t told any of her family, friends or university peers about her work and tells them she is babysitting for a well-to-do family across town instead. By her own admission, the deception is the most stressful aspect of her double-life – but this doesn’t entice her to come clean.

“I quite like what I do, and I really like the money and some of the perks"

“I quite like what I do, and I really like the money and some of the perks. But I do think I would get judged or even shunned by a lot of people I know. I think students can be some of the most judge-y people I’ve met. And I have no idea how the university would react – that worries me the most.”

Though more people are both buying and selling sex in the UK, society maintains a generally unforgiving view of those who do – forcing most workers into lives of secrecy and double agency.

“Definitely,” she agrees, as we smoke cigarettes next to the river the next day. “There is a cliché that all women doing sex work are doing it to pay for drug habits. I’d say it’s far more common now for girls to be doing it to either support families or education fees, like uni, or whatever. There are at least a dozen girls at the club I know for definite are in some sort of education. Luckily I haven’t met anyone yet from my actual uni.”

Across the country in another, less affluent town, I met another woman, also 19, called Melissa*. Unlike Amelie, who seemed to have had a relatively stable life, Melissa’s has been beset by hardship. She tells me that she was given up by her mother as a baby, spent years in care homes, ran away aged 15 and had a number of abusive relationships with violent men.

She was desperate to go back to school, get some qualifications and train as a nurse, but her lack of a permanent address or bank account has made financial assistance tricky to obtain. So in an attempt to realise this goal, she turned first to stripping and then to escorting. She estimates it will take her a year to save the money for school, and admitted the lifestyle around her work made it difficult to save.
“I couldn’t survive, let alone save, waitressing or doing bar work, so I started stripping with a mate. I absolutely hated it. It got really aggressive and scary, especially at weekends. Another friend had been doing some escorting with an agency, and made really good money, so I tried it. Sometimes it is OK, and sometimes you feel like you are losing your mind, but in this job, money just evaporates. I really don’t know where it goes. I guess it’s fair to say you party a lot to forget about it.”

Accurate statistics and insider information is difficult to obtain on the sex industry, for the aforementioned reason - people involved tend to be secretive about it. However, research done by Swansea University suggests that as many as one in twenty students are involved in the sex industry, whether its stripping, escorting, webcam work, or most recently, websites like Sugar Daddy and Seeking Arrangement.

The latter websites are imports from America and are growing in popularity here – particularly with the student population. In America, they are so popular in the student community, there are actual statistics that tell you which universities have the most “sugar babies” in ranking order – and it seems the UK is following suit.

The Seeking Arrangement site has a Sugar Baby University page, specifically designed for young women seeking “assistance” with higher education fees – and over two million students have signed up. Though there is not a breakdown of membership according to country, a number of UK students I talked to have used the site.

Though these sites certainly don’t market themselves as escorting sites – more of a way to “hook up” hot young things with rich, mostly older dudes – its fair to say that there is the possibility for them to be used for these purposes.

Cheryl, 20, who attends UCL, stumbled across Sugar Daddy thinking it was a dating site, and liked it’s USP – “rich, attractive men.” She was surprised at some of the “offers” she received almost immediately (i.e. cash and gifts) and admits to being tempted.

But here’s the rub – though I have interviewed dozens of young women (mostly in some form of education) who subscribe to these sites and will admit to exchanging some sort of sexual activity for money or gifts – few see it as prostitution.

The veneer of respectability afforded by the glossy websites plus their clever marketing both normalises and glamourises being a member. As Charlotte, a 20-year-old student explained: “Arrangement websites (she’s a member of several) are nothing like streetwalking, or being pimped out. It’s just a bit of fun on the internet and an easy way to meet nice men and maybe make some money.”

Though Charlotte’s view seems to be the commonly held one amongst women who subscribe to these sites, I spoke to a female police officer, who specialises in vice and vociferously disagrees.

“Women who work, say, through escort agencies probably have a higher degree of protection. Most decent agencies will have screening processes against dodgy clients and security and what have you, to protect the women. There is no such protection on these arrangement websites. You’re young, naïve, agree to meet someone, probably don’t tell anyone – and have no idea who it is you're meeting or about protection if it goes wrong. They’re a dangerous idea.”

When I shared this view with Charlotte, she explained: “I’ve been doing this for a year and it’s been great. Absolutely no problem. And it’s everywhere. I saw the website being advertised on a massive billboard near the Westfield Centre a couple of weeks back. I’m sure they have screening processes for weirdos, anyway.”

As the popularity of these sites grow, particularly with the UK student population, it is worth reviewing how safe they are. The recent prosecution of serial rapist Jason Lawrance, who used to find victims highlighted the potential dangers of meeting strangers in cyberspace.

Arguably, people using sites like Sugar Daddy and Seeking Arrangement will be less likely to voice concerns about members or share bad experiences, because of the often-secretive nature of belonging to them.

Despite the well-documented potential dangers and difficulties of operating in the sex industry, all the women I spoke to described their decisions around work as borne of economic necessity – quite simply they had been unable to survive financially before entering the industry.
We now live in a country where it is so astronomically expensive to get educated, that unless you come from money, young people are leaving university saddled with huge debt – and that’s if they manage to make it through the course.

This is grossly wrong, but a fact of life for this generation and probably future ones. As a result, sex work is only going to continue to be an appealing option for those (and by no means just women) who wish to have a higher education but want to find a way to make ends meet or ameliorate the crippling debt.

The real scandal should not be the students who strip, escort, webcam or make arrangements with wealthy people – but the system that has created such vast numbers of them. Most of the student sex workers I spoke to were less about scoring Jimmy Choos, and more about making rent.

They had chosen it over a job in an office, bar or supermarket because it paid better. But as Amelie points out: "With tuition fees, rent, food, clothes, travel, books and no financial assistance from home, I simply couldn’t manage on a minimum wage job. Believe me I tried, but the option was stripping or dropping out."