Funding futures: The rise in student sex work

Through the power of the internet, swapping sexual favours for cash has never been easier.

But is selling explicit pictures online the ideal way of making extra income to have more time for studies, or is it putting young people in danger? Hannah Bentley and Alice Bennett explore why students are turning to sex work to pay for university. 

When second-year fashion student Amelia was approached by her ex-boyfriend, asking if they could “patch things up,” she knew she did not want to get back into the relationship 

She also knew she was struggling to buy materials for her material-heavy course.  

So when he offered cash in exchange for nude photos, it was an offer she could not refuse. 

And Amelia is not alone. 

In a 2021 survey conducted by Save the Student, 10 per cent of students said they would “consider sex work in a financial emergency”.  

With the average student’s maintenance loan leaving £340 of costs uncovered each month, it’s clear that more and more students like Amelia are entering this said ‘financial emergency’. 

Her fashion course needs regular supplies of fabrics and sewing equipment.  

Amelia receives the lowest student loan from the government (£3,597 per academic year) as well as some financial support from her parents.

But she says this still is not enough to fund her living expenses such as food, rent and travel. 

Research has showed that 56.9 per cent of student sex workers reported the main reason for turning to sex work was funding their education, and 45.1 per cent said it was to avoid debt. 

“It goes against my beliefs as a feminist because I’m not an object to be sold to people”

Her course is “very full on” meaning she does not have time for a conventional part-time job.  

“I have applied to jobs… but because the hours I can do are quite restricted [employers] are not willing to do that,” she says. 

But even a part-time job might leave her at risk of burnout and exhaustion: 

“If I ever have a day off, because I’m so overworked at uni, I can’t physically or mentally deal with the stress of having to work in a busy bar for example… I need one or two days of downtime,” she adds. 

These are the trying circumstances that have led her to engage in sex work. 

“Last year my ex approached me trying to patch things up… and he offered that I send some photos in return for money. I said yes,” she reveals, before hesitating, “because I really need the cash, and the things he was asking for weren’t too explicit. I would send three photos and he’d send me £150.” 

She has now sent two more sets of nudes. Getting £150 each time. 

“It goes against my beliefs as a feminist because I’m not an object to be sold to people,” she says. 

“The university should help me before I have to go to these lengths that I’m uncomfortable with. They should be there to support all students.” 

According to the English Collective of Prostitutes, there has been a recent increase in women returning to sex work as the cost of living has increased. 

Requests for help from the organisation has risen by more than a third in a year. 

As well, Amelia explained that she had similar proposals by men she didn’t know who messaged her on Instagram, but “because I don’t know them it’s a bit more risky” so decided against it. 

This demonstrates the demand for so-called personalised pornography and the ease with which this can be achieved.  

It seems you no longer have to be involved in conventional sex work industries like pornography and escorting to make money off sexualising your body.  

This suggests that more tame forms of sex work like selling nudes are becoming more normalised due to the nature of social media. 

Amelia reveals that other students have been engaging in similar behaviour, using sites like Seeking Arrangements to make larger sums.  

The site’s official line is they are an “online dating service” helping people to “find relationships that fit your lifestyle”. They’re keen for users to be “direct” and “honest” about what they expect from the arrangement.

“I needed money basically and this was an easy thing”

Two of Amelia’s “would go out with this guy, the both of them together because it was safer [and] go to clubs, to restaurants, basically just spend time with these lonely men. [The men] would buy them stuff, give them cash… it was really easy”. 

In 2020, it was reported that more than 500,000 British students were active members on the site. 

Sophie, a 21-year-old student at Nottingham Trent University, joined Seeking Arrangements in 2022 after her friends also told her how easy it was to make money. 

She knew some users on the site who were “getting a £2,000 allowance [from their sugar daddy] so I thought it was something I could dip my toe in… I needed money basically [and this] was an easy thing”. 

Sophie works part-time and in the summer to support herself through university. She’s in the lower bracket of the maintenance loan and says “the loan isn’t enough to live on, definitely… even with a part-time job!” 

She adds: “The reason [my friends] have done well is because they’ve put it in their profile that they are students and come across as young and innocent… that’s what sells.  

“It’s horrible to think about. I’ve heard stories of men making comments that are quite disturbing. One was like ‘I’m so lucky I live near a high school because I get to see all the girls’.” 

We put this to the test and set up a fake profile using an artificial intelligence-generated image of a woman appearing to be in her early twenties.  

The bio, not overly suggestive apart from a winky face, read: “Fun, flirty and fabulous! A student looking to make some extra money ;)”.  

Within 24 hours the profile had more than 25 messages and had been favourited over 20 times.  

Nearly all the ages on the profiles were over the age of forty. 

Sophie had one customer who she spoke to for roughly six months on a regular basis. 

Depending on how many revealing photographs she sent, she could make “anywhere from £30 to £120 a night”.  

“He is moderately attractive, got lots of money and it’s like, why are you buying nudes off a student?” 

She has previously worked in the hospitality industry, saying: “Work in hospitality is so hard and so long and you’re getting paid like £10 an hour, whereas you could have a horrible two hours with a man, it might traumatise you, but then you get £200.” 

This customer was a married man, in his 30s with children. 

She explains to me that 30-years-old is “young for the app. He is moderately attractive, got lots of money and it’s like, why are you buying nudes off a student?” 

Sophie asks a great question. 

Why does he want to pursue a relationship with young broke women?  

There’s an undeniable power imbalance within these arrangements – the woman is younger and financially dependent on an older man who has a stable and expendable income.  

“You’re receiving money and it feels a little bit non-consensual”

Consider the wider social and societal implications of these relationships and the traditional gender stereotypes they are mirroring. 

Like Amelia, she explains how she feels uncomfortable doing this form of online sex work. 

“You’re receiving money and it feels a little bit non-consensual… Like you wouldn’t meet them unless there was money there… it just feels wrong,” explains Sophie. 

“It’s not just about sex… he wanted to know everything about me.  

“Sometimes men just need a companion and someone to talk to, and talking to younger women makes them feel excited and young again.” 

This man was married and had a family, and yet his emotional needs were not being met.  

Does this indicate the effects of toxic masculinity, men only being able to open up to someone anonymous and outside of their daily lives?  

Or is he simply one bad apple, cheating on his wife? 

Our fake profile proves Sophie’s customer is not an anomaly. 

We reached out to Seeking Arrangements inviting them to comment on what we had found.  

They did not respond. 

Exchanging explicit pictures for money is common on other dating sites too, such as Grindr, a dating app for LGBTQ+ people.  

“I know loads of people selling pictures on Grindr, all students”

Tom, a 21-year-old student at the University of Nottingham, sold a nude photograph for £50 using the site because it was “easy money”, and he was “bored”. 

“It just happened this one time, not that I was in dire need of cash, but I figured it wouldn’t be bad to have since everything is more expensive nowadays,” he reveals. 

“You get hundreds of offers through apps and stuff, and then a guy just messaged me and offered me £50 for a picture… I know loads of people [selling pictures on Grindr], all students.” 

He admits it was “scary because you don’t know if it’s gonna be a scam.” 

Although the interviewees shared fairly positive experiences of online sex work and all spoke quite casually about it, the rise in sex work does come with potential issues.  

There is a common misperception that online sex work is safer than traditional ‘street-walking’, but it can create a whole new set of risks including harassment, leaking of private photos and information as well as increased social isolation. 

Risks are especially an issue due to the secrecy around sex work.  

The stigma often increases workers’ vulnerability, as negative perceptions can cause reluctance to tell friends and family as well as any organisations that provide support for any involvement in the sex.

“Adult work can feel isolating because of the stigma attached to it”

Psychotherapist and higher education lead at The Student Room, Hannah Morrish, says student sex workers may keep their experiences secret causing mental health issues. 

She says: “Adult work can feel isolating because of the stigma attached to it, meaning that if the student has a dangerous experience they might feel unable to talk about it… over time, recurring experiences like this can lead to emotional and mental health conditions”. 

Tom adds: “Obviously it has a stereotype related to it and you don’t wanna fall into those categories. I felt kinda weird after [sharing the photo] but I don’t regret it, like, it was £50.” 

Stigmas and taboos are particularly relevant to male prostitution which is less discussed but is still a huge phenomenon, particularly in the context of ‘informal’ sex work such as selling pictures on apps like Grindr because of its convenience. 

When asked if he’d consider doing it again, he replied, “yeah, it’s easy money”.  

Amelia and Sophie both gave similar responses. 

With this increase in sex work activity, it seems as though there is a need for increased support for students taking part in any kind of sex work and to challenge the stigma that comes with it to ensure that they don’t feel ashamed asking for help due to embarrassment and negative stereotypes. 

Jessica Brannan, CEO of POW Nottingham (Prostitute Outreach Workers), advises that sex workers need “an awareness of the law” and their rights, pointing to ECP’s fact sheet as a useful resource.  

She highlights that “a good understanding of sexual health and the use of condoms, and dams, including how to put them on… [and] regular sexual health testing” is crucial for more conventional sex workers.  

She also emphasised the importance of “having an understanding support network, if that is friends and family, or professionals like POW” no matter what kind of sex work you may be involved in. 

When hearing about these incidents it’s hard to blame students for turning to this sort of work given how quick and convenient it is, especially if they don’t have enough free time for a part-time job alongside their education.  

It evidently enables them to have more free time to spend on their studies or internships as many are unpaid, particularly in competitive sectors in the creative industries. 

But it comes with a lot of risk to their safety and privacy as well as their mental health, so support without judgment is crucial as sex work among students becomes more common during the cost-of-living crisis. 

If you are a student sex worker in need of advice or someone to talk to, you can contact POW through their social media, email or phone 0115 924 9992, or sign up for a workshop with ECP.

What the Nottingham universities have to say…

A Nottingham Trent University spokesperson said: “We recognise the impact that the increases in the cost of living can have on our students and we work in partnership with our students’ union to understand the kind of support needed.

“We provide a range of advice and guidance around managing money whilst studying and information about deals, perks and discounts.“We regularly promote all that we offer to ensure that students know how we can help them.

“We have increased our hardship funds, have frozen prices at all our catering outlets and provide free fruit on campus.

“We have also targeted support for those most in need, such as bursaries or food parcels.

“We are also funding the costs of graduation gowns for all of our final-year students.“We’ll continue to listen to our students to ensure that we are doing all that we can to support them in the most appropriate way.”

A spokesperson from the University of Nottingham said: “The University of Nottingham has increased its Student Hardship Fund by 50 per cent to £750,000 to provide grants and interest-free loans to any student who is experiencing financial difficulties, as well as providing access to cheaper food options on campus, free kitchens, shower facilities, heated study spaces and period products.

“Students can find out more about the University’s support for them here.

“The University is also working hard to shield students from significant price rises during the current cost-of-living crisis and has absorbed all cost increases for University accommodation this year rather than pass them onto students.

“We have also fixed 2023/24 increases in accommodation charges to 5 per cent – the same level as last year – at a time when inflation was running at more than 12 per cent.

“We are continuing to lobby the government for further support for students through our roles in Universities UK and the Russell Group.

“Together, universities can be a powerful lobby and we are collectively calling on the government to: provide targeted hardship funding for UK students; reinstate maintenance grants for those most in need; ensure that support for students is protected against inflation; increase financial support for postgraduate researchers; and ensuring that any government action to support people with rising costs, such as energy, can be accessed by students across the UK, including those in halls.”

To find out what else our #ProjectWinter investigations have revealed, click here.

Names have been changed to protect the identities of the interviewees.

By Hannah Bentley and Alice Bennett

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