“You don’t want anyone else to know about it because you will get judged,” says Alice*, laughing.
“It’s a deadly secret”.
Alice is eighteen years old, quick witted, funny, and, to all intents and purposes, an ordinary student, in her first year of university. But behind closed doors she is also a web cam model, performing explicit shows to an online audience, through websites such as Adultwork.
“I don’t get a lot of student loan because of my family situation” she said. “So, I needed money to get me through my first year. I applied to over 50 jobs and despite being experienced…I just couldn’t get a job.”
In 2017/18, the proportion of young people attending university passed 50%. At the same time, the cost of living is soaring. Warwick university’s own estimate of living costs show that, at a minimum, a student can expect to spend £800 a month here, on rent, bills, and amenities. No wonder, then, that many students in England are looking to ‘other’ forms of income. For students like Alice, this includes stripping, webcamming, selling explicit images and videos, and even escorting – otherwise known as prostitution.
Warwick university’s own estimate of living costs show that, at a minimum, a student can expect to spend £800 a month here
“It honestly came to a last resort” said Alice. “I know I can cater for an audience that is there, and wants to be catered for, so it’s a case of using that to my advantage and earning money from it!”
According to a survey carried out by The Boar Features, 11% of 106 students stated that they had done work of a sexual nature while students at Warwick. A further 37% of respondents said that they had considered it. When asked what kind of work the 11% had done, selling images and videos was the most popular, with some respondents also having been involved in escorting, selling clothing, stripping, and partaking in sugar baby/daddy relationships. Most respondents described a need for extra money, either to help pay tuition fees, maintenance costs, or to support other family members, as the main factor influencing them to either partake in or consider partaking in sex work.
Mike, a third-year student, spent his first year of university working in McDonalds, but found long hours for low pay having a detrimental impact on his studies. “I was earning barely anything for hours and hours of work every week.” He said, sitting in a coffee shop in Birmingham. “I would be so tired the next day I’d oversleep and miss my lectures!” But stopping work, no matter the benefits to Mike’s university work, was not an option. He needed the money.
And so, he turned to escorting. “Whilst I felt a bit weird about it at first, some of these blokes will spend a lot of money in an hour or two… I can earn as much in a few hours as I would earn in two weeks working at a fast food place.”
Despite the cash rewards, a year of working as an independent sex worker has taken its toll on Mike, who’s hoping to leave it behind for good. “Sometimes, on a good day, you can earn a tonne of money for just an hour’s work” he shrugs.
“But when money is really tight and you’re having bareback, like unprotected sex, with a stranger for like £30, that was when it was really bad, and I just kept thinking… Like, what the fuck am I doing?”
He has since stopped responding to The Boar’s requests for comment. Mike described many of his clients as older than him, but it’s not the case that the only people using services provided by sex workers are men over a certain age. Zackie, aged 20, has just started escorting. Previously, however, he was a client. Describing himself as “not too keen on one – night stands”, paying a service provider for sex is a way to have “sex without judgement or having to go through the process of meeting someone on a night out”.
“But when money is really tight and you’re having bareback, like unprotected sex, with a stranger for like £30, that was when it was really bad, and I just kept thinking… Like, what the fuck am I doing?” – Mike
“I’ve talked to other service providers as a client and they seem to really enjoy it,” he said.
All manner of things can fall under a general banner of ‘sex work’. Angel, a twenty-year-old student, runs a chat service over webcam, which she advertises on Adultwork. But, unlike Claire and others, she’s always fully clothed, and the conversations she has rarely extends beyond some mild flirting. “It’s mainly just general chatting” she says. “Getting to know people, talking about jobs, hobbies, and sometimes flirting – but really mainly normal chatting.” Like others, Angel can’t afford to study without it, and has previously sold clothing to clients.
Describing her parents as earning a “good amount of money”, Angel is one of many UK students who does not qualify for a higher maintenance loan – under government expectation that her parents will chip in to pay for her. But if, as in Angel’s case, parents do not give their children any money, a maintenance loan might not go very far.
“I get a sort of average amount for my maintenance loan. It doesn’t even cover my flat, never mind food or anything else,” she explains. “I do have an actual part time job but even that isn’t even enough for food”.
“I don’t think I’d be doing any of this if I had a higher maintenance loan.”
“I get a sort of average amount for my maintenance loan. It doesn’t even cover my flat, never mind food or anything else” – Angel
But not all students involved in the adult industry see money as their primary motivator. Rama worked as a stripper while studying at Warwick and described her reasons for starting work as “actually nothing to do with money”.
“I wanted to start in order to live my life the way I wanted to, free from caring what others would think of me and it seriously helped me overcome a personal barrier in that respect. The money was secondary.”
According to a survey conducted by Prospect Union in 2018, more than a third of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Yet for Rama, working as a stripper could be far easier than working in other, more ‘traditional’ jobs. “At my first club if a customer even tried to put a hand near you, the security/manager would be on scene within a matter of seconds and the culprit would get kicked out and barred depending on the severity” she said. “Whilst working in the hospitality sector I experienced, time and time again, a lack of care and respect from management when I came to them with harassment/assault complaints – usually followed by “it’s just business” – then no action would be taken.”
“Personally” she concluded, “I felt much safer in the club than I did in the hospitality industry”.
Asked the question, ‘is work of a sexual nature empowering of the individual?’ 40% of respondents to The Boar Features survey answered ‘yes’. 33% responded ‘no’ with the remaining 27% falling under ‘don’t know/do not wish to say’. According to Stacey Clare, known on social media as the ‘ethical stripper’ and co-founder of the East London Strippers Collective, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle.
“The dichotomy between “empowerment” vs. “objectification” is somewhat misleading. It is not a simple issue of good vs bad” she told The Boar.
“There are women who consent to being objectified for money, and there are women who don’t. What we really need is a culture where people are taught about consent.”
Furthermore, Stacey is quick to point out that discussing whether sex work is ‘empowering’ or not is hard to ascertain, given the fragile and, at times, underground nature of the industry. “While the industry remains poorly regulated and precarious, stigmatised and criminalised, then we can’t say it is empowering for society” she said.
The sharp contrast between a personal feeling of empowerment, and the knowledge she is being objectified, is one that Alice feels keenly as a webcam performer. “It does give me a lot of confidence; you meet a lot of nice people on there and there are people who want to talk to you” she says. “But at the end of the day you are being viewed as a body. You are someone from whom men, or women, will demand things.”
“There are women who consent to being objectified for money, and there are women who don’t. What we really need is a culture where people are taught about consent.” – Stacey Clare
Yet grouping an array of different activities under the banner ‘sex work’ is fraught, especially when talking about empowerment. Webcamming, unlike other forms of sex work, offers Alice the unique ability to express herself in her own way; she dresses up, and sets herself in different scenes, she says.
“Whereas when you look at porn it’s all the same isn’t it? It’s like girl, big boobs, please have sex with me, yes.”
However empowered, or objectified, these student sex workers felt, the existence of a very real stigma against sex workers was a unanimous concern. “There’s all these connotations”, explained Alice.
“Over a thousand men online have seen my boobs…. you’ve just got to single out the idea of being sexualised and loving someone. Just because I’ve shown someone my body doesn’t mean I have feelings for them, it just means they’ve seen my body.”
As a result of the stigma that surrounds sex work, despite how essential it is to her livelihood, Alice makes sure she takes down any identifying photos or decorations in her room before going on cam. Rama describes herself as being in an “extremely unique position in which I can tell my close family and friends what I do and they have been extremely understanding and given me space to explain my stance to them”, but stigma is still a visceral threat.
“Sex workers get kicked out of their homes, they get cut off from family, isolated and forgotten by those who choose to judge them and not hear them” she explains. Even Angel, who describes herself as “not heavily involved in the adult side of this industry”, experiences stigma, something that seems ludicrous to her.
“The amount of people that watch porn? People watch that stuff constantly, yet there is a massive judgement for people who work in the adult industry.”
“Sex workers get kicked out of their homes, they get cut off from family, isolated and forgotten by those who choose to judge them and not hear them” – Rama
According to a study conducted by the universities of Strathclyde and Leicester, over 80% of online sex workers have been a victim of crime, with stalking and harassment being among the most common. Despite never meeting clients in the flesh, Alice is not immune to the affects. “You do get scared by men; men are like I know where you live, I’ve seen you in this area” she says. “There are people… vulnerable women, who will go into this all scared and those men will scare them.”
There seems to be little political will to decrease or abolish tuition fees and bring back more loans and grants for students. The cost of living, especially for those living in major cities, shows no signs of decreasing, and so it is likely that students will continue to be involved in the adult industry for years to come. So how to destigmatise it? Organisations like the East London Stripper’s Collective clearly have a role to play. For Stacey Clare, educating the public, and decriminalising sex work, are key steps.
“Under neoliberalism everything is for sale, including all forms of labour, be they physical, emotional, intellectual or sexual” she told The Boar. “Criminalised workers are the most vulnerable workers. Criminalised marketplaces are the most violent and coercive marketplaces.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Dr Laura Lammasniemi, assistant professor at Warwick Law School. “Northern Ireland has followed the Nordic Model of criminalising clients and the purchase of sex since 2015” she told The Boar.
“Most workers in NI reported their work seemed more dangerous since the law was passed…. Decriminalisation would enable sex workers to work together, organise as collectives, report crimes and seek help without fear of being penalised.”
However, for Mike, as an independent escort, such legal changes have little impact on his wellbeing.
“It’s easier to make a stripper feel safer and stuff because they’re working for a business,” he says.
For some British students, engaging in sex work is a confidence – inspiring choice. For others, it’s their last and only option. Protecting, and empowering these students, will either require a radical rethink of the way higher education is funded, so that no student should have to rely on sex work for money. Or, it requires the beginnings of a new conversation on sex, sex work and consent, starting from an early age and continuing throughout adult life, to destigmatise the adult industry, and to protect and enhance the rights of its workers.
Either way, there’s a mountain to climb.
*Some names have been changed