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Students and the sex industry: Empowering or the last resort of the debt-ridden?

The number of students using their bodies to make money has doubled in the past year, reports Charlotte Philby
  • @philbycharlotte

With unemployment levels soaring across Britain, job prospects for graduates have never looked so bleak. But one sector proving resilient, and lucrative, for young people struggling to meet the inflated costs of higher education is the sex industry.

The number of students using their bodies to pay their fees has doubled in the past year, according to new research. A study of undergraduates and postgraduates across the UK found that as many as 6 per cent are turning to lap-dancing, pole-dancing, escorting and prostitution in order to fund their studies.

Professor Ron Roberts, who led the research at Kingston University, said an average annual sum of between £600,000 and £3m per institution is going into universities straight from the sex industry. “Sadly, students are a financially vulnerable and heavily indebted financial sector and have become targets for people with money. The economy of the sex industry is now heavily intertwined with higher education economy,” he said.

The English Collective of Prostitutes, which runs a helpline from its base in London, said the number of calls it receives from students has doubled in the past year.

According to readers of The Independent who responded to an investigation last week into a website offering students scholarships of up to £15,000 in return for “discreet adventures” with strangers, the phenomenon is nothing new. Students and the sex industry, some claim, have long been natural bedfellows.

‘The Duchess of Hackney’ has spent 15 years running an escort agency. In her twenties, she left her family home in east London and moved to the US, where she worked as a recruitment consultant by day. By night she answered the phones for an escort agency, and after six months took over the business.

During her years as a madam – first in America and then in London, where she ran an escort agency for three years – she “actively sought out students”.

“They’re a different breed,” said the 48-year-old, who now lives in east London and writes a blog. “They were bright, guys could take them for dinner and they could hold a conversation. They were all-round good workers, focused on their goals – their studies and their career – and they knew they could trust me not to send them to anyone I wouldn’t want to be sent to meet.”

Last week’s investigation by The Independent into SponsorAScholar, a website offering students up to 100 per cent of their tuition fees in return for sex with wealthy men, has prompted a number of women to come forward to explain their involvement.

In the secret film, a reporter posing as a student met a man calling himself John to expose the scheme, in which young women were lured to a flat where they were expected to have sex with him as a “practical assessment” – before being put in touch with “sponsors” who would pay their tuition fees in return for sex.

In the right context, argued ‘the Duchess’ who doesn’t want to give her real name, prostitution can be a positive and empowering choice for young women who don’t want to compromise their studies by working long hours for the minimum wage. Over the years, she said she was inundated with applications from bright young women looking for ways to support themselves. She denied that her industry takes advantage of women who are desperate due to their lack of money.

In London, she said, her student signings would take around £700 for a three to four-hour session, which usually involved dinner and then back to a hotel room. “This was a choice,” she says. “These were just girls who wanted to make some money without the usual student route – working in a pub or shop, all hours. They were clean-cut girl-next-door types, you would never guess.” Schemes such as SponsorAScholar, she added, brought shame on the industry.

Each of the men on her books were vetted and she knew where they lived and worked, the Duchess said. “I always made it clear to my girls what they were getting into … If she got to an appointment and wasn’t happy, she could leave. In an ideal world I would tell students thinking about working in the business to work for themselves, and not an agency. Good ones are few and far between, and it’s getting worse. A lot now are run by men and by mobs.”

Kelley Temple, women’s officer at the National Union of Students, said she was aware of a growing number of young women turning to prostitution to fund their studies. While she refused to condemn students turning to sex work, she said: “I think it is concerning that [websites like Sponsor a Scholar] seek to capitalise on the poverty and financial hardship of women students and sexualises what is undoubtedly intended to be an unequal power dynamic … to exploit the fact that women students are in dire financial situations in pursuit of an education.”

Following The Independent’s story, an anonymous woman told Channel 4 News how she had been drawn in by the promise of a large sum of money from SponsorAScholar. She too agreed to meet an “assessor” – the same man our reporter met in our undercover film. During a two-hour interview at his flat, the student was encouraged to dress in schoolgirl outfits and have her photos taken, before having sex with the stranger. He told her: “It’s time now for the practical.” She continued: “Then he kissed me before I really had time to think about it or ask any questions … and I just froze because I really didn’t know what to do. Then he started undressing me.”

The woman later received an email saying her application had been unsuccessful, but that she could reapply in two months’ time.