I was already seated at a table in Woolwich McDonald’s when the stranger who had travelled to meet me, believing that in 10 minutes’ time we’d be going to a flat around the corner to have sex, walked through the door. As far as he knew, we were meeting in a public place so he could prove he “wasn’t an axe-murderer”, before going on to the SponsorAScholar “physical assessment”.
It was grim, wet evening as I’d walked from the Tube station, praying the button-hole camera in my shirt would go unnoticed. I felt sick, even though I knew I wasn’t going to go through with anything and that one of my colleagues was watching us from across the restaurant. I couldn’t imagine how a young woman so desperate to pay her uni fees that she was willing to sign up for to have sex with a stranger might have felt.
“John”, as Mark Lancaster called himself, was extremely ordinary – pleasant, even – in the flesh. It was the normality with which he discussed what I would have to do – go back to a nearby flat, have photos of myself taken and have sex with him in order to prove I would be “confident in doing the things you said you would do” – that was so disturbing. When I told him I felt uncomfortable about the arrangement, he was reassuring: “That’s kind of what we’re into, really… we’re not attracting people who are used to this kind of thing.”
Walking away afterwards, on the promise I would email him later to give my final decision, I had to resist breaking into a run.
It had seemed unfathomable that anyone would ever sign up, but faced with someone so manipulative, it was possible to see how a young person so desperate to meet education costs might be taken in.