Students Are Turning To Sex Work To Pay Their Rent

Illustrated by Vero Romero.
In 2008 we bailed out the banks. We now face the biggest financial crisis in a generation, with record youth unemployment. Who will bail out young people? R29 and Vice are joining the National Union of Students to call for all students to be offered rent rebates and asking the government to bring back maintenance grants for students from low income backgrounds. 
Twenty-one-year-old Gabby* is a student at the University of the West of England. As is the case for many students all over the country, she’s been struggling to find regular work as a result of the pandemic and is among the 14.2% of 16 to 24-year-olds who are currently unemployed. "It is a very frustrating position to be in," she says. "I don't really know where to go from here as I have applied to every job in the vicinity."
Young people are two and a half times more likely to work in sectors worst impacted by previous lockdowns, such as hospitality and retail, meaning that students like Gabby have been unable to fall back on the usually failsafe option of picking up waitressing or sales assistant shifts. Forced to think outside the box, Gabby initially turned her attention to TikTok to make ends meet. She’s been able to generate some income from creating videos thanks to the app’s Creator Fund but admits that it’s not much. "It’s more like a little bit of money for a coffee," she explains.
Then one day, another option presented itself to Gabby. "Someone commented on one of my TikToks, asking if I would sell pictures of my feet and legs in tights," she says. "Which I did."
Although this foray into the world of fetish and online sex work was a one-time thing, Gabby’s since been looking for similar ways to generate cash. She’s recently found a website where men pay you to chat to them online. "I only just started this so have not made much money yet but this does seem to be a path that could work for me."
Gabby is certainly not alone in dabbling in sex work due to the financial strain caused by the pandemic. A 2020 survey from Save the Student found that 20% of students would consider sex work in a financial emergency, up from 6% in 2019. This figure has risen in tandem with the adult content subscription service OnlyFans, which grew by 30 million members between March and August 2020 as sex work went more mainstream. According to that same Save the Student survey, 7% of students said they had already turned to sex or adult work during the pandemic as an alternative way of making money after losing a regular job.

I have a friend who makes quite a bit of money selling underwear and she doesn't even wear them, she just sprays them with perfume.

gabby, 21
Like Gabby, 22-year-old Millie* has found herself struggling financially. Millie is a master's student at the University of Nottingham. A dedicated employee at a local sports centre throughout her time as an undergraduate, Millie had planned to support herself through her master's degree in the same way but, thanks to the pandemic, she hasn’t been able to work there since March.
"As the government does not offer furlough for zero hours workers, there hasn't been any support given for me,” she explains. “I've tried to find a job in Nottingham but no one's hiring or, if they are, the number of applications is insane. I heard about a bar job that came up in town in September and got 1,000 applicants or something stupid like that."
London-based student Lizzy*, 22, has had a similar experience. After finishing her undergraduate degree last year, Lizzy managed to find a job to support herself through her master's but began to suffer due to the company’s poor working environment. "I found it really detrimental to my mental health," she explains. "I left that job not too long after joining and have struggled since then to find full-time work."
"There's obviously some weird, sad comfort to know a lot of people are in the same boat so it's not ‘personal’ to some degree. There is just too much demand and not enough opportunities," she says. "Still, it makes you feel like you don't have a purpose or any skills." Like Gabby, Millie and Lizzy have looked into sex work to support themselves during such a difficult time.
Lizzy has signed up to sugar daddy website SeekingArrangement in order to cover her living costs while she looks for another job. "The people I went on dates with didn't want sex, they just wanted company and validation," she explains. "A lot of them clearly had big egos with equally large insecurities so wanted the feeling of having a 'girlfriend' have dinner with them, pick out clothes for them or pick up their phone calls for a chat." Lizzy says she’s made over £1,000 since starting work as a sugar baby.
While Gabby is also looking for a more stable job, she says she isn’t holding out hope and is continuing to explore other areas of sex work. "I heard of a website where you sell used socks and underwear and I am contemplating doing that too," she says. "I have a friend who makes quite a bit of money selling underwear and she doesn't even wear them, she just sprays them with perfume."
Millie, however, has had less luck, describing her venture into sex work as "a last resort". "I signed up to a number of websites and apps that are targeted at connecting sugar babies with sugar daddies and mummies, such as SeekingArrangement and Fetlife," Millie says. "I've always liked dating older guys so I thought it might be manageable and I know quite a lot of girls who've had a very successful time being a sugar baby."
"I never actually met up with anyone because it became apparent really quickly that a lot of these older guys just want to buy you dinner or let you move in with them," Millie explains, reasserting that she needed cold, hard cash for rent rather than expensive meals out. "The bios on all my profiles were very specific and stated that I wasn’t looking for an ongoing transactional relationship," she continues. "I felt there was a definite lack of respect for the boundaries I laid down."
Millie has since decided against continuing to look for a sugar daddy or mummy. "I've just been burning through what savings I have and waiting to be able to go back to work. Currently I'm applying to digital part-time jobs, temp jobs, online tutoring jobs, and hoping that one of them comes through, or that my job at the sports centre restarts before I go broke," she says. "I've also underpaid my university tuition fees this term so I have money for my rent, so I need to make up the difference on that by August."

I've underpaid my university tuition fees this term so I have money for my rent, so I need to make up the difference on that by August.

millie, 22
Save the Student points out that "for some students, sex work is a positive decision, and a way to make money that's enjoyable and financially rewarding" but acknowledges that among students, sex work "seems to be increasingly seen as a way to earn money as a last resort, rather than out of choice." Nobody should ever feel pressured into sex work but with a quarter of students unable to pay rent during the pandemic, it’s no surprise that some like Millie are resorting to it out of sheer need.
It’s abundantly clear that something needs to be done by universities and the government to support students who find themselves in dire financial straits. "Halls and student houses should have rent suspended if students are unable to return," Millie suggests. "Students shouldn't be seen as the responsibility of their parents, so many students aren't supported by their families and I think that's something the government has been forgetting." Lizzy adds: "There are just an abundance of things to pay for and zero income to pay for them with: rent, fees, living expenses."
Gabby describes the government’s disdain for students as "completely disgusting". "They do not care at all," she says. "There are so many students paying for accommodation that they are not living in right now and the government needs to understand that and help them." Combine the financial burden of living costs with the loneliness of lockdown and it’s no surprise that the student mental health crisis is getting worse and worse. Action needs to be taken sooner rather than later.
There is hope. With rent strikes up and down the country, students are (rightfully) pushing back against expectations that they cough up for accommodation they’ve hardly lived in. At present, there are strikes at over 45 universities in the UK. Some universities have already offered reductions and rebates; let’s hope all universities do. Nobody should have to deal with the pressure of paying extortionate rent while unemployed and writing a dissertation in the middle of a raging pandemic.
And, of course, nobody should be forced into sex work. Let’s also hope that one day, every student sex worker is a sex worker of their own volition.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
You can sign the NUS petition calling for a better deal for students here

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