“I couldn’t survive, let alone save, waitressing or doing bar work, so I started stripping with a mate. I absolutely hated it. It got really aggressive and scary, especially at weekends. Another friend had been doing some escorting with an agency, and made really good money, so I tried it. Sometimes it is OK, and sometimes you feel like you are losing your mind, but in this job, money just evaporates. I really don’t know where it goes. I guess it’s fair to say you party a lot to forget about it.”
Accurate statistics and insider information is difficult to obtain on the sex industry, for the aforementioned reason - people involved tend to be secretive about it. However, research
done by Swansea University suggests that as many as one in twenty students are involved in the sex industry, whether its stripping, escorting, webcam work, or most recently, websites like Sugar Daddy and Seeking Arrangement.
The latter websites are imports from America and are growing in popularity here – particularly with the student population. In America, they are so popular in the student community, there are actual statistics that tell you which universities have the most “sugar babies” in ranking order – and it seems the UK is following suit.
The Seeking Arrangement
site has a Sugar Baby University
page, specifically designed for young women seeking “assistance” with higher education fees – and over two million students have signed up. Though there is not a breakdown of membership according to country, a number of UK students I talked to have used the site.
Though these sites certainly don’t market themselves as escorting sites – more of a way to “hook up” hot young things with rich, mostly older dudes – its fair to say that there is the possibility for them to be used for these purposes.
Cheryl, 20, who attends UCL, stumbled across Sugar Daddy
thinking it was a dating site, and liked it’s USP – “rich, attractive men.” She was surprised at some of the “offers” she received almost immediately (i.e. cash and gifts) and admits to being tempted.
But here’s the rub – though I have interviewed dozens of young women (mostly in some form of education) who subscribe to these sites and will admit to exchanging some sort of sexual activity for money or gifts – few see it as prostitution.
The veneer of respectability afforded by the glossy websites plus their clever marketing both normalises and glamourises being a member. As Charlotte, a 20-year-old student explained: “Arrangement websites (she’s a member of several) are nothing like streetwalking, or being pimped out. It’s just a bit of fun on the internet and an easy way to meet nice men and maybe make some money.”
Though Charlotte’s view seems to be the commonly held one amongst women who subscribe to these sites, I spoke to a female police officer, who specialises in vice and vociferously disagrees.
“Women who work, say, through escort agencies probably have a higher degree of protection. Most decent agencies will have screening processes against dodgy clients and security and what have you, to protect the women. There is no such protection on these arrangement websites. You’re young, naïve, agree to meet someone, probably don’t tell anyone – and have no idea who it is you're meeting or about protection if it goes wrong. They’re a dangerous idea.”
When I shared this view with Charlotte, she explained: “I’ve been doing this for a year and it’s been great. Absolutely no problem. And it’s everywhere. I saw the website being advertised on a massive billboard near the Westfield Centre a couple of weeks back. I’m sure they have screening processes for weirdos, anyway.”
As the popularity of these sites grow, particularly with the UK student population, it is worth reviewing how safe they are. The recent prosecution of serial rapist Jason Lawrance, who used Match.com to find victims highlighted the potential dangers of meeting strangers in cyberspace.
Arguably, people using sites like Sugar Daddy
and Seeking Arrangement will be less likely to voice concerns about members or share bad experiences, because of the often-secretive nature of belonging to them.
Despite the well-documented potential dangers and difficulties of operating in the sex industry, all the women I spoke to described their decisions around work as borne of economic necessity – quite simply they had been unable to survive financially before entering the industry.