SEXTING PAYS STUDENT BILLS
Thousands of young people in Britain use sex work to help combat crippling debt
Stirring a saucepan of Heinz tomato soup in the kitchen of her shared flat, Katie can earn £40 ($68) by the time her lunch comes to a simmer. Keeping half an eye on her phone, the 23-year-old settles in for the afternoon; by 5 p.m., she’ll have made £150 just from sending a few texts.
Katie is a recent English literature graduate with a degree from a top British university and plans to pursue a career in marketing. She is also one of thousands of young people in Britain using sex work to combat the crippling burden of student debt. As she approached the end of her third year a few months ago, the prospect of life in London without a full-time job and with a student loan playing heavily on her mind, Katie realized she needed to start making money, fast.
“Friends had earned money ‘sexting’ men they met online,” she says. “You didn’t have to give them any personal details about yourself. You didn’t meet them face to face. It seemed like a safe, easy way to make money quickly. I set up an anonymous Instagram account and soon had guys messaging me.” Moving off Instagram to make sure she was even less traceable, Katie began to find work on online forums filled with men offering large sums of money in exchange for a 20-minute text conversation.
“Whenever I see anyone post a ‘wanted’ ad asking for something I’d be fine with, I send them a personal message,” she explains, adding that she prefers to answer ads directly rather than advertise herself. On their ads, “people describe their budget, their kinks, if they are looking for anything specific. It gives me a chance to veto them before them seeing a picture of me.” Her clientele is mostly American, and prices vary depending on the whether their communication is just verbal, or involves pictures and videos.
Now, Katie — whose boyfriend is supportive of her digital sex work — is extending her services to include Girlfriend Experience or GFE, where men pay a woman they find on the internet to pretend to be their “girlfriend,” by way of exchanging regular texts. “It’s kind of sad,” she says, but “one guy in America paid me $250 a week, and it was just occasional texting.”
Doing this every week earns Katie more than most students on zero-hour contracts in stores. And she is by no means alone: a recent study by Swansea University found that five per cent of students had done sex work at some stage, while 20 per cent had seriously considered doing so to pay their bills. Brighton University launched an investigation recently after a sex workers’ support group ran a stall offering help for students at its freshmen’s fair.
Among students, attitudes are very different. In a bustling Brighton bar, 24-year-old Natalie, a second-year computer sciences student “living on a shoestring budget,” says she has used sexting to supplement her student loan for the past two years, and is about to start doing some webcam work.
For her, this is a no-brainer. “I don’t have the time to get a wellpaid job and study,” she says. “This way I can go to uni all day and then come home and get naked on a camera for a couple of hours then go out with my friends and have a bit of a social life.
“I think people are under the impression that if you want to do sex work, it’s because you want to get loads of cash to buy expensive shoes or something — but it’s not that at all. Lots of students need a bit of extra cash just to live.”
And webcamming can be lucrative, earning some up to £1,000 a week. Natalie makes up to £200 in a week from messaging, though adds that many of her friends earn £50 a week “doing not much at all” — sometimes merely corresponding with men about “their jobs and how stressed they are.”
A couple of her friends sell pictures of their feet to fetishists on Twitter for upwards of £5 a pop, while the site is also replete with practitioners of “findom,” or financial domination — people who pay others to take control of their passwords and online bank accounts, which is, apparently, arousing.
Amazon gift cards are also a popular payment method in lieu of hard cash, as are websites that allow you to create your own gift list for clients to purchase goods on your behalf. Like many digital sex workers, Natalie uses a pseudonymous PayPal account to avoid handing over her details to strangers and, “because if PayPal find out you’re using it for sex work, they ’ll block you. But a lot of websites skim the top off your earnings, so it’s better to do it independently.”
In many ways, of course, sex work is a last resort — but it isn’t happening in the shadows, or on the dark web. It’s happening every day, in student halls up and down the country. And the five per cent of students who do it see it as little more than a necessary, safe way to make a bit of extra cash.
“I’ve never felt uncomfortable,” says Natalie. “It’s good for just getting that little bit of extra cash. If anything, it’s empowering to earn your own money and use your body in a way you’re in control of.”
In hopes of earning extra cash, some students in Britain are performing digital sex work such as text messaging, pictures, videos and webcam work.
Sending regular texts to men while pretending to be their “girlfriend” helps students earn money on the side.