SEXTING PAYS STU­DENT BILLS

Thou­sands of young peo­ple in Bri­tain use sex work to help com­bat crip­pling debt

Edmonton Journal - - INSIGHT - ELEANOR STEAFEL

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.”

OLI SCARFF/GETTY IM­AGES/FILES

In hopes of earn­ing ex­tra cash, some stu­dents in Bri­tain are per­form­ing dig­i­tal sex work such as text mes­sag­ing, pic­tures, videos and we­b­cam work.

GETTY IM­AGES/IS­TOCK­PHOTO

Send­ing reg­u­lar texts to men while pre­tend­ing to be their “girl­friend” helps stu­dents earn money on the side.

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