EXCLUSIVE: Many students like Sophie are turning to the sex industry as they struggle financially
Desperate students selling sex to make ends meet are behind a surge of pleas for help to the “prostitutes’ union”.
The English Collective of Prostitutes said calls to its helpline from young people at university and college have risen by a third in 2021.
And the campaigning group has seen a surge in the numbers selling sex since lockdowns sent student finances into freefall.
Many sell explicit pictures of themselves on sites like OnlyFans as traditional bar and shop jobs have dried up.
Now as many as eight students a day are calling for support and advice. And some universities are publishing guides on how to safely sell your body.
Laura Watson, a spokeswoman for the group, said: “We have seen a significant increase in students going into prostitution as tuition fees have increased.
“Some women in our group are working to pay off debts of £30,000 plus.
“Since the pandemic a lot of women have been getting in touch starting sex work.
“Jobs in shops and pubs, that students would traditionally have taken, have not been available, especially during the pandemic.
“There just aren’t a lot of options out there – and women have to find a way to survive.”
The ECP, founded in 1975, campaigns for the decriminalisation of sex workers and improved rights and safety.
Calls include inquiries from students who are new to sex work and want to know their rights – but some seek help after being hounded by clients.
Ms Watson explained: “During the first lockdown there was a mass wave of women going online and OnlyFans was one of the big ones people went to.
“We’ve been dealing with stalking and harassment cases specifically related to this where people say clients are persistently getting in touch with them.
“Some women have had their content stolen and reposted somewhere.
“Others say clients have somehow got their personal details and posted them in other forums.”
Valued at over £725million, OnlyFans has boomed in the pandemic.
Founded by Essex businessman Tim Stokely, as of December it had more than one million people posting private pictures, up from 120,000 in 2019.
The increase in students opting to carry out sex work online has raised other safety concerns, Ms Watson said.
She explained: “People are having to compromise anonymity to make the money they need.
“Those making money from sex work in person before the pandemic went on OnlyFans and realised you have to produce so much content to make money, and it’s really hard to do that without including your face and voice in videos.
“Things people have never dreamt of being on a website are now creeping online because it’s the way to make money.”
A poll of 3,200 students last year claimed that 4% were selling sex to fund their courses. One in 10 said they would do it in a cash emergency.
The ECP saw a “significant increase” in the numbers turning to sex work after university costs skyrocketed under austerity measures introduced by the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition government a decade ago.
Former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg built his 2010 election campaign around a promise to abolish £3,000-a-year tuition fees – only to treble them instead.
Undergraduates can pay up to £9,250 a year and hundreds of thousands end up with massive debts. Meanwhile, the average student rent was £547 a month last year, or £640 in London, according to Times Higher Education.
The Workers of England Union is calling for reform to tackle student living costs.
General Secretary Stephen Morris said: “Universities shouldn’t leave it to potentially unscrupulous landlords to require extortionate fees. Living costs need to be controlled because landlords are trying to get as much as they can out of it, which can increase debt for students.
“The financial cost increase means students might either give up or go into certain lines they shouldn’t be.
“It’s appalling if students feel they have no choice but to turn to sex work. You wonder what other illegal avenues others will turn to.”
Universities that have published guidance relating to student sex workers have come under fire, with some critics accusing them of legitimising and encouraging the trade. Brighton University was criticised for allowing a sex workers’ health and support service to run a stall at a freshers’ fair.
The University of Leicester issued a guide called “Student Sex Work Toolkit for Staff in Higher Education”.
It details how to support those who turn to escorting, online services and stripping.
Staff are advised not to be judgmental or “assume the student wants to leave the sex industry”. They should also “challenge university policy which allows sex workers to be expelled for ‘bringing the university into disrepute’,” it says.
The English Collective of Prostitutes has also produced advice which is “circulating widely” among students.
Spokeswoman Ms Watson added: “Often women are very secretive about sex work and don’t want family involved.”
The Student Sex Work Research Hub states that “morality clauses” in tenancy agreements mean that sex workers can face eviction, lose their deposit and even end up homeless.
It states: “If a student is evicted from their halls, it can be put on their accommodation record, which can prevent them from having accommodation in the future and can even be accessed by different departments at the university.
“In the worst case, student sex workers can be permanently expelled. This has far reaching ramifications for a student’s ability to get an education.”
A Universities UK spokesperson said: “Universities recognise the financial hardship many students have experienced, particularly during the pandemic, and are providing increased financial and other support as well as speaking with government about further support.
“Universities encourage legal, healthy and safe behaviours and support students to make the right choices.
“The focus, based on universities’ duty of care to their students, is on keeping students safe, educating them about risks, and maintaining open lines of communication and support.”
The Sunday People requested a comment from the website OnlyFans.
“I COULD BARELY AFFORD TO BUY FOOD – NOW I EARN £7,200 A MONTH”
Chemistry graduate Sophie McBurnie, 22, turned to OnlyFans in desperation as a third-year student.
Despite having a part-time supermarket job, the Lancaster University student’s loan still left her short on her £5,000-a-year rent.
She said: “I’m from a middle class family so my maintenance loan was the lowest possible.
“My parents are good earners but they didn’t have spare cash to lend.
“I was £2,000 short on rent in my third year so I had to come up with money. Over the three years it just got worse and worse. I worked all summer at Asda but still ended up negative.
“It was really bad. By the third year I’d maxed out my overdraft, I owed two people £200 and I could barely buy food.”
Sophie, who models under the name Piri, has 1,300 subscribers, each paying £8.73 a month and has hired an accountant to manage her affairs.
She now makes £7,276 a month and estimates she has made £43,659 from the platform in just 10 months.
“The first month was very disheartening because it didn’t take off immediately,” she said. “A lot of people quit but I stuck with it and it was the best decision I have ever made.”
Sophie, originally from Rochdale, added: “My parents were very unhappy with it and wanted me to stop. But I’ve told them how much I’m earning and I feel they understand now.”
“SUGAR DADDY BOUGHT ME THINGS UNTIL HE COULDN’T AFFORD IT”
Indi, 20, said turning to internet sex work to fund her education was a “no brainer”.
The third-year history student makes £400 a month selling images and videos on OnlyFans.
Indi, who models under the name Pea, said: “I started at the beginning of lockdown because I was bored and skint.
“I’ve just kept doing it. Now I’m thinking about branching out into other things.
“Camming seems like a fun thing – to sit there and people virtually throw money at me.
“But I don’t think I’d ever be an escort because that seems quite scary. I feel safe doing what I’m doing and I’m having fun.”
Indi, from West Yorkshire, keeps her work a secret from family but added: “It’s mostly underwear shots and stuff – it’s all high quality. I’ll do explicit videos and custom-made content to customers who pay more.
“I’ve had sugar daddies. A guy bought me things for a month from an Amazon wish list until he said he couldn’t afford it.
“But I find it to be a safe space. It’s me who is in charge and it fits in nicely with uni work. It’s just a part-time job with a difference. I can just do little photoshoots whenever I want.”
“IT SHOWS ENTREPRENURSHIP”
Aalyiah lived at home to save money – but was still so skint she stripped for cash.
The 24 year old took her clothes off on the web while struggling to pay tuition fees for her art and design course at Leeds Beckett.
Aaliyah, from South Yorkshire, carried on even after graduating in 2019 and quit her job in graphic design to go full time on Only Fans.
She said: “I started at uni because a few other people were doing it and making a lot of money.
“It’s not cheap to go to uni and the debt you can leave with can stay with you for life.
“Students, especially young women, are realising that they can earn money quickly to fund their studies.
“I don’t see a problem with it. I think it shows entrepreneurship.
Aaliyah, who lived at home while at uni, still had to take a £3k-a-year loan to meet her outgoings.
She said: “Even though I didn’t have rent, I had to pay tuition fees and commute to uni.
“I took up some part time jobs to get by but I wish I found OnlyFans sooner, to be honest.”