“We all send nudes, if you can make some money out of it, then do it.”
Today, for Jemma, is a Wednesday like any other. She leaves her last lecture of the day and walks to her car. She sits at the wheel to rest for a moment; she’s been up since 3 a.m. worrying about her finances, degree, and secret side hustle.
Finally, the school day is over. Now, work begins.
She opens the app that she runs her business from and starts checking her inbox. She opens a message from one of her online followers asking her to record herself saying his name into the camera whilst rubbing oil onto her breasts.
This isn’t out of the ordinary for Jemma. Instead of working in hospitality or retail, like most of her peers, she’s one of 3% of students trying to make ends meet by engaging in sex work.
The average monthly living cost for students in the UK is around £810. But students with part-time jobs typically earn just £404 per month. Many are left in precarious financial situations, often having to borrow money or get creative, like Jemma.
“I used to have a story on my Snapchat where I literally just posted pictures of my bum”, Jemma, who is now 23, says. “And my personal trainer was like, ‘You know you could probably just post stuff like that on OnlyFans and make some money out of it?’”
On OnlyFans, creators like Jemma post content of themselves — often explicit — and fans pay monthly subscriptions to view it. Jemma found herself in £3k of debt from overdrafts and a car loan, so she decided to take her trainer’s advice. “I was like, you know what? I’ve got absolutely no money and I’m up to my ears in debt. I’ve got to do something”, she says. “I couldn’t ask my mum and dad for help. I couldn’t work more hours at my job because I physically didn’t have enough time”.
Despite an initial period of anxiety about posting intimate photos of herself online, Jemma doubled down after earning more than £5k in three months. “In the fourth month in I had made £15k in one month, and I was like, nothing anyone can say could change my mind about my decision because that’s literally saved my arse”.
Almost 40% of student sex workers make money by selling intimate photos, and around 27% of them use OnlyFans. “I don’t call myself a sex worker. Like for tax purposes, that’s what I am. I’m fully aware that what I do is sex work, but I go down the route of a content creator kind of vibe”.
Creator platforms grew exponentially in popularity during the pandemic, but none more so than OnlyFans. Its base grew from 8 million registered users in 2019 to 85 million as of January 1, 2021 — potentially as it provided a way for sex workers to retain autonomy over their bodies with the additional incentive of financial liberation.
Jemma says, “If you want to take pictures of your boobs online, you bloody do it. We all send nudes, if you can make some money out of it, then do it.”
Sex Swings & Roundabouts
The term “sex work” is an umbrella term for many kinds of “adult” work. Student sex workers that took part in SaveTheStudent’s Annual Student Money Survey say they earned money by selling used clothes and engaging in phone sex. Around 9% say they have worked as an escort. Izzy, 24, was one such student who escorted throughout her time as a student and continued for a short time after.
She says, “I’ve never been one to fully commit to one job, mostly because wages everywhere are low. So, I’ve never shied away from having more than one stream of income”.
It’s not uncommon for students that are strapped for cash to juggle multiple part-time jobs. Students usually have limited availability, which forces them into low paid part-time work to make ends meet. This often involves spending many hours at their places of work — hours that they feel could be better spent studying.
Izzy says being a student is a full-time job in itself because of the amount of time it demands. She says, “Anything else you pick up, whether it’s a paid job, whether it’s sex work, or anything else, it’s something that you’re doing to supplement that”.
It’s increasingly common for students to consider sex work a legitimate source of income. SaveTheStudent‘s 2021 survey revealed that around 9% of students would engage in sex work if they were in a cash emergency, up from 6% in 2019.
“At that time in my life, everybody that I knew was doing this as a student”, says Izzy. “I realised that to find a person living this kind of lifestyle, you don’t have to visit a street corner. They’re literally in your class, or at parties with you.”
“Sex work offered me some alternative lifestyle options”, says Izzy. “Before escorting, I was making no more than £80-100 a week. Maybe some weeks not even that much because I had deadlines or stayed late in the library so I couldn’t work”.
Like Izzy, many students are attracted to sex work as an alternative to traditional jobs because they can earn more money in a shorter amount of time — this gives them more opportunity to commit to their studies, hobbies, and social life. “I could usually make a lot higher [doing sex work]. I could maybe earn up to £500 a week, essentially tripling my income in a lot less time”, she says.
Working minimum wage hospitality and retail jobs requires students to work a lot of hours to earn what is often just enough to get by. In a period when time can be a commodity, it’s perhaps understandable, then, that some would seek alternative methods.
“Working in a restaurant, I definitely found that there were times when I thought this isn’t an efficient use of my time at all”, Izzy says. “Some of these shifts are like eight hours. Whereas, I could see a client and make double that amount of money in three hours and have five more hours to study for an exam”.
Scheduling isn’t the only issue with working more traditionally student-oriented jobs, that are often exploitative by nature. Izzy recalls, “I found that in all the different kinds of jobs I’ve done, from hospitality to admin, office space roles, working with children, I’ve also seen coercion and a lack of autonomy”.
Sex work is largely criticised because of its association with trafficking, modern slavery, and abuse. But Izzy argues that the parallels with other industries are hard to ignore. “I just think it’s a shame that for some reason people think so absolutely about this industry, and they don’t think so absolutely about other industries”, she says.
Izzy explains that she has felt unsafe in other jobs, “This is why I find parallels so easily” she says. “There were times when I felt really unsafe and unsure — and in a position of subordination — in many ways more so than in sex work. I was actually sexually abused whilst working in hospitality”. She adds, “There is a lot of coercion and abuse. Lots of people in these industries are overworked, underpaid, stressed, and very close to burning out.”
The legitimacy of sex work in the UK remains a highly contentious issue. Those in defence argue it can be a legitimate form of work and that laws should reflect that to offer sex workers additional safety and support.
Izzy says she thinks people are so against legitimising sex work because it’s a job that doesn’t require a high level of intelligence. “That’s what it comes down to” she says. “It disturbs people that not every person earning money has had to overcome tonnes of hurdles, especially academic ones, or those that directly associate with a good socio-economic background”.
In for a Penny, In for a Grand
Those against legitimising sex work want to focus attention on the dangers and risks involved. It is often the case that some types of sex workers are victims of physical violence, and even illegal trafficking and slavery.
Human trafficking campaign group Stop The Traffik report that a study by the International Labour Organisation showed that approximately 4.8 million (19%) of the estimated 40.3 million victims of human trafficking today are persons forced into sexual exploitation.
The dangers are not unique to in-person sex work either. Jemma spoke about an incident she had at her gym, despite her sex work existing solely online, where a man tried to kiss her.
She says, “He had a subscription to my OnlyFans, started messaging me about my vagina, and was being really weird at the gym, and now they’ve had to ban him”.
But despite the risks associated with sex work, the amount of young people engaging in it has risen over the last few years, indicating that attitudes might be changing. James, 22, started escorting in his final year of study.
“There’s always this idea that you’re desperate or you’re broke, and you have no money and it’s your final option”, he says. “But I went into it very willingly”.
He isn’t naïve to the fact that his experience of sex work is different to that of women doing the same job and calls himself privileged “I think that if you’re a female escort it’s probably a very different experience”, James says. “There are some things you have to be a lot more aware of, I think”.
James mentions how he’s personally had to adapt and develop a system to protect himself. “I tell a friend where I’m going, I give them the phone number of the person I’m seeing, what time I’m seeing them, how long it’s meant to be for, and they’ll check in an hour or two after to see if I’m okay and I’m alive”, he explains.
For some students, it would seem that the physical and mental risks of being involved in sex work are offset by the potential of financial liberation. “I wasn’t struggling with money, but I wasn’t sure where I was going with my career after uni, and I wanted to have a good savings nest”, says James.
“The first time I got paid £1000 for the night, I was like, that’s my month’s rent, my bills, everything taken care of in one night, and it’s a weird thing to grasp”, he adds. “When I told my friends they said, ‘I would have to work so many hours to do that.’”
The Cost of Freedom
While financial freedom is attractive, it doesn’t come for free. Some argue that sex workers often get trapped in the industry once they join, either through violence, coercion, or their socio-economic situation forcing their hand. Ironically, what’s keeping some students in the industry is the abundance of cash it provides.
“I think you can get lost in the money. Getting paid so much for doing something for such a short amount of time can be incredibly appealing”, says James. He has decided to continue in sex work for the foreseeable future and sees it as a long-term endeavour.
“I feel like my life has a great balance that I don’t think I would have had otherwise”. James has graduated now but doesn’t want a nine-to-five job, he says his outlook on the working world has changed. He now spends his free time developing his illustration skills and writing poetry. “Sex work is something I can live off that allows me to have a huge amount of time and space to do something else that I’m passionate about.”
“I feel quite stuck”, Jemma says, trapped by the money that had previously liberated her. “I’ve got a first-class degree in primary education, which is what I’ve always wanted to do, but if I want to be a teacher, I have to stop OnlyFans, I have to”, she says. “But how can I go from making seven grand a month to making two grand a month?”
She goes on to say that her past struggles with mental health make more traditional jobs even less appealing. “I don’t think I could ever work full time, ever, and this gives me the freedom to be like, ‘I feel like shit today. I don’t want to move’. And I can do that.”
Izzy has since left the industry, however, after landing a job that she desired. Though she says the possibility will always be there that she might return. “As it was something that I could almost do in my spare time, I was in no rush, and I just stopped when I felt like it wasn’t serving me or relevant to me anymore”.
She believes there needs to be more openness amongst sex workers so that the experience can be improved for everyone in the industry. “Each and every one of us, if we feel comfortable and confident to do so, needs to share our experience so that we can have more control over the narrative”, she says.
“I think a lot of people want to keep sex work in the dark as a grey area that they struggle to validate. If we quite simply bring our lived experiences forward, people can’t fabricate what they understand about this industry anymore”, Izzy continues.
Jemma says to other student sex workers, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that what you’re doing is wrong. It takes an insane amount of courage and confidence to be able to do it, and those aren’t bad traits to have”.
A representative from Save The Student responded in an e-mail by saying, “Given the potential mental and physical risks involved in sex work, if students feel they need to do sex work because of an urgent need for money, it’s important that they are aware of the other, lower-risk sources of funding available to them.”
They explained that if retail and hospitality work doesn’t suit their schedule or preferences then students can opt for alternative jobs, like private tutoring or becoming a TV or film extra.
They concluded, “Having said that, for students who choose to do sex work and feel positively about the decision, it’s important that universities support them, without judgement, to help them stay safe and healthy throughout their time at uni.”
More information about sex trafficking and how to help and support vulnerable sex workers can be found here.
*Names have been changed for anonymity