Earlier this year the House of Lords economic affairs committee revealed evidence that the student loan book would grow to over £1 trillion over the next 25 years.

Faced with rising costs of living and the prospect of scandalous interest rates on student loans; many are turning to sex work to cover basics such as rent, tuition and travel costs.

I met up with two student sex workers and asked them what had led them to this make this choice, and whether they had any regrets.

These are their stories.

Dylan studied medicine at Kings College London before graduating in 2015 and finding a job as a junior doctor.

He had moved to London for university but had quickly began struggling to cope with the cost of living and the fast pace of life in the capital. He balanced university with working two jobs; three nights a week in a bar and weekends stacking shelves in a supermarket. Between his studies and shifts, he was averaging 60 hours a week.

The first challenge he faced wasn’t money; it was his mental health. He soon found himself missing classes, regularly experimenting with drugs and struggling in an abusive relationship. As his wellbeing deteriorated so his debt spiralled. First, his overdraft was maxed out and then he turned to a payday loan. It was only £400. But it was £400 he didn’t have. When this loan was due for repayment he falsified an application for a larger loan. He repeated this several times. Soon he owed thousands.

One cold February night in 2015 he was out with friends at a popular London nightclub. On his way home he received a message on the gay dating app Grindr, asking him to join a sex party. He initially declined. But as the bus pulled away from Tottenham Court Road and headed east the messages became more persistent. The person sending the messages was young and attractive. There was the offer of good looking guys, drugs, and cash.

With his curiosity peaked, Dylan accepted.

Dylan’s housemates became worried and, when he didn’t return home the next day their concerns grew. They texted but received no answer. Then one spotted him on Grindr with a geolocation just a few miles away – they messaged but received no reply. The housemates contacted friends but were told he hadn’t been seen in classes. Eventually, they had a message saying that he was staying at a friend’s house and would be back soon.

He didn’t return the next day. Nor the next. Every text message asking about his whereabouts was met by another story – first, he’d gone home to his family. Then he was staying over at the hospital between classes or was out with friends.

But he wasn’t. For over 11 days Dylan’s Grindr profile showed him to be online in the same location just a few miles away.

Eventually, twelve days after he’d last been seen by his friends leaving the club in central, his housemates had a message asking them to come quickly to a property in Wapping, east London.

There was no time to waste. Thirty minutes later the housemate arrived at an upmarket block of apartments. Out of the shadows stumbled Dylan. He was struggling to walk, his speech was slurred and he was deathly pale.

They headed home. In silence. This wasn’t the time for questions.

Once in private Dylan confided in his friend. After arriving at the apartment he had been offered alcohol, drugs, and cash to stay. The owner was a wealthy banker. At the house were half a dozen young men – all students. A PGCE music teacher. A law student. Some lived there permanently, rent-free with the banker. Some had been there for several weeks; others just a few days.

In this spacious house, they spent the days and evenings partaking in drug-fuelled orgies. The banker bought them presents. He even bought Dylan a suit for his graduation. When he left, Dylan had made enough money to clear the payday loans.

Dylan completed his medical degree a few months later and works as a junior doctor

When I ask if he has any regrets he pauses.

“No.”

“If I hadn’t paid off the debt and loans I wouldn’t be here now”

But Dylan’s story is a-typical – it was a one-off.

Harriet was in her second year at Imperial College London when she created a profile on an escorting site.

She had fallen two months behind on her rent and now owed nearly £3,000. The landlord started calling her housemates demanding they cover her missing rent. Next, he would call her father who was her guarantor.

She was being publicly shamed in front of everyone she cared about. Harriet had already begun to withdraw socially. As she tried to save money she started turning down invitations to meet up with friends. Eventually, people stopped asking her. She became isolated and lonely.

Even her boyfriend didn’t know. And she couldn’t tell her parents; it would be an admission that she was failing to manage being away from home. She was failing at being a grown up.

So she created a profile, careful to obscure her face and not share her contact details. Within minutes she’d had the first message asking to meet. It was his first time too. They arranged to meet at a hotel in London – she was to call the client when she arrived.

She headed out. Without telling anyone.

But the first meeting never happened. She arrived at the hotel and there was no call. She called the client and the number had blocked her. Harriet smiles at me and surmises that she wasn’t the only nervous one.

The next day did happen. It was a one-hour meeting at a residential flat. He was 40 and was working from home while his wife was at work. Harriet made £120.

Harriet’s relationship with her housemates was becoming increasingly strained. She no longer socialised and often came and went at strange hours. When it came to organising accommodation for the third and final year her housemates didn’t ask Harriet to join them. In fact, they viewed and signed for a flat without telling her.

Harriet was now left with almost no time to find a new home and no friends to share with. She decided to rent a studio flat in an expensive central location, rationalising that a high-end apartment would mean more premium and regular clients. More privacy.

Her studies continued but were secondary to the sex work. With over £2000 a month in rent to pay she needed regular work. Jobs came in. £120 for an hour. £200 for a couple of hours. £500 for overnight. Almost without exception clients wanted unprotected sex. That was extra.

Soon she had regulars. It made traveling to clients easier and the small talk less painful. As clients became regulars so their expectations diminished. The work became easier. Then a client asked her to join him on a business trip.

It was her first time abroad since a childhood family holiday in France. She accepted and earned £2000 for 3 days in Dubai. More offers followed and she had the freedom to be more selective.

Harriet continued sex work for the next two years. After graduating with a 2:1 in her degree, she secured an internship at a leading recruitment firm but continued to meet her regulars after hours. Many had become friends of sort.

She has no regrets. She is still with her boyfriend and they are engaged to get married. He doesn’t know about her secret life as a sex worker. No one knows; except Harriet and her clients.

There are believed to be over 100,000 sex workers in the UK. From my research, I would estimate over 20% are current or recent students. Harriet and Dylan were just two of a half dozen students I interviewed.

When I approached King’s College for comment they repeatedly failed to respond. It took nearly a month and, a half dozen emails and five calls before they dismissively issued a short statement.

A spokesperson at King’s College London says:

‘The welfare of our students is of paramount importance to us and we have a number of measures in place to support students throughout their studies. Our Student Services provide advice and support on a wide range of matters from housing and finances to wellbeing and counselling.’

UCL were more responsive. A UCL spokesperson said: “We would urge any student considering or undertaking sex work to come to talk to us. Student wellbeing and safety at UCL is a high priority and we offer a range of services to provide support for all of our students.

“Through the Student Support and Wellbeing Team, we provide daily drop-in sessions to help students address any personal and health (including social, physical and mental health) difficulties. Advisors listen in an non-judgemental way and seek to understand how a student might be feeling. We can also help them identify and access the appropriate therapeutic, medical or financial support both within and outside of UCL.

“UCL also allocates more than £300,000 each year to its Hardship Fund, which is open to all current students who need to apply for support with living costs. We also allocate more than £10 million each year to scholarships and bursaries designed to assist students with the costs of study. The majority of this funding is provided to specifically support students from low-income backgrounds.

“UCL also has a dedicated Student Funding Advisory team that provides one-to-one support for students with financial issues, and we are pro-active in providing financial capability advice and guidance to both prospective and current students.

“We also have a dedicated Student Psychological and Counselling service, which offers in-person counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, psychiatric support and psycho-educational groups to help students deal with a wide range of emotional and wellbeing concerns. A 365 day-a-year telephone and online counselling service is also available.”

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