In the last two years, the number of students trying sex work has doubled. According to Save The Student, who ran a recent investigation into student sex work, one in 25 students (4%) have tried a form of adult work. This survey cited rising expenses and living costs as a primary cause for students being ‘pushed’ into sex work – but this is a very big and question-begging assumption to make.
Why is it assumed that students, especially female students, don’t have much of a choice in the matter? Why is it so hard to believe that students see this as a viable, enjoyable and secure source of income? Indeed, Louis Theroux’s recent documentary Selling Sex raised serious questions about the way in which sex workers are seen – with subjects of the documentary criticising him for twisting the narrative to make the sex workers appear vulnerable and victimised.
If one thing is clear, it’s that narrative surrounding sex workers needs serious rethinking. Lily and Beth, who are both in the final year of their university studies, create adult content on the website OnlyFans alongside their degree. They were kind enough to sit down for an interview with me to explain, in their own words, the empowering truth about student sex work as a valid money-making option.
How were you introduced to sex work?
Lily: When I was about 14 me and my friends would visit ‘Chatroulette’ (a live chat/webcam site online) and that was the first time I was ever exposed to a stranger’s private parts online, being it just a chat site. This taught me that there was a platform for things like that but of course it never crossed my mind to do it myself and for money until I started university.
Beth: I was first introduced to sex work when I saw a girl, I knew from my hometown advertising her content on social media, and I was interested as to why she was doing it. She explained how much money she had made in such a short amount of time and I was stunned, but being in a happy relationship at the time, I never considered it myself.
How long have you been doing sex work for?
Lily: I’ve been doing sex work for 3 years now since the beginning of university.
Beth: I’ve been doing sex work for a year now.
What made you decide to do it? Was it solely financial or other factors, too?
Lily: I suffer from a number of unpredictable health conditions that make it very difficult for me to work longer than a few hours at a time. I wanted to be able to pick up my phone at any point and earn some cash from the safety of my own home. As my parents earn over a certain amount, I get the minimum student loan, meaning that it doesn’t even cover my housing rent. A combination of these two factors drove me to choose the line of work.
Beth: I initially started it because I needed money, but after talking to some girls within the industry, I realised it was actually quite a good job to have, as it paid more than I had ever been paid before. It honestly feels good to have these people wanting to see you and talk to you. I started earning a lot of money, so I was able to quit my part-time job. I also love modelling, so being able to promote myself as a model is another benefit.
What made you choose OnlyFans specifically?
Lily: In the first two years of online sex work, I worked from various sites such as Reddit and Chaterbate. But the payoff was very hard, and you had to have certain pay accounts for the ‘token’ system to go into and it converted to much less by the end of it. When OnlyFans came into the limelight, I thought it was ideal as I can block certain areas of the world/country, make my own rules and draw out cash whenever I liked. It’s a safe and simple site compared to many others.
Beth: I chose OnlyFans because my friend used it. I was fairly new so didn’t realise there were more sites available. However, I have gained a large following on OnlyFans so moving to another network now would be difficult. They are private, and good with security, so I feel safe.
Why do you think so many students are becoming sex workers?
Lily: to put it simply, university is a very stressful time for some people. I think people want to spend as much time studying and making friends as possible so holding down a job can be difficult. For me, my university life is very separate from my home life because I don’t visit home often and I don’t tell anyone from home what I get up to on a daily basis. Almost like a double life. It makes it easier for me to create this online persona and keep that separate from home life. So maybe that’s why people feel more inclined to get into it at university.
Beth: I think more students are becoming sex workers because they world is opening up to sex work. People are more open-minded now, and it’s a great way of making quick money. You work from home, you are your own boss, flexible hours, great rate of pay. You can also be anonymous and chose how much information you include, so it’s great for people that want to stay hidden.
Would you say you’re open about what you do with friends, family, partners and lecturers? Why/why not?
Lily: Very. Although they do not know my online name to protect myself, I will happily talk to people about what I do as a job. However, I do not tell potential employers / colleagues as I feel it may have a negative impact. Of course, I don’t believe that is right, but it still happens for sure.
Beth: I am open with my family, and my friends. However, there are certain people I wouldn’t want to know, due to my fear that they will judge me, or think of me differently.
What are your boundaries when it comes to sex work? Do you show your face/use your real name? Why/why not?
Lily: I show my face in tame (clothes on) images but not in full frontal nude content, this protects me to some extent from exposure if they ever were to go public with my own name. I haven’t had many unusual requests from clients but one in particular that I did refuse was urinating in a cup and pouring it over my body. Although I did not want to kink shame, I just felt that wasn’t true to me and made me feel uncomfortable.
Beth: I ask people to tell me about about themselves when they subscribe to my page. This is so I can get a feel of what they’re like, for future reference. If someone doesn’t answer this, I don’t send them extra content. Due to the fact I don’t know anything about this person. All the photos on my page are fairly tame, and I don’t include anything more than necessary. I use my first name, and middle name. But it’s sort of just a stage name, as I link my Instagrams together. On my private, OnlyFans Instagram I have 13.6K followers.
What do you think of the label ‘sex worker’? Is that the label you’d use for yourselves?
Lily: Yes, I would say so. Although there are some clients who just pay me to be their friend, the majority is sexual.
Beth: No. I don’t believe I’m a sex worker. However, I know others will disagree. I’m not having sex with anyone; therefore, I don’t think I am. I prefer the term ‘adult model’.
What do you think about the current narrative around sex workers?
Lily: Financially, I am aware that this is true for hundreds of women in sex work. Especially if they are homeless or addicts. I can understand how abuse survivors may work in the industry as they may suffer some confusion around their sexuality. However, I believe that with OnlyFans, you are in complete control of what you post, who you interact with etc. So, it could possibly be liberating for a person to express themselves on their own terms online. From a university perspective I think people are more likely to join for financial aid and because they have the privacy of their own flat rather than family home.
Beth: I disagree, If someone really didn’t want to do it, they wouldn’t (students). As Lily said, for some women yes maybe it is the only way to stay alive, or get drugs, but for students there are so many other ways to make money or get financial help. Such as grants, bursaries, loans, funding, jobs, credit. If it made me feel uncomfortable, I would stop.
Following on from this, do you think there are misconceptions/stigmas around sex work?
Lily: Absolutely! I see it all the time on twitter and have to bite my tongue! People will reply to sex workers tweets saying ‘*this comment* is invalid’ or ‘you are not allowed to say *this*’ because we ‘get our tits out online’ or something of the sort. We are forbidden to talk about things on twitter such as our romantic partners if we are sex workers because it somehow makes us hypocrites.
I also think that people automatically assume you are a prostitute when you mention ‘sex work’ so I tend to follow it up with ‘I sell nudes’ or something a bit specific. But I like the term because it gives people who do sell sex in the industry the choice to disclose what they do without saying ‘I’m a prostitute’.
Beth: Definitely. It’s always seen so negatively, however it’s really not. It’s just liked any job, and just because I do OnlyFans doesn’t mean I’m any less of a person. I’ve had people call me a slag, saying I don’t respect myself. I have so much respect for myself, and I love my body! So why would I not make money from that?
Do you think the perception around sex work has changed in the last ten years or so? How and why?
Lily: I think so. My perception of sex work in the distant past is standing on the roadside waiting for business but there are so many more options of sex work now due to the online world. I think it is safer and more acceptable now as people are talking about it. Of course, many people including my ex-partner, still think it is wrong and immoral, however I’m willing to bet my bottom dollar that they have watched porn at some point in their lives.
Beth: Yes, it has. Although as I’m still fairly new, I don’t know very much about what it used to be like unfortunately. However, I’ve only recently started being more open and public with my work, as I’ve become more comfortable.
What do you think of the current law around sex work?
Lily: I think that the roadside and pimping laws are good as it is there to protect sex workers from being attacked or sold by other people. When researching the laws as I was getting into work I saw someone asking a law site for advice and the top reply by a ‘verified lawyer’ said “This website is designed for people who have real legal problems, not to help you set up a business selling pornography”. Understandably the laws are different in the us where this lawyer was from but I was shocked to see that so many people had agreed with this man for shaming someone simply asking about the laws regarding her work.
How do you separate sex work from your sex life, if at all? Do you think it’s necessary to?
Lily: As real as I try to be, the content I make for OnlyFans is not 100 % authentic. Its near enough impossible to act completely shamelessly in front of a camera. But that is what people are paying for I think, something more personal than public / free porn. If a sexual partner agrees to take part in making content together, it becomes more fun than serious as its new and exciting for them. But I personally have not had a boyfriend since being in the industry so can’t comment on that. If I did, I think I would want to keep most of our sex life private as making love to a partner is different to casual partners for me.
Beth: Funnily enough, I’m not a very sexual person. Therefore, I find it very easy to separate them. My content isn’t very explicit, as I don’t enjoy that aspect of it.
How has sex work changed your relationship with yourself and your body? How have you personally developed as a result of this?
Lily: Sex work has taught me that despite my pimples, stretch marks, weird nipples and chubby belly, there are hundreds of men out there that love my body and are willing to pay lots of money to see it. This of course makes me feel desirable and sexy, but the compliment is far weaker when it comes from an anonymous account on the internet. Everyone wants real connections with real people, so to say that ‘hundreds of people calling you sexy must boost your confidence’ is not strictly true, it’s a short-term boost.
Beth: It’s boosted my confidence so much. Before doing this, I would never post anything even slightly revealing on my social media, whereas now, I don’t care! It’s made me love my body, and every part of it in a way I cannot describe!
What has been the best part of doing this?
Lily: Shamelessly, the money! I’ve been able to enjoy a night out with friends at university without worrying about not being able to afford food the next day. And can afford to visit my family who live far away. That’s the best bit.
Beth: I agree, the money. As awful as that sounds, it’s given me so many opportunities I wouldn’t have been able to afford prior to this work. I bought a new car, a pet, a lot of food!
What has been the worst part?
Lily: Honestly, the demand. Some people feel entitled to be demanding when they are paying for something. If I am busy for a few days and someone wants me to make personal content for them, it can sometimes be a stress finding the time.
Beth: The fact I feel like I still have hidden this side of my life from the world, and certain others. I would love to open up and tell everyone what I’ve been up to, the companies I’ve worked for, the large following I have! This is a massive part of my life. But sometimes it’s best left private.
Do you see yourself continuing sex work following graduation?
Lily: I’m not too sure but probably not as I would love to go into the area of work that I’ve been studying for the past decade.
Beth: Definitely. I want to continue to grow as a model, so this is a great way. And it will fund me whilst I aim to start my career.
Would you call yourselves feminists? How would you define ‘feminism’?
Lily: Definitely. I believe that feminism simply means the equality of the sexes. And in regard to sex work, I believe that man or woman, you own the rights to your own bodies and choices.
Beth: To some extent yes! I think men and women should have equal rights, and their own choices when it comes to what they do, what they post, who they are.
Following on from this, how would you respond to critics or ‘SWERFS’ (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists)?
Lily: I find it hard to understand how online sex work is oppressive. To my knowledge, all the people doing my form of work are doing it completely by choice and can leave any time they like. When has it ever not felt liberating to get your boobs out, really?
Of course, I am aware that in some countries, women do not have freedom and choice like I do and the thought of someone doing this work against their will breaks my heart.
Beth: Women, just do what you want! Do not let anyone put you down for what you want to do. Anyone that judges me now, I brush off. At the end of the day I am my own person, and it’s my life.