(Contains discussion of sexual violence, prostitution, mental health.)
The taboo surrounding sex-work is such that very few at university who partake in it would tell even their close friends about their work – as a result, it’s extremely difficult to investigate exactly how many of our students are working in the sex trade, and how it affects them. The thought of a young student selling sex on the side of their studies isn’t one which most people want to dwell on. It’s a topic often brushed under the carpet, but it’s precisely this attitude which leads to prejudice and violence against sex-workers themselves.
Earlier this year, Exeposé reported that 422 students at Exeter University are signed up to SeekingArrangement.com, a dating website where wealthy benefactors can find “mutually beneficial relationships” with younger men and women looking for financial support. Despite universities’ warnings for students to be cautious of entering into such arrangements, some students continue to turn to sex work, from stripping to prostitution, web-cam shows and pornography, to pay the bills.
Kate Byard, President of Exeter University’s Feminist Society, interviewed Claire* about her experiences working in the sex industry whilst studying at Exeter. Claire works as an escort during the university term, having started during Freshers’ Week last year. “I call myself a “call girl” but that’s basically a cute way of saying “hooker”. So I offer the full service – everything from the Girlfriend Experience (essentially laughing at an unfunny man’s jokes and telling him he should be a comedian) to full-on penetrative sex.”
Working as an escort once or twice a week is enough to cover Claire’s everyday life expenses, but despite citing the pay as one of the biggest advantages of sex work, she admits that a lot of the money she earns goes directly back into the job. “Hair, make-up, phone bills, travel, lingerie, waxing, tanning, gym classes… God, I must spend at least half of it. And then if you’re only working one hour, you have to spend an hour before getting ready, then however long it takes to get there and then you need to debrief. So if I get £90 in an hour I probably only actually get £25 or £30 of that.”
Claire laughs when we query whether she continues her work during university holidays. “Gosh, I’d never do it in my hometown! I come from a very, very small area and I’d probably turn up to my first booking, and it would be something awful, like my old school teacher. Exeter is bad enough for running into clients – which I do all the time!” Her point is a valid one, and no doubt a concern which plays on the mind of many students who work in the sex industry.
“At first it was awkward [running into clients] – especially if they were with their families. Now it just annoys me a little, because it ruins the “mystique” of me, and therefore my marketability. Suddenly I’m not really some fantasy twenty-year old who struts around all day in stockings, a suspender belt, and false eyelashes, but a real girl with greasy hair, jogging bottoms, and flip flops walking home with her Sainsbury’s shopping.”
Is it a typical, “young woman, sleazy old client” situation? Claire shrugs.
Though younger clients are rarer than older men, she says it’s a real mix. “I see all kinds of customers. I had a 21-year-old client this week. Gym body, lovely smile. A good day at the office. I did wonder why he was using an escort! But I never ask them. Everyone has their own reasons for coming – shyness, anxiety, loneliness, frustration, or just hot-blooded horniness. I’m a hooker, not a therapist and plus, that’s their private business. If they are using sex to come to terms with things, that’s their prerogative.”
Leading the double life which sex work brings means a constant risk of discovery, but Claire explains that she’s lucky to have supportive housemates who know about her work. “I told them before we moved in. It actually helps keep me safe, because I let the client in, take his hand and lead him upstairs, then before we get to my room, I knock on my housemate’s bedroom door and say “I have a client”. He shouts, “Yell if there’s a problem,” and the client knows basically not to mess with me, because I’m not on my own. When I go to out-calls – the client’s house – I always tell my housemates the exact address, and text them every half-hour. It’s just a safety thing.” Even though Claire’s housemates know about her work, she admits that she has to lie to her family, who “don’t know and never will… If they found out, they’d probably disown me.”
Although society is quick to criticize sex workers, there are few opportunities for the workers themselves to discuss the toll the work takes on them. For Claire, the emotional impact is something she’s very aware of. “There are some girls who just see man after man after man, with 10-minute intervals, all night. I can’t do that. I see one guy, then go home and have a hot bath. I take it slow and look after my health; my mental health, that is. I go home and chat to my housemate about anything that upset me, although mainly we just laugh about the things I’ve had to do.”
Claire recounts one of the stories she shared with a housemate recently. “I remember us hysterically rolling around in the kitchen last week, because I had to help one of my clients up the stairs and then find his walking stick. I’m lucky I have that support. And I needed that laughing session to take my mind off the half hour I spent with the client…” A mock shudder.
University is supposed to be a time for developing yourself socially as well as academically, but Claire tells us that her social life suffers enormously as a result of her work. “I never go out. I went clubbing three times last year. I can never meet people at weekends because that’s prime business time for locals, and weeknights is when businessmen come to stay. And you know, I can’t even have coffee after a seminar with my classmates because I’m rushing home to get my thong and push-up bra on for someone coming over for an ‘Afternoon Delight’ session.”
Maintaining close friends becomes a struggle, Claire explains. “Many-a-time, I’ve lamented that I can’t just talk about it to my friends. I always have to say “Oh, I’m in the library,” when actually I’ve got my legs hooked over some guy’s shoulders out at the Premier Inn. It’s lying really, but there’s so much stigma and risk for me, I have to keep those in the know to a minimum.”
Romantic relationships also take a hit. “Total buzz kill. I was really into a guy recently and just couldn’t bring myself to tell him I was a sex worker. Eventually I just called it off.” Claire tells us that she wouldn’t keep her work secret from a future partner. “I don’t think it would be fair, and I’m sure that there is some sort of consent issue with sleeping with a sex worker undeclared. If I do settle down, then it will be with someone who isn’t “slut-shamey,” and who accepts sex work.”
“I get to feel sexy and wanted all day when I do bookings… I get to meet lots of interesting men and actually form some quite strong bonds with some of them if they become regular customers. I helped one guy through his divorce. He’d book me out for three or four hour sessions every week, and we’d just sit and watch Netflix and talk about his life and divorce…” A slightly incredulous reaction prompts her to laugh. “Ok, and a little sex.”
This year, Exeter University Feminist Society will be working to destigmatise sex-work amongst the student population, and support decriminalisation campaigns. Kate Byard, FemSoc President, told us, “Going by national statistics, (Toynbee Hall, 2009 & 2014) there are an estimated 300 female sex workers at Exeter. As a Feminist Society, we seek to advise and protect these women, ensuring that they have access to the protection they deserve, as well as knowledge of their legal rights. Our upcoming campaigns this year will focus on destigmatisation, STI and contraception advice, and material hand-outs, as well as negotiations – alongside other ‘de-crim’ campaign organisations such as the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) – with the government to decriminalise sex work and protect all sex workers.”
Sex workers are too often dismissed from conversations regarding their own welfare, even in feminist forums and support groups. Sex-Worker-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (SWERFs) often promote negative feeling towards sex-workers by taking action against the women themselves. Many sex workers, including Claire, do their best to ignore these groups. “They are not feminists, and I would consider myself feminist; a lot of my clients are too. SWERFs are one of the reasons I have to be anonymous. They aren’t supporting women who are desperately trying to support themselves. Instead of just campaigning against sex work, why don’t they fundraise and give female students grants or funding? That would help a lot more than just stigmatising us.”
A common complaint which those without experience in the sex industry cite as something which would put them off considering it, is the impact on other relationships, but Claire doesn’t see this as a particular obstacle. “I’ve been treated better by clients than some men I know socially or who I’ve met in clubs. And because all names and acts are sorted beforehand, my paid sex is often far more consensual than casual sex I’ve had, as there’s an actual contract of what we can and can’t do.” Regardless of this, Claire warns against taking sex work lightly. “You have to have an experienced girl show you the ropes. I went in not having a clue or knowing anyone in the business, and was taken advantage of a lot. There are lots of things non-sex-workers don’t think of, that we working girls have to take into consideration. It’s just tricks of the trade… I’d need to write a book on everything.” Claire continues. “Seriously, this isn’t a job you can just walk into.”
Society tends to stereotype sex workers as victims, forced into the industry through trafficking or addiction. Whilst this is undeniably the case for many, the reality is that some young women see working in the sex trade to be a lucrative way to make use of their bodies without committing to traditional working hours and constraints. “I started because I financially had to,” Claire says. “Fees, rent, book prices, bills, clothes, travel… It’s all too expensive. If I could get away without working at university, then I would; I’m sure my grades would benefit.”
And according to Claire, the advantages outweigh those of other work she’s done. “I tried bar work when I was in sixth form, and was so sexually, emotionally and verbally harassed that I gave up. That was more difficult for me than this job. I wouldn’t want you to think I’ve been ‘forced’into it.”
Discussing safety in her line of work, Claire goes quiet. “I feel unsafe every single time I open my front door, or turn up to a strange man’s house. Each booking I take, I often look around my room and wonder if I’ll see it again. Then I think, fuck, my obituary will say “murdered prostitute”. That’s not how I want to be remembered.”
The reality of sex works brings insurmountable dangers which, as Claire confirms, are always in the minds of those partaking in it. It takes only one violent client to cause trauma, or life-threatening injury. Claire assures us that most of her clients are just lonely and shy. “You can’t be scared of a guy who’s literally scared of you… and your boobs.” She laughs. Her smile fades as she admits that she still worries nonetheless.
“I’ve had a couple too many bad experiences not to: bruises, strangulation, someone thinking my lady-part is a punching bag. Guys hitting you around a bit. I’ve had a few stalker situations too. Guys turning up at my house randomly when I decline a booking. Maybe that’s why we charge so much. The risks. But I experienced violence as a waitress too. I had plates and glasses thrown at me across the restaurant and had to hold drunk women back from punching me. All for £6.40 per hour.”
We ask Claire if she considers there to be a consent issue between her and her clients due to the circumstances of her work, but she just shrugs. “Aren’t all jobs financial coercion?” And the crux of the conversation around sex work does come down to just that. In the end, sex work is work. It should be regarded as such. Regardless of the different context of the sex industry compared to other employment, prostitutes are people. Webcam models are people. Strippers are people. The legal question of whether they should be entitled to basic rights is not even one which should still require discussion.
Claire is one of a number of university students who have made a personal choice to enter the sex industry, and like many others, she hopes that raising awareness of the issues she faces will prompt a change in attitudes towards sex workers. “I just want to be respected and treated like other workers. I want people to acknowledge that what I do is hard, but also professional. It is an actual job.” Claire is adamant that the risks involved in being a sex worker would decrease exponentially if it weren’t punishable by law.
“You know, if they decriminalised it, then I wouldn’t be in danger. If this line of work was regulated and taxed, and sex workers had the right to unionise, then I could be protected. In the meantime, I’m going to do it anyway because it’s the only way I can survive.”
* Name changed for confidentiality purposes
Interview conducted by Kate Byard