Students being strapped for cash is no shocking revelation, but what is surprising is that almost as many students turn to gambling, adult work or drug trials for money as to their university to ask for extra support. These findings came in the National Student Money Survey from 2018 and revealed that over four per cent of students turn to ‘adult work’ whilst at university in order to make ends meet. This umbrella term can encompass a range of different types of work, from having a sugar daddy to even selling images of your feet to a stranger on Instagram.
With extortionate university fees and rising living costs, many students see these jobs as a viable way to make money alongside their studies, as they are often flexible, allowing them to work on their own terms and around their university schedule.
By branding something as ‘sex work’, it can immediately lead to a negative discourse which is based on assumptions, facilitated by an absence of discussion. In order to offer a more personal view on these issues, I spoke to somebody who works as a webcam model to try and shed some light on the often stigmatised role. Nina* has shared her experiences, explaining the ins and outs of the job, as well as discussing why there needs to be less stigma surrounding work like this.
A webcam model is a video performer who is streamed on a live broadcast to an audience made up of people who are paying to watch. Obviously, the clientele will have varying expectations so often different approaches are needed. On Nina’s site, everyone enters into a big chat room. While in this chatroom, you do not earn money, but from there people can choose to tip you or opt to enter into a private chat, for which they pay $5 per minute.
So just how easy is it to become a webcam model? Nina says:
“I saw an advert for the site that I work on and so I went on it a couple of times, just to see what it was like, as anybody can go on it. You have to be verified to make money though, so I just submitted all my information and it only took a day. It was so easy. All you had to do was send in some ID and a photo of yourself holding it to make sure you’re the same person, then a day later I just started doing it.”
For students who need cash, it can seem like a quick fix to make some money without leaving your bedroom, but the money that you make can vary massively.
“You could be on there for an hour and nobody will enter into a private chat or tip you, so you’re sat there not earning anything, or you could be on and make 100$ in 20 minutes, so that can make it quite hard to motivate myself. When I cash out, the website takes 30% from my pay but that’s really low compared to some of the other sites which can take more than half.”
Negative perceptions often come from a place of misunderstanding and assuming that, as webcam modelling comes under the broader term of ‘selling yourself’, the job is degrading. But that’s not necessarily the case.
“I’m never naked on camera and I make a good amount of money because I give what people call the ‘girlfriend experience’ – they want to sit there and have a conversation with you. The reason that the men are going on a webcam site is because they want an interaction with a real person, not just like porn. I’ve had a 45-minute conversation with someone and it was just a very normal chat, yet they’re paying $5 per minute. Sometimes people just want you to watch them wank or talk dirty to them and that’s what I do, I don’t personally do anything sexual.”
Most people would assume that these sites are full of older men, who perhaps are lonely and have money to spare, but these thoughts are misconstrued.
“I think people assume that it would be dirty old men but it’s probably like 50/50 between old and our age which I didn’t expect at all. It’s so interesting because you’ve got to occupy all the different interests and be quick at seeing what they want and make yourself be that. You’ve got to be astute at picking up what people want you to do.
“People do say weird things though. For example, I’ve had a guy tell me that he wanted me to go into a private chat with him and for me to say racial slurs, which seems to be a really common thing. I’ve had at least twenty people ask me to call them the n word or say racial slurs at them wherever they’re from, they just want me to demean and degrade them while they’re having a wank.
“There’s also this thing called CBT which someone asked me in the public chatroom if I would watch them do one on one. I then googled it and found out it was ‘Cock and Ball torture’, but by the time I realised he had already put me in a private chat and started to get the cable ties out! It sounds bad but if people want me to watch something and I think it’s gross, like CBT or, quite often people shove things up their arses, I usually just look at the camera but have something else up on the screen. They still think I’m looking but if I don’t necessarily want to look at anything then I don’t have to.”
Back in 2015, the Student Sex Work Project at Swansea University revealed that five per cent of students had done some form of sex work, and a further 22 per cent had considered working in the industry. Evidently, sex work is prevalent within the student circle, yet conversations are often accompanied by a cloud of judgement. These negative perceptions mean that it can be hard to discuss publicly, which perpetuates this cycle of silence surrounding these issues.
“Bad reactions come from a place of not knowing about it, and when friends have been judgemental obviously it’s coming from a place of worry. It’s not spoken about, so they only can go on assumptions. The stereotypical view is that people are so desperate that they turn to sex work and that’s just not the case for so many people. I’m not a full-time webcam model but some of the girls on the site treat it like a 9-5 job and can earn so much money. There is no element of necessity and they’re doing it because they want to, yet for some reason, people always talk about it like you’ve been forced to do it.
“I can report people to moderators, block them or kick them out of chats. I’m in complete control of everything I do and I think that’s what people don’t realise. I don’t have to answer to someone higher than me and I don’t have to do what anyone tells me. It’s all virtual so you’re never physically there with someone. When people get worried or say they could never do it, it’s usually because they haven’t taken the time to understand. If they sat down and talked with someone then they’d realise it’s completely different.”
To be successful in this realm of work, a lot of business skills are required that are fully transferable into the working world. However, it’s not really work experience that many employers would look favourably on if included in a CV.
“Imagine if I was an online tutor and was having to schedule in times with people and ensuring I had the motivation to do it. Just because it’s translated into a context where you’re essentially selling yourself then it’s completely undermined and not valid for everyday work or life, as if it’s this whole secret you’re not supposed to talk about, as if it’s not as prevalent as it actually is.”
In September, Brighton University came under fire for having a stall offering support for sex workers. One of these comments came from The Sun, who stated that “freshers’ week stall gives students advice on ‘how to be a prostitute’” which, evidently isn’t true. While Leeds University Union has not yet offered support in this way, Nina stressed the importance of agency on the part of the students. She says:
“I think that it’s really important to have an open dialogue. It’s not necessarily the University’s responsibility to provide support but I think that we should do more to be open about it and then it doesn’t need to be such a secretive thing. This stands for sex work in general – there needs to be more of a conversation. This has started recently with campaigns stating that sex work is valid work, but this needs to be done on a more personal level too. If you’re open about it then everyone else will feel more comfortable.”
With the cost of university rising, students turning to sex work is not going to stop. It’s time for the conversation to catch up.
*Names have been changed.