Abbey began chatting with random men online just for fun. She had just recently transferred to the University of British Columbia and didn’t know anyone in Vancouver. Abbey quickly learned that her hobby could become a lucrative job opportunity if she went a little further and started to strip for men on camera.
“I started [performing online] because I wanted to make some extra money,” said Abbey, who is currently a fourth–year arts student at UBC. At the time, she wanted to go on a study–abroad trip and being a cam girl seemed like the perfect solution to help her pay the tuition fees. “I got kind of hooked on it, it was just exciting. It was an adrenaline rush and I liked the attention.”
Abbey is no longer a cam girl. However, her decision to use sex work to pay for university is similar to that of a number of women who are part of the larger, more visible trend of student sex work.
Student sex work is becoming increasingly visible
A 2010 U.K. study suggested that there are generally more feelings of openness around student sex work these days.
Out of the 315 surveyed students, 26 per cent were aware of other students involved in sex work to pay for school. The study indicated that this amount may “reflect and/or contribute to a less censorious moral environment” where students are more open about what they do to pay for school.
Tamara O’Doherty, a Simon Fraser University professor who has conducted research on off-street sex work in Vancouver, says there have always been students who sell sex to pay for school. The difference is that now people are more open to discussing the matter.
“I think we are so much more open about many issues,” said O’Doherty. “I’d say have some caution in suggesting that things are different today than they were 20 years ago. I think we have always had the same percentage of society that is willing to sell sex and the same percentage of society willing to buy sex.”
One-quarter of the sex workers who participated in O’Doherty’s study were students pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees. Nearly all participants had a high-school diploma. The people she surveyed also indicated that sex work allowed them to pay for their post-secondary education without falling into large amounts of debt.
Tamara O’Doherty talks about the education levels of off-street sex workers (0’56”)[audio:https://thethunderbird.ca/files/2016/03/Tamara_01.mp3]
The practical side of the job
Sex work is a practical solution for students for two main reasons: the convenience and the money.
“It allows students incredible flexibility and income on a limited number of hours that really isn’t offered in many other areas. Imagine how many hours you would have to (put into working at a coffee shop) to make the same money,” said O’Doherty.
Abbey quickly saw the financial benefits of being a cam girl. “If I would go [online] for five hours, which is a pretty good amount of time, I would make like $300 to $500 depending on the night.”
The flexibility of sex work is also one of the reasons that Ontario student Naomi Kwe chose to get involved in the sex work industry when she was attending school.“I was still in high school and I needed a way to make money to make rent and I wanted to go to university.”
When Kwe was 18, she was in a car accident, suffered a brain injury and lost her job. At the time, she thought being a call girl was the only way she could afford to attend university.
“I was still in high school and I needed a way to make money to make rent and I wanted to go to university,” said Kwe, who is now working on her postgraduate degree. Kwe continued to do sex work during her first few years at university because it accommodated her busy academic schedule.
Sugar babies distance themselves from student sex workers
While Abbey and Kwe turned to more traditional forms of sex work to pay the bills, there is a related, new phenomenon that is helping some students pay for their rent and education.
SeekingArrangement.com is a controversial “non-traditional dating site” with international popularity. It started in 2006 and some consider it to be an offshoot of the student sex-work industry.
The Las Vegas-based website brings together young, attractive people seeking relationships with older, wealthier men and women in exchange for gifts. Participants in these relationships are referred to as “sugar babies” and “sugar daddies and mommas.”
Seeking Arrangement specifically targets university students looking for a sugar daddy to pay for their tuition.
Those students are turning to Seeking Arrangement to find wealthy benefactors to pay for their tuition, according to company spokeswoman Brook Urick.
She says that Seeking Arrangement experienced a 26–per–cent increase in student sign–ups last year. In February, it was reported that the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University had some of the highest sugar–baby rates on campuses in Canada.
The exchange of money or gifts for intimacy and companionship has some sex workers and activists wondering if this is just glamourizing sex work.
Urick argues that sugar babies are not involved in any form of prostitution because “the women are not being paid.” Instead, she explained in an interview that sugar babies are “gifted” by their sugar daddies and this is a regular part of any romantic relationship.
“Being a sugar baby is sort of a new term but it is not a new idea. It’s a tale as old as time, getting someone to support you and getting Prince Charming that sweeps you off your feet,” said Urick.
The company website also separates sex work from the sugar baby lifestyle. Seeking Arrangement notes that:
“The risks involved with prostitution are countless, and include exposure to crime, abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and theft of service. Many prostitutes are also subject to physical and emotional abuse, especially when involved with a pimp. And in Sugar, sex is never a requirement, only an aspiration.”
However, O’Doherty believes the two are quite similar.
“If you ask sex workers, they will say there absolutely nothing different with what they do and what sugar daddies and sugar babies are doing. They would say it is precisely the same arrangement they have with several of their clientele.”
O’Doherty thinks the sugar–baby industry adds to the stigma faced by student sex workers because it creates a hierarchy of classism.
“If you ask those women who are sugar babies, for their self–image it is important to see themselves as different than sex workers because of the level of stigma that is attached to commercial sex,” said O’Doherty.
The pressures of leading a double life
Both Abbey and Kwe’s experience as sex workers was far from the glam and glitz portrayed by the sugar–baby lifestyle. Sex work is mentally and physically draining and can take a huge emotional toll on students.
Kwe could not tell anyone that she was a sex worker and she was constantly worried about someone finding out about her secretive side job.
She said she stopped doing sex work because of the “harms of actually being a sex worker and being outed.”
Student sex workers often do not have the proper support on campus to help them deal with the mental and physical stress that comes with their work, said O’Doherty. This adds to the stigma and isolation they may face with leading a double life.
O’Doherty says there is “not a chance” that campuses across Canada are doing enough to recognize that student sex workers even exist, let alone provide them with the adequate services for their mental and physical wellbeing.
Abbey was lucky enough to have a strong support system of friends who she could trust about her cam work. But the job itself was physically demanding.
“It was exhausting, really exhausting, “ she said. “It was just like continuous. You didn’t get to take breaks. You’re not eating, you’re not really drinking that much either. You have a few seconds between when a private show ends and when you [go to the next client].”
Abbey on her experience as a student sex worker (0’55”)[audio:https://thethunderbird.ca/files/2016/03/ABBEY_01.mp3]
For her, the stigma attached to sex work was self-inflicted. She says that she did not feel shamed by people who knew she was a cam-girl because she has such an accepting friend circle.
“The shame was more like I imposed it on myself and it just had to do with contrast between me and the person I wanted to be,” she said.
Camming slowly began to lose its appeal for Abbey. Initially, the money and attention made her feel powerful, but eventually she says it made her feel “dehumanized.”
After she got back from her study-abroad program, she stopped stripping online.
“It was just not worth it for me to go back,” she said. “For some women, it might be worth it if it doesn’t really affect them psychologically, but it really did for me.”
* Abbey’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.