Like legions of students across the country this year, five years ago Jessica Hyer was signing forms, packing her things and preparing to go to university to begin an undergraduate course in Drama and English. Since then, however, her focus has taken a turn - she is now advocating support for student sex workers and building a network for young people using sex work to financially support themselves through university.
‘Some people don’t understand poverty in England unless they see it,’ she explains over the phone ‘For some students sex work is empowering – but for many it can be a financial necessity'.
That's the thinking behind the organisation she's started, supportforstudentsexworkers.org, which provides student sex workers with advice, a supportive community and, crucially, a network of trained counsellors (all members will be Samaritans-trained listeners by 1 October). According to data from the National Student Money Survey, there are almost one in ten students who for a range of reasons will undertake different types of sex work during their studies, and a new study by money advice website Save the Student found that the number of students turning to sex work has doubled in two years.
Growing up on the 12th-most impoverished estate in the UK, Jessica's life experience when she arrived at university was radically different from many other students. She was one of a small demographic (estimated to make up just 5% percent of students in the UK) who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, struggling against a raft of obstacles to achieve a place at university.
'I've spent the entirety of my life trying to escape extreme poverty by English standards,' she explains, describing how there was often no hot water or gas when she was growing up. 'My education was the only thing I had.'
Achieving a place at the University of Manchester was an opportunity for to Jessica to study a subject she was passionate about. But crucially – while some of us see eye-wateringly mounting debts as the price we pay to party and experiment for three years – for Jessica, university was also a place to live for three years with financial assistance and housing.
'Everyone at the University of Manchester felt wealthy,' she says. 'I had nothing when I came to uni, and I wanted to fit in so badly. I felt very alone and isolated in my situation.'
Things started well for Jessica. She settled into student life, made friends and moved into halls of residence and began her course. As we all know though, university can come with unexpectedly high costs before you've even stepped into your first lecture: £500 for a rental deposit here and £50 for course books there can tip you over the edge of your overdraft. It's sadly normal to make it through on a combination of beans on toast and handouts from your mum. But what if you have no external means of support? University loans and bursaries come in installments, and the wait between them can be lengthy.
Just as her financial situation became worryingly strained, Jessica saw an advertorial for Seeking Arrangement. It's glossy website shows a sleekly-dressed woman and an older man with a tagline: ‘The No 1 Sugar Daddy Dating Website In The World’. It purports to connect ‘beautiful, successful people’ for ‘mutually beneficial relationships’, and it incentivises female students to sign up by offering a free premium account with a university email address.
While it looks like an upmarket dating website, and a spokeperson for the website has previously insisted that it's regulated for sex work, the reality is different. ‘By the time I was offered my first sex date I was making no money,’ Jessica says, ‘and I was desperate.’ She also says that the men on the website often target young, broke female students.
When I checked, a free premium membership with a student email address is still available. ‘SeekingArrangement offers students the chance to find open and empowering relationships while also getting help to pay for school and other benefits,’ the text beneath smartly states. Jessica says she was using her account for five years; she was contacted by men for paid sex dates. These men would often refuse to wear condoms or identify themselves, and block her on the website when she insisted on it for her safety. ‘It’s completely unregulated,’ she says. Grazia reached out to Seeking Arrangement for comment, but they failed to respond in time for publication of this article.
While some women find sex work empowering, pressured into sex under extreme financial duress, Jessica found the dynamic rapidly became more exploitative. ‘It was only something I did when I really needed the money,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t something that I enjoyed doing’.
At the same time, her mental health spiralled. It’s estimated that more than half of students suffer from mental health problems in 2019 and more than one in five students now have a mental health diagnosis. But there's scant support available for students who are also sex workers. 'You're doing something illegal,' Jessica says, 'and there's a fear that if you come out to the university and say "I'm doing this" you'll get in trouble.’
The truest example for this comes from her own experience – in the wake of a sexual assault, when she needed it most, she was discharged from NHS sexual assault survivor support. ‘I told them 'I'm in a desperate situation – please help me" and I was discharged from the service for doing sex work and putting myself at risk.' At her lowest point, she struggled with suicidal thoughts: even going so far as to make a plan and write a letter.
Furthermore, interrupted study threw Jessica's situation to a crisis point – when a student chooses to interrupt their studies, they are unable to collect a bursary or student loan as well as being unable to collect PiP, Universal Credit or claim benefits.
For some, that vicious circle leaves the choice between sex work for survival and giving up your studies entirely. 'I actually find a lot of people who I talk to end up in sex work because of interruption,' Jessica says. 'You're expected to work, but you've been taken out of university because you physically can't. People go into sex work for a range of reasons but this has come up a lot.'
Despite the adversity she's faced, though, after finding a support network, Jessica is now turning her experiences into a plan of action to help provide counselling, a safety system and crises support for student sex workers.
The idea for an network to support student sex workers started with a post to a student Facebook group where she came out and offered support to other students in the same situation, but an overwhelming response meant that she was approached by a representative from Manchester Metropolitan University. Under the title Support For Student Sex Workers, the organisation now has a closed Facebook group and a regulated WhatsApp group monitored for unsafe users. Although it's still small, it offers one-to-one counselling, academic advice, careers advice, CV checks, opportunities for creative portfolios and support group sessions with wellbeing activities. It is also now working alongside the University of Manchester Students' Union to provide support for student rape allegations.
Jessica has since finished her degree and will be starting a Masters in applied theatre next year. 'I'm going to do what I can to make the organisation as widespread as possible,' she says. ‘In my situation, I've suffered more than anyone should and I want it to stop. I don't want to stop sex work; that's never going to happen. People are always going to support themselves through sex work – but there's no support in place at the moment, and that needs to happen.'
Would having had a similar system in place at her university helped her to cope with her own experience? 'That's why I've done it,’ she says. ‘I can't believe I'm the one to have created it, I can't believe it's not already a thing. We're planning on branching out and for other universities to get involved – that's the next step.'
And finally, if she had one thing to say to a student who was in the same situation that she was, what would it be? 'You deserve to be protected. There is no shame in what you have done and are doing, and come to us for support if you need it because we will protect you and we will not judge you.'
Read more below for inspiring female MPs who are tackling domestic abuse bills, mental health and abortion laws...
Whats Up In Westminster - Grazia
Labour MP Jess Phillips, known for her tenacity and unflinching speeches.
Shadow Women and Equalities Minster, Dawn Butler, explains why Boris Johnson could learn a thing or two this Black History Month.
Labour's Harriet Harman, the longest-serving female MP, reveals her frustration with both the fight for equality and, of course, Brexit
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott on how Westminster feels like a school playground right now, and why young people need better sex education
Tory leadership hopeful Esther Mcvey tells us why she wants to lead the country, despite the potential pitfalls
MP Tulip Siddiq, 36, made history when she delayed her C-section to vote on Brexit. She tells Gaby Hinsliff about having no maternity leave, balancing constituents' and kids' needs and trying to encourage more women into politics
It's not right that women in this country can still go to prison for terminating a pregnancy, says Labour MP Diana Johnson
Journalist Rachel Johnson wants to be our next Member of the European Parliament - and unlike her famous brother, she's anti-Brexit
The Labour MP and Shadow Business Secretary urges new action to tackle the climate crises
That's why Labour MP Jess Phillips is tackling domestic violence legislation this week - even amidst the chaos of Brexit
Luciana Berger, Independent MP, is worried that despite the warm words, mental health care is still not being taken seriously
Newly Independent (formerly Conservative) MP Sarah Wollaston talks about stalking, second referendum and... riding her tandem
Bethnal Green MP Rushanara Ali is fighting to make housing safer, and enters the debate about whether ISIS brides should be allowed to return to the UK.
Heidi Allen, Lib Dem MP for South Cambridgeshire, is determined to reform Universal Credit and speak up for people whose voices can't be heard.