Sugar babies, strippers and feet pic sellers: Manchester students find unique ways to finance their uni lives

‘Heading to 9am lectures with seven inch heels and lingerie under my hoodie is definitely an experience’

“I can work Tuesdays from 10am to 2pm and Thursdays after 8:30pm. Oh, and Wednesday afternoons. But only until 6 when I’ll have to rush to AU. Sundays are a possibility depending on what happens the night before.”

Finding a job that adapts to one’s uni life can be challenging and, for some, the search can take them to unconventional places.

A survey by Save the Students found three per cent of students had tried sex work before. While selling sex may be the initial association, 67 per cent of this work involved selling intimate photos and used clothes, with sugar dating accounting for another 18 per cent. And, in a cost-of-living crisis, more and more students seem to be turning to the increasingly accessible sex industry to supplement low student loans and high rent prices.

This normalisation is evident on platforms like TikTok, as sugar babies tell encouraging stories of lonely, loaded men paying them just for their company. Similarly, when OnlyFans content creators share their bank statements on social media, revealing substantial earnings from selling seemingly innocuous feet pics, many of us have jokingly considered starting our own accounts. But how much truth is there to social media portrayals of sex work?

We took a deep dive into the financial lives of Manchester’s students to see how they’re scraping by now the £170 cost-of-living payment is but a distant memory.

Third year MMU – Sugar baby

“I started because I wanted to be able to afford stuff while I was at uni rather than constantly having to restrain myself and be careful of what I spent. For the most part, I meet the guys through websites like Seeking Arrangements and, because I don’t do anything sexual with them, it is harder to make money. If you’re willing to sleep with people then the world is your oyster – it’s very easy to make money as you’ll have people messaging you multiple times a day.

“Usually guys just take me out for dinner and I act a bit like a girlfriend and they’ll just pay me for the company afterwards. On average I earn maybe £250 for a night and they’ll obviously pay for dinner as well.”

Regarding the social media portrayals of being a sugar baby, this student told the Manchester Tab: “Young boys on social media who perhaps feel a bit scathed that they don’t have the same opportunity to make money in this way make out like it’s really easy work but it’s not.

“Even if you are willing to sleep with the guys there are a lot of risks with safety and I think it could be quite isolating if you didn’t have anyone to talk to about it.”

First year UoM – Stripper

“I was bored of cafe and restaurant work so decided to spice it up. Accommodation and Fallowfield Sainsbury’s sucks you dry so getting my tits out for money seemed reasonable!”

Some argue stripping is not the empowering job many make it out to be online, instead objectifying women while catering to sexist men. This student acknowledges the disrespectful men that come to her place of work, saying: “Lots of men with their kids and wives on their lock screens come in trying to bribe me back to hotel rooms. There are lots of stingy uni lads too.”

But she affirms: “I felt just as objectified and oppressed when I was a waitress, fully clothed and smelling like chip fat. Stripping is real work and the taboo around it just pushes people who are struggling under the radar.

“Long nights with feisty women and disrespectful men are the norm but I get to exploit men for my own gain and express my sexuality which I did for free anyway. The money ranges night to night and commission is rough but I usually make £200-£400 a night plus free drinks and I only started in January.”

“Heading straight to my 9am lectures with seven inch heels and lingerie under my hoodie is definitely an experience.”

Second year UoM – Online domination

One student told the Manchester Tab he breached the business of financial domination through social media: “Guys would reach out to me on Grindr or Instagram finding me attractive and I started to realise I could capitalise off of it. I play the card of needing money to fund my studies quite often and I think a lot of them get a sense of achievement off the fact they are funding the future workforce.”

Of all the sexual fetishes, financial domination, or ‘findom’, seems the most glamourous. A ‘dom’ is sent money or gifts from submissive men who seemingly want next-to-nothing in return. But what’s the catch?

This student told us: “It’s mostly about how I make them feel – some guys like me to message them making fun of them or calling them names. One guy really enjoyed not having control over his Cash App, so he’d let me login, transfer myself money and get off on seeing it leave his account. Even within the last two minutes I have messaged someone on Snapchat a picture of my skin fade that he’d already paid for and, without asking him to, he’s transferred me 50 quid.”

He admits: “I don’t want this to tarnish my future, but I think old ideas of professionalism need to go anyway. Who cares if I’ve posted some photos online – if I can stay professional in my work the two should be separate.”

First year UoM – Feet pic seller

Sometime in the last year TikTok become inundated with users advertising how much money they’d made from selling pictures of their feet. Even so, who is buying them? Pictures of feet, if that’s what you’re into, are freely all over the Internet. Still, one student, seemingly influenced by the same videos we’d seen, told the Manchester Tab about her experience selling feet pics:

“I don’t do it anymore but I used to sell feet pics as a side hustle with my two step sisters. We pretended to be Swedish sisters and always kept our faces hidden. We had an account on Instagram where we posted pictures of our feet and then did specialised requests on DM for a fee – usually around £20 or £30 for a pic.”

So, can you actually make good money from it? This student revealed she’d made a little bit but stopped after “the requests and the men got too creepy”.

Support for sex workers

While student sex workers might have found a unique way of balancing work and play, it’s crucial they face as few boundaries possible in ensuring their work is safe. The University of Manchester is one of three universities supporting sex workers, linking the Support for Student Sex Workers campaign on their website.

The support group provides workers with confidential advice, CV support and guidance in reporting sexual assault.

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