The first time Zoe* did sugar baby work she took scissors in her pocket to keep herself safe. The 19-year-old student had signed up to a popular sugar daddy website because she was struggling to pay rent.
She had turned to SeekingArrangement because her sales job, which was only a few hours a week, paid poorly and she was also paying rent for two homes after issues with housemates forced her to move out of the first.
Despite financial help from her parents, she still could not afford basic living costs.
“I needed the money and I had just broken up with my partner. I could not have done it if I was with him as he would not have liked it,” she said.
Figures from money advice website Save the Student this year found more than one in 10 students use their bodies to make money – including sex work, recording videos over webcam and sugar dating, in which younger women are paid to go on dates with men who are often far older than them.
Data indicates “sugar daddying” is becoming more common. SeekingArrangement saw hundreds more subscriptions from university students last year.
While Zoe had to answer a few questions about herself on the site, she says it was not as stringent as she had expected it to be.
She uploaded a photo of herself and answered questions about smoking and drinking habits: age, ethnicity, weight, hair colour, eye colour.
While she gave accurate answers to these, she used a fake name.
But she found many men were using their real names. And she was able to find out the identities of others by reverse image searching their uploaded profile pictures.
“I managed to find everything about a man who was aggressive to me on there,” she says.
. “One man was so creepy and vile. He said, ‘You look like you are ripe for breeding age’. He also called me a stupid bitch when I said I would not send videos of myself masturbating before we went on a date.
“He was very aggressive and rude and nasty. He was dangerous. I was literally just thinking ‘delete this man’ but I had his information anyway. I could have reported him to the police or said ‘I know this about you please leave me alone’ if he had continued to be threatening.
“Lots of people on there feel like they can say or do what they want. It is also often men who are really successful in their careers – some of them have done really well in their lives – and they think they deserve it. Some of them are so entitled. You would feel dirty after even just talking to them because they were just so horrible, sleazy and arrogant.
“The first time I went on a date I was petrified. I chain smoked five cigarettes and had scissors in my pocket. Even on a Tinder date, you can worry, ‘What if this person is not who they say they are?’. But this was not a date because one person might get some cash out of it or another might get something they want out of it.”
Zoe, who used the site for four months, initially found the man she met to be nicer than she had expected.
“We had a bland chat about nothing but it was nice,” she said. “It was all very superficial small talk like talking about choosing furniture for his house. I got £70 for the date. Not bad at all.”
But then the 40-year-old “ghosted” her – suddenly stopping communication – before offering £300 for a night of sex a couple of times.
“I went from feeling sorry for him to thinking, you are just a vile little man.
I did consider having sex with him but then I thought afterwards I would feel so terrible. There was also the safety aspect – I would not want them around mine, knowing where I live, but I also would not want to go to a strange man’s house.”
Another man, who was in his sixties and filing for divorce, wanted to take her on holiday around Europe. However, she was apprehensive in case he discovered her true identity from her passport or her family got suspicious about where she was.
“You would have hoped people would have thought I was his daughter,” she said. “He was always saying, ‘This will develop like a normal relationship so I would expect intimacy’.
“I did not get any money for a date with him. I was really annoyed about that. I tried to talk about the money on the date but he dodged the conversation. We had tried to talk about it before but he was funny about it.”
Most of the men she came across on the site were married. “One of my first questions would be, ‘Are you in a relationship?’ They would say, ‘I’m with my wife but she does not understand me’.
“It is like Tinder but on steroids. The men are just so awful. It feels like you are in a supermarket. They ask for photos of your body – even just in clothes – from different angles. There were definitely situations where I thought I should be charging for this.
“I thought, I have worked so hard to get into university and I have got these men talking to me like this. I was also always scared of them finding my real name and finding out who I was and where I lived – the one thing I had that was keeping me safe was my anonymity”.
Zoe did not get as much as money as she had hoped, with most of what she was given going on textbooks.
“Student loans do not even cover eating. People cannot buy food for a week and will live on tins of soup and people’s charity.”
There is not much stigma or shame about doing sugar baby work at her university, she said, but this changes if you actually engage in sex.
“I think it depends on your friends,” she said. “There are always going to be people who are funny about it. It sounds terrible but if you do not have sex there is less of a stigma.”
Nevertheless, she argued there was far less of a stigma around sex work among young people than older generations.
She said many of her friends had downloaded SeekingArrangement then deleted it before going on any dates.
“It is like downloading Tinder.
You think, oh this is so funny and then you get a request for something awful and think, I am never looking at this again.
Some of the phone calls I have had from men on SeekingArrangement were just so awful. Once I had a friend over for a glass of wine and we silently cracked up about everything he was saying. It was like pranking someone as a kid but there was a chance of getting money out of it.”
She said she did not think students’ mental health or sex work was high on her university’s priorities but then noted she would never dream of approaching her tutor and admitting she had done sugar daddy work.
Zoe said she did not judge or look down on anyone who chose to engage in sex work – noting that increased university fees and austerity were giving women little choice.
“It is bad sex workers are stigmatised. I can understand why it is an option for some people. But while it is quick money, it is not easy money.”
SeekingArrangement says they bar the use of their website for the direct exchange of money for sex, and they conduct background checks on members with an emphasis on sexual and violent crimes.
The Independent contacted SeekingArrangement for comment.
* Zoe is not the person’s real name