This is an edited transcript of Lulu’s speech in the morning session at the ‘Students for sale: Tools for resistance’ conference, held in London on 15 October 2022. The recording is on YouTube. Lulu’s speech starts at 48:30.
Hello! My name is Lulu and I’m in my mid-20’s. I’m going to start with some quotes.
First, “How to be a sex worker – advice for freshers.” This is from an article in The Times that says: “A stand at a Brighton university event offered students tips on how to be prostitutes.”
The next one’s a tweet from Cardi B, the popular artist. I’m not going to say certain things: “Might get rich on onlyfans like my young girl rubi, might jerk my *beep* *beep* on cam with my *beep* I need a good fuckin beat. I wanna rap today.”
And here’s one is from Seeking, which is the biggest ‘sugar dating’ website. This is a quote from their website:
“Seeking is the luxury dating site for successful and attractive singles.
“Elevating your experience” is the foundation of Seeking, where you will discover the connections, passions, and expectations you desire…every step of the way.
[…] With such a diverse range of people and passions, we provide a safe environment to explore, discover, and evolve what love truly means to you.”
I’m going to talk about the grooming of young women and university students into the sex industry in its newer and emerging forms, namely OnlyFans and ‘sugar dating’. I’m going to talk about the dangers of Onlyfans and ‘sugar dating’ and how young women are lured into these newer and emerging forms of prostitution and pornography.
I started with these quotes in order to call out the media who are constantly bombarding young people with glorified stories of OnlyFans and ‘sugar dating’, encouraging them to sell themselves.
So what is ‘sugar dating’ and Onlyfans – I’m sure many of the younger audience members are already aware, but for those that aren’t, here’s a quick summary.
‘Sugar dating’ is a sanitised term for a relationship whereby one gains financially or materially in exchange for sexual relationships. These relationships tend to exist between young women and older men.
Prostitution is defined as: a person, in particular a woman, who engages in sexual activity for payment. Whilst there are differences in the way sex and money are exchanged in ‘sugar dating’, fundamentally there is the expectation of sex in exchange for money. So fundamentally it is prostitution.
OnlyFans is a social media platform, in which people can subscribe to ‘content creators’ for a monthly subscription fee, in order to see videos and pictures of the creator. The platform takes 20% of the earnings from each content creator. The site is primarily known for its sexually explicit content, with pornography allowed.
It is a UK-based company that was founded in 2016, but grew exponentially in popularity in 2020 and has continued to grow since then.
The realities of ‘sugar dating’
I am going to read some quotes from women who have been ‘sugar babies’. First an anonymous quote from BuzzFeed:
“The shopping and trips were exciting for someone that grew up poor. It made me feel powerful to be sought after and have men willing to pay to be with me… at first. By the end, it left me with much lower self-esteem in myself as a person and unhealthy beliefs about men and relationships. Beliefs like: sex is transactional, sex is an obligation, men only want you for your looks and youth, women lose value as they age, men will cheat and leave their wives as they age for someone younger etc.”
Here’s a quote from Fiona Fraser in The Spin Off, 2022.
“When there is an older person – with life experience and disposable income – dating a younger or more naive person, there’s a power imbalance […] Many of the issues we see coming through the doors are related to non-payment. We’ve also supported workers through assault after refusing a specific sex act, there have been threats about rape, bankruptcy, even clients using the Consumer Guarantees Act as a threat to gain sexual consent.”
And another anonymous quote from BuzzFeed:
“I’m currently working as a sugar baby to help with college. Some experiences haven’t been so good, with the men I work with pushing boundaries and doing things they didn’t have permission to do and so on, but some if it isn’t so bad.”
The realities of OnlyFans
OnlyFans is very popular — with over 50 million registered users and 8,000 new content creators a day. According to the Evening Standard, Save the Student’s annual money survey found “just over a fifth of students (22 per cent) had tried using OnlyFans while at university, while some four per cent of students had tried sex work”. [*]
Despite the endless headlines and song lyrics about how much money is made on OnlyFans, the top 1% of creators take home a majority of the platform’s commissions. This deliberate manipulation of the financial reality makes it like a porn pyramid scheme, with the majority, standing to lose more than they gain.
For instance, content can be easily leaked – literally from top to bottom – and can then be used to harass, bully and extort. The leaking of sexually explicit OnlyFans content is so common that there are whole websites and social media accounts boasting the leaked content, which they also profit off as well.
As a ‘content creator’, you will always be expected to do more – this is a well-known pattern in the sex industry. In order to keep subscribers happy, creators find themselves becoming more explicit and potentially pushing past personal boundaries in order to keep up with their subscribers and to gain new ones.
Why the rise in OnlyFans and ‘sugar dating’ among students?
Seeking claimed that over 500,000 students have signed up to the platform since 2015. The ‘sugar dating’ website gives free premium membership to all students who sign up with a university email address – that is unashamed targeting of young students and exploitation of their financial hardship.
Financial hardship is often one of the explanations for the rise: the cost of university has risen along with the cost of living. Reasons students cite for their involvement in ‘sex work’ include greater flexibility and financial reward compared to traditional part-time work.
The other thing is misinformation – as I’ve spoken about – going back to the quotes I read out at the beginning: the deliberate sanitisation of ‘sugar dating’ and OnlyFans convinces women that the arrangement would be good for them.
In 2020 around 4% of university students used some form of ‘sex work’ to supplement their income, which is double the 2017 figures. So there have been sharp increases.
On social media, the #sugarbaby hashtag has over a billion views on TikTok, with videos promoting a lavish lifestyle, pictures of money, expensive holidays – all funded by their ‘sugar daddies’. Many of these influencers give the impression that they operate these relationships on a solely virtual basis – but this is rarely the case.
As was shown in the quotes I read earlier, mainstream media relentlessly promotes the platform. For example, after Beyonce’s reference to OnlyFans in the “Savage” remix, there was a 15% spike in traffic to the site. This is an example of how much influence these people have.
As of August 2022, onlyfans.com has an estimated 278 million monthly visitors.
My view on the rise of ‘sugar dating’ and Onlyfans
I am not an academic – I am speaking from my own personal experience and that of other young women around me, who have had a similar background.
Whilst I believe that financial hardships and misinformation and glamorisation through the media are driving involvement in ‘sugar dating’ and Onlyfans, I feel this issue is far more complex. I believe that what we’re seeing is a mass grooming experiment, with the end goal being the capitalisation of sex – monetising young women’s bodies (and thus themselves).
It starts young. Young girls are taught to be insecure, to put others needs first and to be ‘kind’ and polite’ over being honest about their feelings and boundaries. This lays the ground work for sexual exploitation. As they grow up and are exposed to porn – which is increasingly violent – they see that women’s bodies are to be used and that apparently the women themselves want this and that no actually means yes.
These beliefs and attitudes are then replayed by both the boys and men, and girls and women around them. On social media they see images of women with ‘perfect bodies’ – which have often been augmented – posing in sexualised, revealing and ‘barely-there’ clothes.
In a social media obsessed world, ‘likes’ equal validation and self-worth. If you post a sexualised picture and it gets more ‘likes’, you’ll post more of the same, especially when it is normalised.
Girls listen to music which is sexually explicit, which promotes the sexualisation of women – music also made by women ‘sexualising’ themselves, giving the ‘impression’ of empowerment.
Girls hear about influencers making loads of money through ‘sugar dating’ and OnlyFans and being able to buy lots of nice things. We live in such a materialist culture that what you possess materially is seemingly synonymous with self-worth.
All of this leaves young girls and women traumatised – making them easier to coerce into pornography and prostitution, as they believe that that is what women are for in society – and, that not only should they not question this, but they should also embrace it. Perhaps not consciously, but unconsciously, as this is what they have been fed since childhood.
In my opinion, until the grooming of young girls and women into pornography and prostitution is looked at as a process of eroding self-worth and personal boundaries through female socialisation, we’re not going to be able to tackle the problem.
Early life trauma and sexual exploitation
I just want to add in here that there’s a massive link between early life trauma and sexual exploitation. Which many people are not aware of.
Young women are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation due to early traumatic life experiences. I was abused as a child and put into care and later adopted and it seems that my trauma made me a perfect target. And this is true for others who have been through similar experiences.
A lack of self-worth means we don’t have the same boundaries, and so, we’re much more likely to accept abusive and degrading relationships, partly because they’ve been normalised to us and partly because, we don’t believe that we deserve better.
We know from research that women who have a history of sexual abuse, and/or who have been in care, are more likely to be involved in prostitution and, I would say, ‘sugar dating’ and OnlyFans, as they are just the most recent extensions of the sex industry and follow the same patterns.
As a pre-teen I had already been exposed to the world of online porn. I grew up with the rise of the internet and as a vulnerable young girl online, I was drawn into talking and webcamming with grown men (aka paedophiles) online, in search of self-esteem.
I was bullied at primary and secondary school. However, I noticed that when boys and men began to notice me and pay attention to me, girls and women’s attitudes towards me also changed. So, I began to associate appearance and popularity.
As a young teenager I found myself in a physically and sexually abusive relationship. All these experiences and more, on top of my own early trauma, taught me that my value is in what I can offer as a sexual object.
The rise of hook-up culture took over whilst I was at university. And I found myself fully immersed in it. I believed that it was liberating. I partied a lot, drank a lot and ‘hooked up’ a lot. Many of these experiences were not ‘hook ups’, as I’ve come to realise, but actually sexually abusive and violent, but often, due to my past, I was either too drunk or disassociated to know or care.
The idea of making these encounters, transactional made sense. I thought at the time that I could get something out of my destructive behaviour. And I did, and carried on that way for a couple of years.
The bubble burst due to unapologetic feminists around me and my eyes were opened to the sexual and relational trauma I had experienced, mainly with men. I’d been duped.
At first, I didn’t want to admit it as I felt foolish for being so naive. But I now accept, that as a young woman – a particularly vulnerable young women, due to my past – I had been groomed into hook-up and porn culture and that it had had profound impact upon my self-esteem and the way that I see the world.
This is seconded by many women I have spoken with and I have given examples of women that have come to realise the same cold hard truth.
Having men buy you things, or pay to support a lifestyle, in exchange for a sexual relationship, was not at all empowering. With each exchange I lost a piece of myself.
Such realisations are the reason I am here today using my voice to call out the abusive culture we’re currently saturated in.
I count myself lucky, I have had women around me that have protected me from being even further exploited – so I would like to think that I am returning the favour with this talk.
We need to have these conversations with the girls and young women around us because they won’t hear it elsewhere.
Watch the recording
Here is the recording of the morning session of the “Students for sale: Tools for resistance” conference. Lulu’s brilliant contribution starts at 48:30.
[*] We believe that the Evening Standard misinterpreted the data when it reported that 22% of students have tried their hands at OnlyFans. The article was reporting on the 2020 Save the Student’s annual survey. This states that “Overall, the proportion of students doing sex work is the same as last year (4%). However, for the majority of the categories in the below chart, we saw an increase in responses, suggesting a general trend towards more students doing multiple forms of sex work.” This is followed by a chart that shows the percentages doing various forms of ‘sex work’ and which shows OnlyFans as 22%. This suggests that 22% of the 4% of students who are involved in ‘sex work’ are doing OnlyFans, rather than 22% of all students.