When you were applying for university, it’s unlikely that you ever considered you might have to turn tricks to make rent. But that’s the opportunity presented by British website Sponsor A Scholar, which offers students between £5,000 and £15,000 a year – if they’re prepared to spread their legs for the cash. The site claims to have “over 400” scholarships, which presumably means punters with ready money, currently up for grabs to “anyone with an open mind” who is enrolled on a UK university course.
Although options are given for male and female student registrations, the site appears geared toward young women, with as questionnaire asking for dress size and age. Before completing registration, applicants are asked to check a box, next to which is printed: “I understand that there is an expectation of sexual intimacy between myself and my chosen sponsor.”
Copy elsewhere on the site is redolent of more traditional prostitution services. “Your sponsor gets to choose the location of the meeting, but typically it will be a hotel room at a mutually convenient location,” the site says. “The payments you receive as part of your scholarship are for your time and companionship only, anything else that happens in a hotel room is a private matter between consenting adults.”
If Sponsor A Scholar sounds too outrageous to be true… well, that’s because it probably is. Company details listed on the website resolve to Match.com – as does the company phone number. A spokesman for the dating site told The Kernel: “The website is not affiliated with Match.com in any way and we are in the process of contacting them to legally require that all references to Match.com are removed immediately.”
A WHOIS search on the domain this evening revealed that the registrant shares a name with a professor at the London School of Economics, who told The Kernel today: “I have not registered this or any other internet domain and have no connection with the business that is being operated from this site, or with the person using my name. I have reported this matter to the police.”
While Sponsor A Scholar may not be kosher, the internet nonetheless is offering hard-up prospective students imaginative new ways to fund their studies and avoid being saddled with debt. The Kernel spoke to two young women, both of whom spoke on condition of pseudonymity, who agreed to share their stories.
We came across the first girl, Ally, 25, in a gentlemen’s club in west London. She is dancing to finance a postgraduate art course, with dreams of one day returning to Southampton and becoming a sculptor. She loves horses and wants to learn how to produce the equestrian bronzes that littered her childhood home. But stripping, she says, is a lot better than the way she put herself through her undergraduate degree.
“Basically, I wasn’t sure I could afford it. And I couldn’t. I thought I might have to drop out at first. But my friend A—— said she had met a man in an online chat room who promised to cover her fees if she’d, well, get friendly with him. I didn’t believe her at first, and laughed. I said he was probably a rapist or a weirdo in a raincoat.
“To cut a long story short, he didn’t end up only paying for her uni fees but mine too. I’d never have been able to finish without his money and I took it gladly.”
Ally is sanguine about the experience. She says the man was kind, well-educated “and most importantly clean” and that he gave her nearly £12,000 over the course of two years. She estimates that she spent about 75 nights with the man, who lived alone in central London and described himself as “a hectic business traveller”.
Needless to say, not every such encounter has satisfactory outcomes for both parties. Fixie, a 24-year-old waitress in Berlin, told The Kernel about a hellish ordeal her younger sister went through last year with a man she met on Facebook. “We never knew about it until one day she came home from college crying. She wouldn’t talk to us for three hours. When she eventually did, she showed us horrendous bruises on her thighs that looked like thumb marks.”
They were indeed thumb marks: Fixie’s younger sister had been sexually assaulted by a man who had been paying her for sex. She was worried about the financial burden university fees would place on her family. Although fees in Germany are only €500 per term, the university she had chosen was too far from home to commute to, and she was anxious not to land her modest-income household in excessive debt.
“I wish she’d just asked us if she thought she needed more money,” says Fixie. “I can’t even imagine what my mother went through. She blames the internet, too, because my sister says that without Facebook she’d never have met this guy, or anyone like him. She would not have got herself into trouble like this.”
But the nightmare was just beginning. Somehow – the family speculates it was because so much personal information was available on Fixie’s sister’s Facebook page – the man tracked down their home. He showed up after midnight one weekend, drunk and threatening to break down the door. The police were called, but although the man was arrested, he was charged with no crime. Fixie’s family has since moved out of the neighbourhood.
The experiences of these two families are not unique. As the internet provides a plethora of new economies, efficiencies and opportunities, it is also closing the gap between strangers, enabling sinister characters unprecedented access not just to new victims but to details about their victim’s real-world identities.
Social media, in particular Facebook, is stripping away much of the anonymity of the old web, encouraging young people to communicate with unknown interlocutors using their real names and photographs. Once a friend request is accepted, assailants and stalkers have access to more information about their prospective victims than they would ever have thought possible just a few years ago.
We spoke to two university support officers who confirmed that the phenomenon is gathering pace across the UK. The number of young women – and, occasionally, men – who burst into tutorials with horrific injuries and even more harrowing stories is growing. Media scaremongering about rising tuition costs, despite the practical protections in place to help graduates with repayment, is partly responsible, they say.
Students do not want to take on the burden of graduate debt and are therefore paying their fees and accommodation costs upfront – even though they don’t have to – via disturbing and in some cases downright dangerous means.
Meanwhile, mainstream social networking websites – along with specialist providers, such as Adultwork, described as “LinkedIn for tricks” and regularly accused of hosting student profiles and those of trafficked women – are flourishing as feeding grounds for the moneyed and predatory. While Ally’s story shows that, for some young women, an empowered choice can provide what seems to them like the only route into higher education, more often than not the internet is still a very dangerous place to solicit such unorthodox relationships.
Editor’s Note: Fixie’s quotes have been translated from an interview conducted in German.