REPORT

Is sex site Shag At Uni exploiting people for promotion?

By Lewis G. Parker

Less than six months ago, Shag at Uni made international headlines for all the wrong reasons when it crowned a young woman “Britain’s Horniest Student.” Now the sex site is back with another award, only this time the recipient is accusing the hookup network of exploitation.

Shag at Uni was founded in 2012 by Tom Thurlow, a 24-year-old entrepreneur who previously ran a business selling signed first edition Harry Potter books. A Kernel investigation in November 2013 found that many of Shag At Uni’s members aren’t actually students, and predicted—correctly—that Elina Desaine, the competition winner who posed with the £500 prize money tucked in her lingerie, would get into trouble with her university for being so brazen about her promiscuity.

The students featured on Shag At Uni are actually collected up from an online network of other sex sites owned by multinational dating agency Global Personals, which manages hundreds of similar sites, often cross-posting profiles from each. By joining Shag At Uni, users may also be running the risk of having their profiles shared across other dating sites run by the same company.

Last month Thurlow announced a new award: “Lad of the Year.” The supposed champion is a young man who claims to be addicted to pornography: Kevin O’Flanagan, a 21-year-old student and minor celebrity who recently appeared on MTV’s My Sex Life and Channel 4’s Date My Porn Star.

Screengrab via Shagatuni.com

Screengrab via Shagatuni.com

According to Shag At Uni’s jubilant blog post, O’Flanagan is not only hooked on porn, but he’s also “addicted” to Shag At Uni and uses it for up to three hours every day.

O’Flanagan, however, describes these statements published by Shag At Uni as “bullshit,” and claims people are being misrepresented and exploited by Thurlow’s publicity campaigns.

In January, just one month after Elina Desaine had been grilled by Exeter University’s disciplinary board for taking the site’s cash prize, Thurlow sent a tweet to O’Flanagan asking for his email address, accompanying it with the hashtag #pressopp.

As a budding media star who made a name for himself on Twitter with his laddish attitude, O’Flanagan agreed to play along for the free publicity. But once he’d been hooked up with a PR firm who would go on to sell the story on Thurlow’s behalf, O’Flanagan claims he was asked to lie by the interviewer.

“I was like, ‘I don’t mind lying a little bit,’” admitted O’Flanagan over the phone. “But when I read the article, it’s complete bullshit; they went over the top exaggerating. They said how I’m on the site all the time, how I go on there to meet women. It’s just bullshit.

“They said, ‘Can we say that you’re addicted to the site?’ And I said no, I don’t want that word ‘addicted.’”

In fact, when Thurlow contacted him, O’Flanagan wasn’t even a member of Shag At Uni. Nor was he a member when he was asked to make those statements about how often he used the site. He had joined some time ago, but quit after two weeks.

“I’ve never met anyone from ShagAtUni.com.” he said. “They even gave me free membership, but it’s not any good.”

O’Flanagan claims to have been addicted to pornography since first being exposed to it at age 13. He also says he is a “borderline sex addict.” Shag At Uni boasts that O’Flanagan, who studies media and TV production at Southampton Solent university, misses lectures because he is compulsively prowling the site. If that were true, it wouldn’t be something to brag about—giving a sex addict a free membership to a sex site seems little different from giving a bottle of whiskey to an alcoholic or casino chips to a gambling addict.

Since seeing the porn industry first hand as part of a television show, O’Flanagan claims to have changed his views about sexual relations between men and women. “It’s really unfair how if a guy sleeps with loads of people they get called a lad, but if a girl does it, she gets called a slut,” he said. “That’s really unfair. It’s your own body; you should be able to do what you like.”

Unfortunately for “Britain’s horniest student,” Elina Desaine, thousands of people on the Internet think otherwise, as did the disciplinary panel at Exeter. One more transgression and she could be disqualified from her degree.

“They’re definitely exploiting people if that girl got in trouble with the university,” O’Flanagan said.

He’s the type of bro they want on their site—but I’m not sure you’d want guys like these in your pants.

Thurlow has since stripped O’Flanagan of his title and updated the blog post containing the allegedly false and misleading information: “We’re sorry that he feels this way but in light of this we’ve now had to cancel his free membership and take back his title as Lad of the Year.”

Thurlow added in an email to The Kernel: “However, it would seem to us that Kevin did seem happy with his press coverage after sharing it across his social media at the time it went live.”

Bill Richards, general manager of Global Personals General Manager did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Another Global Personals spokesperson said the company only manages the site’s technology, and marketing decisions are left to the individual site’s owners, such as Thurlow.

But as publicity stunts go, Shag at Uni’s may be having unintended consequences.

“Naming Kevin Lad of the Year is pretty shady, just like the site itself,” said Laurie Davis, founder of eFlirt Expert, an online dating consultancy. “Clearly, he’s the type of bro they want on their site—but I’m not sure you’d want guys like these in your pants.”