This story contains sexually explicit material that may not be suitable for work.
- Explicit student profiles are being quietly shared across the web
- Users have no clue without combing through fine print
- Founder tells The Kernel: ‘I don’t think they’d mind’
- Admits the site has no way of telling if users are even students
When the student sex website ShagAtUni announced that a rather giddy-looking young woman called Elina Desaine from Exeter University had won its Horniest Student of the Year award, it looked like the site and its owner, young entrepreneur Tom Thurlow, had scored a huge publicity orgasm.
Pictures of Elina posing with £500 prize money tucked in her knickers went global, and the site’s membership shot up at twice its usual rate.
Like so many others intrigued, or even disgusted, by the story, I decided to join ShagAtUni this weekend. I discovered that things aren’t all they appear to be.
First impressions of ShagAtUni lead you to believe that the site is a strictly collegiate affair. Its marketing material reads like the 23-year-old Thurlow stood over his SEO copywriter with a 12-inch dildo, threatening to bosh him over the head with it if he didn’t emphasise the site’s relevance to students in every single sentence.
On the front page alone, there are 17 uses of the word student. In just four posts on the ShagAtUni blog, there are 55 iterations of ‘student’.
Often the users haven’t actually signed up to Thurlow’s site.
So probably the biggest bummer for anyone drawn to Thurlow’s site in search of hot student action is that many of the people on there aren’t affiliated with a school, college or university at all. While many of the profiles could seem promising for prowlers – there are lots of close-up pictures of vaginas, for example – often users haven’t actually signed up to Thurlow’s site.
This is because ShagAtUni is part of a massive network of relationship sites maintained by Global Personals, which shares, with their owners’ consent, thousands of profiles across multiple platforms, from “Shag A Ginger” to “My Fun Buddy”. Like many of their users’ chat-up lines, their methods aren’t exactly sophisticated.
Logging into ShagAtUni on Monday morning, I discovered that two of my potential bedfellows were also being advertised to me on a Global Personals site called Flirt Naughty.
When I spoke to the site’s owner and creator Tom Thurlow about this, he said: “I don’t think they’d mind. Students join my site to have sex. We do have a huge number of students who join the site and lots of case studies for successful students that have sex.
“If non-students join my site I still don’t have an issue with that. As long as students have sex, that’s the main objective of the site. So if there is another site that somebody else joined and one of my students hooked up with them, then they’ve still managed to get sex.”
While women get full membership for free, men have to shell out £25 for a month’s membership. One of the women I contacted through ShagAtUni, who didn’t want to be named for obvious reasons, says she joined up out of curiosity after reading about the Horniest Student competition in the news.
After signing up “Hannah”, 18, from Manchester, said: “There are so many older people on the website when it’s supposed to be for university students.
“If I was a student genuinely looking for NSA [no strings attached] sex through the website I’d be pretty disturbed and a bit offended really, because that’s not what I would have signed up to. Now I’ve been on it I wouldn’t recommend it to someone considering using it as a serious thing, it’s so misleading.”
Thurlow says the majority of people who join his site are students – or could be, since they’re aged between 18 and 23 (he claims to have no way of checking.) Asked why he isn’t more open about his site hoovering up profiles from other non-student sex sites, Thurlow says, “I am open about it. I’m very open about it if anybody asks me. It’s in the terms and conditions.”
Putting it in the terms and conditions isn’t the same as being open about it, I posit. “I disagree with that,” he says. “I’m not hiding it.”
Thurlow concedes that maybe in future he will make it clearer in his marketing material that the site isn’t just for students.
After I challenge him repeatedly, Thurlow concedes that maybe in future he will make it clearer in his marketing material that the site isn’t just for students. He stresses that people who sign up to a dating or companionship site won’t be advertised on raunchy sex sites.
While ShagAtUni contains more close-up pictures of genitals than a top-shelf grumble mag, Thurlow made his name selling signed first editions of kids’ books on the internet. Since then he’s appeared as a TV host and is currently casting for a reality show that promises to be “the Made in Chelsea of Cheltenham”.
Like perhaps most of the people on his student sex site, he hasn’t been to university.
Meanwhile, 20-year-old computer science student Elina Desaine is due a meeting with Exeter University, who say it’s concerned about her welfare. Given how universities are known to treat students who attract adverse press coverage – and considering her admissions about having sex in the uni’s computer labs, I wouldn’t bet against a disciplinary panel.
Thurlow denies that the Horniest Student award, or the plastering of its winner in her underwear across the world, was in any way sexist or that it objectified women. “What she’s doing is telling her story that some other students might just be too nervous or shy to actually be truthful about,” he says.
We just look forward to seeing ShagAtUni’s next advertising campaign, and hope the dating industry follows suit with a more open and honest approach to marketing. Although we all know the chances of the online sex industry coming clean about its methods are even slimmer than scoring in one of its virtual brothels.