Police are to examine evidence gathered during a newspaper's undercover investigation into a website which offered students up to £15,000 towards their university fees in return for having sex with strangers.
Officers will seek to establish whether those behind the website could be investigated for a number of possible offences, including incitement into prostitution and sexual exploitation.
A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said: “We will consider all the evidence passed to us and any allegations made.”
Groups which support women involved in prostitution yesterday praised The Independent newspaper’s investigation for exposing the pressures that can force vulnerable young people to sell their bodies.
The website for SponsorAScholar.co.uk has been suspended since The Independent published secret film of a man claiming to be an “assessor” seeking to persuade an undercover reporter posing as a student to undertake a “practical assessment”. In it he asks her to demonstrate the level of intimacy she was prepared to give in return for “sponsorship” to fund her studies.
SponsorAScholar.co.uk claimed to have arranged for 1,400 women aged between 17-24 to fund their studies by having “discreet adventures” with wealthy businessmen. It is not known how many women – if any – have ever been awarded “scholarships”. Nor is it known how many have ever gone through the “practical assessment”.
However, it emerged yesterday that a female escort called Kitty had been approached by a man claiming to be from the site seeking to attract new “scholars”.
Campaigners have highlighted the deep concern over the site and the effect of rising student fees. Dr Dan Boucher, director of parliamentary affairs for the international Christian charity Care, said young people should not have to subject themselves to exploitation in order to complete their studies. “The Independent’s investigation has revealed one particular and disturbing manifestation of sexual exploitation.
“With a background of an 8 per cent fall in applications to university this year and mounting concerns about debts, it is clear that sexual predators have seen an opportunity to exploit the financial vulnerability of struggling students,” he said.
Mark Wakeling, director of Beyond the Streets, said that sites such as SponsorAScholar.co.uk could give the impression that selling sex was a quick fix to make money.
“Businesses which profit from suggesting an easy income with little cost are acting irresponsibly and ignore the reality behind the vulnerability that prostitution often creates. Slick publications airbrush out the harm and promote an idea of there being little risk. Students need to be aware of the real dangers involved in such schemes and the longer-term impact,” he said.
Whilst it is illegal to run a website where men and women offer sex for money, many instead offer the services of models and escorts. Operators can only be arrested for controlling prostitution if police have evidence they knew sex is being provided for money.
The investigation that revealed shocking ‘sponsorship’ deals being offered to cash-strapped students
Students are being offered up to £15,000 a year to cover their university studies in exchange for having sex with a stranger, an undercover investigation by The Independent has revealed.
The website SponsorAScholar.co.uk claims to have arranged for 1,400 women aged between 17 and 24 to be funded through their studies by wealthy businessmen seeking “discreet adventures”.
But in a secretly filmed encounter with an Independent reporter posing as a student, a male “assessor” from the website asked that she undertake a “practical assessment” with him at a nearby flat to prove “the level of intimacy” she was prepared to give before being permitted to find a sponsor online.
He said this was required for “quality control”. He told her that the more she was prepared to do, the more money she would get.
The website’s claims to have a roster of hundreds of students could not be verified. The reporter asked for evidence that scholarships had been awarded and was told that she would have to come back to the flat with the man.
But the requirement for potential “scholars” to submit to a “practical assessment” raises fears that young women students may have been exploited.
The elaborately constructed site gives the appearance of operating in the grey area in Britain’s sex laws which allow escort agencies to function legitimately by offering introductions between clients and sex workers.
Young women facing financial hardship brought on by the rise in the cost of studying were urged tonight not to be tempted into using the website.
Rachel Griffin, director of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which promotes personal safety, said: “Meeting a complete stranger in private could be highly dangerous at any time but when it is in connection with a scheme like this, the risks are sky-high.” The National Union of Students accused those behind the website of seeking to “capitalise on the poverty and financial hardship of women students”.
SponsorAScholar.co.uk offers young women “up to 100% of your Tuition Fees” in return for two-hour sessions with men in hotel rooms or private flats up to four times per term.
“Because of the considerable sums of money our sponsors are offering in scholarship, they tell us that they have expectations of a high level of sexual intimacy with their chosen student,” the website says.
During the meeting between the “assessor” and our reporter – which our reporter insisted must begin in a public place, choosing a fast food restaurant in south London – the man said: “The more you’re prepared to do, the more interest you're going to get, obviously the more sponsorship amount you’re going to get for that.”
SponsorAScholar.co.uk uses a false company and VAT number belonging to the legitimate dating site Match.com. A spokesman for the company said: “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.”
SponsorAScholar.co.uk purports to be registered at the former address of a senior academic from a leading British university, and the man claiming to be the assessor used the lecturer’s name in the encounter with the reporter – as well as in email correspondence and on his answerphone message.
The academic, approached by The Independent last Friday, said he had no idea that the website had been registered to his name and former address. He did not recognise the man in our undercover footage. Yesterday he added that he had now contacted the police to report the matter.
The meeting took place at the Powis Street branch of McDonalds in Woolwich, south London, last Thursday at 6.45pm.
As other diners tucked into burgers, the “assessor”, who said he lived near Leicester, bought the reporter coffee and sought to reassure her that the prospective “sponsors” had been vetted and were safe to meet.
Our reporter asked the “assessor” whether the “sponsors” have health checks. He answered: “We do invite them to do that, not all of them choose to do that but you can choose to have protection or not have protection on that basis.”
He described the need for her to first of all have the “practical assessment” with him as like “quality control for us”, adding: “Whatever you put on your sheet what level of intimacy you’re prepared to go into, you and I will go through that today. We’ve got a questionnaire we’ll go through, your likes and dislikes and the kind of thing you’re comfortable doing.”
He added: “We have to do that, to make sure when we put you in front of your sponsor you’re confident in doing the things you said you would do.”
The man added: “You see what you’re trying to do is attract a certain level of sponsorship, you don’t want to go up there saying you know you’re not even going to hold hands type of thing… cause you’re not going to attract any interest at all.”
After the initial 10-minute meeting – which our reporter ended by saying that she would like to reconsider his proposal rather than immediately follow him to the nearby flat for the “practical” – the man walked back to a large block of flats around the corner where he said he was staying on the fifth floor.
SponsorAScholar.co.uk claims to have been operating since 2006, but the website was registered earlier this year.
The site claims to charge “sponsors” a £100 fee and to take three per cent commission from the final “scholarship” total.
When a male reporter approached the site as a potential sponsor, however, he was told there was a “waiting list” and would be contacted in the new year. By contrast the meeting with the woman reporter posing as the female student was immediately arranged.
The “assessor” said our reporter’s decision not to go back to the flat with him was “ok”, adding: “I’ve got other candidates I need to see this evening”, before asking again if she wanted to “do the questionnaire or stop now”.
After being told stop, he suggested meeting on 13 December in Stratford, south-east London: “If we don’t do it tonight I can’t fit you in until then.”
Attempts to confirm the true identity of the “assessor” have since proved unsuccessful.
The man was today no longer returning repeated telephone calls, emails or text messages from The Independent.
Kelley Temple, NUS Women’s Officer, said: “It appears to be… exploiting the fact that women students are in dire financial situations in pursuit of an education.”
SponsorAScholar.co.uk had been changed last night to say simply: “Sorry website unavailable for maintenance”.
Extracts from the meeting reporter's meeting with assessor
Reporter: I just want to sort of check, I want to be clear about what I’m doing … meeting a complete stranger I just, you know, want to be clear about what I’m doing.
Assessor: For the first meeting we take the money off the sponsor to make sure they’ve got the money then when we’ve heard back from both of you that it’s gone fine we basically release that and that’s kind of your first payment for your first term... Then the payments generally happen around the start of term.
R: Do you write down like the type of things I’d be expected to do?
A: We’ve got a questionnaire we’ll go through… that forms your profile… [it covers] the sort of things that you’re comfortable doing so there’s no awkwardness about ‘Well I thought you did this and you don’t do that,’ so that’s all kind of up-front. And then as long as you’re happy to go through with those things that you said you would do then that’s fine.
R: What sort of things [would I] have to do?
A: What you’re trying to do is attract a certain level of sponsorship, you don’t want to go up there saying you know you’re not even going to hold hands type of thing, ‘cause you’re not going to attract any interest at all so you’ve got to kind of... The more you’re prepared to do the more interest you’re going to get, obviously the more sponsorship amount you’re going to get for that, so you obviously don’t want to commit with more than you’re happy to do ‘cause then you’ll be anxious about it and the rest of it, but you don’t want to go back and say ‘I’ll wait and see about certain things’ ‘cause you might not get the opportunity to have those introductory meetings.
R: How many other girls are already doing it?
A: I think you’ve got about 400 [women] actively… searchable on site ready to go into… These guys are businessmen… they get a tax break for offering sponsorship to students but obviously they’re having a bit of fun you know in the bargain… genuinely nice guys, I’ve got some sort of sample profiles I’ve printed out.
R: Can I see them?
A: Yeah, I mean I’ve left them back at the [flat] but I can show them to you when you get up there.
R: What do we have to do in the interview?
A: We’ll go through the, err, questionnaire… and then we’ll go through whatever you put down as what you want to do ... we go through in the practical assessment together to make sure that you’re comfortable to do that, to ... get an idea of what your first meeting with the sponsor will be. We have to ... make sure when we put you in front of your sponsor you’re confident in doing the things you said you would do.
R: So the guys, do they have health checks or anything?
A: We do invite them to do that, not all of them choose to do that but you can choose to have protection or not have protection on that basis.
R: I’ve never done anything like it and it just feels like a big step.
A: I mean that’s kind of… you don’t need to… we’re not attracting people who are used to this kind of lifestyle… that’s kind of what we’re into really…
R: Is it totally confidential?
A: Yes… [In the photos] we can obscure your face, we can cut from down here [mimes cutting off body] whenever you decide to leave us everything is securely erased, wiped, there is no record. Any sponsors that you take out an agreement with, they’ll only know you by your nickname on the site ... so once you’ve signed out [of] the site your nickname is gone, there’s no way for them to contact you.
Q&A: Paying for sex – the law:
Q. Is it illegal to run a website where men or women appear to provide sex for money?
A. This is a grey area. Owners can be arrested for controlling prostitution if the police can show that sexual services are being given in exchange for cash. But this is often very difficult.
Operators can say the sex is a private contract between the client and the sex worker. On the SponsorAScholar.co.uk website the extensive terms and conditions describe an agreement which covers time and companionship together.
It says the “level of sexual intimacy” is privately agreed between student and sponsor whilst the owners of the website are not responsible for what occurs between consenting adults in a hotel room.
Q. Is it illegal to advertise sexual services on the internet?
A. Yes. That is why sex workers promote themselves as “escorts” or “models” in a variety of media including newspapers and on the internet. In reality sex is readily available online.
Q. Is it illegal to have sex for money?
A. No, nor is paying for sex. But loitering or soliciting in a public place for the purposes of offering services as a prostitute is and carries a maximum fine of £1,000. However, prostitutes must be cautioned twice, on two separate occasions, before being charged for the first time. It is also illegal to have sex for money with someone who has been trafficked or coerced into prostitution regardless of whether this information is known at the time. The offence carries a maximum sentence of six months in prison.
Q. Is kerb-crawling legal?
A. No. Clients caught kerb-crawling can be arrested on their first offence. They can be fined £1,000, disqualified from driving or have their car impounded. They can also be offered to undertake a rehabilitation course.