Varsity, Cambridge University’s student newspaper, started something big last week. It claims to have discovered students working as escorts, strippers and prostitutes to help fund their degrees. The authors should have known that senior college authorities would pounce. Suddenly the story hit the national press and Britain began to doubt its Oxbridge darlings. In any controversy it is difficult to know who is telling the truth: the university authorities who are trying to play the problem down or the media who love to exaggerate scandal. We decided to go straight to the source of the problem – the Oxbridge escort service.
The website, once known as Oxbridge Escorts, is now at www.takemetodinner.co.uk. Launched in April 2005 by former Balliol Classicist Nick Dekker, the scheme aims to put intelligent but impoverished students in touch with men willing to pay for their wit. For Dekker student debt was the motivating factor. “Those who join to be taken to dinner do it because they think they can earn money from their skills as conversationalists and raconteurs,” he says. There are currently 312 escorts listed on the site who claim to attend or have attended the University of Oxford. 126 of these are under 22 and therefore probably current students.
These figures include men looking for dates, but it seems many are just messing around. One third year History student wanted to make his reasons clear: “I just signed up as joke in first year and haven’t really looked at the website since. Tempting though the money is, I don’t think it’s something I would actually do”. On the whole, men with profiles on the website are there to buy, not to sell.
The question is, what is really up for sale? Dekker insists that there must be “strictly no inappropriate behaviour by either party on a date. We are very firm on this.” But for every other student escort company, sex seems to be a given. Though these websites say they offer “time and companionship only”, escorts on the site list their interests as “deep throat, face sitting and rimming.” Isadora, 27, a Travel and Tourism student from Brazil, charges £600 for a lunch date. She admits that what starts with conversation invariably ends up in the bedroom.
Isadora tells us that she enjoys most of her dates and that some of her clients have become good friends. But escort life doesn’t leave much time for lectures or studying, let alone socialising. “I don’t have normal friends,” she says. “I go to restaurants on my own, I go shopping on my own.”
Another student sex-worker, paid £100 to strip by clubs in Northern England, finds her work “degrading”. She told Varsity, “There are moments I really don’t want to do it but it is certainly character building. My worst fear is dancing up there in front of someone I know.” This is by no means the most extreme way in which students have tried to earn money. In 2004 the BBC reported an unusual eBay auction: Rosie Reid, a student at Bristol University, auctioned her virginity for £8,400.
In comparison, takemetodinner.co.uk seems like a checkout job at Sainsbury’s. The website emphasises safety and legality. Before going on a date, clients are sent an email advising them to “meet in a safe, public place and let a friend or family member know where you are… don’t drink too much and never leave your drink unattended.” But how many supermarket jobs offer this sort of advice in their employee handbooks? These warnings wouldn’t be necessary if there wasn’t an element of danger. Anyone who agrees to a date is required to hand over their mobile number and email address to their dinner date, which seems like an invitation to harassment when the date is over. And that’s to say nothing of the potential for psychological upset. We defy anyone who sells themselves to emerge from the evening with self-esteem intact.
Escorting can seem like the perfect job: it’s good money for little effort and you get free food and drink in the process. But the situation you put yourself in is fraught with difficulties. It’s hard to know how you’d really feel until you try, which is why we signed up to be taken to dinner.
I’d always thought that escort sites would be rather seedy, but signing up to takemetodinner.co.uk felt just like signing up to a social networking site like facebook. Whether they’re interested in buying or selling, members are required to give their names, fill in a profile and upload a photo. It wasn’t until the requests for dates started coming in that I began to feel apprehensive. David, the first person to contact me, asked me to meet him at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in Soho. It all sounded rather wonderful until he sent me a text offering to “arrange accommodation if I was up for it.” I wasn’t, and decided there and then that I would confine my escorting efforts to Oxford.
The next person to get in touch was Laszlo, who rang me up asking if I’d like to fly to Paris for lunch. I suggested that it might be better to start with lunch in Oxford and we agreed on La Cucina, an Italian restaurant near Magdalen Roundabout. Not quite as glamorous I know, but at least I felt safe.
The morning before the date Laszlo rang me to let me know that he’d be wearing a navy V-neck jumper. He introduced himself as Laszlo Biro, a name I typed into Google the moment he hung up. That’s when I had my first shock: according to Wikipedia, Laszlo Biro is the name of the man who invented the ball point pen in the 1930s. The second shock followed when I walked into the restaurant a few hours later. Laszlo’s profile described him as an attractive, athletic 30 year-old. The man who greeted me was greying and elderly. I was on a date with a man who had lied to me about his name and his age.
While we waited to be seated he shyly handed me a bunch of flowers and, just as the waitress came over, passed me the £40 he had agreed to pay for my company. I felt very uncomfortable; for the rest of the meal the waiting staff kept giving me knowing glances, obviously trying to work out whether I really was being paid to be there. Although I tried not to care, I couldn’t help feeling slightly ashamed of what I was doing.
Laszlo had obviously given our meeting a lot of thought. As we waited for our meal to arrive he showed me various maps, detailing the flight paths we would be taking if we ever flew to Paris together. Later, when we were chatting about his interest in family history, he whipped some Hungarian records out of his bag and started translating random information about his ancestors. One had been a royal judge and he seemed to think that this made him the perfect man for me, a law student.
The low point came with desert when Laszlo revealed that he knew I had lied to him. In a vague attempt at self-protection I had told him over the phone that I studied at Keble. Using the internet, Laszlo had worked out that I was in fact at New. “I understand that you wanted to protect yourself,” he told me. “But you have to realise that rape is a two-way process.” He seemed genuinely upset by my white lie, reminding me that “trust is the key to any relationship.”
I couldn’t decide whether to feel horrified, or desperately sorry for him. For me this lunch was a way of making money. For Laszlo it was potentially the start of a real relationship; one involving days out, sex and ultimately love. He mentioned the possibility of my staying at his house twice, joking that it would make “a nice change from student digs.”
In some ways the date was better than I had expected. I felt safe and in control, and found plenty to chat about. In others it was worse: I was now clear that most of takemetodinner’s punters wanted much more than an intellectual conversation. Would I do it again? Absolutely not. As I walked away from the restaurant I felt upset, a little humiliated, but above all, relieved. Feeling that way on a regular basis can’t be good for your mental health.
My greatest fear about joining the escort service was that nobody would ask me out, so as a precaution, I set my price low at £30 per date. It turns out I needn’t have worried. Amongst the horde of men whose mates signed them up as a practical joke, there are plenty who are genuinely in the market for girls.
First on my list of potential dates was David, the very man that Becky turned down. Feeling adventurous, and tempted by his tickets to a well-produced opera in London, I decided not to be offended by the idea of romantic sloppy seconds and agreed.
A train-ride later, I turned up on the glamourous South bank of the Thames to go and see Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at the Royal Festival Hall. After a polite kiss on either cheek, I chose babbling as an opening tactic to ease into what I knew would be an awkward evening. “I feel like such a small-town girl, these lights are amazing,” I gibbered. But conversation was thin on the ground. I tried his career, his musical taste and even the Edinburgh-Glasgow rivalry, which I felt was sure to get a Scot going. David was giving me nothing, and was certainly not interested in my life. I decided to shut up and start observing.
Rather than 44 as he purports to be, David looks around 50 years old. He’s short and stout with dodgy teeth but an open smile – an appearance which translates onto www.takemetodinner.co.uk as ‘attractive’. Regarding his personal life, he gave as little away in person as he does on the website. I managed to glean that he owns three houses and runs a business, but felt uncomfortable asking more given his unnerving reticence.
I even tried to open the topic of Oxbridge Escorts, but as soon as the words escaped I felt I’d made a huge faux-pas. David obviously didn’t appreciate the reference to his own desperation. I decided he was a fantasist and he decided I was rude; the date moved on to a new level of embarrassment.
My discomfort that evening wasn’t entirely his fault, though. What should have been a fabulous night at the opera was marred by having to escape to the loos to text anxious friends, and keep one eye on my drink at all times to reduce my chances of getting date-raped.
And security wasn’t my only worry. As a girl who has never allowed a man to so much as buy her a drink before, I suddenly felt obliged to be completely submissive. Should I be walking a pace behind him at all times? Was I entitled to object when he openly checked other girls out in front of me?
It all got much worse when he took me to the Savoy, just across the river, for a cocktail. It cost £13 and was probably the best passionfruit Caipirinha I’ll ever taste, but nothing could make up for the waiter’s knowing glint. “Will you be requiring a room tonight, Sir,” he asked like a man who came across high-class prostitutes as a matter of course. David mused a little before replying “no, I don’t think so, not tonight.” Before I had finished fuming that my ‘client’ had even considered hiring me for the night, he handed me three crisp twenties in front of everyone in the bar. Three well-dressed girls sitting across from us burst into giggles, and I decided there and then that I’d rather drink Sainsbury’s Basics Whiskey that I’d paid for myself than accept a cocktail at such a cost.
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