“If you don’t like the idea of students having to sell sex, we have a suggestion for you! Fight for cheaper rents, the return of grants, and higher minimum wage. But to attack services aimed at student sex workers is profoundly dangerous.”
These are the thoughts, voiced on Twitter, of SWARM (a grassroots, sex worker-led collective fighting the criminalisation of sex work and supporting sex workers) following the controversy surrounding Durham University students’ union’s safety training for students involved in the sex industry. The training provides support, advice and event collaborations for pupils already employed in sex work. The Times reported that Michelle Donelan, the minister for higher and further education, said Durham was “legitimising a dangerous industry”. On the political left, the Labour MP for Hackney, Diane Abbott, also voiced her concern, describing the safety training as “horrific”.
“Services and support for student sex workers do not ‘encourage’ students into sex work,” continued SWARM on the Twitter thread. “Students sell sex and sexual services because of the high cost of living (in particular, high rents), low wages in other forms of work (eg hospitality), and a lack of grants & other forms of financial assistance.”
As Refinery29 reported earlier this year, students are turning to sex work due to financial pressure. The high cost of living in the UK has always been a major factor in sex work but with average student rents across the country having increased by almost 20% since 2020, student sex workers have been hit particularly hard. In 2016 the National Union of Students (NUS) ran a survey with student sex workers and discovered that less than 15% of respondents believed their institution or students’ union was providing sufficient support for their line of work. Meanwhile 53% of respondents wanted more information on sexual health and 51% on financial help.
Sex work has long been a point of contention in British society. It’s taken decades of hard work by those employed in the industry and their allies for prostitution even to be considered a legitimate job. Whenever the subject comes up, there is considerable moral panic. However, as recently as 2019, high profile institutions such as the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) have called for sex work to be decriminalised. The RCN’s appeal was based on the notion that the current law puts sex workers’ health in danger by deterring them from seeking medical help from the NHS due to the risk of prosecution.
Student sex workers are a fact of modern life. To deny them support in higher education is a grave mistake with real world implications for the students I represent.
Jonah Graham, Durham Students’ union
Ultimately, the tension underpinning conversations about student sex work lies between those who reinforce the stigma surrounding sex work and those who want to support sex workers. What gets lost in that debate are the very real economic conditions which push some people into sex work. If we could focus on supporting sex workers and, at the same time, address those conditions then we might actually get somewhere.
Soliciting sex – offering money for sexual services – in public may be illegal but legal forms of sex work have evolved since the most recent Sexual Offences Act was passed in 2003. For instance, the internet subscription service OnlyFans has become the latest platform for sex workers to profit from producing adult content.
What exactly constitutes sex work in 2021? According to Open Society Foundations, sex workers are adults who receive money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services or erotic performances. These can come in many forms, including but not limited to stripping, webcamming, dancing and pornography.
However you slice it and whether you like it or not, sex work happens. And the face of sex work in the UK – and the people behind it – isn’t uniform. It is not always a negative experience or a choice made out of desperation, as the TikTok videos about becoming a sugar baby, which receive millions of views, attest. It is also true that for some sex workers, it is a financial means to an end.
You might not like the fact that something exists but that won’t make it disappear. In any case, regardless of a person’s reasons for undertaking sex work, do we not have a duty, as a society, to protect them?
Durham SU has been making headlines for providing exactly that sort of support, educating student sex workers on their rights, their safety and the potential risks of the industry. Jonah Graham, Durham SU’s welfare and liberation officer, highlighted the importance of raising awareness of students employed in sex work. “We agree that ‘it is right that vital support to women is offered’, which is why the training was created. The training’s target audience is those who support students, so they understand the legal, safety, and wellbeing concerns of students and how to respond to disclosures sensitively.”
“Student sex workers are a fact of modern life,” he continued in a statement in response to the backlash from Donelan. “To deny them support in higher education is a grave mistake with real world implications for the students I represent.”
Denying the needs of student sex workers does not eliminate their existence. While Donelan highlighted the £85 million universities received last year to support financially struggling students, economic issues run far deeper than a one-off payment can resolve. In a 2020 survey by Save The Student, 56.9% of student sex workers reported that funding their education was one of the main reasons they went into sex work, while almost half (45.1%) also said it was to avoid getting into debt.
Even though the government provides hardship funds for those struggling financially, many students aren’t aware of the cash. Tom Allingham from Save The Student tells Refinery29: “Forty-three percent of students feel as though they haven’t received enough information about the funding that could be available to them.”
56.9% of student sex workers report that funding their education was one of the main reasons they went into sex work.
However, the biggest issue, Allingham notes, is the “ever-increasing gap between the money students receive from the government and how much they actually need to spend on essentials like rent, food and bills”. Save The Student’s latest survey revealed that the average maintenance loan is £340 less than students’ living costs each month.
This is happening against the backdrop of a 7% increase over 2021 in the UK Student Living Index – an index run by NatWest which calculates the most expensive university towns and cities across the UK – meaning the average cost of living is far higher than the previous year.
“The government urgently needs to increase the funding available to students to ensure that nobody feels pressured into making money in ways that they’re not comfortable with,” Allingham continues.
Rosie Hodsdon, an executive assistant at National Ugly Mugs (NUM), an organisation that provides resources and protection for sex workers, also recognises the need to target the economic factors that lead students into sex work.
“Student loans are awful. Students are expected to find employment that fits around other commitments, do university work, as well as caring responsibilities people might have, while also paying enough for them to live on and poor working conditions as well,” she tells Refinery29.
“The vast majority of student sex work takes place in response to those conditions, and we must understand that those conditions exist,” she continues. “If you have this idea that sex work should be stopped and eradicated, you need to deal with the conditions that encourage students into sex work. You cannot take away support for those who are doing it simply because you don’t believe that it should exist.”
As Hodson sees it, universities should support students engaged in sex work on a duty-of-care basis. “If you want to stop someone doing sex work, don’t take away their studentship – that’s just going to make them do more sex work,” she continued.
Hodson also emphasised how universities and students’ unions should be pushing for student landlords to remove morality clauses from their contracts. These are lines in agreements which stipulate that a student can be expelled or evicted if found to be engaged in sex work. “Those can lead to student sex workers losing accommodation and becoming homeless, which will encourage more people into sex work,” she added.
The most important thing, however, is simply encouraging an understanding of the realities of student sex work and actively engaging with those employed in the industry. As ever, this is about listening to sex workers instead of talking about them.
“There are resources out there that are written by student sex workers, for universities, that have been designed in collaboration with student sex workers, about what they need, what resources are out there,” Hodson concluded. “How can you treat them better? By actively engaging with them and respecting their voices, their experiences and actively being on their side. That’s going to massively change the culture of hopefully universities as a whole with regards to student sex work.”
Durham isn’t the first university to advocate for better support for student sex workers. Leicester University provides a toolkit for student sex workers while the University of Sussex freshers’ fair hosted stalls by the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project Sussex. Normalising this line of work needn’t be radical. Just as schemes such as The Loop have opened up a more accepting dialogue around drug use, acknowledging sex work – and, more importantly, tackling the stigma that it is a problem at all – has gone far further in supporting students employed in sex work than avoiding their existence altogether.
The Department of Education told Refinery29: “Universities should provide an inclusive environment for all students. This is a matter for providers and we expect them to support any student who may be involved in potentially harmful situations.”
“However, the government is concerned that sex work training could enable, normalise and encourage sex work and the exploitation of mainly female students. We consider more effective action could be taken to support students in such situations. Students in hardship should be helped by their provider, and more generally providers should be supporting the wellbeing and mental health of students who are vulnerable.”
“If a student is experiencing hardship, their provider should make all efforts to identify how they can support the student and prevent the student from being involved in potentially harmful situations as a consequence.”
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