University of Durham’s staff and student sessions on sex work have been widely criticised – but sex work activists and advocates are applauding the further education institution for its clear-eyed support
Text Brit Dawson
In December 2020, the University of Leicester developed a Student Sex Work Toolkit, which aims to teach staff about student sex work in the UK, give them the tools to support those who do it, as well as to provide students with resources to help keep them safe. Despite simply offering judgement-free guidance and practical help to students in financial hardship or precarious work, 13,000 people are so enraged that they’ve signed a petition calling for it to be revoked.
This number is likely to have soared in the last week, following the media outrage over Durham University’s employment of the toolkit in its sex work safety session, titled Students Involved in the Adult Sex Industry. The session – falsely described by both The Independent and The Times as training to become a sex worker – offered staff and students education and advice on how to provide or access support for those in the sex industry.
In response to the news, Labour MP Diane Abbott – who appears to have not read past the erroneous headlines – tweeted: “Horrific that Durham University is offering training to students who want to be sex workers part-time. Sex work is degrading, dangerous, and exploitative. Uni should have nothing to do with it.
As well as misrepresenting what the training is about, Abbott’s comment promotes a damaging stereotype that all sex work is harmful, and thereby increases the stigma attached to it, putting those who engage in it in danger.
And, of course, she wasn’t alone in this view. Speaking to The Times, Michelle Donelan, the minister for higher and further education, said Durham was “legitimising a dangerous industry” and “badly failing in their duty to protect”. A quick Twitter search also brings up scores of similarly critical comments – none of which, it’s important to point out, came from sex workers nor asked their opinions.
Durham University defended its sex work support session. “We are emphatically not seeking to encourage sex work, but we are seeking to provide support to our students. We don’t judge, we listen, support, and give practical help,” the uni said in a statement. “The intent here is to ensure that social stigma does not prevent students who might be vulnerable or at risk from accessing the support they need and to which they are entitled.”
No, they didn't. They trained staff in how to best support students who were already sex working. Research shows 6% of UK students are engaged in sex work - and universities need to know how to support them. https://t.co/nrfWZrqwp0— Kate Lister (@k8_lister) November 12, 2021
The university went on to explain that staff and students took part in a one hour session “to understand the challenges and obstacles that students involved in sex work might struggle to overcome when wishing to seek support”. It concluded: “We make no apologies for working to ensure that Durham is a safe environment for all of our students and staff. We are extremely disappointed by the way the intentions for, and content of, this session have been misinterpreted.”
When asked by Dazed, Durham declined to expand on exactly what the sessions involved. However, based on the Sex Work Toolkit, it’s likely staff were taught the dos and don’ts of talking to students about sex work. For example, do: “treat all students with respect; expect their involvement with the sex industry to be hidden due to risk of stigma/judgement; gain consent before sharing informaton; offer practical solution focused guidance”. Don’t: “probe unnecessarily about their work; break confidence regarding sex work invovlement; inform police unless the student has specifically asked for help doing this; make assumptions regarding involvement/motivation”. The list goes on.
According to a 2015 report by The Student Sex Work Project, five per cent of students in the UK have worked in the sex industry (a 2021 report by Save the Student suggests this figure is lower, at three per cent). Included under the umbrella of ‘sex work’ is sending nudes or used clothing items, being a creator on sites like OnlyFans, sugar dating, phone sex, camming, having sex with someone, and more. The Save the Student report says the most common type of student sex work is selling intimate photos, followed by used clothes and OnlyFans, while just 10 per cent of students engaged in sex work actually sell sex.
“Diane Abbott and colleagues are promoting legislation that will increase the criminalisation of the sex industry and make it a whole lot worse for sex workers” – English Collective of Prostitutes
“The emphasis placed on escort work (by the media) was particularly manipulative,” Jonah Graham, the welfare and liberation officer for Durham Students Union, tells Dazed. “By disproportionately focusing on ‘prostitution’, the media spread shock to garner attention.” Graham says the SU is “proud to support” Durham University’s sex work safety session, which he says is vital to universities “learn about sex workers, tackle their own misconceptions, and support students”.
According to the 2015 study, those who engage in sex work do so “on an irregular basis” with the money made mostly being spent on “daily living expenses”. Speaking to Dazed, Laura Watson from the English Collective of Prostitutes echoes this finding. “It’s mostly day-to-day stuff,” she says of what leads students into sex work. “Rent, living expenses, where (university) grants aren’t enough. Or they don’t have family support, and other jobs aren’t available to them for whatever reason, so they end up going into sex work because it’s flexible and can pay more than another job.”
Referencing Abbott’s referral to sex work as “degrading and dangerous”, Watson says there’s often only “violence in the sex industry because it’s criminalised”. “Violent men know that they’re going to get away with and nothing will happen to them, because when women (engaged in selling sex) go to the police for help, they get threatened with arrest themselves.”
Disappointing on many levels but additionally as these courses are to support students who are already engaged in sex work. Good on @durham_uni for working with community groups and actually providing pastoral care for the reality of what students experience. https://t.co/Hkgr4gUpGm— Moya Lothian-Mclean (@mlothianmclean) November 12, 2021
She continues: “Diane Abbott and colleagues are promoting legislation that will increase the criminalisation of the sex industry and make it a whole lot worse for sex workers. Labour politicians should be focusing on what women need to get out of prostitution if they want to, because it’s women’s poverty that’s driving the sex industry.”
There’s not a one-size-fits-all for sex workers. Some are in the industry because of financial need, while others do it for enjoyment or because it makes them good money – and this is the same for student sex workers. Whatever the reason that someone is engaged in sex work, advocates believe supporting them and providing safety tools for safe working conditions shouldn’t be radical.
“The myths and insensitive comments in the attacks (over Durham’s sex work support sessions) prove the need for the training,” says Graham. “Stigma is still present in our society. It’s clear that several of the attacks used a facade of student safety to morally police student behaviour. Regardless of your opinion on sex work, if you claim to care about the safety and wellbeing of sex workers, you should support this training.”