The training was given to offer student sex workers support, as well as advising staff on how to help those in this situation
The university’s students union emailed all students and staff advertising a “training opportunity” for “students involved in the adult sex industry”.
It said that student sex workers “should not face any barriers accessing support” and said it aimed to give informed advice.
The advert for the sessions said: “Student sex workers should not face any barriers to accessing support which is well informed and free from prejudice.
“The SU position on students in sex work are (sic) clear: support, informed advice, de-stigmatisation and collaboration with expert organisations”.
The training has come under fire from an education minister, who told The Times that the support sessions were “legitimising a dangerous industry”.
Michelle Donelan said the Russell Group university was “badly failing in their duty to protect” students by offering the course, which she said sought to “normalise selling sex”.
A student also told the paper that it “could cause a real problem, making it part of university culture and making work in the sex industry a normalised activity.”
Labour MP Diane Abbott also said Durham university “should have nothing to do with” sex work.
But the union’s welfare and liberation officer, Jonah Graham, defended the training – made up of two sessions, one for students and staff and the other just for staff members.
He said it was “an attempt to support students in a difficulty arising from the reality of rising costs in higher education.”
He told The Independent that the minister’s comments “show that she fundamentally misunderstands the training.” He added that it was also designed to help staff deal with disclosures from students sensitively.
The training was run in coordination with North East Sex Work Forum, a group of agencies that support people involved in the adult sex and entertainment industries.
Durham University also defended the sessions, saying that they were designed to “ensure students can be safe and make informed choices”. They also said that they had noted an “emerging trend” of students selling sexual services.
They said in a statement: “The University brought in the external Students Involved in the Adult Sex Industry session in response to requests received over a number of years from a small number of concerned students.”
They added: “We are emphatically not seeking to encourage sex work but we are seeking to provide support to our students… We make no apologies for working to ensure that Durham is a safe environment for all our students and staff.”
Earlier this year, the English Collective of Prostitutes said that calls to its helpline from young people at university and college had risen by a third in 2021.
A spokesperson for the campaign group said that during the first lockdown lots of young women started using sites such as OnlyFans to sell intimate pictures of themselves and earn money.
The University of Leicester faced similar criticism over its online student sex work toolkit, which outlined with sex industry services are legal and which are illegal.
Mr Graham, Durham Students’ Union welfare and liberation officer, added: “Ultimately, any suggestion that this training aims to facilitate sex work is ludicrous.
“As I have attended both levels of this training, which is more than any of those writing for the national press, I know these criticisms are made in bad faith and are wildly untrue.
“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.”
A spokesperson for SWARM, the sex workers advocacy and resistance movement, said: “Having to sell sex to keep up with the rising cost of a university education can often be a lonely and isolating experience.
“These attacks on universities for trying to create an environment where students selling sex feel able to seek support only harm the students who need somewhere to turn to.”