The University of Durham’s “Sex Work Training” is the wrong way to tackle sexual exploitation, and highlights just how normalised the sex trade has become

The University of Durham is now offering “training for students involved in the Adult Sex Industry”. Similarly, a so-called “Sex Work Toolkit” was put together by the University of Leicester a few months ago and went viral on Twitter, with thousands of users retweeting and decrying the move by the university to do what they allege is an attempt to “be supportive of students who earn a living through sex work”.

More students are entering the commercial sex industry. Some universities are starting to introduce handbooks, courses and toolkits, purportedly to support “student sex work”. These initiatives have resulted in a significant backlash from MPs and organisations looking to combat sexual violence.

While of course any individual exploited in the sex trade should never be discriminated against, or face legal repercussions for what is overwhelmingly a situation in which they have been coerced into, CEASE firmly rejects the non-critical approach taken by the University of Leicester and University of Durham.

In a section entitled “What is Sex Work?”, the University of Leicester states: “If the sexual act is not consensual, it is not only not legal, it would also not be classed as sex work”. This may sound palatable in theory, but in fact demonstrates the University’s profound lack of understanding as to the true nature of prostitution. As the document itself notes: “rising costs of University fees and associated living expenses are resulting in an increase in the numbers of students entering the sex industry”. If an individual is compelled to engage in prostitution due to a lack of income and the need to meet living expenses, it is hardly a situation in which it can be said that the sexual act is “consensual” in terms of a truly free choice.

This point is reflected in research taken from New Zealand where prostitution is wholly decriminalised – a position that pro-sex trade proponents argue is the most progressive approach (and by extension, view prostitution through a non-critical lens). Here , despite the supposed protection decriminalisation offers, the research still reported: “some sex workers who are being required to provide commercial sexual services against their will…” ;“the majority (of prostituted individuals) felt that the PRA [Prostitution Reform Act 2003] could do little about the violence that occurred”; that 10.4% of all prostituted individuals “don’t know how to leave”, and that 17.6% “don’t know what else to do”.

This goes to the point that by attempting to delineate between “consensual” and “non-consensual” prostitution (or “sex work”), the Universities are fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of what actually happens in prostitution. The prevalence of rape in prostitution is staggering, with some studies demonstrating that 73% of women in prostitution had been raped; and 59% had been raped more than five times while in prostitution; and physical violence is rife, with one five-country study finding that:

“Rates and frequency of violence and control are extremely high, with physical harm (almost 80 percent), sexual assault (over 60 percent)… leading the indicators”

This of course is not to say that every student at the University of Leicester or University of Durham will experience exactly the same type of treatment, particularly as the document surreptitiously caveats the information by stating that “sex work may include escorting, webcamming, stripping, adult entertainment, phone sex or other markets” (i.e. basically anything to do with “sex”). But to ignore these statistics entirely in favour of talking about the supposed benefits of the sex trade, including “flexible work hours” and “anticipated pleasure” that students may take from engaging in prostitution is grossly irresponsible and unrepresentative.

This misunderstanding consequently skews and detrimentally affects the guidance that the document provides to the University’s staff members. For example, the documents ask that staff take steps to “ensure [the] student is safe within their work”. The sex trade is a fundamentally unsafe environment, where rates of violence  are catastrophically high, and the rate at which prostituted individuals are murdered is hugely disproportionate compared to any other “work” environment”. No staff member, well meaning or otherwise, can ensure the safety of their students when engaging in prostitution.

Further, the document advises that staff should: “ensure colleagues are aware of appropriate, factual information regarding the sex industry to lessen stigma for those involved”. It is difficult to imagine how staff are able to do this when the very document advising them has already provided a biased and skewed overview of the sex trade. It is a further distraction to highlight the need to “lessen stigma” of prostitution, given that studies show even where prostitution is considered to be gainful employment, such as New Zealand, stigma and violence both remain.

Jonah Graham, University of Durham’s Student Union’s welfare and liberation officer says: “You’ve got to be maliciously disingenuous to pretend to misunderstand this as anything other than an attempt to support students in a difficulty arising from the reality of rising costs in higher education. Trying to create a scandal from an attempt to support people whose work can make them vulnerable is contemptible.”

We cannot deny that students in the sex trade need support. But the best forms of support  must include:

  • Warnings about the well-documented physical and psychological harms and long term implications of being in the sex trade
  • Exiting services
  • Signposting to services offering financial support (e.g. help with budgeting, hardship loans, grants and alternative employment options).

Jonah recognises that this “work” can make students vulnerable; that much is right. The truth is that being in the sex trade massively exacerbates a host of intersecting vulnerabilities including poverty, social marginalisation, histories of sexual abuse, etc. 

The support universities offer prides itself on not being stigmatising or judgemental, and effectively treats “sex work” like any other form of labour. This is highly problematic since the occupational health and safety risks of the sex trade are off-the-scale and include sexual harassment, violence and coercion, plus unseen emotional and psychological harms and longterm implications for mental health, relationships and employment. As a society, we do not shy away from warning people about the harms of smoking or taking drugs for fear of fuelling stigma or prejudice. Our attitude here should be no different. Ultimately, we have a responsibility to lay out the full facts to protect those who are vulnerable from becoming ensnared in a highly dangerous trade.

The idea that students need support to make “safe and informed choices” around these issues is misleading since:

  • Vulnerability, trauma and economic insecurity drive marginalized people into the sex trade and make it nearly impossible for them to exit  (the “choice” between selling sex and destitution is hardly empowering).
  • The sex trade effectively exploits mutiple, intersecting social inequalities (of sex, race, age, class, etc.) and normalises the sexual entitlement of men with relative social and economic power. Within the sex trade, cash becomes a form of coercion as it replaces free and meaningful consent. 

Universities have a responsibility to ensure that under equality law, they work to combat disadvantage, discrimination and harassment of women and other minority groups. This involves ensuring that any “support” or “advice” they offer to those involved in the sex trade cannot be interpreted as sanctioning or endorsing what is more accurately understood as commercial sexual exploitation and a violation of human rights, as recognised under international law.

CEASE fundamentally opposes the approach taken by some Universities with regard to their “Sex Work Toolkits and Training”. The support offers an uncritical and misleading review of the sex trade. While students who are compelled to engage in prostitution should absolutely be supported and not be ostracised, this must come about through the support of staff who have been accurately and honestly trained about the reality of prostitution. It is a dereliction of duty for the Universities to do anything less.