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

This week, a so-called “Sex Work Toolkit” put together by the University of Leicester 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”. 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 in their guidance document.

In a section entitled “What is Sex Work?”, the University 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 University 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 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 document asks 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.

CEASE fundamentally opposes the approach taken by the University of Leicester with regard to their “Sex Work Toolkit”. It 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 University of Leicester to do anything less.