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Should universities be offering sex work advice to students?

As Durham University launches support sessions to help students involved in sex work, Olivia Petter examines the impact they could have

Sunday 14 November 2021 13:25
<p>Some universities have been attacked for ‘encouraging sex work’</p>

Some universities have been attacked for ‘encouraging sex work’

On Friday, Durham University sparked a backlash when it was revealed the establishment was offering training sessions to support students involved in sex work.

The one-hour sessions, organised by the Durham Students Union (DSU) and led by external trainers, comprise two levels and offer an understanding of the challenges and obstacles that student sex workers might struggle to overcome when wishing to seek support.

However, many people took issue with the concept, with Michelle Donelan, the minister for higher and further education, accusing the Russell Group university of “legitimising a dangerous industry” and “badly failing in their duty to protect” students.

Additionally, several students complained that the university was normalising sex work among students, with one person telling The Times: “It suggests that being an adult sex worker is another run-of-the-mill activity and is put down as an official DSU position.”

Now, Durham University has issued a statement defending the sessions, which were advertised in an email sent to staff and students last week by the DSU.

“As a responsible university, we strive to ensure that students who may be vulnerable or at risk are protected and have access to the support to which they are entitled,” it says.

“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.”

It adds that the session was developed by external trainers who are experts in delivering support to those engaged in sex work.

We are emphatically not seeking to encourage sex work, but we are seeking to provide support to our students

Durham University

“We are emphatically not seeking to encourage sex work, but we are seeking to provide support to our students,” it clarifies.

“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.

“It teaches them how those stigmas can be overcome to ensure that any affected student can receive appropriate support and feel comfortable in requesting it.

“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.”

It’s not the first time that a university has extended support to students involved in the sex industry.

Last month, Leicester University was criticised for its online “tool kit”, a landmark resource introduced to support student sex workers.

The kit offers advice and support on a range of issues, including help with how to distinguish between legal and illegal activities.

However, more than 10,000 people have signed a petition calling on the university to revoke the toolkit, arguing that it “reads more like a guide to getting into the sex trade”.

Several other universities, including Newcastle and Manchester, also offer support to student sex workers.

Having to sell sex to keep up with the rising cost of a university education can often be a lonely and isolating experience

Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement

The number of students turning to sex work doubled between 2017 and 2019, a survey found, with one in 25 students (4 per cent) admitting to trying adult work, which the survey classified as any job that involves nudity or erotica.

The survey, of more than 3,300 undergraduates, carried out by money advice website Save the Student, found that students are most likely to sell intimate photos or used underwear to get cash.

Advocacy groups have spoken out in support of Durham University’s sessions, highlighting the importance of protection for student sex workers and pointing out that many are driven to the industry as a means of funding their education.

In 2015, a survey by Swansea University found that 57 per cent of student sex workers entered into the industry to finance their studies.

“Having to sell sex to keep up with the rising cost of a university education can often be a lonely and isolating experience,” says a spokesperson for the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM).

“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.

“It is a gross contortion to claim that these seminars are part of a dark, shadowy effort to entice young people into prostitution themselves, instead of trying to keep the ones who already are safe and healthy.”

However, a spokesperson for Leceister University says the reason students may be entering sex work isn’t “exclusively” financial.

“We know that there are a number of reasons students may decide to undertake different types of sex work, and that these are not exclusively financial,” they explain.

“We recognise this is very much a reality at universities across the world. Our priority remains the care and wellbeing of all students, who have the right to be safe and free from harm whether they are studying or working.

“The resources for students focus on personal safety and freedom of choice, and Leicester-led training in this area has engaged close to 1,000 staff at more than 60 universities to date.”

Speaking to The Independent, Love Island star and former sex worker Megan Barton-Hanson agrees that Durham is setting a positive example to other universities.

“I personally think all students should be supported, it can be a really tricky time for so many. And why should sex workers be treated differently? They should still be able to have a safe space to go to,” the You Come First podcast host says.

“But some people disagree with sex work and this poses an added risk for sex workers. Because of this stigma, those in the sex industry feel they cannot be honest if they are in danger. They often feel ashamed and they needn’t be.”

Barton-Hanson says taking ownership of your body and sexuality can be “empowering”. She adds: “I think we can all agree that we would rather have women consenting to profiting off their bodies than the alternative. The alternative being, an industry built off of underage and non-consenting women.

“All students deserve support and universities have a responsibility to protect their students and keep them safe. This is a huge step in reducing stigma around sex work and that could, in turn, save lives.”

A spokesperson for Universities UK says: “Universities have a duty of care to students and the focus is always to keep students safe.

“Where a student needs support or to report something there are always open lines of communication and confidential support available through their university.”

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