As student sex workers we know all too well the gap between what we are expected to live on and the actual cost of living. For many of us trying to navigate student life, sex work becomes the best and often only option for us to fund our time at university. This is due to a variety of issues such as disability, mental health, or being a single parent without time to work, study and raise a child. For many, taxing course requirements simply don’t leave enough time to commit to employment at a traditional workplace, particularly if we’re stuck in the weekly uncertainty of a zero hour contract. International students are also limited to working 10 or 20 hours a week, meaning they face even greater pressure around finances.
We were disgusted and disappointed to see that yesterday The Sunday Times ran a piece titled “How to be a sex worker — advice for freshers”, slamming the University of Brighton Student Union for inviting a sex worker outreach project in to the student fresher fair. The piece, written by Andrew Gilligan, brands Brighton University as “encouraging its students into prostitution” for allowing a stall which provides information on safety services, sexual health screening, clean needles, safer sex work advice, support for reporting incidents. It should not be necessary to argue in favour of basic healthcare information and harm reduction strategies, recognition of their value and importance should be commonplace.
We fully support the actions of SWOP Sussex in their efforts to share knowledge around keeping safe in sex work. We do not believe that trying to stop students doing sex work by not talking about it is a suitable approach to the topic, just as we think abstinence based sex education is useless. We wish to highlight that it is only the full decriminalisation of sex work which approaches the issue from a view of harm reduction. No methods of criminalisation of our work, including sex buyer laws, approach this issue from this same harm reduction approach, forcing sex workers to fend for themselves without access to the information required to keep us safe. The literature framed as encouraging students in to sex work is in fact information on how to reduce risk when selling sex, and what to do in the event of an emergency. To see supposed feminists rallying against this information and branding it as “pitching prostitution as a manageable and desirable lifestyle” is very disheartening, since this information can and does literally save lives.
The majority of student sex workers entering higher education are already sex workers, and the suggestion that a stall at a freshers fair is going to be a greater encouragement to enter into sex work than the significant pressures of austerity, rising tuition fees and the astronomical cost of renting, is absurd. That MPs like Sarah Champion are more vocally disgusted about a stall at a freshers fair than they are about cuts to education and the fact that students are simply not given enough money to live, is a revealing example of moralistic policy over practical safety measures. Once again we see our elected representatives attempting to conceal the sex industry from view to avoid taking responsibility for the systemic problems that have created it.
Other stalls at the same freshers fair included information on the LGBT student society, domestic violence, living with HIV, sexual health services, and drug use. Like SWOP, all of these stalls provide information and support on issues that impact students. As with any of these services, it’s important all students know they exist if and when they need them. If a student has a friend who is working in the sex industry and they’re worried about them, they can direct them to that support. Also present were social clubs stalls - rowing, polo, and free pizza. The suggestion that the SWOP stall presenting legal information on sex work is comparable to a social club signing up members shows just how far from the realities of poverty within student populations these commentators are.
One student sex worker in our network stated, “As a student from a low income background I get one of the highest amounts of maintenance loan available, and yet this amount still doesn’t even cover my rent. My disabilities make it hard enough for me to do my degree itself never mind balancing a job with long hours for little pay. Sex work felt like a way out of this, but when university staff found out I was met with threats of expulsion from my course and no offer of support. A fresher’s stall dedicated to supporting sex workers is a breath of fresh air that I wish I’d had in the early days of my undergraduate degree.”
Another student sex worker in our network who is doing a PHD at Sussex Uni said “as a student at Sussex uni and a sex worker, it’s essential that we are offered health and well-being services that deal with the specific issues we face. That’s what the SWOP stall was about, attempts to portray it as ‘career advice’ on getting into sex work are sensationalist misrepresentation.”