In early December 2020, we heard about an upcoming event to launch the ‘University of Leicester Student Sex Worker Policy and Toolkit.’ The event was hosted jointly by the university and Culture Shift, a tech company that sells to universities what it describes as a “real-time reporting platform to identify and prevent harassment and bullying.”
The Eventbrite page claimed that the policy and toolkit “showcase how these sensitive issues can be tackled with student wellbeing and inclusivity at the heart of policy and practice development” and how it is “being used as best practice and innovative change.”
Some of us went along to find out more – we’ll tell you a bit about the event later, but first a summary of the policy and the toolkits themselves – there are in fact two toolkits – one for staff and one for students.
The Student Sex Work Policy
The policy starts by explaining its purpose, which includes ensuring “that any students who are sex workers are positively supported, with their personal wellbeing and safety being considered as a priority” and contributing “to maintaining the University community’s health, safety and wellbeing.”
These are laudable aims that few would argue with. Whether the policy and toolkits are fit for achieving these aims is questionable at best.
The policy states that it has been “informed by the relevant legislative framework, policing guidance, research and established best practice,” but doesn’t explain that the policing guidance is itself sexist and biased and that there is more than one way of viewing the sex industry – meaning that what is considered “best practice” is not settled – and is very much under debate. You would not know this from reading the policy.
We absolutely agree that students who are involved in the sex industry should be treated with compassion and without judgement and that they should have their privacy respected. Nor should they be expelled from courses or harassed or targeted with violence. However, not judging the person does not necessarily mean accepting everything they do uncritically.
Many students arrive at university at the age of 18 – barely legal in sex industry parlance. For many, it’s the first time they’ve been away from home and family – although not everyone is lucky enough to have a safe home and supportive family. Some students will have been in the ‘care’ of the state and/or have no parents or relatives looking out for them, and some will be from overseas and alone in a foreign country.
All young people today have grown up in a culture that not only is infused with pornography and the sexual objectification of women and girls, but that also glamorizes and sanitises prostitution. We know that sexual violence is at epidemic levels in schools, colleges and universities, and few, if any, girls and young women have escaped being sexually harassed or worse. The connection between men’s porn and prostitution use and a propensity for sexual violence is well documented.
This reality grooms girls to accept a life of sexual objectification and to focus on pleasing men while subsuming their own needs. It grooms boys to be sexual predators and to view pornography and prostitution as harmless fun and even their ‘right’. In other words, more than perhaps at any other time in history, the culture we now live in is grooming girls to be fodder for the sex industry and boys to be punters and even pimps.
Nowhere does the policy mention any of this. While the policy mentions the university’s duty of care, it fails to explore what that actually means beyond not disclosing a student’s involvement in prostitution without permission and supporting students “through a non-judgemental approach.” Given the scale, reach and impact of the reality, this is at best tame, and more likely a dereliction of duty.
The policy rationalizes the main harms of the sex trade as “stigma” and suggests that getting rid of this will bring those harms to an end. This is a fallacy.
Prostitution is not the commodification of a woman’s labour as in other forms of work, but of her body and her most intimate self. This reduces her status to that of an object that can be bought and sold – and that people have impunity to treat with violence and disrespect. This is the root of the stigma associated with prostitution: it is intrinsic to its very nature. It is therefore not possible to eradicate the stigma without eradicating prostitution itself.
While the policy does not explicitly promote prostitution as a reasonable response to students’ economic hardship, that is the implicit message – along with the suggestion that prostitution-buying is an ethically neutral activity.
In fact, all of the evidence points the other way. A meta study conducted by UCL found that violence is a prominent feature of prostitution, regardless of the setting; a single year of engagement in prostitution is likely to have the same negative impact on mental health as an entire life of negative experiences prior to involvement in it; and social exclusion is the leading cause of entrance into prostitution and is often deepened as a result of engaging in it.
Enabling the entry of young women into the sex trade and young men as prostitution users cannot be viewed as “best practice” and is not ethically neutral.
As Alice Glass, who herself became involved in prostitution as a student put it:
“Having to manifest sexual activity due to desperation is not consent. Utilising a poor woman for intimate gratification – with the sole knowledge that you are only being engaged with because she needs the money – is not a neutral, amoral act. Recognising that any state or community cannot wholly function on purported amorality or false notions of neutrality, is not stuffiness or frigidity. And neither is believing that women are not for sale.”
The Student Sex Work Toolkit (for staff)
The staff toolkit aims to outline the picture of student sex work in the UK, the legal context, how to offer students “appropriate support,” and to list university, local, and national support services.
The toolkit puts the risks involved in prostitution down to “having to work alone or lie about their activities.” This makes invisible the violence that is inherent to prostitution and who actually inflicts it – almost invariably male punters and pimps.
There is no mention of the fact that it’s illegal in England and Wales to buy sex from someone who’s been coerced. This begs the question of whether the University of Leicester even consider such behaviour wrong – because if not, surely, they would feel a responsibility to make this clear to students, particularly male ones? How then can they honestly claim to be informed by the legislative framework?
The section on supporting students states that all members of the university “are expected to behave with respect and courtesy at all times, and operate with a non-judgemental and supportive attitude.” On the surface this sounds reasonable, but what does that mean in practice when students disclose dangerous, dubious or even criminal behaviour? Must staff, for fear of sounding judgemental, show uncritical support for anything and everything a student does? Would it not be more appropriate to draw a distinction between the person and their behaviour?
Nordic Model Now! is clear that we do not believe that women involved in prostitution should be judged or penalised. However, that does not require whole hearted support for the system of prostitution, nor condoning young women’s entry into it.
The toolkit contains a long list of Dos and Don’ts. The Dos exhort staff to ensure that the “student is safe within their work.” How exactly this is to be done is unclear, given that the data shows that prostitution is the most dangerous occupation of all.
On the Don’t list is the exhortation to not “listen to or perpetuate myths regarding sex work but rather gain reliable factual information.” But how are you to do this when, as we have shown, the toolkit itself is riddled with misleading and missing information?
The list of external services is limited to those that support the full decriminalisation of the sex trade (including pimps and brothel keepers) and excludes the services that provide robust support to help women exit prostitution and that have a clear stance against full decriminalisation.
The Sex Work Toolkit for Students
The student version of the toolkit was the most disturbing of all.
It starts with four quotes from “student sex workers” – including:
“One of my lecturers saw me in a strip club where I was working and said he wouldn’t tell anyone if I gave him a blowjob, so I did it, but he kept asking.”
Once again there is no clear acknowledgement of any problems intrinsic to the prostitution system itself and such problems as are acknowledged are mostly put down to other people’s attitudes (‘stigma’). The sexual politics of the prostitution system and the hypocrisy of men’s entitlement (as epitomised by this quote) are studiously ignored.
So much for academia being a seat of independent thinking and learning.
The section outlining UK law over-emphasises the illegality of women “working together.” Even more disturbing is the “Global legality of sex work” section. This lists the four main legal models – criminalisation, partial criminalisation (aka the Nordic Model), legalisation and decriminalisation.
It says the Nordic Model “may sound appealing, but it undermines the safety of sex workers and exposes them to violence.” We do not believe there is any robust evidence for this claim.
The toolkit says full decriminalisation “is advocated for by all sex-worker led groups globally.” This is a lie. #Itedinhora in Sweden, Network Ella in Germany, Wahine Toa Rising in New Zealand, and Kwanele in South Africa, are just a few of the groups led by women who have lived experience of prostitution who campaign tirelessly against full decriminalisation and for the Nordic Model approach. They don’t call themselves sex workers, because doing so implies that prostitution is innocuous and wholesome, that it is work like any other type of work, when nothing could be further from the truth.
There is a large section providing advice on safety that proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that prostitution is not a job like any other. The advice is chilling and is predicated on every single prostitution encounter being fraught with danger.
In what other job must you “never wear anything around your neck” – not because of a dress code but because your ‘customer’ might use it to strangle you?
While we desperately want women to be safe and informed about how to reduce risks, we do not believe that prostitution can ever be made safe enough that a modern democratic society should condone people having to resort to it – especially as it has no purpose other than feeding men’s entitlement and vanity and ultimately brutalizing us all.
While the “safety” advice does perhaps serve as a cautionary tale to students considering taking up a role in the sex trade, surely it would be better if universities instead invested in helping students to manage their money, to budget effectively, and to increase their income in ways that do not involve such terrible risks?
Does their duty of care not require them to help students critique the pornified culture in which we are all steeped and to help them develop ways of deconstructing its myths and resisting its allure?
The launch event
Note: You don’t have to take our word for this report of the event – because we have prepared a rough transcript of it.
Gemma McCall, the CEO of Culture Shift started the launch with a scarcely disguised sales pitch for the Culture Shift ‘Report & Support’ product, waxing lyrical about how it can allow leaders “to activate positive change in their institutions to maintain the culture they want.”
If only a technological product really could change the culture, end sexism and racism, and bring rape, sexual harassment, and discrimination to a stop. If only!
Her smugness set the tone for the event, much of which was self-congratulatory and involved university staff emitting a turgid word soup about their arcane systems and procedures.
Throughout there was the unexamined claim that the policy and toolkit would ensure that student sex workers are safe, supported and protected. But quite how this would come about was never explicitly stated.
The most interesting and compelling speaker was Jessica Hyer, who described herself as a former sex worker. She founded an organisation that supports “student sex workers and anyone who identifies with the sex work community.”
When she was in prostitution herself, she knew she needed help to exit for the sake of her mental health but failed to find the support she needed. But this appears not to have made her consider the possibility that any woman’s involvement in the sex trade risks damaging her mental health and that therefore the focus should be on working to end the system of prostitution and providing women with alternatives and genuine routes out – rather than helping to maintain them in it.
Faye McCarthy, an “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion officer,” talked about the university’s “unacceptable behaviour” policy and definitions. There was no mention of whether they consider buying sex to be unacceptable and, if not, how it fits into their exhortation to treat everyone with respect and courtesy.
Professor Teela Sanders made it clear that she’s aware of the violence and potential for exploitation that’s prevalent in prostitution – but suggested it would be safe if only people engaged with it correctly.
In spite of this, Harriet Smailes, a “Wellbeing Case Manager,” insisted that “sex work is work” and no one should judge or question that.
She went on to say, “I think we need to question who we are as an institution to determine what’s right and what’s wrong for that student to engage in – if we know that they are empowered in that decision making and they are informed in that choice.”
But how are students to make an informed choice when they need money and they live in a pornified culture that normalises and glamorises prostitution and their elders in the university appear to see nothing wrong with this?
Professor Chris Wilkins, the Head of the School of Education, said that when he was first approached about the project, he felt really uncomfortable but then realised it was an opportunity to “challenge his thinking.”
He showed us the professional standards that student teachers are required to demonstrate in order to practice. These revolve around upholding public trust with an emphasis on safeguarding and not exploiting pupils’ vulnerability. He questioned what this had to do with “student sex work” and concluded that the two things had nothing to do with each other. He insisted there was no connection.
But is that really true? The event was promoting a view of prostitution as normal work, as perhaps a bit risky but with risks that can easily be mitigated, and the main problem being other people’s attitudes towards it. The unstated corollary to this is that buying sex, frequenting brothels and strip clubs, are unproblematic leisure activities, not much different from going to the pub or the gym.
Are these really the attitudes that we want teachers to take into schools? How is a teacher who spends his evenings in a brothel or lap dancing club going to react to boys pinging girls’ bra straps or filming up their skirts? How can we expect him to deal appropriately with such behaviour when he himself considers paying to view and use women sexually is ethically sound?
The really terrifying thing was that Professor Wilkins advocated pushing the policy and toolkit out to all the professions, including social work, nursing, healthcare, medicine, and law. Even worse, Professor Sanders said that they had secured ESRC funding for an 18-month outreach project pushing this approach to other higher education and student welfare organisations.
We support the stated aim of the policy of ensuring that students who are involved in the sex industry are provided with support and that their safety and personal wellbeing, and that of the university community, are considered a priority. However, we believe that the policy and toolkits are unlikely to achieve this aim and risk exacerbating existing structural and intersectional inequalities and causing untold harm to the most disadvantaged students.
There is a brief statement at the end of the policy that it has been subject to “equality analysis.” No detail of what form this took is provided. We have therefore submitted a freedom of information (FOI) request for more information.
Universities are required to implement the public sector equality duty (PSED), which includes looking at the impact of all their policies on specific groups, including girls and young women, people of colour, and LGBT and disabled people. The PSED also requires working to eliminate unlawful harassment, to advance equality of opportunity, and to foster good relations between the various groups, including between women and men.
There is a considerable body of evidence showing that involvement in prostitution tends to entrench women’s disadvantages and that when prostitution is normalised and legitimised, it leads to an increase in demand from men, which in turn leads to an increase in men’s harassment of women and girls in public spaces and in male violence against women and girls generally.
In the light of this, it is hard to see how the policy and toolkits could ever be compatible with the PSED.
It is distasteful to see comfortable salaried professors and university staff effectively promoting involvement in the sex industry as a solution to student poverty.
Article 6 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against women (CEDAW) implicitly positions prostitution as a form of violence against women and requires ratifying states to explicitly prohibit any third-party profiting from the prostitution of women.
It is of very serious concern that by condoning the system of prostitution and third-party profiteering from women’s prostitution and being the beneficiaries of any money students raise, the University of Leicester and the staff involved in this project would appear to be in breach not only of the PSED but also of this obligation.
The University of Leicester is currently ranked 38 on at least one UK university league table and as such it has considerable clout. Perhaps this influenced the ESRC’s decision to fund an 18-month project of rolling this approach out to other higher education institutions. Perhaps they assumed that as such a respected institution, they could trust the university’s judgement on this. If so, this is a terrible mistake.
We call on the University of Leicester to urgently recall the policy and toolkits, to stop their rollout to other institutions and to undertake a complete rethink centring women’s human right to dignity and equality and a life free from degradation and exploitation.
Sign our petition
We have launched a petition calling on the university to revoke the policy and toolkits and to return to the drawing board, this time centring women’s human right to not be prostituted, dehumanised and objectified, and the sex industry’s role in the promotion of dehumanising, objectifying, and sexist practices and behaviour. It also calls on the ESRC to withdraw funding from the project to roll the policy and toolkits out to other higher-education institutions throughout the UK.
Nordic Model Now! is working on ways to push back on this development. We invite anyone who wants to be part of the project to contact us.