Does the Leicester student ‘sex work’ toolkit comply with equality legislation?

We recently wrote of our concerns about the University of Leicester’s student ‘sex work’ policy and toolkits (‘the toolkit’). We submitted a freedom of information (FOI) request asking what steps the university had taken when developing it to comply with the public sector equality duty (PSED). We have now received a response, which we discuss below.

We fully support the stated aim of the toolkit to ensure 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 toolkit is unlikely to achieve this aim and that, by normalising prostitution, it risks exacerbating existing structural and intersectional inequalities and causing untold harm to the most disadvantaged students.

In this article, we provide a brief introduction to the PSED and then set out our seven FOI request questions, along with the university’s responses and our comments on those responses.

What is the PSED and why is it relevant?

Introduced in the Equality Act 2010, the PSED requires public bodies to consider the equality impact of all their policies.

The Equality Act 2010 defines nine protected characteristics that it is unlawful to discriminate against. These are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, and pregnancy and maternity.

Of particular relevance to prostitution is the protected characteristic of sex – which protects against discrimination on the grounds of being female or male. However, some of the other protected characteristics are also relevant because young people, disabled people, LGBT people, and people from minority ethnic groups are also disproportionately vulnerable to being drawn into the sex industry.

The Government Equalities Office (GEO) Quick Start Guide summarises the key features of the PSED like this:

“The PSED requires public bodies to have due regard to the need to:

Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct prohibited by the Act;

Advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and people who do not share it; and

Foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and people who do not share it.

Having due regard means consciously thinking about the three aims of the Equality Duty as part of the process of decision-making. This means that consideration of equality issues must influence the decisions reached by public bodies…”

Later, the guide says:

“The weight given to the Equality Duty, compared to the other factors, will depend on how much that function affects discrimination, equality of opportunity and good relations and the extent of any disadvantage that needs to be addressed.”

Prostitution is highly gendered – the vast majority of those prostituted are female and almost all of the buyers (punters) are male. There is an abundance of evidence about the harms of prostitution to the women and girls caught up in it and to relations between the sexes and wider society.

Prostitution is recognised by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as a form of violence against women and girls, reflecting international law.

The 1949 UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others states that prostitution is incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and that it endangers the welfare of the individual, the family and the community. While the UK has not ratified this convention, it was adopted by the United Nations, which gives it considerable weight in international law.

Article 6 of CEDAW built on this and places an obligation on ratifying states to combat and suppress “all forms of traffic in women and the exploitation of the prostitution of others”. In other words, the UK as a ratifying state has a binding legal obligation to combat all forms of third-party profiteering from women’s prostitution. This implicitly frames prostitution as a form of gender-based violence.

Article 9 of the Palermo Trafficking Protocol places a binding obligation on ratifying states to take measures to “alleviate the factors that make persons, especially women and children, vulnerable to trafficking” and to “discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking”. As prostitution and sex trafficking cannot be separated, in practice this means that the UK has a binding legal obligation to take measures both to address the poverty and inequality that lead to women and girls being drawn into prostitution and to discourage men’s demand for prostitution.

All of this indicates that prostitution is of particular relevance to sex discrimination, equality of opportunity, and relations between the sexes, and so public bodies must give considerable weight to the PSED when developing any prostitution-related policy. It’s not enough to only consider the impact on the group that the policy directly targets – which in the case of the toolkit is students who are already engaged in prostitution. It is also necessary to consider the impact on the wider community.

The FOI questions and the university’s responses

In this section, we reproduce the questions we asked in our FOI request in bold. Each question is followed by the university’s response to that question (in italics), and our comments on that response.

Question 1. What steps were taken to ensure the policy and toolkits comply with the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) specified in the Equality Act 2010, and that they do not disadvantage any group based on their protected characteristics, particularly women (protected characteristic = sex) and other disadvantaged groups, including disabled people, people of colour and LGBT people?

Response: The Policy and Toolkits focus on ensuring that student sex workers receive appropriate support from the University. As such, full consideration was given to the inclusivity of the policy and toolkit to ensure that they do not disadvantage, either directly or indirectly, any protected group in accessing support.

Our comment: Clearly the university took a very narrow view of the potential impact of the toolkit and considered only the impact on those who are already involved in the sex industry and their need for support.

They did not consider that the toolkit might have a wider impact and might, for example, lead to vulnerable female students interpreting it as the university sanctioning involvement in the sex industry as a positive way of solving financial hardship. This could lead to young women entering the sex industry who might otherwise not have done so.

This is particularly worrying in the current pornified culture where prostitution is normalised and trivialised in mainstream culture and the sexual abuse of girls is rampant – possibly close to universal. This misleads girls and young women about the true nature of prostitution and grooms them to accept sexual objectification and prioritising men’s needs above their own. It is widely documented that previous experience of sexual abuse is a risk factor for entry into prostitution.

There is considerable evidence to show that prostitution is dangerous to the women involved and tends to entrench the disadvantages they already suffer from. Even webcamming and similar non-contact forms of prostitution come with significant risks for women. So, an unintended consequence of the toolkit could be an increase in the number of young women entering the sex industry and being harmed and further disadvantaged by it.

Minority ethnic students, and disabled and LGBT students are disproportionately likely to be vulnerable and hard up, and are therefore also disproportionately likely to be drawn into the sex industry and directly disadvantaged in this way.

If such negative consequences had been considered, the university could have taken ameliorating action – for example, by explaining the dangers of prostitution and how it can damage physical and mental health, and potentially lead to students falling behind with – or even abandoning – their studies. There could have been an explicit statement that the university therefore seeks to discourage students from going down this path.

We have heard from numerous women who have survived prostitution that no-one warned them of the dangers and how the normalisation of the sex industry aided their entry into it. For example, Sandra Norak, who survived Germany’s legal prostitution system said:

“The German legislation helps push young women into prostitution, because by saying prostitution is a normal job, all the harm and violence becomes invisible.

When you say, ‘It’s just a job, there’s no problem,’ young people are not warned, and this obviously helps the traffickers.

If you were told, ‘This is a very dangerous business, there are a lot of violations of human rights, assaults on human dignity, there are close ties with organized crime,’ you’d be much more careful.”

The toolkit could have included a discussion about how the sex industry might seem like easy money, but that it comes at a very high price, and of the relative advantages of lower paid work that does not require the use of the most intimate parts of one’s body and psyche and how this might work out better in the long term.

The toolkit could have included resources and suggestions to help students find alternative ways of generating income. And it could have ensured that the list of services for individuals involved in prostitution included those that specialise in helping women to exit prostitution.

However, the university did none of these things.

Question 2. What steps were taken to assess the impact of the policy and toolkits on the duty under the PSED to eliminate discrimination and harassment of individuals on the basis of their sex, including the need to eliminate the widespread harassment of women and girls by men on the streets, in the university, in workplaces, public places and online?

Response: As above, given that the focus of the Policy and Toolkits is support, they are concerned to ensure that there is no discrimination or harassment in the delivery of support and that all students have equal access to support.

Our comment: Again, it appears that the university did not think beyond the impact of delivering support to those already involved in the sex industry to consider the potential wider impact and possible unintended consequences of presenting the sex industry in a neutral way.

For example, it appears they did not consider the likelihood that male students and staff would interpret the toolkit as the university sanctioning the buying of sex and so would lead to men starting or increasing their sex buying activity.

While it is often argued that prostitution is just a service, much like being a waitress or care worker, there are in fact fundamental differences between prostitution and any other form of work.

Unlike other forms of work, in prostitution the punter’s money entitles him: to use her body, including her vagina, rectum, mouth and breasts, for his personal and sexual gratification; to the pretence that she is enjoying it and/or acting out his fantasy, regardless what she is actually feeling; to insult her – for example, to call her ‘bitch’ or ‘whore’; and for the exchange to take place outside all the conventions that govern normal social interactions.

This is why many people argue that prostitution has more in common with slavery than normal work. But regardless where you stand on that debate, it is unarguable that the position of the punter and the prostituted person are not equivalent. The punter’s money gives him the power to treat her more like an object or a thing than as a human being equally worthy of dignity and respect. This is borne out by what men say on the many internet sites where they leave reviews of prostituted women.

Sex buying can therefore be seen to constitute male harassment and abuse of the women involved in prostitution. For the university to condone this, as we believe the toolkit implicitly does, could be interpreted as condoning men’s harassment and abuse of female students and discrimination against them.

But the impact does not stop there, because men’s sex buying behaviour inevitably affects how they treat all women and girls.

Gemma Aitchison explained at a recent webinar that reducing human beings to objects or “the other” is well documented to be the first step in committing violence against them. This has been seen throughout history. It’s an integral part of racism, of antisemitism, and of the current epidemic of male violence against women and girls.

The modern sex industry has industrialised the objectification and dehumanisation of women and girls. It is no accident therefore that we are currently witnessing an epidemic of male harassment and sexual violence towards girls and young women, including in schools and universities. This is discrimination against girls and women.

Universities have a grave responsibility to ensure that they do not take any action that would make this situation worse and have an obligation under the PSED to work towards improving it. It is hard to see how the toolkit is compatible with this obligation.

There are many things that the university could have done to ameliorate wider negative consequences of the policy and toolkits on discrimination and harassment of women.

For example, the university could have included information for male students and staff about the harms of prostitution-buying, and of the laws against kerb crawling and buying sex from someone who is underage or has been coerced – and that buying sex is a crime per se in Northern Ireland. It could also have considered updating its unacceptable behaviour definitions to include the buying of sex.

The student version of the toolkit includes a statement from a student whose lecturer saw her working in a strip club and subsequently harassed her for blowjobs. However, there is no serious discussion of such scenarios in the toolkit, nor in the unacceptable behaviour policy. A statement that taking sexual or other advantage of a student’s involvement in the sex industry would be considered gross misconduct would have helped to clarify the situation.

Unfortunately, the University of Leicester failed to take any such mitigating action.

Question 3. What steps were taken to assess the impact of the policy and the toolkits on the duty under the PSED to foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it – and particularly between men and women in the university and the wider community?

Response: As above, given the focus of the Policy and Toolkits to support student sex workers, they increase understanding and awareness of sex work and the support available across all protected groups, included between men and women.

Our comment: Perhaps at no other time in recent history have relations between young men and women been in a worse state than they are now. The recent Ofsted survey of sexual abuse in schools and colleges found that boys are sexually harassing and abusing girls on a massive scale. The behaviour is now so normalised that girls feel that there is no point in reporting incidents, and the situation is essentially the same in all schools and colleges, not just a few failing ones.

This is not a new phenomenon. UK Feminista and the National Education Union found a similar situation four years ago and the Women and Equalities Committee did a year before that. What is new is that the problem has got so bad that even the government has been forced to recognise it.

There is a considerable body of research that indicates that this situation is directly connected to the unprecedented availability of online porn and its increasing violence and misogyny, its seepage into mainstream culture, and that children are accessing it at ever younger ages.

This situation is discrimination against girls and young women on an extraordinary scale and it is beholden on universities to make concerted efforts to address it and at the very minimum to ensure that their policies do not inadvertently make the situation worse.

It is clear from the University of Leicester’s response to this question that they have failed pitifully to consider that a policy that presents the sex industry as a neutral and unproblematic institution could contribute to the culture that has led to this human rights catastrophe and could even exacerbate it.

There is no mention of the importance of reinforcing the message that sex is as an act of mutual intimacy that requires free and enthusiastic consent. Nor is there a discussion about how this can be reconciled with the system of prostitution that is predicated on what is essentially the purchase of sexual consent – or to put it another way, the payment is to obviate the need for normal consent.

How do we know that consent is fundamental to what is being purchased in prostitution? Because if he were to use her in that way without payment, it would be considered rape. She consents to the money and acquiesces to the sexual activity. That she is obliged to feign enthusiasm or at the very least to hide her aversion does not change this dynamic.

Describing “sex work” as “consensual sex” therefore risks undermining consent education and young men’s understanding of free and enthusiastic consent and healthy sexual behaviour. The toolkit does not consider these contradictions and instead presents prostitution and the sex industry as unproblematic.

This is likely to lead to an increase in sexual violence and a worsening of the relations between men and women. This at a time of unprecedented sexual violence by males against females is unforgiveable.

Question 4. Please provide full records, including any impact assessments, of all steps taken.

Response: The approach taken to our PSED duty to conduct equality analysis was to embed this analysis in the process from design to development and so this was not conducted as a separate equality impact assessment.

Our comment: Conducting formal impact assessments is not a legal requirement of the PSED and embedding the analysis in the development process is generally good practice. However, it is telling that the university hasn’t released any notes or written records of the steps they took. This suggests that they did not formally and fully consider their responsibilities under the PSED.

Page 5 of the policy claims that it was “subject to equality analysis”. However, it fails to provide any information about what form it took and surprisingly the university did not include a copy of it in its response. We have therefore submitted another FOI request for information about the equality analysis.

9 July 2021: We have now received a response to this second FOI request. In response to our request for full details and notes about the equality analysis that was carried out, the university responded:

“We embedded equality analysis by consideration of potential impact on equality groups throughout the development of the Policy. As such, the embedded nature of the analysis means it is not possible to extract this from the process.”

In response to our request for information about how the policy will be monitored and reviewed, they said that it will be reviewed for the first time in January 2022 and then annually every three years.

Question 5. What was the basis for the decision to include no guidance in the policy or toolkits to men about the ethics of buying sexual access to women and girls?

Response: As above, the Policy and Toolkit focus on ensuring that student sex workers receive appropriate support from the University. This is not for general public consumption or for anyone to do with the demand side of sexual consumption. This toolkit is for adults aged 18 and over by way as a guide for working safely, seeking support and addressing unfair treatment in an education setting they may experience.

Our comment: Again, this shows that the university took a very narrow view of the impact of the toolkit.

Given that the toolkit was launched with some razmataz at a public event and is publicly available on the internet, it is bizarre to suggest that it is not for “general public consumption or for anyone to do with the demand side of sexual consumption”.

Research from 2018 estimated that one in eight men in the UK buys sex and middle-income men are more likely to do so than low and high earners. It is reasonable therefore to expect that a significant number of male university staff and students are current or potential sex buyers. The researchers also found that men are less likely to use prostitutes if they had an extensive sex education.

It is generally accepted that very few people start smoking after the age of 25 and therefore efforts to prevent smoking should focus on the young. While sex buying is obviously not the same as smoking, it is also a destructive behaviour and it is reasonable to suppose that if men don’t start buying sex in their early 20s, they are less likely to start later.

This suggests that it would be irresponsible for universities to do anything that might be construed as condoning prostitution – because this is likely to lead to some male students beginning a lifetime of sex buying – with all of the negative consequences that brings, not only for themselves, but for women and girls and society as a whole.

Question 6. What was the basis for the decision to include no mention in the policy or toolkits that buying sex from someone who’s been forced, coerced, or deceived is a criminal offence under Section 53A of the Sexual Offences Act 2003?

Response: As above. Also, the Policy and Toolkits summarise the legal context in England, Scotland and NI – this is from the perspective of those who are engaged in selling sexual services not buying.

Our comment: It is extraordinary that the toolkit should claim to provide information about the legalities of “sex work” in the UK, without explaining that it is a one-sided picture and only looks at it from the point of view of the “sex worker.”

By not considering the legal implications of buying sex, the toolkit frames prostitution-buying as legally neutral. This implicitly normalises prostitution and risks encouraging entry into the sex industry and young men starting to buy sex – with all of the negative ramifications for the individuals and the community.

Given that many men pimp their partners and girlfriends, it is also disturbing that the toolkit maintained almost total silence on the ethics and legality of this practice.

Question 7. 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 girls and requires ratifying states to explicitly prohibit any third-party profiting from the prostitution of women and girls. How does the University of Leicester square this with the view that the policy and toolkits implicitly condone the system of prostitution and third-party profiteering from women’s prostitution, and therefore the University of Leicester could themselves be viewed as a third-party profiteer of students’ prostitution?

Response: The Policy and Toolkits do not condone, suggest, incite or promote selling sex but, rather, are focussed on assisting students to keep safe and supported if they chose to do sex work.

Very clear messages are coming from the EU regarding the inclusion of sex workers in the European Parliament resolution of 21 January 2021 on the EU Strategy for Gender Equality.

In particular, there is recognition by the European Parliament of the impact of COVID-19 on sex workers and their heightened risk of poverty and human rights violations in this crisis. This recent acknowledgement of rights for sex workers has a background of extensive support from global organisations such as WHO, Amnesty International and UNAIDS to support sex worker rights and decriminalisation.

Our comment: While the toolkit does not explicitly condone, suggest, incite or promote selling sex, we believe that it does so implicitly through its inappropriately neutral stance.

The university’s response to this question is puzzling. They quote an EU resolution from January 2021 but provide a link to the EU Strategy for equality between women and men from 2015. This refers to the 1949 UN Convention we mentioned earlier that positions prostitution as a violation of human rights, does not use the “sex work” terminology, and includes a recommendation to discourage men’s demand for prostitution and emphasises the need to provide services to help women exit prostitution:

“19. Notes that the feminisation of poverty might lead to an increase in female trafficking, sexual exploitation and forced prostitution, reducing women to greater financial dependence; calls on the Commission and the Member States to explore the reasons why women resort to prostitution and ways to discourage demand; underlines the importance of programmes for exiting from prostitution;”

This is curious because the toolkit clearly does not implement this recommendation. We believe the university meant to provide a link to the January 2021 resolution – which includes the following:

“117. Urges the Commission to establish a concrete framework for the rights and protection of sex workers during and after a crisis; further insists on the importance of including measures and strategies that tackle the discrimination faced by sex workers in access to funding, housing, healthcare, education and other services;”

Ignoring the fact that the UK is no longer a member of the EU, we do not see that this changes the fact that it would appear that the university failed to consider the wider equality implications of the toolkit.

It also reveals the worrying and increasing dominance in international institutions of the “sex work is work” position along with support for the full decriminalisation of the sex trade, including of pimps, punters, and brothel entrepreneurs. There is much evidence that this is a misguided position that was introduced by promoters of the sex industry as a means of sanitising and normalising it. The policies of Amnesty and UNAIDS/WHO are inseparable from this movement and relied on poor-quality research and initiatives and advice from known pimps and should therefore be treated with extreme caution.

There is strong national and international opposition to this position and it is notable that both the EU Parliament and the Council of Europe recommend a Nordic Model approach rather than full decriminalisation as the best way of addressing prostitution.


It is clear from the university’s responses that it did not consider the wider equality implications of the toolkit and the impact on the whole student body and the wider community. They have neglected their legal responsibilities to work to eliminate the disadvantage and discrimination and harassment of women and other protected groups and to work to improve relations between men and women generally. They failed to ask the questions necessary to fulfil their responsibilities as an educational institution or to consult with an appropriate range of different representatives, leading to a narrow and unrepresentative perspective on the sex trade and its implications for students.

This would appear to be a failure of the university’s duty to comply with the PSED and suggests that the toolkit does not comply with UK equality law. It certainly should not be considered best practice.


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.


The Nordic Model Now! Handbook for Universities

18 November 2021: We are thrilled to announce that the Nordic Model Now! Handbook for Universities has now been published. It sets out a holistic and comprehensive approach to university policy around the sex industry and how best to support students who have been impacted by it.

The handbook is available as a free download and printed copies are available to buy from the website shop, with a discount code for students. We encourage concerned students, parents and university staff to alert their universities to the handbook and ask that they use it when developing policies and programmes around the sex industry.


Further reading

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