This is the introduction to the Nordic Model Now! Handbook for Universities.
We have developed this handbook in partnership with women who have lived experience of the sex industry, professors, support workers, psychologists, healthcare professionals, lawyers, and social workers, with three key aims. Firstly, to help higher education professionals navigate the challenges raised by student financial hardship at a time of accelerating normalisation of the sex industry. Secondly, to help them develop the confidence to provide students who are involved in the sex industry with appropriate support without endorsing the industry itself. Thirdly, to help universities develop policies and educational programmes in this area.
The 2022 Student Money Survey found that approximately 3% of students are involved in the sex industry and 9% would consider it in an emergency. This means that in a university with 10,000 students, about 300 might be actively involved in the sex industry, and two or three times that number might consider it a fallback option. There is evidence that problematic pornography consumption rates are even higher, particularly among male students. A study published in early 2021 found the rate to be 17.2% among male medical students. All of these students deserve the highest quality of services and support.
The University of Leicester released a student ‘sex work’ policy and toolkit in December 2020 and sought to roll them out to other higher education institutions in the UK. Many people were worried that this approach could be interpreted as sanctioning or even promoting a deeply sexist and damaging industry and would lead to more vulnerable young people being drawn into the industry and harmed and disadvantaged by that experience. There was also concern about the impact of this approach on students’ understanding of consent and on the general relations between the sexes, at a time when girls and young women are subject to staggering levels of sexual harassment and sexual crime. The University of Leicester has now withdrawn the toolkit but the idea that ‘sex work’ is a normal job persists in universities around the UK.
This handbook presents a vision for an alternative approach. We provide a realistic understanding of the sex industry, the short- and long-term impact of involvement within it, and how best to support those who are caught up in it. We highlight the hypocrisy of a culture that habitually gives men a free pass for sexist behaviour while blaming the women and girls who are hurt by that behaviour, and we question whether framing ‘stigma’ as a major cause for many of the problems that women experience in the sex trade is an adequate explanation.
We look at the responsibilities universities have under the Equality Act 2010 and its Public Sector Equality Duty to work to prevent the discrimination and further disadvantaging of students who are young, female, LGBT+, disabled, Black, Asian, from minority ethnic groups, or alone in a foreign country, and to work towards improving the relationships of those from all the protected characteristics, including between women and men generally. We argue that any efforts to bring about positive change on university campuses in respect to sexist attitudes and behaviour are doomed to failure unless sex education programmes directly address the sex industry and porn consumption.
We hope that this handbook will spark a conversation and help universities consider their responsibilities critically and holistically. While the UK and national governments might tie universities’ hands in terms of fees and fiscal responsibility, that doesn’t obviate the necessity for universities to consider what more they could do to help financially disadvantaged students that doesn’t involve them selling access to themselves physically, sexually, mentally, and emotionally.
Universities must consider the implications of any overt or implicit sanctioning of the sex industry. Any money students earn within it is likely to go towards paying for university accommodation, food, and other necessities in university-owned or franchised facilities and stores – meaning that the proceeds will inevitably end up in university coffers. Is profiting from students’ involvement in the sex industry compatible with personal and institutional ethical values?
About the authors
This handbook has been written by the women of Nordic Model Now!, a secular feminist grassroots group that includes survivors of the sex trade and women who have many years’ experience of supporting people who are involved in the sex trade. We are all volunteers who fit this work around paid work and family and other commitments.
In addition, the handbook includes testimony (‘survivor voices’) from many other women and one man who have lived experience of the sex industry. Most of their names have been changed to protect identities. With thanks and gratitude to Abi, Alice, Andrea Heinz, Chrissy, Christina, Courtney, Dana, Debbie, Elle, Esther, Harriet, Jen, Laura, Megan, Ophelia, Peter, Rebecca, Sarah, and Tara.
Our thanks also to the many people who helped with expertise, ideas, support, reviewing chapters or the whole document, feedback, and suggestions.
This document avoids using the ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ terms because they are euphemisms that imply, against all the evidence, that prostitution and related practices (like webcamming and lap-dancing) are normal jobs. Instead, we talk about students who are ‘involved in the sex industry’ when we mean students who are engaged in prostitution, webcamming, lap-dancing, etc. We do not include within this term those who consume, organise, or profit from other people’s involvement in any aspect of the sex industry, such as clients (punters), pimps, brothel keepers, advertising platforms, and landlords.
This handbook contains material that, at times, is graphic and explicit in detail and language, and which may be triggering to some readers, such as sexual violence survivors. Discretion is advised.