This is the second chapter in the Nordic Model Now! Handbook for Universities.
Changes in university and student funding over recent decades have resulted in a situation very different from that remembered by many older graduates who had the benefit of free university tuition and grants for living expenses.
Arrangements now vary between the four countries of the UK. In England, free tuition and grants for living expenses have long gone and have been replaced by loans. Under 2021-22 rules, students can get a loan of up to £9,250 for annual tuition fees and a means-tested maintenance loan up to a maximum of £12,010 for students in London, less for students elsewhere. Over three years, this works out at a total of £63,780.
Loans start accruing compound interest (currently at RPI plus 3% – higher than many mortgages) on the day that they are paid out, meaning that when students graduate, the money owed is already considerably more than the amount they received. Repayments are made through the PAYE system at 9% of taxable income above a threshold (currently £27,295 but there are hints it is to be reduced). Many, perhaps most, students will never manage to pay off the debt because compound interest will increase the outstanding balance faster than they can repay the capital.
This is a feminist issue because women are likely to earn less than men, to take more career breaks, and are more likely to work part-time and to be single parents. The additional 9% collected through the PAYE system is effectively a tax on everything they earn over the threshold for most of their working life and is likely to cause women in particular considerable financial hardship for decades to come. It is not surprising therefore that students would want to minimise the loans that they take out under this system.
Even with a full maintenance loan, many students will struggle to break even due to the inexorable rise in accommodation costs. Research by the National Union of Students (NUS) and Unipol tracked the rents of purpose-built student accommodation. They found that rent increases have outstripped inflation and that average rents represent an ever-growing percentage of the maximum loan – reaching 73% in 2018/19 – up from 58% six years earlier.
Student loans for living expenses are usually assessed on parents’ or partner’s incomes. Only students who are deemed ‘independent’ or whose parents/partners are on a low income are entitled to the maximum loan. The parents/partners of other students are expected to make a financial contribution to make up the difference. However, some parents and partners are unable or unwilling to do this.
In short, this means that most students now need to supplement their income with paid work. A student welfare officer at York University was quoted in The Guardian as saying: “Many have to work full time in retail every week to pay their way. It’s having a horrific impact on their wellbeing and academic attainment. I meet students every day with issues that, when you look into it, comes back to accommodation.”
Consider an 18-year-old female student – let’s call her Sky – from a disadvantaged background arriving at university and realising that she simply cannot survive on what’s left of her maintenance loan after paying her halls of residence rent. Her family back home are barely getting by and there’s no way she can turn to them for help. She really is on her own. She looks for work and the only thing she can find is a full-time job in a supermarket. She’s not sure she can fit it around her lectures, seminars and lab sessions. But then someone suggests ‘sex work.’ They say she could earn ten times more per hour than she could in the supermarket and she can choose her own hours. It seems like a no-brainer.
Everything she’s seen in the media about the sex trade has portrayed it as a real job that isn’t much different from waitressing – except you earn more and it’s way cooler. No one tells her how being intimate with an endless succession of men she doesn’t fancy will make her feel; nor that some of these men will be obnoxious or even violent; nor that she might only be able to bear it when under the influence of drink or drugs; nor what it will do to her mental health over time.
The normalisation of the sex industry
Since the 1970s the sexual exploitation of women and girls has been industrialised, normalised, and globalised. In many countries, including the UK, the sex industry now contributes a significant proportion of official GDP.
This is a result of a combination of neoliberal economic policies that prioritise profits regardless of the human and social cost, and efforts by those who benefit from the sex industry to sanitise and obscure the brutal reality – including through the promotion of the ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ terminology.
While the change in language from ‘prostitute’ to ‘sex worker’ might appear to give dignity to the women involved, it is little more than a smokescreen that does nothing to change the reality. For this reason, it is vehemently disliked by many women with lived experience of prostitution.
Unfortunately, the language promoted by sex industry lobbyists is now dominant in most mainstream media outlets, universities, government departments, and NGOs – and the sanitised view that language promotes also prevails. The ‘sex work is real work’ mantra is repeated endlessly. Magazine articles, films, news items, podcasts, social media accounts, and novels promoting this view are widespread, and the feminist understanding of the system of prostitution as inseparable from the economic marginalisation and systemic subordination of women is presented as a quaint relic from an earlier unenlightened era.
When mainstream culture presents prostitution as a ‘real’ job and a rewarding, glamorous, empowering and edgy option, how can young women, like our hypothetical Sky, hope to make a truly informed choice about whether to become involved in it? In the situation in which she finds herself, is framing her options as a free choice meaningful anyway?
The culture is actively grooming girls and young women as fodder for a predatory capitalist industry that needs a continuous supply of young female flesh, and it is simultaneously grooming young men as its unquestioning and entitled customers.
We must ask who benefits in this reality.
The pornification of culture
During the same period that saw the replacement of government university subsidies with a fee-based model and the reframing of prostitution as ‘sex work’, an accelerating commercialisation of mass culture has occurred and it is now largely controlled by corporations whose primary purpose is no longer providing news and analysis but selling the audience to advertisers. Pornography has moved further and further into the open, with the result that much of current mainstream culture would have been considered porn just 30 or 40 years ago.
Porn itself has become increasingly violent, misogynistic, and racist – and easily available. More than 10 years ago, academic research into the most popular porn films found that 88% of the scenes contained physical aggression directed at women, such as gagging, strangulation, spanking, and slapping. Things have got worse since then.
Artist and author, Suzzan Blac, recently spent several years researching and documenting the porn on PornHub – which she chose because it is the most popular mainstream site, is free to view, and has 115 million hits a day. After watching numerous films of women being sexually and violently abused, humiliated, degraded, raped and tortured, she came to the conclusion that “these are not sex videos; they are crime-scene videos.”
This is the material that children are seeing from ever earlier ages and that large numbers of boys are addicted to by the age of 12. This is the material that many men masturbate to on an almost daily basis.
History has shown that dehumanising, degrading, and objectifying human beings is always the first step in committing violence against them. When a human being is dehumanised and objectified, treating them with contempt becomes second nature.
Is it any wonder then, that reports of sexual crimes against women and girls have tripled in the last ten years – the same years that have seen the expansion of porn via the internet into most homes, and smartphones into most pockets, including schoolchildren’s?
There is now an epidemic of sexual harassment and abuse of girls and young women in schools and colleges. A survey commissioned by the European Commission in 2015 found that “teenage girls in England reported the highest rates of sexual coercion, with about one in five (22%) saying they had suffered physical violence or intimidation from boyfriends, including slapping, punching, strangling and being beaten with an object.”
Porn is normalising violent and aggressive heterosexual sexual practices that were uncommon just a few decades ago. For example, a sexual health study concluded that exposure to online pornography has resulted in the normalisation of “coercive, painful and unsafe anal heterosex” among young people in England. Doctors have reported increasing numbers of girls with catastrophic internal injuries caused by anal sex. There is evidence that girls and young women are being pressured to not only accept anal sex when they might prefer not to, but also to pretend to enjoy it.
This is having a disastrous impact on girls and young women – it is robbing them of their right to develop and explore their own sexuality on their own terms and in their own time. It is eroding their sexual and personal boundaries, and even making them feel they have no right to set their own boundaries. The culture is grooming them to accept a life of objectification and service to men’s needs rather than their own.
Sexual objectification & self-objectification
Pornography and our hypersexualised culture are representing, on an unparalleled scale, girls and young women as objects for men’s sexual use rather than as full and autonomous human beings – suggesting that their sex appeal and sexual characteristics are the only values that matter. As children are exposed to this from birth, it can be understood as a form of child sexual abuse perpetrated by the culture itself.
This is teaching girls from ever earlier ages to see themselves through the male gaze; to see themselves as objects of men’s desire. This is known as self-objectification and has been linked with a number of mental health problems, including eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression.
Amy Grantham, a third-year sociology student, describes it like this:
“For most of my existence I have been catering to some spectator whose opinion I have held to a higher regard than my own. This internalised male gaze is so nuanced that I didn’t even register I was doing it. But I was and it was affecting everything. Every aspect of my daily life from what I ate, how I dressed, the personality I presented (always the ‘cool girl’), the hobbies I had, the songs I listened to, the media I consumed; were all subconscious decisions that I believed would best align with and please these ‘powerful all-seeing men’.”
Social media platforms, such as Instagram, have morphed from a way of sharing experiences into a vehicle for sexual objectification and self-objectification. Conformity with these values is driven by social media algorithms and the mutual giving and withholding of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’.
Multiple research studies have shown that self-objectification negatively affects concentration and cognitive ability. One study demonstrated this very vividly:
“While alone in a dressing room, college students were asked to try on and evaluate either a swimsuit or a sweater. While they waited for 10 minutes wearing the garment, they completed a math test. The results revealed that young women in swimsuits performed significantly worse on the math problems than did those wearing sweaters. No differences were found for young men. In other words, thinking about the body and comparing it to sexualized cultural ideals disrupted mental capacity. In the emotional domain, sexualization and objectification undermine confidence in and comfort with one’s own body, leading to a host of negative emotional consequences, such as shame, anxiety, and even self-disgust.”
This strongly suggests that any engagement in the sex industry – including its non-contact forms such as webcamming and stripping – has a significant negative impact on women’s cognitive abilities.
We need to ask whether the current phenomenon of large numbers of young women unquestioningly supporting and promoting policies that would lead to a rapid expansion of the sex industry and the sexual commodification of women – in contradiction of their own best interests – could be viewed as an extension of deeply internalised self-objectification caused by these cultural forces.
Survivor voices: Rebecca
“I am a 29-year-old white, middle-class female who now works in academia. I worked in the sex industry from the age of 17 to 21. I started in lap dancing clubs and then moved on to both agency and brothel prostitution (although I will say that prostitution does take place in lap dancing clubs in my experience). At the time I was working I probably would have said that I saw prostitution as my ‘informed choice’. I focused on the benefits (e.g. meeting new people, money, glamour, excitement, not having to work a regular job, etc.) and was not aware of the slow, insidious, accumulative effects it was having on me. Nor had I really examined the reason why I had even reached the decision that this was a viable or, seemingly, appealing option for me in the first place. (Hint – I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse, something that will, without a doubt, make you feel that your body is both worthless and, paradoxically, the only object through which you can gain worth and approval.)
This is what angers me about this ‘sex-work’ debate. People rarely think about why middle-class, well-educated women, enter prostitution to begin with. Childhood sexual abuse does not discriminate against class and it has been shown to have occurred in exponentially disproportionate rates in women working in the sex industry, women from all backgrounds, working at all levels of this industry. This is not a fact that is questioned, however, and, instead, these women are held up as shining examples of the successes of both prostitution and, ironically, female ‘empowerment’. In my opinion, however, the statistics on women in the ‘sex industry’ who have survived childhood sexual abuse are enough to build policy on.
This brings me on to the second point which annoys me in relation to this debate, the effects of it. Nobody speaks to these ‘happy hookers’ after they have left prostitution. This is when the effects of it catch up with you. You simply cannot forget years and years of swallowing down your consent, of swallowing down what is, at best, disgust, irritation and boredom during sex and, at worst, anger, humiliation and terror.
After you have lived through that, it is fundamentally impossible to have anything near a happy, healthy and ‘normal’ life. By this I mean, a life where you can, at a very basic level, trust and connect to others, men in particular, and, alongside this, feel OK about your own body, humanity and worth. These things, will be constant everyday battles.
Since leaving prostitution I have struggled with chronic depression, flashbacks, anorexia and self-harm. I have not been off psychiatric medication or out of therapy. I have never been able to enjoy sex or be in a loving relationship. The sex industry, by which I mean the legally sanctioned rape, humiliation, devaluation and degradation of women, has robbed me of all these things.
I was ‘lucky’ in that I was able to leave and that I did leave when I did. I was unlucky in that, what woke me up to the urgency of needing to leave was a customer choking me until I passed out, doing god knows what to me and then leaving me lying alone and unconscious on his kitchen floor for god knows how long.”
 Jeffreys, S. 2009. The Industrial Vagina, Routledge, Abingdon.