Handbook for Universities: 3. Policy and codes of behaviour

This is the third chapter in the Nordic Model Now! Handbook for Universities.

The majority of undergraduate students arrive at university in the very first stages of adulthood – at 18 or 19 years of age, and often 17 in Scotland. Research shows that the adolescent brain does not reach full maturity until approximately 25-30 years of age, with the areas of the brain that assist cognitive abilities and self-control lagging behind the areas that govern emotion. This explains young people’s tendency towards risk-taking. For many students, university is their first time away from home, and some come on their own from overseas. For all these reasons, students are a particularly vulnerable group.

The general vulnerability of students has been increased by the rate of change that we are living through, including the trends outlined in the previous chapter. Universities have a responsibility to respond to these trends and to help students navigate them as safely as possible.

Universities need to consider what they can do to minimise student financial vulnerability – for example, by ensuring that food and accommodation costs are kept to the absolute minimum, making bursaries available for impoverished students, and investing in excellent financial advice, and services to help students who need to supplement their funding find part-time work. The overarching aim should be that no student has to resort to the sex industry because of a lack of other options.

Vulnerability is not only financial, however. Research into women who are involved in prostitution reveal a disproportionate number have a background that includes experience of the care system, childhood sexual abuse, and/or homelessness. The particular vulnerability of care-experienced students is widely recognised through the provision of additional financial support. However, their additional social and emotional support needs are often left unmet. Universities could ameliorate this by providing this group of students with specialist programmes to provide emotional and social support and development.

It is widely recognised that sexual misconduct is at an all-time high in universities and that many universities are failing to deal with this effectively. Care needs to be taken to ensure that any policy relating to the sex industry does not inadvertently exacerbate the rape culture within the community – for example, by implicitly condoning the sexist and abusive attitudes that are intrinsic to the sex industry. Furthermore, universities would be abrogating their safeguarding and student welfare responsibilities if they didn’t point out the dangers and harms of the sex industry.

It would make sense therefore to consider any policy around the sex industry to be an integral part of the university’s wider response to combatting sexism, encouraging respectful and healthy relationships, supporting students’ mental and physical health, and addressing the needs of students in financial difficulties.

Key policy points

This section sets out key points that any policy related to the sex industry needs to address. Later chapters of this handbook provide greater depth on some of these themes.

  • All students, including those who are involved in the sex industry, must be treated with respect and dignity.
  • Provision of tailored and non-judgemental support for students who are involved in the sex industry that respects their current reality – whether they want to remain in the industry or to leave it.
  • Students who want to remain in the industry might need help dealing with things like shame, stress, drug or alcohol addiction, PTSD, physical health issues, and violence or coercive control from partners or other third parties.
  • While students should not be pressurised into leaving the industry, they need to know that support is available to help them leave, should they wish to do so. This support needs to include trauma-informed counselling or therapy and to address the key barriers to exiting, including: (a) the lack of an adequate alternative income; (b) drug and alcohol addiction; (c) coercion of a third party, who may be their boyfriend or intimate partner; and (d) homelessness or housing issues.
  • Pastoral care teams must be well-informed about the harms and risks of the sex industry and trained in supporting young people who are involved in it.
  • Students who are involved in the sex industry must not be penalised through ‘morality clauses’ and similar – and, where relevant, universities should work to remove such clauses.
  • All advice around the sex industry must be founded in reality and clearly set out the risks and dangers, rather than presenting a sanitised and politicised vision based on misleading notions, such as that the sex industry is not significantly different from service industries, like retail and catering.
  • Recognition that the most disadvantaged young people are disproportionately likely to be drawn into the sex industry and harmed within it. This means that it is an issue of inequality and potential discrimination against young women, and people who are of minority ethnicities, disabled and/or LGBT+. Universities therefore have an obligation under the Equality Act 2010 to ensure they do not take any action that would normalise the industry and risk more disadvantaged young people being drawn into it.
  • Recognition that the sex industry: commodifies, objectifies, and dehumanises women and girls; impacts young people’s understanding of consent and their ability to form healthy, mutually satisfying relationships; and damages the general relationships between the sexes.
  • Recognition that many young people become involved in the sex industry through the coercion of third parties, some of whom may be their intimate partners, and that this can be part of a pattern of coercive control in intimate relationships.
  • Recognition that any form of inducement of another person into the sex industry and/or benefiting in any way from another person’s involvement in it is unethical and, in many cases, constitutes a serious criminal offence.
  • Recognition that buying sexual services is incompatible with the egalitarian ethos that the university seeks to promote.
  • Provision of specialist support for students who are seeking to reduce or stop porn consumption and/or to stop buying sexual services.
  • The promotion of healthy and open dialogue and debate about the sex industry with measures to ensure that critique of it is not shut down through false notions that doing so constitutes an attack on those involved in it.
  • Ensure that students are informed about the vast profits that the sex industry makes and who would be the main beneficiaries of deregulation of the industry.
  • Ensure that the interests of those who would benefit from the deregulation of the industry are not able to dominate research, debate, and policy or to silence other voices.
  • Measures to prevent sex industry organisations distributing on university premises, or through university resources or IT networks, materials that trivialise, normalise, or directly or indirectly promote involvement in the sex industry. This should cover, for example, a local lap dancing club distributing flyers on the university campus; a ‘sex worker’ support organisation running a freshers’ fair stall featuring games and prizes that implicitly position prostitution as a fun activity; and ‘sugar dating’ websites offering free membership to students if they register using their university email accounts.
  • Provision of specialist prevention programmes for the most marginalised students, including care-experienced students and those who have suffered sexual abuse, to provide emotional and social support and development. Programmes should be sex-segregated: to give young women respite from the male gaze and a space to develop confidence and self-worth, to process their experiences, and explore a feminist critique of the sex industry; and to give young men a space to explore their feelings, develop empathy and a critique of the sex industry, and to challenge the misogynistic and sexist culture, along the lines recommended by Michael Conroy of Men at Work CIC.

Codes of behaviour

Most universities have some form of code of behaviour for staff and students – sometimes with names like ‘dignity and respect’ – with definitions of unacceptable behaviour. Some, quite rightly, have multiple pages on antisemitism and Islamophobia with detailed definitions and examples, but only a few short lines on sexual harassment and violence with no detailed examples. Given that sexual harassment and violence are known to be widespread and are overwhelmingly perpetrated by men towards women, this is inadequate and could constitute sex discrimination.

It is widely recognised that the scale of sexual harassment and gender-based violence among young people is connected to the normalisation of the sex industry, the widespread use of porn, and the pornification of the culture outlined previously. This needs to be addressed in university codes of behaviour and any ‘consent training’ and similar that universities run.

Universities should consider explicitly defining some sex industry related behaviour as explicit breaches of their code of conduct. For example:

  • Viewing pornography on any device or in any form anywhere other than in private living quarters.
  • Encouraging or coercing someone (including an intimate partner) into involvement in the sex industry.
  • Benefiting in any way, including financially, from another person’s involvement in the sex industry.
  • Paying or attempting to pay (with money or other benefits) a student for sexual services or favours.
  • Using the sexist and derogatory language associated with prostitution (such as, tart, whore, slut, slapper, slag, ‘ho’, etc.) at, about or towards any student, woman, or girl. This applies to all communications – including online communications and in-person.

Further reading

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