This is the sixth chapter in the Nordic Model Now! Handbook for Universities.
Students who are involved in the sex industry and those who are struggling to kick a porn or sex buying habit need high-quality support. This chapter starts by covering some of the challenges that might arise and what being non-judgemental might look like in practice. It then provides practical tips and a detailed example.
If you’ve read this handbook through from the beginning, it should be evident that entry into the sex industry is complex. Reducing it to a narrative based on straightforward choice as if it were no different from choosing between retail jobs in Sainsbury’s or Primark, for example, does no one justice.
The notion that ‘sex work is real work’ is similarly unhelpful. In no other job are you required to allow a series of strangers to use your body for their sexual gratification while you flatter their ego and deny and hide your own natural and involuntary feelings, including fear, anger, disgust, and humiliation, and for this to take place outside of all the social conventions that govern normal human interactions.
It is widely recognised that a significant majority of girls and women who enter prostitution have suffered childhood sexual abuse. The American Psychological Association describes the inner psychological processes that explain this connection:
“Of special interest is the relationship between childhood sexual abuse victimization and sexual behavior. A common symptom of sexually abused children is sexualized behavior. The sexually abused child may incorporate the perpetrator’s perspective into her identity, eventually viewing herself as good for nothing but sex. The constricted sense of self of the sexually abused child and the coercive refusal of the perpetrator to respect the child’s physical boundaries may result in subsequent difficulties in asserting boundaries, impaired self-protection, and a greater likelihood of being further victimized as an adult, including becoming involved in prostitution.”
Many children and young people are now exhibiting similar difficulties without having been abused by an individual. The pornification of mainstream culture and early access to hardcore porn are themselves acting as perpetrator. We may now need to consider that the entire cohort of young people have been victims of childhood sexual abuse – with the majority oblivious to this fact. Acknowledging and facing up to childhood sexual abuse can take years or even decades and is sometimes impossible. There is no reason to expect that it would be different when our very culture, and Pornhub, XVideos, and similar are the vectors of the abuse.
This, along with the normalisation of the sex industry, has groomed young people as fodder for the sex industry – as participants and/or consumers – even if they do not recognise this. This means that young men’s use of porn, for example, can no more be considered a free and fully informed choice than young women’s entry into the sex industry.
Imagine being a young person attempting to negotiate this world where even respected authorities like universities and psychology faculties suggest that “sex work is empowering”, that “buying sex is helping out a poor student”, and that anyone who objects is moralistic and judgemental.
What would these attitudes and messages lead you to think if you were a young woman who finds that she hates having sex for money with men she doesn’t fancy, or that webcamming is hellish, or if you were a young man struggling with a porn habit, or even if you were just uncomfortable with the sex industry?
Would it not lead you to think there was something wrong with you? If there’s nothing wrong with the system, there MUST be something wrong with you, right? And so the victim blames themself.
But equally, many young people have internalised these attitudes so deeply that they might react with fury if anyone suggests that the sex industry is dangerous and predatory, and that neither consuming it nor becoming involved in it is in your best interests.
Promoting notions that getting involved in the sex industry is a free and informed choice and “sex work is real work” must be seen, in this context, as abdication of adult responsibility. It should also be seen as a form of victim blaming – as it locates sole responsibility in the least powerful actor and exonerates the powerful industry profiteers and lobbyists, the consumers, and the adults and institutions who have failed to restrain the industry and to educate and warn of its risks and dangers, and to ensure that young people have access to alternative economic means.
It has long been observed that there is often a gulf between how women see the sex industry while they are involved in it and how they see it after they have successfully exited. Whilst you are in it, your livelihood depends on upholding the illusion that you enjoy it and can make lots of money that way. This is an integral part of what you are paid for – service with a smile so that the (mostly) male consumers can feel free of guilt and not be troubled with the ambiguity that would inevitably follow if they understood how it really made you feel.
How could you carry on if you let yourself confront this reality and let it fully enter your consciousness? There can be a strong psychological imperative to deny your own unhappiness and the harms involved. This is a human coping mechanism. But years later, when you’ve managed to build a life away from the industry and you look back, you might see very clearly how harmful and damaging it was and that the sex industry is inherently abusive and exploitative. As Debbie put it earlier:
“[I]t’s impossible to assess the damage while you are in it because then, you would not do it. So obviously, you lie to yourself and everyone else. Lying becomes the norm. A hard habit to break, that lying…”
These dynamics pose challenges when providing support to those involved in the sex industry or caught up as consumers of it. These dynamics also explain why promoters of the sex industry and lobbyists for its expansion insist that we must only listen to “current sex workers” and not those who have exited – lest awkward truths be exposed.
Survivor voices: Megan
One of the biggest barriers in supporting women exploited by the sex trade, in my view, is the denial. Of the former ‘sex workers’ I know they all say that at the time, they believed they were strong and free and liberated because they were choosing this.
But upon leaving they realised the opposite was true.
Survivor voices: Laura
I went to get help from a project to try to exit [prostitution] and they kept talking about it as a lifestyle choice. They dismissed all of the medical problems I have and the pain I was in. So I disengaged from the whole system, everything, and went it alone. People like me are hidden; you don’t see us.
‘Sex work’ as an identity
Another challenge when supporting those involved in the sex industry is the notion that being a ‘sex worker’ is a fundamental identity, rather than simply an occupation, and that this must be affirmed and ‘sex workers’ require special treatment – for example, specific protection under hate crime legislation.
This notion is popular among those who insist that “sex work is real work” – although an explanation of why, if it’s a normal job, you would need to have such special protection is seldom elaborated. After all, no other occupational group makes such claims. If further explanation is provided, it is usually that it’s necessary because of the ‘stigma’ associated with ‘sex work’ and people’s irrational hatred and targeting of the people involved.
There is no doubt that those involved in the sex industry are victims of staggering levels of violence, abuse, and mistreatment. However, there is substantial evidence that this is intrinsic to the industry itself, which is predicated on inequality and dehumanises those involved, reducing them to commodities that (mostly) men can pay to use and abuse at will, free from normal social conventions. This sets up those involved as targets or ‘fair game’. Evidence suggests that legalising or decriminalising the industry does not change this – the women involved are still murdered and subjected to violence at distressing rates. A more hopeful approach would be a concerted effort to shift the burden of stigma from those involved to those who consume, facilitate and profit, and to reduce the size of the industry.
Of course, universities and service providers should treat those involved in the sex industry with the utmost respect and consider them a vulnerable group. However, enshrining ‘sex work’ as an intrinsic identity is likely to have unintended consequences, including legitimising and normalising the sex industry and therefore increasing the numbers of young women who are drawn into it. It would affirm the sex industry’s position as a neutral and permanent feature of society and might make it hard, if not impossible, to critique the industry without claims of violating ‘sex workers’ identity.
It is understandable that claiming a special status or identity as a ‘sex worker’ might be attractive to young people who are caught up in the industry. It is hard to survive in the sex industry without convincing yourself it is a free choice and a normal job. To conceptualise your involvement as a heroic challenge to heteronormative sexuality and to have that validated externally might help keep alienation and cognitive dissonance at bay. But ultimately this is likely to entrap you ever further in the industry.
Forcing therapists, welfare officers, and student counsellors to collude with such notions would constrict the service they can provide. We are aware of at least one formal complaint brought against a therapist for gently suggesting that a client who was involved in prostitution might like to consider other options. The client claimed that this was a violation of her identity as a ‘sex worker’. This is a disturbing trend that must be resisted.
Generally, good student welfare and therapeutic counselling practice does not take the presenting problem entirely at face value, but rather as a starting point for challenge or exploration. For example, when someone presents with an eating disorder or substance misuse problem, a therapist would not collude with the client’s subjective view of herself as obese, or as needing to maintain the addiction; the beliefs would be addressed, worked with, and if necessary, challenged. Sometimes, dealing with the underlying difficulties and past trauma can lead to an amelioration of the presenting problem and/or the client spontaneously realising ways to move towards resolution.
It is important that students involved in the sex industry are not deprived of high-quality services that take such a holistic approach, by false notions that the sex industry is a normal job that students freely choose and that prioritise affirming the student’s identity as a ‘sex worker’. Similarly, false notions of ‘kink shaming’ and similar should not prevent students who are seeking help with a porn or sex buying habit from receiving high-quality services.
Therapeutic vs. ethical neutrality
The University of Leicester student ‘sex work’ policy and toolkits place great emphasis on staff providing non-judgemental support to students who are involved in the sex industry. Conspicuously lacking, however, is any discussion of what non-judgemental means in practice – particularly when students disclose behaviour that is illegal or that might put themselves or others at risk.
In her brilliant essay, ‘Hidden in Plain Sight: Clinical Observations on Prostitution’, Judith Lewis Herman includes an interesting case study on this theme:
“Katarina is a 24 year old mother of a 2 year old son. In the course of her treatment, she had successfully ended a relationship with a pimp and was living in a small apartment with a new boyfriend, who, like herself, was a recovering addict. She supported herself by providing home daycare for several children. Daily contact with the children reminded her of how profoundly neglected she had been as a child and how deeply she longed for both attention and material possessions. She acknowledged that she missed the extravagant spending that was part of her life in prostitution, even though she recognized that her pimp controlled all the money and that she herself had always been desperately poor.
Just before Christmas, Katarina reported that while in a store with her son she had impulsively stolen a bracelet. Her initial feeling of entitlement and triumph had quickly given way to shame and regret as she realized how seriously she had put herself and her child at risk. She was very relieved that she had not been caught, but getting away with shoplifting didn’t feel right either; now she couldn’t even stand to wear the bracelet.
The therapist was glad Katarina had confided in her, and told her so, but also made it clear that she did not approve of stealing. She asked whether Katarina had considered returning the bracelet. This idea came as a complete surprise to the patient, who had never entertained the possibility that she could make things right. Her eventual choice to return the bracelet gave her a new sense of agency and self-respect.
In this case, the therapist was able to maintain the distinction between moral and therapeutic neutrality. To clarify the distinction: moral neutrality means declining to take a stand on the abstract question whether stealing is right or wrong. Therapeutic neutrality means declining to take a stand regarding the patient’s inner conflicts about stealing. Here, the therapist was able to convey a clear moral position against shoplifting, while maintaining a confidential and accepting stance toward the patient. This allowed the patient to explore her conflicted feelings about what she had done and come to her own resolution of her dilemma. The therapeutic alliance was enhanced, to the mutual satisfaction of patient and therapist, and the therapy progressed well.
In other cases, however, where crimes against persons rather than property crimes are at issue, neutrality of any sort may be impossible to maintain. If the patient’s behavior is putting others at risk, the therapist may be morally or even legally obligated to take a stand, even at the cost of violating confidentiality or jeopardizing the therapy relationship.”
This example illustrates that accepting and not judging the person does not mean losing your ethical compass. It is possible to retain a critique of the sex industry while providing high-quality support to those caught up in it. It could be argued that by retaining such a critique, you would be in a better position to offer realistic support.
We are unequivocal that those involved in prostitution should not be subjected to moral or ethical judgement or sanction under behavioural codes or the law. However, this does not apply to students who coerce their partner into prostitution and live on their earnings, for example.
- Honour each person’s dignity and view them as a whole and complex human being, rather than as a collection of personal problems or through the lens of what they do.
- Always follow standard university protocols around safeguarding, disclosures, and confidentiality.
- Understand the dangers and harms of the sex industry and do not minimise or trivialise them.
- Understand the limits of your own competence and know when to refer onwards.
- Adopt a trauma-informed approach. For a good introduction to this, we recommend: Thompson, L. and B Willetts. (2019) ‘Towards a trauma-informed approach with people who have experienced sexual violence’, in Watson, J. (ed.) Drop the disorder – challenging the culture of psychiatric diagnosis. Monmouth: PCCS Books, pp.160-167
Supporting students already involved in the sex industry
The University of Leicester toolkit urges staff to “ensure” that students are safe within their “work” in the sex industry. This is pure hubris – because, as shown earlier, the sex industry is inherently dangerous. There are measures that students can take that can reduce some of the risks involved, but nothing can eliminate them entirely – or bring them into line with those involved in a normal job. It is therefore important that those involved in the sex industry understand that help to exit is available should they want it.
- DO ensure that students are aware that help to exit is available should they want it.
- DO recognise that students involved in the sex industry are at higher statistical risk of suicidal ideation.
- DO ensure that students have access to, and are aware of, a full range of services, including specialist support for those involved in the industry, financial and budgeting advice, part-time employment opportunities, sexual health clinics, rape crisis and domestic violence support, etc.
- DO challenge gently and don’t collude with incongruence. When working at depth, gently ‘notice’ any incongruence. For example, if the student says that they like their experience in the sex industry and it’s really helping them, but they’re visibly upset or shaking while saying so – notice that incongruence and gently reflect it back. For example: “I can hear you saying it’s really helping you but I can also see you crying while you say it”.
- DO be aware of narratives. Support is not about promoting a political agenda. Be aware of the agendas that you have and be careful not to apply them to the person seeking help. If a student comes looking for help to exit the sex industry and your response is to tell them how empowering ‘sex work’ is, they have nowhere left to turn.
- DO recognise the power you hold. Despite our best efforts, we often hold power over the people we’re supporting – whether that is based on age, race, sex, sexuality, position of authority, perceived wisdom and experience, or levels of vulnerability. This power should not be used to unduly influence people seeking help and support.
- DO listen to all the voices. Incongruence implies a split, and one voice may dominate. Many women who have exited the sex industry speak about how when they were in it they would say how much they wanted to do it and found it empowering, etc. It was only when they had gained some distance that they could acknowledge how harmful and damaging it had been to them. However, that pain, hurt, and torture was present during their time in the sex industry and would have been present, albeit quieter, alongside the dominant voice claiming empowerment.
- DO ensure the student is aware of safeguarding policies and procedures. These should be clarified at the beginning so that the student can make their own choices and enact their own power in terms of what to disclose.
- DO have patience. Relationship-building takes time. Building trust takes time. Building strength in that more congruent voice takes time.
- DO use open questions. This allows the student to open up more fully and decreases the risk of you imposing your own agenda. It’s harder to lead a person when questions are open rather than closed.
- DO allow space for exploring the existence of trauma. We know that large numbers of individuals within the sex industry have a history of past trauma and sexual violence. This can be difficult to hear. If you’re not able to offer a space to explore that, refer on to relevant services.
- DO help the student to take power back over their own life. Give them the resources and support they need to self-refer to other services and to guide their next steps. Being drawn into the sex industry often erodes personal agency and autonomy. People can be left feeling powerless and struggle to make decisions and choices for their own lives and struggle to trust their own judgements. Don’t try to rescue and do it for them. Rather, help them reconnect to their own power.
- DO maintain awareness of boundaries. Sexual violence and involvement in the sex industry involve repeated boundary violations. As a result, many people are left with difficulties in recognising or managing boundaries in other aspects of their lives and are vulnerable to further boundary violations. This can sometimes mean that people may push your boundaries despite your efforts to help them. This can be frustrating (head back up to ‘patience’), but it can be a way that people might test whether they can trust you in the early stages of the helping relationship.
- DON’T put pressure on students to exit the sex industry.
- DON’T suggest that involvement in the sex industry can be empowering or that it is a normal job.
- DON’T suggest the student is simply not suited to involvement in the sex industry.
- DON’T work from your own ‘frame of reference’ – which means you’re not truly listening to what the person is communicating. Helping is not a political agenda. Stay with what that person is saying rather than replying from your own point of view. Don’t reframe their experience to fit your perspective.
- DON’T ignore safeguarding procedures. Safeguarding must not be ignored because of a political agenda. The inherent risks of the sex industry must not be ignored because of a political agenda. The vulnerability of people involved in the sex industry must not be ignored because of a political agenda.
- DON’T aggressively challenge a person’s reality, even if you’re aware that they’re being incongruent. Accept what a person is telling you even if you’re aware that part of their experience is being silenced. If a person does not respond to gentle challenging, move on and accept their reality for that moment. You’ve planted a seed.
Example: Jenny, a 19-year-old student who has been involved in the sex industry for the last four months, approaches her university lecturer, Amelia, for help and support.
Jenny: I wanted to talk to you about something, but I don’t want you to tell anyone else.
Amelia: Of course. It can just be between us.
[Comment: Amelia cannot promise total confidentiality without breaching safeguarding policies and procedures. This would have been a good moment to explain to Jenny the limits of confidentiality.]
Jenny: Thank you. OK… So, erm, I’ve been… I was struggling for money this year and my friend said this would be a good way to make money, and so I’ve been, erm… [Jenny’s voice gets quieter and she visibly starts to shake.] I’ve been online, camming and done other stuff in real life too. And I dunno, just need some help.
Amelia: OK. So, you’re a sex worker. That sounds like an empowering option. What do you need help with?
[Comment: Amelia has used her own perspectives of the sex industry here to frame her response to Jenny. At this stage, we do not know Jenny’s feelings about her own experiences. We can see that Jenny is shaking and her voice has gotten quieter. This may be the result of shame, nerves, or trauma she may be experiencing. We do not know. If Jenny was seeking help to exit and deal with the trauma of being in the sex industry, Amelia’s response would not only have been painful, but would have prevented Jenny from asking for that help. Amelia has also missed the difficulties that Jenny was experiencing financially.]
Jenny: I… I don’t want to do it anymore. Some of the things I’ve done… [Jenny’s voice breaks and she gives a nervous sounding laugh.] It’s like… the choking and stuff… it’s a bit scary sometimes – but it’s not that bad. [Said in a more cheerful, forced voice.] I’m used to it.
Amelia: There’s a website where you can track anyone dangerous and avoid them. That can help you keep safe.
[Comment: Here Amelia is focusing on ways in which Jenny can keep herself safe, which is a helpful thing to do. However, if Jenny’s safety is a cause for concern, why hasn’t Amelia safeguarded this? Jenny said that she doesn’t want to be involved in the sex industry anymore but Amelia’s solution involves Jenny staying in the industry with vague attempts to make it safer. Jenny has said that she’s scared and has particularly mentioned “choking” (which as has been explored previously is a huge risk) and then dismissed these feelings with “it’s not that bad”.
There is a clear incongruence between Jenny’s words and her demeanour and tone of voice. If Amelia had picked up on this, she might have noticed that it is actually “that bad”. It might have been helpful here for Amelia to have noticed that incongruence, for example: “You say that it’s not that bad but you also said that you want to stop and you’re scared and mention choking specifically.”
The phrase, “I’m used to it” suggests a possible history of sexual violence that has, again, been missed by Amelia. If it had been noticed and gently explored, Amelia might have been able to refer Jenny on to a suitable service for addressing this and the sense that she deserves to be sexually abused.]
Jenny: Er, yeah, I’ll check it out.
Amelia: Is there anything else I can help with?
Jenny: No. I guess that’s it.
[Comment: Amelia hasn’t noticed that she missed what Jenny came about – financial difficulties, wanting to leave the sex industry and being scared. It appears Jenny has made the decision not to share any more – she may have stopped due to Amelia’s response. It seems that Amelia has been clouded by her political views and has not truly heard what Jenny said and what she communicated non-verbally. Amelia has also not fulfilled her professional obligations regarding safeguarding and student welfare.]
Amelia: Well, if you need anything else, just stop by any time. In fact, here is my number, call me whenever. It’ll save you going to student services and having to tell this to anyone else.
Jenny: Thanks, I will. [With a genuine smile.]
[Comment: This is a clear boundary violation. As discussed earlier, those involved in the sex industry, especially those with a history of sexual violence, are vulnerable to further boundary violations. Jenny appears pleased, likely because her initial wish for confidentiality has been maintained.]
This fictionalised example shows a member of staff who is too entrenched in their own political views to truly hear what someone asking for help is really saying. This, of course, can also happen in reverse: A student who sees their experiences on the whole as positive and the member of staff pushes them to leave the sex industry.
It is always important to separate the support offered from our political motivations – regardless of where our politics lie. Otherwise, the voices of abused, marginalised and vulnerable people may be lost in the cacophony of the political sphere.
It is equally important to uphold safeguarding policies regardless of the context and how loaded it may be, and to make use of professional curiosity when we have a concern that has not been fully voiced.
Survivor voices: Dana
It is indeed important to not be judgemental towards women in the sex trade. Blaming them for their situation or inability to exit are examples of toxic judgement. But saying, “Do what’s right for you” to a woman at the bottom of the social ladder can seem more like indifference than a lack of judgement.
Many women in the sex trade suffer from poor self-esteem and low self-efficacy. They need someone to believe in them, someone who sees in them a human being. They need someone who has confidence in their ability and can offer practical advice and help. Rather than reassuring them that they are doing what is right for them, it is better to tell them that they deserve more.
Decades after I got out of prostitution, I still remember vividly someone telling me, “You deserve more”. It really shook me at the time, but it gave me the strength to get out. I have no respect for those who said it was my “right” to sell sex and that it is just a “business”. They know very well that sucking a dick to pay the bills is not something they want to do or see their children doing.
Supporting students who want to kick a porn or sex buying habit
It is now widely recognised that problematic porn consumption is widespread, especially among young men, and that it is detrimental to mental and physical health and is associated with sexual offending. Buying sex is similarly associated with a propensity for sexual offending. It follows that any attempts to reduce sexual offending and harassment on campus are likely to have limited success without addressing porn consumption and sex buying.
Problematic porn consumption is recognised by the World Health Organisation as a compulsive sexual behaviour disorder and research has correlated it with addiction-related brain changes. Many people find that they cannot control their pornography use even when they’re aware that it is negatively affecting their relationships, work, and behaviour and is causing sexual problems. There are also concerns that the rise in suicides of young men that we are currently witnessing might be connected to problematic porn consumption.
All students need to be aware that non-judgemental help for this is available. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, as reported in a recent article in The Guardian:
“James tried to get help at university, when using pornography to ease the pressure of deadlines only further stole his time, harming his studies. He found a relationship counsellor. ‘I was gearing up to talk about my porn addiction for the first time ever, and I was really nervous, and the woman was like: ‘Why don’t you just stop watching it?’ She was so dismissive.’”
Universities should therefore:
- Ensure that student welfare and relationship counsellors are trained in working with students struggling to reduce or stop porn consumption and sex buying.
- Support the development of therapeutic groups and peer-on-peer initiatives for students struggling with these issues.
- Ensure that these services are widely publicised.
- Consider lobbying the government to introduce age-verification on online porn as a preventive measure that would reduce the numbers of students arriving at university with problematic porn consumption with all its associated difficulties and impacts on the community.
Some of the more general recommendations listed previously also apply to supporting students with problematic porn and sex-buying behaviour.
- Next chapter: 7. Combatting sexism & supporting healthy relationships
- Back to the Handbook outline
 Raymond, J G (2013) Not a choice, Not a job: Exposing the myths about prostitution and the global sex trade, Potomac Books