This is the foreword to the Nordic Model Now! Handbook for Universities.
It is an honour to be invited to write the foreword of this handbook: Supporting students impacted by the sex industry: A handbook for universities. The work on the handbook, like all the activities at Nordic Model Now! was volunteer led, and all the work they do is co-created together with women who have lived experience of prostitution. The politics of incorporating marginalised voices into narratives that are shaping our world is a theme central to my work.
I first heard prostitution called ‘sex-work’ by a male left-wing academic activist. This term arises out of academia and for nearly two decades I would use this language. But then I came across the work of survivors, particularly Rachel Moran who wrote a book, Paid For, about her life in prostitution in Dublin. She argues against the use of the term ‘sex-work’ because, as she explains, it’s neither sex nor work – but paid abuse. You literally give the prostitution-buyer an opportunity to access your body for a specific period of time.
Gradually I uncovered more information by listening to survivors. I didn’t know about the mega-brothels in Germany populated with the poorest women from Romania and Bulgaria. I didn’t know about the rise of human trafficking in every place where prostitution is legally permitted. I didn’t know about the life histories of the women involved, many of whom experienced child abuse: sexual, physical, and/or emotional. I didn’t realise there were so many girls from care homes entering prostitution, or the disparities in racial ethnicities, nor about the criminal gangs who control the women, or the pimps, hoteliers, and drivers who all take a cut from their earnings. I didn’t know about the physical and psychological difficulties of women in prostitution. Nor did I understand that many of these women suffer post-traumatic-stress. Nor did I know about punternet, and other sites where men rate women they have paid for, and give reviews, and often ridicule and downgrade them or describe them as ‘robotic’ and not up for it. I didn’t know that many exited women are unable to enjoy sexual closeness, even years after they have left prostitution.
Students who believe they can avoid such harm by participating in prostitution indirectly, there is something you should know. Webcam prostitution also has significant psychological effects. The boundaries of webcam performers are pushed repeatedly, with debased activities achieving a higher price. Moreover, webcam activities can be recorded by the viewers, shared and uploaded to porn sites. The chances of stopping or gaining redress for such leaks are close to zero.
The promotion of prostitution at a university – for example, through the pro-prostitution toolkit produced by Leicester University – is a sign of our times and a culture of low expectations. We are rapidly losing the ability to come up with a meaningful politics informed by empathy, reciprocity, and mutuality as fundamental to our relationships with each-other. Instead, even our universities are in the grip of a dehumanising politics, with young women the primary casualties.
Just think, we’ve spent decades trying to promote equality of status, and rail against depictions of women as sexual objects for male gratification, and yet the objectification and commodification of women are being formalised at a university.
Women today experience sexual violence in multiple ways: from rape while sleeping, to spiking, date rape, and revenge porn. Universities should be addressing sexist and objectifying attitudes and behaviour, not promoting them.
My academic research explores, among other things, the making of ‘sex robots’ which are pornographic representations of women and girls. Today, women’s value is approximated by how closely she mimics pornographic imagery. The twin of prostitution is porn, and they feed into each. Men pay for experiences they have seen in porn – graphic and violent subordination of women.
Young people should experience university as a positive milestone in their lives, an important rite of passage that will open up new horizons and aspirational possibilities. This is what universities should strive to offer.
This ground-breaking handbook is an important contribution to this debate and it provides a vision for how universities can respond humanely to the accelerating normalisation of the sex industry and the financial precariousness of students.
Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI,
De Montfort University, Leicester, UK.