Distorting mirrors: The second Leicester student “sex work” training session

A team from the University of Leicester has obtained ESRC funding to conduct ‘student sex work’ training and promote their ‘student sex work’ policy and toolkits in universities around the UK. They have already delivered the training to hundreds of students and staff at dozens of universities, including Durham.

The training is divided into two sessions. I recently wrote about the first session after speaking with Jim (not his real name) who attended it at one of the universities where it has been delivered. I caught up with him again and he kindly walked me through the second training session. Like the first session he attended, the second session was delivered by Gaynor Trueman and Jessica Hyer Griffin.

It started with a recap of the first session and a few more slides in a similar vein and continued with discussion of three case studies. These revealed a profound cognitive dissonance between what the trainers claim as unassailable fact and the reality the case studies expose.

“Sex work is work and there is no shame in being a sex worker”

The recap started with a definition of “sex work”:

“Sex work is the exchange of sexual services, both involving direct physical contact and indirect sexual stimulation, for money or goods.”

This, participants were told, is the “preferred term” and they should avoid the use of the terms, “prostitute” and “prostitution”, because of their derogatory historical associations. This was stated as fact without discussion or even a mention that opinion is divided on this issue.

I agree that the term “prostitute” has derogatory historical connotations against the individuals concerned and is best avoided. However, there is a large international movement spearheaded by survivors of the sex trade for whom “prostitution” is a preferred term, because its meaning is clear: a succession of faceless men pay for sexual access usually to a woman or child, and typically all or much of the payment goes into the pocket of one or more third parties (pimps).

“Sex work” on the other hand is a euphemism that disguises the harms and who does what to whom. It also conflates a wide number of practices – from selling soiled underwear to what one now reluctantly must refer to as “full service” prostitution.

But the trainers didn’t mention this and certainly didn’t provide enough information for people to develop an informed opinion about the pros and cons of using the term, ‘sex work’.

Next up was a recap of the legality of buying and selling sex in the UK. The buying and selling itself is legal but some of the surrounding activities are not legal.

Truman said that if she were to sell sex alone from her house, it would be “completely legal”, but she could be charged with brothel-keeping if she invited another woman to also sell sex from the house.

She went on to say that it’s “really problematic that sex workers have to work on their own”. However, this is disingenuous because it is legal to sell sex from a property while someone else is at home.

If the issue really were about safety and having another person on the premises, surely selling sex while her flatmate was watching NetFlix or writing an essay in the next room would be an excellent solution? If “sex work” really is just a normal job, what could possibly be wrong with this scenario?

Except of course “sex work” is not a normal job. The flatmate could quite reasonably object to the arrangement and not want to be in the flat while some dodgy man was having it off with her flatmate for money on the other side of a flimsy interior wall. But again, no mention of this.

Instead, the trainer went on to discuss implications for tenancy arrangements. Most residential tenancy agreements include clauses forbidding using the property for business, annoying the neighbours, and so on. Selling sex from the property is likely to breach some of these clauses. Many landlords turn a blind eye, but there is always a risk that a student selling sex in the property might be given notice to quit for breach of contract. After all, landlords could themselves be found in breach of local planning laws and suffer negative consequences from disputes with neighbours over noise and nuisance, etc.

But true to form, Trueman considered none of the wider implications. It was as if she were promoting the idea of legal brothels and a relaxation of planning laws to allow brothels in residential properties. But instead of arguing honestly, she dropped the suggestions subliminally.

She then talked about the top five negative aspects of involvement in the sex industry for students and displayed a slide showing those given in a survey:

  1. Secrecy (50.7%)
  2. Unpredictable earnings (50.2%)
  3. Unpleasant customers (49.8%)
  4. Fear of violence (36.0%)
  5. Negative judgement from family and friends (34.6%)

Trueman claimed that these results show that the top negative aspect is “having to keep it secret and tell lies.” But if you look closely at the data, you can see that the top three aspects are all within a percentage point of one another – meaning it’s unlikely there is a statistically significant difference between them. She didn’t mention this.

Perhaps the Leicester team doesn’t want to draw attention to these other prominent negatives because they don’t marry up with the entire thesis of its approach – that most problems are caused by other people’s attitudes rather than anything intrinsically wrong with the industry itself. That about half of the respondents struggle with unpredictable earnings and “unpleasant customers” just as much as with secrecy also gives the lie to the idea promoted in the first training session that the sex industry is easy money.

More than a third of the students list “fear of violence” as a negative aspect. Obviously, this is most likely to affect those involved in “full service” prostitution – which we know from the first training session to be only about one third of the student “sex workers” surveyed. This might therefore suggest that all or most of the respondents involved in “full service” prostitution expressed a “fear of violence” – almost certainly mainly from “clients”.

Let that sink in.

It seems likely that all or most students involved in “full service” prostitution are seriously scared of their “clients”.

This is further evidence that the idea that “sex work” is a normal job and easy money is a lie. But again, this important truth was obscured.

Hyer Griffin said the majority of students are reluctant to disclose their involvement in the sex industry because of “barriers”, such as the fear of eviction or suspension from their studies.

It’s more common, she said, for students to disclose to friends than the student union or their personal tutor, which means they might be getting “bad advice”.

She blamed the isolation and mental ill-health that students involved in the sex industry experience on universities not providing appropriate support and the “stigmatisation of sex work”. This is why, she said, it’s important for universities to demonstrate that they are “sex work positive, sex worker friendly, and that they offer a safe non-judgemental space for student sex workers”.

She said, quite rightly, that student wellbeing should be prioritised over the university’s reputation but she glossed over the evidence that involvement in the sex industry has intrinsic risks independent of university policies and other people’s attitudes.

It is likely that people would come away from the training misunderstanding the real nature of the problems. Yes, students should be supported and not penalised for their engagement in the sex industry and universities should do better on this score. However, no one should be led to believe that the sex industry is benign nor that opening it out ever further will lessen the shame and stigma for the women concerned.

Evidence from Germany and New Zealand, which both have legal brothels, suggests that all this achieves is a lessening of the shame and stigma for the male consumers, but not one iota for the women involved, while leading to a huge increase in the size of the industry and the numbers of vulnerable young people being drawn into it and harmed therein.

Hyer Griffin said it’s not an easy decision to disclose involvement in the sex industry to a member of university staff. Reasons why a student might disclose, she said, include being out of options, feeling isolated because of “stigmatisation or secrecy”, and being at crisis point.

Again, she puts the blame for isolation on people outside the industry, rather than acknowledging that the way the industry works inherently tends to isolate people. Esther who was herself in prostitution for several years put it like this:

“Once you’re embedded in the sex industry, everybody you know will be in it, and that’s partly because you have shared experiences with people in it. It’s very difficult to find people who are not in the industry with whom you can share experiences. It’s almost impossible to talk about it except with women who are in the same position.”

Jacqueline Gwynne who was a receptionist in a legal brothel in Melbourne, Australia, for several years says:

“Almost without exception, the women I worked with lied to their family and friends about what they did. One woman I became close to even invented a whole fake career. She built a website and had business cards printed with a pretend business name. Other women would say they were cleaning or night packing…”

Testimony such as this suggests that the isolation and secrecy that are so common for women involved in the sex industry are complex and more entrenched than the trainers suggest. In fact, the evidence would suggest that they are intrinsic to the industry. As Hyer Griffin herself has stated in the past, the male “clients” do not treat the women as human beings. No amount of opening up of the industry and making universities “sex worker friendly” as she urges can change this reality.

She went on to explain what she means by “face in” or “face out”. Face out means that the person is identifiable on their profile on online sites – for example, their face is clearly visible in photographs and/or they use their real name. Face in means that their face is not visible in photographs and they use a fake name.

On some platforms, such as AdultWork, profiles are publicly visible to all and sundry regardless whether they are logged in. On other platforms, such as Seeking Arrangement, profiles are only visible to users who have an account and are logged in.

Hyer Griffin talked at some length about the distress that being outed and doxed can cause – especially to students who are seeking a professional career. You would think that this would be a pressing reason to warn students – and staff – about these risks and how to mitigate them. But the Leicester team appear not to be interested in prevention.

This does beg the question of when does an absence of preventive measures morph into promoting a dangerous and sexist industry to vulnerable students?

Nowhere have we seen any effective attempt from the Leicester team to properly warn students of the massive risks of involvement in the sex industry – neither in the toolkits nor in this so-called training.

The training then moved on to advice to staff about what to do and not do when students disclose involvement in the sex industry. Trueman covered the dos and placed great emphasis on only using the “sex work” terminology and not talking about “people prostituting themselves” – in order not to “create a barrier” and “make the student back off”.

This exhortation about language applied, she said, not just when talking one-to-one with individual students but also generally – because, she said, you never know who’s involved or not.

Of course, she didn’t mention that the jury is still out on this issue of language. Many women who have experience of the sex industry complain that the “sex work is real work” and “sex work is a free choice” tropes act as silencing mechanisms – because they deny the trauma that’s inherent in providing sexual access or sexual “entertainment” to a succession of entitled, sexist, and often unpleasant men. These tropes also imply that there’s something intrinsically wrong with anyone who isn’t willing and able to join in with this brave new world of men as sexual masters and women as their paid sexual servants.

Insisting it is a normal job that people freely choose, therefore leaves many women with nowhere to go.

While we agree that “people prostituting themselves” is an unhelpful phraseology, we believe that young women are in desperate need of a critique of the hypersexualised commodification of women and girls. We have set out in our Handbook for Universities a vision of how to support students impacted by the sex industry without subscribing to the “sex work is real work” ideology or condoning the industry itself.

Hyer Griffin covered the don’ts. Much of what she said, we would agree with. For example, she emphasised that you shouldn’t assume students’ reasons for seeking support or for involvement in the sex industry, or that they want to leave.

However, there was much that we don’t agree with. For example, she said, “Sex work is work and there is no shame in being a sex worker.” But earlier she had explained at some length that shame is a huge problem for students. It exists and is a problem.

She exhorted attendees to ensure they don’t refer students on to external agencies that are not “relevant and appropriate” or “supportive of sex workers”. “There are a lot of conflicting opinions regarding the sex work industry”, she said. “So just make sure your referral is appropriate.”

To discover whether an external agency fits these criteria, Trueman suggested looking up the directory on the North East Sex Work Forum’s website – because it has vetted all the listed organisations to ensure they “offer support openly to sex workers and not put up a personal opinion on that”.

One of our key criticisms of the Leicester toolkits is that their list of recommended organisations that offer support to those involved in the sex industry is very partisan – it excludes organisations that do not endorse the “sex work is real work” ideology. It seems that the directory on the North East Sex Work Forum website is much the same – except it goes even further and recommends services provided by AdultWork (which is a pimping website) and Ugly Mugs Ireland (which has close connections with pimps).

I spoke with Esther, who I quoted earlier, about this. She said that she felt it was a mistake to only refer women who are involved in the sex industry to organisations that believe it is real work – because it keeps the women in the same milieu. It deprives them of meeting exited women and others who do not subscribe to this ideology. She said that this will reinforce their belief that the sex industry is normal work and that if they’re finding it difficult, it must be because there’s something wrong with them.

Hyer Griffin asked attendees to ensure they don’t “perpetuate myths” and to always “fact check” regarding information. Except what exactly does that mean in the context of this training, which, as we have shown, includes biased and partisan information?

The case studies

The remainder of the session was focused on the three case studies. Participants were divided into three groups. Each group was given one of the case studies to discuss and was asked to come up with answers to the following questions:

  • What would be your first response?
  • What are the considerations?
  • Any red flags around safeguarding?
  • What would your next steps for support be?

Everyone was then brought back into the main group. Someone from each group reported on the group’s discussion and Trueman and Hyer Griffin went through what they considered important about each case.

Case study: Gemma

“Gemma has disclosed that she has anxiety but that she is not involved with the disability service as she does not want to ‘make a big deal out of it’. She says she is struggling to balance her work life and her studies, and her anxiety is – as she puts it – ‘getting out of control’ as a result. She says she is struggling to engage with her course because she is too anxious to even attend lectures in person or online throughout the pandemic. When she is discussing her needs, she mentions she has an Only Fans account and that she has to do a lot of promotion, and when webcamming she is too anxious to put her microphone on or her camera. She worries her sex work will affect her place at university.”

The spokesperson for the group discussion reported that they felt that the biggest red flag was the student’s anxiety. They felt that any job could have a negative impact on a student’s studies and it wasn’t necessarily relevant that she was doing “sex work”. However, they should see if she would elaborate about this.

They felt that in the first instance they should reassure her that her “sex work” would not impact her place at university and they would talk through how confidentiality works. They would consider referring her to a doctor or mental health professional for her anxiety and to a “peer-led” support organisation if she is looking for support with the “sex work”. They felt it might relieve her anxiety to talk it through with someone else in the industry.

Trueman thanked everyone for their contributions to the discussion and said that the mental health issue was definitely the priority. She said that the “sex work” might not be a factor. She finds from talking to students that “it’s not the actual sex work that has the impact on their mental health, it’s the keeping the sex work secret and living that double life that has a massive impact”.

This seems to me to be an utterly naïve and irresponsible response to this young woman’s distress. How can Trueman set herself up as an expert on “sex work” while suggesting that engaging in webcamming and “promotion” of her online profile is a non-issue for a young woman whose anxiety is so “out of control” that she cannot even attend her lectures.

A woman who was involved in webcamming wrote about its harms and dangers:

“The men are protected by anonymity. [Their] aggressive, entitled behaviour belies the notion that women are empowered or that they have the upper hand in the sex industry. […]

[Webcamming] is a gateway to mainstream porn and prostitution, leading to drug and alcohol use and sex trafficking of women and girls. It has the potential to greatly damage a woman’s psyche if not ruin her life. The truth about webcamming is that it is anything but empowering, safe, easy or lucrative.”

Another woman wrote about her experience of running an OnlyFans account and the need to constantly promote it on the internet hell of “sex-related Reddit and Twitter threads”:

“The truth is, it’s exhausting to constantly read the comments from men who hate women simply for consenting to their naked images being posted and expecting to be valued for it.”

How can it be ethical to present this seedy world of pandering to any and every whim of entitled and sexist men to university students and staff as a neutral activity – as if it were not significantly different from working in a supermarket or bar? At least then she would have protections under health and safety and anti-discrimination laws.

How can it be ethical to suggest that this environment is an appropriate place for a young and vulnerable young woman who is struggling with out-of-control anxiety?

In the first session, the trainers said that their aim was for the full decriminalisation of the sex industry so that “sex workers” would come under normal employment legislation. But how could the behaviour of the male consumers ever conform to the rules for treating employees with the dignity, respect and equality required in a normal job? It couldn’t – because treating women as masturbatory tools and paying to use and abuse them sexually is fundamentally incompatible with respect and dignity. Just as the practical arrangements could never comply with normal health and safety standards.

Case study: Liz

“Liz is falling behind on university work and has been missing lectures. When asked about it, she tells you that a lecturer of hers told her he saw her profile on Adult Work and called her into a meeting to tell her. She says he told her it would jeopardise her degree if he told the university and asked her to perform a sex act on him/sex. She said, ‘no’, but he kept insisting so she did it. Now she is too scared to attend lectures and is anxious that he will ask for more sexual favours to keep her secret. She feels like this is hanging over her head both in her private life and at university.”

The spokesperson for the group discussion said that they would reassure the student that they were in a safe space to discuss the issue and ask her what she wanted to get out of the discussion. There are serious safeguarding concerns, they said, because a member of staff has subjected the student to what is in effect a sexual assault. They would discuss the possible options with the student and explain the university policy on confidentiality.

They considered arranging for the student to change to a different class and that this could potentially be done without identifying why it was necessary.

Trueman agreed that the immediate concern is the safeguarding regarding the member of staff and, because he might be exploiting other students, it would be necessary to override confidentiality. She recommended referring the student to the university’s internal reporting system. If the student didn’t want to do this, you would have a duty to report the assault, she said, although it would not be necessary to mention the involvement in the sex industry.

She also emphasised that it was important to reassure the student that she’s not at fault and that she’s not being judged. Rather it is the member of staff who has abused the power dynamic and is at fault. This was a real case and, because the student didn’t get good support in the university, she ended up dropping out.

Neither trainer suggested anything that might help address the power imbalance – for example, university codes of behaviour explicitly stating that it is gross misconduct to pay or attempt to pay (with money, benefits, or threats) a student for sexual services or favours. Had such a policy been in place, the student would have been in a stronger position and the lecturer might have thought twice about this behaviour.

But again – the Leicester team seems to have absolutely zilch interest in any kind of preventive measures.

Case study: Mark

“Mark is a 20-year-old LGBTQ+ male undergrad student. He is not out in regard to his sexuality to any of his friends or family and has been working as a sugar baby for wealthy men. He was persuaded to make an account on Seeking Arrangement because they offer students a free account and he read an article saying he could make money by going on dates for food and drinks and wouldn’t have to sleep with anyone. However, now he is struggling as he has discovered this couldn’t be further from the truth and all of his clients are expecting sex at the end of their dates. He has had his first paid sex date and felt uncomfortable with the situation. He is unsure of how to keep safe and unsure of how he feels about his involvement in full-service sex work. He says this ‘isn’t what [he] signed up for’.”

The spokesperson for the group said that the key issues that came up in their discussion were whether in fact the first paid sex date was an assault because he didn’t sign up for that – and whether he wants to be in the sex industry as such and if he does, how he could keep himself safer.

During the discussion, Trueman ridiculed this unfortunate young man, saying with a chuckle, “People are not going to pay loads of money just to go out for dinner with him. That’s a complete myth.”

This is infuriating, because how was he to know that – especially when Seeking Arrangement and similar offer free accounts to students and no one had warned him what it would involve? This exposes the complete failure of the Leicester team’s approach. Instead of focusing on warning students of all the dangers, on helping them deconstruct the myths and euphemisms, and on explaining that accepting a free account based on their university email address is not wise, because it could be used to identify you – Trueman ridicules a student for his naivety. So much for non-judgement!

She said that she thought that Mark was probably “not working safe”. But again, this seems like victim blaming because how is he to know how to keep safe, when she herself is insisting that the sex industry is normal work? And how is it possible to be “safe” anyway when you are obliged to accept sex that under any other circumstances would be considered rape?

She then went on to say that if he really doesn’t want to stay in the industry, you might want to look at employment options and financial support, because “a lot of people think that sex workers can just leave the industry when they can’t.” This we do agree with. We know from women’s testimony how easily women get trapped in the industry and find it hard to leave. Sometimes the barriers to exiting are formidable. This is yet another reason why it really isn’t just a normal job.

So why doesn’t the Leicester team warn young people about this? Why instead do they continually insist “sex work is real work” when very clearly it isn’t? And why do they refuse to recommend any services that prioritise support for exiting the industry?

Conclusion

Of all the aspects of the Leicester approach that I have investigated, I found this training session the most disturbing. The case studies demonstrate exactly what we have been saying in our critiques: that students need to be warned about the realities and dangers of the sex industry; that students should have better financial options; that involvement in the sex industry tends to be incompatible with the rigours of academic life; and that the last thing that students need is a university celebrating an industry that is uniquely dangerous, predatory and sexist, and falsely positioning involvement in it as normal work.

This training session oozes cognitive dissonance. The three case studies clearly show that involvement in the sex industry is not a normal job and that it does not usually come about as a result of a fully informed free choice from a number of viable options. And yet on the side of one of the slides was the following text:

“We’re not at the point yet where sex work is seen just as work and sex workers are seen just as human beings.”

This session demonstrated that involvement in the sex industry is damaging in ways that other jobs are not and that young people starting out at university tend to be naïve and ill equipped to understand the risks involved.

That some young women claim to be satisfied with their life in the sex industry does not let the Leicester team off the hook. Rather it is an indictment of a society, culture and educational system that together groom girls to see themselves as sex objects and to accept a life of objectification and service to men’s needs rather than their own. Girls and young women are in urgent need of tools to critique and resist this culture, not more of the same.

Surely if the Leicester team really saw these young people as human beings, they would be focused on explaining the risks, of cautioning them against accepting those free accounts from the pimping websites, and on helping them understand that while working in retail or hospitality might pay less in the short term, it is probably a much better option in the long term?

And surely, they would be encouraging universities to develop robust systems to ensure that all students have decent options for funding their studies and living expenses, and that no student is put in a situation where the sex industry is their only option? And surely, they would be encouraging universities to revise their codes of conduct to define any attempt to pay or blackmail a student into providing sexual access or sexual service as gross misconduct?

Instead, they are taking public money to promote an approach that will almost certainly lead to more young people being drawn into an industry that risks devastating their well-being and life prospects. This seems to me to be a form of profiteering from the industry, a form of pimping – sex trafficking under international law. A Ghislaine Maxwell style of sex trafficking – grooming and enticement for the benefit of endless nameless men – while doing pretty well out of it materially themselves.

Shame on all who are facilitating this – especially the University of Leicester and the ESRC.

We encourage universities to instead engage with our Handbook for Universities, which sets out an alternative and holistic approach, and to contact us for their training needs.

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2 thoughts on “Distorting mirrors: The second Leicester student “sex work” training session

  1. God what have we come to where our young women are being encouraged to sell themselves to whatever kind of punter will stump up a few quid? Good marketing idea of course: fresh young students, some very bright, and a renewed fresh supply of talent each year means the punters will be salivating.
    Of course it’s a bit tough on those young students who don’t play the game this way when they find punters figuring all students are fair game isn’t it?
    Almost takes us back to that old alpha male trope that “All women want it, you just have to push hard enough or pay enough”.
    Don’t get sucked into these dangerous people’s cancelling of language that describes the reality of this sordid business. They want to use the “positive” phrases because they won’t face the reality of what it is they are promoting. Prostitution isn’t like having a part-time job flipping big Macs!
    These clowns who call themselves experts on this dirty game want society to reach a point where nothing is beyond the pale because everything is “inclusive” and everybody lives happy ever after.
    Nobody should revel in a girl or woman having to sell herself in this manner, nor should they degrade/despise any of them who can be helped out of it, but by God we should never reach a position where we tell our daughters it’s a bloody career opportunity!

  2. I wholly endorse Peter Jones’ comments, but would also say that it all smells like the Paedophile Information Exchange of the 1960s/70s. Many students are still children, away from their parents and normal supportive background for the first time, and keen to “fit in” as new adults. All sex material is described as “adult”, giving it an allure that is not in any way merited. I used to work in the rehabilitation of sex offenders, and can say that very many seem perfectly decent until you get to know them. What chance does an 18 or 19 year old have?
    There needs to be proper funding for a proper education. Universities have been demeaned by their accessibility and courses are provided simply to make money. Student grants should be reinstated, in order that a normal part-time job would provide sufficient pocket-money.

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