In early May 2021, we published an article about the University of Leicester’s student “sex work” policy and toolkits (one for staff and one for students). These were launched at a public event in December 2020 and put in the public domain with claims that they represent “best practice”.
Our article robustly challenged this claim and provided detailed reasoning as to why they were not only NOT best practice, but also extremely dangerous, because they normalise and legitimise the sex trade. In effect, the Leicester team is promoting the sex industry and grooming young people to consider it a viable option for (mainly) young women to gain an income and for young men to consider it ethical “sexual entertainment”. The university is benefiting from that – which sounds awfully close to pimping to me. Not only that, but they began an 18-month project to promote the approach laid out in these documents to other universities all around the UK.
Since then, perhaps in response to our work and concern expressed by others, the team behind the project withdrew the documents from the project pages on the university website and uploaded a revised version of the staff toolkit. Apparently, the student toolkit is being rewritten.
The project pages also indicate that funding has been extended until the end of 2023, which implies that the original 18-month project has been doubled to now run for three years.
In this article we provide a detailed response to the updated staff toolkit.
Update 13 March 2022: This week we have received an email from Professor Alison Park, the ESRC interim executive chair, saying that the development of the toolkit and training are no longer being funded by the ESRC. Furthermore, we have noticed that the updated staff toolkit analysed in this article is no longer available on the project webpages.
The updated staff toolkit
The updated staff toolkit has been released without following normal protocols that specify that publication date and version/edition number should be clearly shown. As a result, people reading the updated document for the first time have no way of knowing that they are looking at a new version and it is hard for people who did see the earlier version to track changes.
Perhaps most significantly, the University of Leicester’s name has been completely removed from the updated document. It is now entitled “Student Sex Work Toolkit for Staff in Higher Education” and is attributed to three individuals.
In addition, it is now branded with an image of a red umbrella rather than the university’s crest. The red umbrella is a symbol of the so-called “sex workers’ rights movement”. This might sound like a good thing that few could object to. The reality, however, is a little more complicated.
The “sex workers’ rights movement” aims to normalise prostitution and to end all state regulation and legislation pertaining to the sex industry so that prostitution is considered a normal job. This approach to policy and legislation is known as full decriminalisation (full decrim) and would legalise the entire industry, including advertising, pimping, brothel-keeping, and buying sex.
Proponents of full decrim frequently claim that “all sex workers” are on board with these aims – but this is simply not true. The Nordic Model Now! group includes women who have lived experience of the sex trade who are vehemently opposed to full decrim, and we are in touch with many other such individuals and organisations in the UK and around the world who are similarly opposed to it.
Many high-profile advocates of the “sex workers’ rights movement” who claim to be “sex workers” have a documented history of pimping, brothel keeping, or profiting from women’s prostitution in some other way. Some have been very successful and have succeeded in infiltrating high level organisations, including Amnesty International and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Advocates of full decrim are increasingly referred to as sex trade expansionists – because the normalisation and legitimisation of the sex industry that comes with full decrim inevitably leads to its expansion and more women and girls being drawn into and harmed within it.
That this toolkit is now branded with the red umbrella symbol removes any doubt that the team behind it have a partisan political allegiance aligned with the interests of the pimps, individual and corporate, who would benefit from the expansion of the sex industry, and that this informs what they’re doing.
I will now pick out a few of the more egregious aspects of the updated staff toolkit, under headings that correspond to those in the document.
This section provides examples of groups who contributed “practical knowledge” to the toolkit including: National Ugly Mugs, SWARM, the English Collective of Prostitutes, and Umbrella Lane.”
All of these organisations are sex trade expansionists and lobby for full decrim. With the exception of Umbrella Lane, they are all members of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), a condition of membership of which is viewing “sex work” as normal work and opposition to all forms of criminalisation, including of clients, “managers”, brothel keepers, “partners”, drivers, and landlords.
“Who are the student sex workers”
At least the previous version of the staff toolkit acknowledged that the majority of student “sex workers” are women. Bizarrely this universally recognised fact has been removed from the new version.
The only explanation that I can come up with for this astounding omission is that the Leicester team refuses to acknowledge the fact that the sex industry is a profoundly gendered phenomenon and that many consider it the cornerstone of the entire patriarchal system. Let’s face it, normalising and legitimising the system that underpins the enduring and often brutal inequality suffered by women isn’t a good look, especially when you position yourself as advocates for the most marginalised and oppressed.
“Why do students enter the sex industry?”
This section starts by saying that students enter the sex industry to raise money for living costs, their “quality of life” and to avoid debt. It draws particular attention to students who have responsibilities for children or others, and disabled and overseas students. It then says:
“Many other jobs simply do not pay enough for students to sustain themselves. Sex work allows for flexible working hours and has earning potential which usually exceeds that of other employment options available to students.” [Our emphasis]
This statement is appalling. It is not only misleading but is also likely to encourage the most vulnerable students into the sex industry.
An earlier section of the document defines “sex work” as an “umbrella term which includes web cam performers, actors and actresses in pornography, dancers in strip clubs, escorts, sugar babies, dominatrixes, phone-sex operators, as well as those selling sex indoor [sic] and outside premises”.
One of our many criticisms of the “sex work” term is that it conflates many different practices. While all of them come with serious and significant risks and involve intimate pandering to the consumers who are almost entirely male, there are also differences, including in typical earnings. While the headline earnings may sound great, after the third parties have taken their cut and all the overheads and preparation and promotion time are taken into account, the net income is usually much less.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the average net income from prostitution is 24.2% of gross, as we explain in the A Holistic Approach to Student Financial Hardship chapter of our Handbook for Universities.
Our handbook also explains the extreme, exploitative business models that are a theme running through all aspects of the sex industry and how these often serve to trap women in debt and/or intolerable situations, while continuing to bring in money for the multitude of third party profiteers.
When these realities and the havoc that involvement in the sex industry so often plays on women’s lives are taken into account, it becomes a much less attractive option. But you wouldn’t know this from reading this staff toolkit – and nor would the students at institutions that rely upon its advice and training from the Leicester team. It would appear that the Leicester team have absolutely zero interest in warning students and staff of the downsides of involvement in the industry. Which is further evidence of their sex trade expansionist aims.
The final paragraph in this section is about the pimping websites (euphemistically described as “online adult platforms”) and how they target students during freshers’ week, often with the offer of free accounts. The toolkit acknowledges that many students are unaware that these are not regular dating sites and become distressed to find that sex is part of the arrangement whether they like it or not. But even this doesn’t make the Leicester team suggest ways of warning students of the real nature of these websites, nor measures universities could take to warn off the website owners from contacting their students.
What more evidence is necessary to know that the Leicester team is not working in the best interest of students?
“What difficulties do student sex workers face?”
Like the previous version of the staff toolkit, the new version puts the main difficulties down to other people’s attitudes (“stigmatisation” and “negative judgement”). It does recognise “fear of” abuse and violence as a “concern” – but not the actual abuse and violence that are endemic in the sex industry. Nor is there any recognition of the well documented devastating physical and psychological impacts of involvement in the sex industry, nor of the negative impact on cognitive ability and academic work.
Please see our handbook for a realistic account of the risks, dangers, harms and exploitative business practices that are rife in the sex industry, along with references.
“Legality of sex work (UK)”
This section heading refers to the UK, yet bizarrely it starts with the statement “There are four different legal models pertaining to sex work” followed by a biased and misleading explanation of each of these models, even though none of them are implemented in England, Wales or Scotland.
It says full decrim “is advocated for by all sex-worker led groups globally.” This is a lie. #Intedinhora in Sweden, Network Ella in Germany, Wahine Toa Rising in New Zealand, and Kwanele in South Africa, are just a few of the groups led by women who have lived experience of prostitution who campaign tirelessly against full decrim and for the Nordic Model approach.
This is further evidence that the Leicester team are motivated, not by concern for the welfare of students, but by the political goals of promoting the expansion of the sex industry.
Their explanation of the law in England and Wales says:
“Offences like controlling, inciting and causing prostitution can be used against anyone who associates with a sex worker. For example, if a sex worker is driven to an appointment by a friend, this friend is subject to criminal sanctions.”
This is extraordinary. Not only are these laws about third parties grooming and controlling those involved in prostitution for gain, but prosecutions are extremely rare. In 2019, the latest year for which data is available, there were only 68 prosecutions for these offences – at least some of which would not have translated into convictions. This is a tiny number given that there are estimated to be around 100,000 people involved in prostitution in the UK. We do not believe that there is any evidence to suggest that friends simply driving women to a prostitution appointment are being criminally sanctioned.
Later it says that “sharing premises with another sex worker” is illegal. Again, this is misleading. There is no law against selling sex in a brothel in England and Wales. There are laws against brothel keeping and assisting in the management of a brothel. However, CPS guidelines say that these should be focused on “those who organise the selling of sex and make a living from the earnings”.
CPS data shows that in 2019, there were only 70 prosecutions for brothel keeping offences in England and Wales. Again, we don’t know how many of those prosecutions resulted in a conviction, but regardless, this is a tiny number given that a 2016 police study identified 65 brothels in Bristol alone.
Why would the Leicester team wish to misrepresent the reality so parlously if not because their main motivation is to bring about the full decriminalisation of the entire sex trade? If the truth that brothels are practically decriminalised in England and Wales already – provided they are fairly discreet – was widely known, their arguments for full decriminalisation become much weaker.
The section on offering support to students has been slimmed down from two pages to only one. Most of our previous criticisms remain valid, however, except that the exhortation to “ensure” students are “safe within their work” has now gone. This seems to be an implicit acknowledgement of our criticism that no one can deliver on this promise because there is no way of making this most dangerous of occupations “safe”. Instead, there is advice to “Ensure you are aware of how to signpost students following a harm reduction approach to sex work.” There is no explanation of what this means exactly.
There is no guidance on the importance of staff following standard disclosure, confidentiality and safeguarding protocols. And there is no acknowledgement that there might be situations where there is a professional responsibility to break a student’s confidentiality – for example, where there are serious safeguarding concerns.
The advice to not involve the police is even more extreme. The old version modified the advice to not inform the police with “unless the student has specifically asked for help doing this, or an individual is in immediate danger.” The new version says: “Don’t involve the police, even if this is done with the best intentions. The police are often involved in the harassment, arrest and deportation of sex workers.” So now it would seem that there’s to be no support for students who do want help to report a sexual or violent crime to the police.
The list of external support services is much the same as in the previous version. Again it is limited to services that support full decrim and excludes those that do not support it, and those that are focused on providing exiting services.
That the toolkit lists the legal routes for getting into the sex industry but not a single route out gives yet another lie to Leicester’s claim that its motivation is students’ welfare.
The revision of the staff toolkit has done little to address the many criticisms of the original version and in some ways, it is now even worse. It reads as a propaganda document. That it is being promoted to universities around the UK with public money is of extreme concern.
This is not simply a matter of free speech. It is a matter of national policy. That the Leicester team is promoting the sex industry like this poses real risks to the well-being of the most vulnerable students and is likely to set equality between the sexes back decades.
Even though they have acknowledged that male staff blackmailing students about their involvement in the sex industry is a significant problem, nowhere does the toolkit advise universities to explicitly define such behaviour as gross misconduct – nor purchasing or attempting to purchase sexual services from students. This is something we recommend in our Handbook for Universities, which senior Leicester staff have told us they have read. But alas to no avail.
It’s not enough that Leicester has removed its name and logo from the staff toolkit and made some changes. We call for it to be revoked, for the ESRC to stop funding the project, and for a new approach based on our handbook.
If you haven’t already, please sign and share our petition to add your voice to the call to Leicester and the ESRC to put an end to this damaging project.