This is an edited transcript of our 21 November 2021 webinar to launch the Nordic Model Now! Handbook for Universities.
Olivia: Welcome everyone! We’ve got some brilliant speakers with us today, but before I introduce them, I just want to give you a quick content warning about the webinar. The handbook, and therefore the webinar, contains material, that at times, is graphic and explicit. I’m sure that most of you are already aware, that in order to discuss the reality of the sex industry, we need to address the very unpleasant nature of it. There is a possibility that this could be triggering to some of you, in particular survivors of sexual violence. So, if it gets too much, please feel free to take some time out.
The handbook is a response to the University of Leicester launching a student “sex work” toolkit in late 2020 and their announcement that they’ve received funding from the ESRC for a two-year project to roll it out to universities throughout the UK.
Leicester claims that the toolkit is aimed at supporting “students who are sex workers” but it actually reads more like a guide to getting into the sex trade and it fails to provide substantial support for students in difficulties. For example, there’s no mention of the risk of boyfriends and others coercing young women into the industry. And there’s no mention of services focused on helping women to exit the sex trade. There’s also no consideration of the impacts that it has on men and their understanding of consent.
When the Nordic Model Now! (NMN) group was discussing what we could do about the Leicester toolkit, someone had the bright idea of writing an alternative. Six months later, here we are launching it!
The timing is good because the issue’s gained quite a lot of media coverage lately. Last week Diane Abbott MP tweeted about the “sex worker” training at Durham University and this provoked quite a reaction. There were several articles in the mainstream media. But none of them mentioned that the training isn’t unique to Durham. It was actually the Leicester team who were behind that training and they’ve now delivered the same training to about 60 universities across the UK and close to 1,000 staff and students. So, there’s really no time to lose.
In a minute I’m going to give you a quick preview of the handbook. But first I am thrilled to introduce our first speaker, Andrea Heinz. Andrea is a Canadian feminist who got involved in the sex industry as a heavily indebted young woman. She spent seven years in the licensed commercial sex trade as an escort, dominatrix, and brothel owner.
She’s now a sex trade abolitionist, and she works to educate both professionals and the public about sexual exploitation and the harms of the “sex work” ideology.
Unfortunately, Andrea can’t be with us today in person but we’re going to play a recording that she prepared earlier. This is available as a separate transcript.
Thank you, Andrea, for that and for covering so much.
Before we go on to our other speakers, I’m going to give you a brief introduction to the handbook.
First off, there’s a foreword by Kathleen Richardson, who you’re going to hear speaking in a few minutes. I just want to read you a quote that I think sums up what the university experience should be. She says:
“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.”
Then we come onto the introduction, which explains what the handbook is about and what we hope to achieve from it. Contributors to the handbook included people who have lived experience of the industry, as well as professors, support workers, health care professionals, lawyers, and social workers. So, there’s a great deal of expertise that’s gone into it.
And then the terminology; at NMN we don’t use the term “sex worker” because we don’t want to reinforce the idea that being prostituted is the same as having a normal job.
The second chapter is Why now? It provides an introduction to how we got here. One of the things is student finance. Some of you may remember back when education in England and Wales was completely free. When I went to university there were fees but it’s gone up a lot since then, and now they are at an all-time high.
Some people may think “It doesn’t matter because I’m not going to repay my student loan”. But because the rents have increased so much, some students find that they haven’t got enough money to live on – meaning that they might be forced into the sex industry for survival.
Another factor is the pornification of culture and the normalisation of the sex industry. And certainly, something that I’ve noticed in the last decade is that on mainstream television you sometimes hear men talking about watching pornography, as if it’s the most normal thing to do.
Then there is self-objectification, which is when women and girls internalise their own objectification because of the relentless exposure to the sexual objectification of women on TV, in newspapers, magazines, adverts, everywhere.
The third chapter is on university policy and codes of behaviour, which is obviously crucial for policy makers. The key aim should be that students don’t have to resort to the sex industry because of a lack of other options. We’ve heard about the financial difficulties that many students are facing – so policy needs to make sure that there is support for students who are struggling financially.
We don’t think that we should talk about the sex industry in isolation. We need to remember the impact it has on the consumers as well as those involved in it. And, any policy around the sex industry needs to be part of a wider holistic response to sexism, sexual harassment, and abuse, which unfortunately are at an all-time high in universities.
Chapter 4 is about what we mean by the sex industry. There’s quite a wide range of things involved. We heard from Andrea earlier about the physical and mental health issues that can come from prostitution. But I think that a lot of people think that webcamming isn’t that bad in comparison. So, I just want to read you a quote from someone who was actually involved in webcamming at university.
“Abbey started webcamming when she was at university. It seemed so much smarter than doing a menial, minimum wage job. And she was dismissive of her parents’ concerns. What did they know anyway? However, it wasn’t long before it went badly wrong. One of her clients identified her and started stalking her. It was so terrifying that she had no choice but to turn to the police. They were initially helpful but he remains at large and a serious threat.
So, now she can’t do anything online with a public profile because of the risk that he’s going to find her. She’s got maximum privacy settings on all of her accounts and has to avoid some platforms completely. Now she’s graduated and is building her career but she’s not able to publicise her portfolio online because of the continuing risk that he poses. Similarly, she can’t advertise freelance services or even have a LinkedIn account because of the risk that he’s posing. This is a real disadvantage in the field she’s working in because that’s a key way that employers find contractors and potential employees.”
So that’s just one story, which shows some of the issues that wouldn’t necessarily occur to you about webcamming. And then in terms of webcamming being seen as an easy way to make money, a lot of the websites actually take 40–65 percent of the money earned. So, you might go into it thinking you’ll get all this money, but actually half of it is taken off you, immediately.
It’s not much different in stripping and lap dancing, where you have to pay a house fee. So, a significant number of women involved in lap dancing report losing money, rather than making it.
Chapter 5 is a brilliant chapter about a holistic approach to student financial hardship.
Chapter 6 is about supporting students. This is relevant for anyone involved in student pastoral care and also for lecturers or anyone at the university who has contact with students.
This chapter talks about sex work as an identity which is something that Andrea mentioned. I want to read you another quote now from another survivor in this chapter.
“It is impossible to assess the damage while you’re in it, because then you would not do it. So, obviously, you lie to yourself and to everyone else.”
This emphasises that students may not come to you for help, but they do need another voice to counter the sex industry propaganda that they get from almost everywhere else. Unlike the Leicester toolkit, the NMN handbook gives that supportive voice – non-judgemental but also telling the truth, telling it as it is.
[Editor’s note: Olivia inadvertently missed out Chapter 7, which is about combatting sexism and supporting healthy relationships.]
Chapter 8 covers legal matters. Chapter 9 is a message from Andrea Heinz, who we heard speaking earlier. And the final chapter, Chapter 10, is a list of resources.
So that was just a brief introduction to the handbook. Now we’ll move on to our next speaker, who is Professor Kathleen Richardson. Kathleen is a professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI, at De Montfort University, and Director of Women, Ethics, Robots, AI, and Data (WERAID). As I mentioned earlier, Kathleen wrote the Foreword to the handbook, and she’s a real expert in this area. I’m really excited to hear from her. So, Kathleen, take it away!
Kathleen Richardson: Thank you very much. I was really taken with what NMN has done with the handbook and also Andrea’s contribution, which I thought was astounding – so once the video goes online, please share it with as many people as possible. I’m thinking about how I can share it with other academics. It was absolutely brilliant.
As you can see by reading the NMN handbook, it is informed by survivors. No one who was involved in writing it was paid by the taxpayers or by anyone else, and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) hasn’t given NMN hundreds of thousands of pounds to roll it out widely. It really does come from the grassroots. So that itself is something that makes it very different from the Leicester “sex worker” toolkit.
What I want to do today is to give you a bit of an idea what it’s like to be an academic in a university today. When I started studying, which was a very long time ago, it was at university and among left wing academics that I first came across the word “sex work”. Now that idea of “sex work” and “sex workers” is deeply embedded in the language of universities. All the academic departments, including anthropology, sociology, and psychology use this term.
I’m going to talk about the term in a minute, but its dissemination as a term, to describe what happens in prostitution, is now ubiquitous across the academy. And I think that really needs to be addressed, because, personally, when I first used the term, I thought I was being kind. I actually thought that rather than use the word prostitute, which derides the human being, I thought that if I use this word “sex worker” then I’m being an ally. I’m showing my allyship to women in prostitution.
When I was introduced to the term it was actually by a left wing academic, who said something like, what does it matter if you sell your vagina or you sell your hand, it’s all part of the labour relations.
Looking back, it’s very disappointing that that was the only perspective that I was exposed to. I was not exposed to a radical feminist perspective. I was not exposed to a survivor abolitionist perspective. And, anyone who basically challenged those points of view was told that they were sex negative or prudish.
Even in my own work around porn bots, if you rail against them in anyway, it is suggested that you have a problem with sex.
So, the first thing I’d like to do is talk about the problems with the term “sex work”, and why we should never use that term. I stopped listening to academics, and basically, pimps, about what they thought prostitution was, and I started listening to sex trade survivors. And one of those survivors was Rachel Moran, who wrote the book Paid For. And in that book, she says that prostitution is neither sex nor work.
Why is it not “sex work”? Well it’s not sex because sex is between I and you, it’s between the I and you, somebody else. And it can only ever exist between the I and the you. It can’t exist anywhere else. And it can’t be work because you can’t extract it in the same way that you can when you are working in other kinds of industries.
What you are actually doing by using this term is saying that you can be paid to be sexually abused. That’s what this term is communicating to people. Because the vast majority of people in prostitution are not getting any sexual excitement from it, they’re not gaining any pleasure from it. What they are doing is renting out their body, making it accessible to somebody, for a very specific period of time.
The “sex work” lobby use this language to reframe prostitution as a service industry. To give you an idea of how sanitising the language is, I’m going to read out some of the services that you can buy in prostitution.
You can buy anal, fist anal, fist fucking, “everything with a rubber”, “playing with shit and sperm”; double penetration, licking of the balls, blowjob with or without rubber, gangbang, ejaculating on the face, group sex, man shits on woman, one woman between two men, and without taboo, lick the anus. Where’s that list from? It’s from a German brothel.
So, this is the kind of thing, this is the kind of “work”, that’s being promoted to students through the Leicester university “sex work” toolkit, which I’m sure didn’t itemise all those different “services”. But that’s the reality of it. This is what really happens in the sex industry. You are offering over your body.
The men who visit prostituted women know they can’t get what they are looking for in a consensual way. Their sense of entitlement is such that they want to be able to pay for what they want. And what they want is a version of the pornographic abuse that they’ve seen. There’s a big market for that now.
We’ve got to move away from this. We’ve got to challenge anyone in the academic community who uses the “sex work” term. When someone says it to me, I say; I don’t use that term. I don’t think prostitution is sex or work. It’s paid abuse and sexual exploitation. And I say, the reason I don’t use that term is because I listen to sex trade survivors. I began to look into their lives and read their stories about what they’d experienced. That’s what radically changed my point of view.
Unfortunately, the survivor’s perspective is not well represented in universities. The prostitution lobby’s perspective, the pink lobby’s perspective, is well represented in universities. So, one of the things that we’re thinking of doing is having a meeting on Wednesday for any academics in the audience.[*] And thinking how we can begin to change the conversation in universities. Because, just as Andrea said, if she had been offered a different perspective, a different way of looking at what the sex industry was; she may have made different choices. But I can guarantee that these other perspectives are not being well represented.
It’s one thing for academics to believe that “sex work” is work but it’s quite another thing to have a university body endorse a toolkit about that. That moves beyond just an academic point of view to an institutionalised framework within the academy.
This pro-prostitution perspective has been endorsed by the universities who approve the Leicester university “sex worker” toolkit – and it’s been taken up by other universities.
I hadn’t heard about this “sex worker” toolkit at my university. So, that got me thinking, has it been introduced at my university without my knowledge? If it has, who decided that they were going to endorse this particular way of understanding prostitution?
So, I want to stress to any academics in the audience: find out whether your university has introduced this toolkit in any way.
And we’ve got to start thinking about how we can transform this language, this sanitisation of sexual exploitation, as some kind of cool lifestyle choice. Students need to be exposed to alternative points of view – all the different narratives.
Universities should be a place where you encounter very many different perspectives. Not where you only hear a sanitised version. And I’m sorry that was my experience going through university at Cambridge and UCL. Those were my formative experiences. And this kind of sanitised language is dominant there. We really need to challenge that.
I also want to challenge the idea of the “happy hooker”. I’m writing a chapter for my book, because, I look at the intersections between pornography and technology and how, basically we are creating a new range of technological objects, that are like pornographic versions of women. They’re known as “sex robots” but they are really porn bots.
I came across something from ancient Greece, and it reminded me of this “happy hooker” narrative: the idea that somehow you can be safe and happy in prostitution. And what they used to do in ancient Greece is – I’m going to read it out, it’s from Alexis Assuri, and it’s about slave prostitutes. She says:
“Does she have healthy teeth, by force she’s kept laughing, so that the customers can see what a dainty mouth she has. If she doesn’t like to laugh, she must spend the day indoors, with a twig of myrrh upright between her lips, like a goat’s head displayed in this way at the butcher’s shop, so that the customers will buy them. That way in time she smiles, whether she likes it or not.”
Olivia: Thank you, Kathleen. That was really powerful. It’s positive to know that there are people working in academia as professors who actually do agree with us and do see the harms of the “sex work” ideology.
Our next speaker is Lilly. Lily is a survivor of prostitution and sex trafficking. She is also a person-centred therapist working with victims and survivors of sexual violence. Lily co-wrote the handbook chapter on supporting students. So, that’s really great that we’ve got her here to speak to you today. So, take it away Lily
Lily: Thank you Olivia.
I’m here with two hats on today. First of all I’m speaking as a former student, who, at a young age, was involved in the sex industry. And, I’m also speaking as a professional, and looking at the different ways that, regardless of what field we are in, as professionals we can support students who might be involved in the sex industry.
So, first of all I’m going to talk a little bit about my experience as a student. From the age of about 17 up until I was 22, I was in an abusive relationship with a man who was about the same age as me.
While I was at university I was desperately trying to work as many jobs as I could. I was cleaning, I was doing shifts as a youth worker. I was doing anything I could to bring money in. Because each month when my student finance money came in, or any wages came in, he would be there with my debit card. He would take all that money out of my account and spent it on what he wanted. He wasn’t contributing anything at all – so all the responsibility was on me.
Each month, no matter how much I tried, he would get there before me. And it meant that there was no gas or electricity on the meter. It meant that I couldn’t afford to pay the rent. It meant that everything was kind of falling apart around me and I couldn’t sustain it.
And one day he came up with the idea of me, sleeping with one of his friends, and his friend paying for that privilege. And what with my past history of trauma and the things that had happened to me previously, I didn’t have the energy to argue with him. I was already in an abusive relationship, I was already being raped and beaten by him on a regular basis, and I didn’t have the energy to say no. I don’t think I necessarily said yes either but I didn’t have the energy to say no.
This continued, and it kept escalating, and it kept getting worse, and there were times when it was many of his friends at once, where the violence kept increasing. Because, this was a man who was into BDSM and he would bring those aspects into it when he sold me to his friends. And his family, actually. [sigh]
It reached a point where I wasn’t managing at all. And that’s an aspect that the university of Leicester toolkit doesn’t acknowledge. It doesn’t acknowledge that boyfriends can be the perpetrators in this. And it misses the violence and the danger involved with that.
It escalated to the point where not only was I experiencing the torture involved in “the BDSM aspects” of the sexual violence, but also the humiliation that came with it.
At one point he was hungry, and we had no food in. Chances are we probably didn’t have any electricity to cook any food anyway. And all he wanted was a takeout pizza, So, he sold me to his cousin, so that he could get that pizza.
The humiliation of that being all I was worth. It’s really stuck with me. And, it’s something that I keep coming back to. No matter, how much I try and move to a different point.
This had a number of impacts on me. The first and most visible of which is that I ended up leaving Uni without my degree. I ended up leaving with a diploma of higher education, which is a valid qualification, but it’s not what I went to university for.
I went to Uni so that I could leave with a BA in the subject that I had chosen. And, that ended up being not possible for me, because, just as I started my third year, when I should have been working seriously on my dissertation, my life fell apart. I was trying to leave this abusive relationship. I was trying to get away from my family who were also abusive. And I effectively had a massive breakdown.
I was stuck in this place where I was self-harming, I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t coping. I was depressed. I hated myself. And I was filled with so much shame, I just couldn’t function on a daily basis.
I was able to get a little bit of help and a bit of support with that – which did involve some Uni tutors, but mostly a youth work charity that I was working with. And they helped me to leave both situations, get my own flat, and get on disability benefits.
But it meant that I was then stuck in this small studio flat, which, was actually, quite nice. But I filled it with so much, for lack of a better phrase, darkness, that it ended up being a really awful place for me. It was a place where I would end up, curled up, on the floor just screaming, trying to deal with both the psychological and physical ramifications of what I’d experienced.
Eventually, I got shoved into therapy. At least I was very much encouraged that it would be a good thing for me. But I completely rejected this as an idea, because I’d done my time. I’d done my six sessions of CBT over and over with the NHS. I didn’t believe that anybody could really help me.
So, I got sent off to this therapist, who I gave exactly one hour to prove herself to me. I was convinced that she wouldn’t succeed and that I would walk out the door, and would never try it again. But somehow in those 60 minutes she was able to convince me to stay and to engage with that process. And, I was able to do that, and I did so for very many years! In fact, I’m still working with her now.
Eventually I was able to reach a place where I could see some kind of value in myself, and some kind of worth in myself. Both of which were completely stripped away from me because of my experiences. And, because of that I was able to rebuild my life. I was able to be in a romantic, loving, caring, relationship, and to get married, and to be thinking about kids. And, I was able to retrain and go back to Uni, and get the degree that I always wanted. And to move to a different place in my life. A place where I can now sit here and talk to you, and other professionals, about what we can offer as professionals, to students that might be involved in the sex industry.
We included the Supporting Students chapter in our handbook for two very distinct reasons. In fact there’s a thousand reasons, but there’s two that I’m going to talk about.
One is that the Leicester toolkit focuses on this idea of keeping students safe. And, that left us with the question of: How? How can you make something that is so implicitly violent, safe? How can you make something safe when it consists of things like choking, anal fisting, torture, abuse, violence, and even death and murder? That’s not something you can make safe. And, that doesn’t constitute supporting students that might be involved in the sex industry.
The other reason is that the Leicester toolkit talks about being non-judgemental. But it doesn’t explain what that might truly involve in practice.
One of the things we talk about, in our handbook, is “sex work” as an identity. It’s understandable, that young people or anybody involved in the sex industry, might want to see it as something that requires a special status, that needs special protections. As we’ve already talked about, when you’re in it, you do not want to acknowledge the reality of what you are experiencing. It’s a lot easier to see it with this positive view, this “happy hooker” view as Kathleen mentioned. Because you can’t survive something that horrific whilst at the same time acknowledging it.
That puts us, as professionals, in a difficult position. If we collude with the idea that it’s a normal occupation, that it’s something empowering, that it’s a choice, we can end up legitimising it and normalising the abuse and violence that’s involved. And that constricts the services we can offer.
We’ve heard of cases where a therapist has suggested other options, and the client has turned around and put in a formal complaint, and claimed that it’s a violation of their “sex work” identity. And if we’re in a position as professionals where we can’t acknowledge the violence and abuse that’s inherent in that industry, then we can’t support those students without risking our professional status.
In support services, we generally don’t take presenting issues at face value. For example, if we’re working with an eating disorder or addiction, we don’t start agreeing with clients when they say they’re fat and they need to lose weight. We shouldn’t do that when we’re working with students who are involved in the sex industry. Even if they tell us it’s “sex work”, even if they tell us that it’s an identity that requires these special protections, even if they tell us that it’s empowering and a choice, we can’t sit there and agree with them. Just as we wouldn’t collude with those with eating disorders.
The risk is that we could end up depriving students of high-quality care, if we accept the idea of “sex work” as an identity.
Another really important aspect that we’ve discussed in the handbook and I’m going to touch on very briefly now, is the idea of neutrality. So, what does being non-judgemental really mean? What does Leicester mean by that? And, how can we be neutral when we’re looking at behaviour that puts other people, and themselves, at risk?
We say that it is possible to maintain an ethical stance and a commitment to your own values whilst offering non-judgemental support to a student.
We can look at examples. There’s an example by Herman who writes a lot about trauma and supporting those who have experienced trauma. And, in the example that we’ve reproduced in the handbook, she talks of working with a woman who had a history of being prostituted and she stole something. What Herman was able to do was to maintain her value that it was wrong; that stealing isn’t something that’s within the law, and isn’t something that she personally valued, and that she, actually, quite struggled with. But she was able to do so in a way that didn’t judge that client, and she was able to help that client find other solutions.
What this example shows, is that we can hold on to our moral compass, we can say “no I don’t agree with this”, but I’m not going to treat you, as a person, any differently for having those views or for having carried out those actions.
It is absolutely possible to critique the sex industry, and the implicit violence that’s within the sex industry, whilst also providing high quality support and not colluding with those ideas.
In the handbook we have a list of dos and don’ts while supporting students. And, some of these might seem like they contradict each other.
If you look at the first two on each list, we’ve got this idea that we should ensure that students are aware that help to exit is available. That’s something that was very much missing from the Leicester toolkit. And, it’s a gap that we notice quite frequently when people talk about the idea of “sex work”. That support, those resources, that advice, that guidance, just isn’t there.
But, at the same time, we shouldn’t be putting pressure on students to exit the sex industry. As we’ve already mentioned, when you are involved in the sex industry, it’s incredibly difficult to recognise the violence, discrimination, and abuse that is inherent within that industry. You have to put on this happy face to be able to survive it.
If you pressure somebody to follow a view that you have, and that they at that time, don’t have; all that’s going to happen is that they are going to disengage from that support and they’re going to get lost.
One thing you should do though, is challenge and notice any incongruence. Suppose a student tells you that somebody they’d been paid to have sex with – again very much keeping in mind what Kathleen said earlier about whether it is or is not sex – and that person choked them, and they were scared and felt like their life was in danger. But then they very quickly follow it up and say they’re completely fine and they are used to it and there’s nothing to worry about, and they’ve got a big happy smile on their face.
You need to notice this. Say something like, “You’ve just been talking about being choked and that’s terrifying, and that’s scary but you had a big smile on your face while you were saying it.”
It’s important to notice the incongruence that’s happening. That difference between what somebody is saying and what they are communicating through their tone of voice, through their body language, through every single aspect of themselves; because sometimes those things just don’t line up.
Another don’t is: don’t work from your own agenda. This is a topic that is massively divisive. There are so many political angles to this and people on different sides. And, regardless of where you fall, you can’t work from your own agenda. Because that risks not only you guiding that student, that person, into whatever you decide is the right direction and the right way of how they should deal with this; but it also means their voice gets missed and they’re not going to be heard. It is so important to listen to all of those voices.
When you’re caught up in a situation, you’re instinctively going to pick the voice that is the most soothing, that is the most likely to keep you surviving that situation. In this scenario, it’s that this is an empowering and wonderful choice and this is something that I have chosen to do, and that I want to do.
That voice is going to be so much more dominant than any other voices, that might be questioning this, that might be actually saying, this is dangerous and I’m scared and I don’t want to do this anymore. As we know, that realisation doesn’t often come until a lot later, often not until they have exited. But that voice is still going to be there at that present moment in time. And, it’s important for us as professionals to listen to all of those voices.
Don’t ignore safeguarding. This is important because if “sex work” becomes a special status then you won’t be able to challenge it. And that might make it hard to safeguard these things. Regardless of where you work and what your policies and procedures are, there’s a very strong chance that there will be a safeguarding need; that a young person that you are working with is at risk, and it can’t be ignored regardless of your political agenda.
Another thing you should do, is to recognise existing trauma. We know that a lot of people who get involved in the sex industry have a history of pre-existing trauma. And, that needs to be acknowledged and addressed – whether it’s addressed in relation to their involvement in the sex industry or not. The resources need to be there for people who feel the need to explore that, if they so choose.
And, don’t aggressively challenge. Even if somebody comes with the view that “sex work” is the absolute best wonderful thing in the world. Yelling and screaming at them that it’s abuse and violence, and it’s something they need to get out of, isn’t going to make any difference. And, again, they’re going to disengage from that support. It’s about hearing somebody, where they’re at. And, also, offering them that wider view, and that reality.
So, what does this look like in practice?
First of all, be clear about confidentiality. Involvement in the sex industry is something that does leave people with a sense of shame and they may well ask you to keep it secret, to not write down notes, to not share it with anybody. You need to be absolutely clear about what your policies and procedures around confidentiality are. You can never guarantee confidentiality, so don’t promise it.
Listen carefully and hear all the problems. In our handbook we have an example of what offering support might look like. And, in that example, we have a young woman who speaks to one of her university tutors. And she talks about how she’s really struggling financially, and how she’s involved in the sex industry.
There are two different things there, and if you focus on one and not the other, then you miss something that is happening. So, if you really focus on that person being involved in the sex industry, and how great and empowering that is, what you’ll miss is the fact that she’s really struggling financially and she might need some help and support with that.
Again, pay attention to all forms of communication. We’ve talked about incongruence. If somebody’s got a very strained voice, or they’ve got a fake smile on their face whilst they’re telling you something that, instinctively, you know can’t be that happy and enjoyable and fun, pay attention to that, notice that, challenge that, gently.
Once again; safeguarding. I can’t emphasise this enough. This is what we have to do whilst in a position of responsibility, and while supporting anybody who might be vulnerable.
Acknowledge past trauma. Refer on. If you don’t know how to deal with this; whether it’s working with past trauma or working with a trauma that’s happening currently. Refer on. Be aware of the services that are available both within university and outside it that might be able to offer a different type of support.
And keep an eye on boundaries. Those who’ve been involved in the sex industry know what it means to have their boundaries violated. Being involved in the sex industry is an inherent violation of boundaries. And resetting those boundaries feels almost impossible, so you need to be able to keep an eye on them. You shouldn’t offer your personal phone number or to be there 24/7. You shouldn’t be the only person that’s there to support them.
It’s about being able to offer true genuine support and help in a way that doesn’t take over, doesn’t take away that person’s power, and doesn’t push against boundaries. Because they’ve already experienced that.
Olivia: Thank you Lily. That was really helpful – particularly knowing that you have lived experience in a UK university relatively recently and that your experience informed the handbook.
I’m sure that a lot of us here will resonate with your experience of having access to six sessions of CBT and it not being helpful. But I’m really pleased for you, that you did manage to get the help you needed in the end. And it’s brilliant that you’re using that experience to help other people.
You are so right that we shouldn’t be judging the women and girls who are being exploited in this industry. But you can judge the activity. So, if you go to university or if you work in a university and you know that a student is taking drugs, then, there’s no need to make a moral judgement about that student, but you can judge the action and the harms it could possibly be leading to, and what kind of care that person needs. And, the same is absolutely true within the sex industry. So, thank you, Lily, for discussing that.
Kathleen: Could I also add to that, to say, Lily, there was so much empathy in your presentation. It demonstrated a real understanding about where people are coming from and what kind of support could be offered. And, I think that complexity and that nuance is totally absent in the Leicester “sex worker” toolkit. There’s no empathy. There’s no, let’s figure out what’s going on in your life, what led you to this place, how can you get support. And how can we as a university provide you with some different kinds of choices. So, it’s really important what you just shared, Lily.
And, I also want to say, I was the first person in my family to go to university. For me education, as a woman, is the way that I have realised my aspirations in life. It’s been an amazing journey of realising potential, meeting with others. It’s a wonderful environment and that’s really the kind of politics that we want to have in a university. And by offering a “sex worker” toolkit, we’re saying; everything is up for sale – the neo-liberal university reigns supreme and everything, whether it’s fees, whether it’s bodies, everything, is up for sale.
And, as academics, and as a community we’ve really got to rail against that and start returning to some of these positive values of empathy and caring for each other. And, valuing women in education.
Olivia: Thank you, Kathleen. And thanks again to Lily.
We’re now going to take a question. This is from Alison who says:
“The UK’s Health and Safety Executive answered my freedom of information request, for information that they had never had a request for safe working protocols. All dangerous reputable jobs have a requirement for safe working practices. If, these are breached people may sue. Many prostituted women are physically and psychologically harmed by the activity. This suggests that the universities haven’t considered, seriously, the health risks inherent to prostitution. What do you think?”
Lily: I haven’t really got much to offer other than saying that yes, it seems like an obvious gap to me too. There’s something very much that’s been missed there. It’s the responsibility of the universities, who in a lot of ways, are taking on a caring responsibility for the young people in their environment, to make sure that they are safe. So, to encourage something that we know is inherently not safe and that comes with it so many risks and so many dangers, it seems like a massive oversight and an incredibly questionable decision to make.
Kathleen: Yes, and again just to say that it is the ideas that reinforce the neo-liberal paradigm that get amplified and reinforced at universities – because, especially in today’s climate, people with economic resources want to be able to access anything, even if that includes other people meeting your sexual needs. And what we’re talking about here is men. It’s nearly 100% men who use prostitution. It’s not really a female endeavour. So, what we are doing by ushering in this “sex work” ideology is normalising the sexist inequalities that already exist in wider society, in the world. And we’re just making them more explicit in universities.
From a Health and Safety perspective, if you run a work shop, you have to fill out a Health and Safety form and specify all the risks that might be involved. And, it just seems that, apparently, students are now expected to participate in these very dangerous practices that are linked to everything Andrea and Lily talked about and also to organised crime and sex trafficking. In adopting the “sex worker” toolkit, universities are saying it’s absolutely fine for students to put themselves in the firing line of traffickers and organised criminals. It’s a gross sanitisation of what is going on, and we should definitely be railing against this affirmation model.
And, Lily, you should definitely be speaking at universities about this more empathetic approach, particularly when working with students who are experiencing financial difficulties.
Lily: Thank you!
Olivia: Yes, and it was really important that Lily was able to work on that chapter of the handbook. And, it’s really important to know that we shouldn’t just go in there with guns blazing with our own view points, but actually we should listen. We shouldn’t try to force women to exit the sex industry because that’s just going to make things harder for them.
Leading on from that, Kathleen and Lily, if we imagine that the handbook were distributed to all the universities, and everyone working in them, everyone creating policy in the university, had access to it, how do you feel that would help students who are there today?
Lily: I think the best way that I could answer that would be thinking about my own experiences and whether the tutors and the university staff around me at the time had access to that.
I was very lucky in that the type of course I did was full of feminists. Absolutely every single one of my teachers were devoted feminists. So, I had a lot of support in that regard but I wasn’t able to disclose everything that was happening to me at that point. I was able to disclose various things in relation to my family, and I can’t really remember, it was quite a long time ago, but I do believe that I disclosed that I was in an abusive relationship at that point.
If I had awareness that they understood the kind of intricacies that are involved in the sex industry, and that they could understand the situation that was happening, without judgement, and without blaming me for it, and being able to recognise it for what it was. I very much see all my experiences as being trafficking, which, in a lot of ways, has been beneficial to me because I don’t get the judgements that are common when you use the word prostitution.
If I had definitely known that they had read this handbook, that they were supportive of this handbook, that they understood and agreed with this handbook, I might have been able to make a fuller disclosure about the things that I was experiencing. And, I might have been able to get the more specific support I needed at that time. I might have been able to stay at university and I might have been able to get that degree the first time round rather than wait for the second time around.
But as it was, they didn’t have, or, I couldn’t be certain that they had that knowledge and that awareness and the understanding. I guess because I’m looking back on the past it’s a lot harder to say how it might have gone, because all I can see is how it did go. I got the best support that I could at that time with what I disclosed.
But the hope is that this handbook offers university staff resources and understanding to offer a different type of support, that doesn’t have that judgement.
Olivia: Thank you, Lily. Kathleen, do you want to say anything about that question as well?
Kathleen: Firstly, Lily’s insight is invaluable. But, I would say, this handbook represents a different kind of politics. Unfortunately, what we are surrounded by today, is the politics of pornography – which I call in my book, the politics of dissociation. It’s continually reinforcing detachment from each other, and normalising mistreatment and lack of empathy between human beings. And it’s the politics that allows the pornography and prostitution industries to thrive. But, unfortunately, it’s kind of embedded in so many academic paradigms.
That has to be taken into account. It’s not enough to just have a document, it needs to be brought to life by people talking about the ideas in it, by people sharing the ideas, by sharing it with your vice chancellors, or, when the issue comes up at your university.
We have to make the document alive by making sure we have conversations with each other about its content. And, then, hopefully, because there’s so much empathy and mutuality in it, people will connect with that. And, I think empathy is very powerful and if we can access that from each other, then hopefully we can start to shift things, and move things.
Olivia: Looking at the questions that have come in through the Q&A box, I’ve seen a lot of themes around classism, and the self-esteem difference in working class students and vulnerability because of that. There was also a question about overseas students not being able to access student loans and whether they’re therefore more vulnerable? Kathleen, would you like to comment on that?
Kathleen: Particularly at the Russell Group universities, there is a huge class, division. I mean it’s very rare at Cambridge and UCL, to see students at undergraduate level, who come from backgrounds where their families are on benefits. I grew up on free school meals, for example, and many of my family members are still on benefits. So that experience of going to university was a struggle financially for me.
What I actually did, before I went to university, was I learned how to type. And, learning how to type 60 words a minute was the best skill I ever learned because alongside being in university I could work in offices or work in part-time jobs with that skill. And you can often get paid a bit more.
So, I do think there are problems in university in terms of class differences, that still persist to this day. And what class students come from when they enter university is an issue that affects students deeply. And of course, poorer students are going to have more financial difficulties.
When universities endorse the Leicester “sex work” toolkit, it’s like they are saying, ‘This [involvement in the sex industry] is something you can do if you want to earn some extra money’. And it will be the students from the poorest backgrounds that are the most vulnerable – or are going to be the losers in this because their options are fewer.
Around the world, it is disproportionately women from the poorest and most marginalised backgrounds who are in prostitution. The image of the upper class “happy hooker” is part of the sanitised version of prostitution that we receive from the media and academics. But it’s not the actual lived reality of the vast majority of women involved in it.
Leicester is a very wealthy university – it’s got a huge space programme. What they could have done is to have reached out to their very extensive alumni community, and had a fundraising drive so that they could offer more bursaries to hard up students. Or something like that, so that when students experience financial difficulties, they could offer bursaries as an alternative. That’s the sort of thing that I’d like to see universities doing.
It is really quite scary that they are endorsing this affirmation model. Meaning that you mustn’t ask questions if a student discloses that they’re in the prostitution trade. And you’re just meant to affirm it. I see that as hugely problematic – especially because we know that the industry is very dangerous as Lily rightfully explained.
Olivia: Thank you Kathleen, that was really helpful. I completely agree with all you said there.
We’re running out of time now, so I am just going to explain how you can get the handbook. It’s available as a free PDF that you can download and also you can get a printed copy in our website shop.
If you are in anyway connected to a university as a student, staff, parent, or in any other way, it would be really great if you could get a copy of the handbook and give it to the student union, and the welfare department, the EDI department. Or, also, it would be really helpful if you could write to the vice chancellor and ask them to use the handbook to inform policy. It’s really important that we get doing this now because we really want to counter the misinformation that is being pushed onto students.
Finally, it would be really great if you could follow us on social media and share our posts. We’ve got loads of information and survivor stories on our website.
And I just want to say thanks again to our panellists – and to all the attendees. Thank you everyone. Goodbye.
[*] Kathleen mentioned in her talk that she would be hosting a meeting for academic staff later that week. This took place and led to an open letter to UK university vice chancellors to reject the currently promoted notion that “sex work is real work.