Surrey University Students’ Union publishes ‘Safety Toolkit for Student Sex Workers’

Surrey University Students’ Union (SU) recently published a Safety Toolkit for Student Sex Workers.

In this article we explain why we believe this Toolkit is misguided and will inevitably fail to achieve its stated aims. We hope that the new leaders will take note and consider whether the Toolkit is in the best interests of the students they represent.

According to the Introduction, the Toolkit was developed by outgoing SU vice president for student support, Oriana Savvidi. There is little doubt that she created it with the very best of intentions. But we all know where good intentions can lead.

Unrealistic aims

The Introduction says, Savvidi “developed this Toolkit, not to encourage students to engage in sex work but to help and support the students who do and to provide them the best guidance to keep them safe.”

Let’s take those assertions in turn.

First, not to encourage students to engage in sex work”.

The toolkit is premised on the understanding that prostitution is a job like any other. The use of the ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ terms throughout implicitly position prostitution as a normal job. But the Toolkit goes further than that. For example, under the heading Personal Care on page 9, it says, “Sex work as with a lot of physical jobs can be both physically and mentally challenging.”

This normalises prostitution and related activities, such as lap dancing and webcamming, and will inevitably lead marginalised young people to think that these are viable options and sensible solutions to financial hardship.

Emily, a member of Nordic Model Now!, explained what happened to her at university when she was desperate for money to pay her rent:

“What if instead of working unpredictable hours that forced me to skip lectures, I could get the same amount of money for an hour in a hotel room? It sounds like a good deal to a teenager who needs quick cash. ‘Prostitution’ was being called ‘sex work’ and promoted as easy money. People were fighting to de-stigmatise it, chanting ‘sex work is real work’. The university allowed the local strip club to hand out leaflets on campus. I was young and impressionable. I was dealing with complex trauma with little to no support from the university, despite my attempts to get help. I bought into the idea that I could earn ‘easy money’ selling myself to men, pay off my debts, succeed in my degree and afford to enjoy my life with my friends.

I was sold a complete lie. It’s not easy money. To the buyer, you are nothing more than an object for their consumption, not an actual human being with emotions. You are expected to just put up with whatever they want to do and say to you. The exchange of money makes them feel entitled to treat you however they like, with no regard for your feelings or consent. Not only that, but the buyers know very well how to push the price down as low as possible – they know that you’re vulnerable and that you need the cash and they have no problem using that to their advantage.

I went into prostitution because I thought it was a short-term route to an easier life. In reality, all it did was further destroy my self-worth. It didn’t pay off any of my debts. I just spiraled into a full-blown mental breakdown. I dropped out of university because I couldn’t cope with the pressure.”

This Toolkit will almost certainly lead to more students having their lives and prospects decimated like Emily’s were.

Second, “to help and support the students who do [sex work] and to provide them the best guidance to keep them safe.”

This sounds great. Of course, we all want everyone involved to be safe. But what can really make a difference to a young person, like Emily, who is trapped in the reality that Emily so brilliantly describes? Imbalance of power and male supremacy is the sex industry’s business model and no amount of “guidance” is going to change that.

Not only is the “guidance” in the Toolkit likely to lead to more young people being drawn into a violent and exploitative industry where the chances are high, they will suffer serious and sometimes life-long harms, but it is also likely to make those enmeshed in the industry feel that it’s their fault if they don’t like it or if anything goes wrong.

‘Safety’ tips that hold the victim responsible

Page 5 of the Toolkit provides a list of “General Safety Tips”. I asked Esther, who has lived experience of prostitution, what she thought of them. She was horrified. Here are some examples in bold, with Esther’s responses following in normal type.

Safety tip #2: “Don’t breach your boundaries and do things you don’t want to, no matter what is offered in terms of money. Show that you are firm on what you want to do and not do, you’re in charge and it is your body.”

Esther: “Don’t breach your boundaries” is nonsense if you’re alone with a buyer who’s determined to get what he wants. Most of the time he will be bigger and stronger than you are.

It’s also nonsense if you’re with another woman or group of women who’ve been booked with you as you will feel peer pressure and the need to keep up with the competition.

It’s a form of victim-blaming to suggest that the onus is on you to stand firm against buyer entitlement.

I was frequently booked with women who did not know what ‘services’ their pimp or escort agency had guaranteed they would perform. It was the pimp or agency who had set the boundaries, particularly if the woman didn’t speak English well. The pimp or agency would assume that she would give in or be forced by the circumstances, and they had no qualms confirming that she was ‘willing’ to perform the ‘services’, which often included fisting and being urinated on. I found myself having to take steps so that the woman who had been deceived about what she would be doing didn’t have to perform these ‘services’ herself.

Safety tip #4:Stay in control; be firm but friendly.”

Esther: “How exactly are you meant to stay in control when you’re faced with a buyer who’s been imagining what he can do with you for days and is determined. As Katie mentioned, no rape will be recorded by the owner of the premises because of the consequences for business.

I know a woman who refused to perform a service for a client, only to have the client call her pimp who then arrived and forced the woman to perform the service while he watched. From then on, that service was “on the menu”.

Safety tip # 6: “Try to appear confident, even if you do not feel it. If you appear insecure, the client might think it would be easier, for example, to convince you to breach boundaries. Remember that normally your client will be more nervous than you.”

Esther: Your client’s “nervousness” will make him angry or expect to be denied his entitlement from the outset.

New buyers always inspected my flat to see whether a pimp or other person was in the next room and would be fired up for a fight if they found anyone.

The previous experiences they’d had where they found they were not alone had not put them off and sometimes meant they arrived seeking confrontation.

This is one reason why the ‘two women and a maid’ idea can make things worse. You have to be expert at de-escalation by any means necessary.

The victim-blaming and condescension in this Toolkit are off the scale.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

There has long been critique of the Victorian women – typically wives of great landowners and industrialists – providing relief to the families of the impoverished workers on their husbands’ estates. It is argued that these women’s actions prolonged the system that produced these conditions. Their work did nothing to address the system that enabled some people to live in extreme luxury while those who laboured to create their wealth were consigned to abject poverty.

It is likely that, having been deprived of a wide-ranging education, these women had no idea that what they were witnessing was the result of a system that they themselves were the beneficiaries of. Nor that their charitable work was contributing to that system, helping maintain it so it did not collapse (or the workers revolt), and that therefore their charitable work contributed to the continuation of their own lives of luxury and the inhumane conditions of the labourers and their families.

It seems to me that what we are witnessing here is something similar. Young women, often from comfortably-off backgrounds are claiming to want to support and help student “sex workers” while in fact promoting a system that causes huge harm and that shores up the male violence and patriarchal neoliberal capitalist system that these same young women claim to be against – and that they themselves are often beneficiaries of through their family connections.

Savvidi’s LinkedIn page says that during her law degree at Surrey, she did a placement as a caseworker for the National Centre for Domestic Violence – which suggests that she is aware of the immense suffering men’s violence causes women and children. And yet she states that one of the things she is most proud about during her tenure as VP of Support at Surrey is that she “developed and published the Student Sex Worker Safety Toolkit to help keep our students safe”.

Not only does the Toolkit not have the ability to keep students involved in the sex industry safe, but by suggesting prostitution is a normal job, it is likely to lead to more marginalised young people being drawn into the industry and being harmed there, and will succeed in keeping many of them trapped there as they think that it’s their own fault for not maintaining their boundaries and staying in control if anything goes wrong or it feels unbearable.

But Savvidi is not alone. Many of the most vocal campaigners for the expansion of the sex industry are similarly ill-informed young women from relatively comfortable and supportive backgrounds. Their hubris is extraordinary and the damage they are doing to girls and young women from more marginalised backgrounds – and to the culture of male entitlement and sexual violence – is chilling.

Suggesting that prostitution is a normal job broadcasts the idea that prostitution-buying is of no consequence – it is just like paying for a haircut or a manicure. This is the Toolkit’s message to male students. Not only is this likely to lead to an expansion of the sexploitation industry but also to an increase in male violence generally. There is a considerable body of evidence that prostitution-buying feeds men’s entitlement and proneness to sexual violence.

We are also left wondering why the education system doesn’t teach feminist theory. Why are these young women being churned out of university, year after year, without any understanding of the well-established feminist critique of porn and prostitution as key mechanisms in the mass subordination of women?

‘Borrowing’ from the University of Leicester’s ‘Student sex worker toolkit’

There is not enough space here to go through this Toolkit line by line, showing how it is misleading, inaccurate and downright wrong in so many ways. It claims to have “borrowed” from the University of Leicester’s ‘Student sex worker toolkit’, which has now been withdrawn. We have written extensively about the Leicester toolkit and the so-called training on it that was rolled out to universities around the UK. Much of this critique also applies to the Surrey Toolkit:


Listening to women, like Esther and Emily, who have first-hand experience of prostitution, leaves little doubt that prostitution is intrinsically dangerous. No amount of ‘safety’ tips and foresight or planning can make it safe – or bring it into line with employment norms, safety regulations and equality law.

The best solution therefore must be prevention – preventing young people entering the industry, providing genuine routes out and alternatives for those caught up in it, reducing men’s demand for prostitution, and holding pimps and brothel keepers to account.

While we appreciate Savvidi’s motivation of providing students who are involved in the sex industry with help and support, we do not believe that this Toolkit is likely to achieve this and it risks exacerbating existing structural and intersectional inequalities and causing untold harm to the most disadvantaged students.

We instead urge students and universities to look into the Nordic Model Now! Handbook for Universities, which we created as an alternative to the Leicester toolkit. It provides a realistic understanding of the sex industry, the short- and long-term impact of involvement within it, and how best to support those who are caught up in it. It highlights the hypocrisy of a culture that habitually gives men a free pass for sexist behaviour while blaming the women and girls who are hurt by that behaviour and, it is packed with useful information.

If you are a student – or parent or relative of a student – or if you work at a university or with young people, and are concerned about the creeping normalisation of the sexploitation industry in the UK, we would encourage you to get a copy of our handbook and consider giving copies to university contacts.

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