by Kristina Murkett
Monday, 15
November 2021
Debate
14:15

What Durham University doesn’t understand about sex work

The student union can't make an inherently dangerous industry 'more safe'
by Kristina Murkett
How many of these Durham University students are getting value for money?

Durham University has come under criticism for its decision to offer students an online course on working in the sex industry. The ‘opportunity’ is designed to offer students “support which is well informed and free from prejudice” so that they can be “safe and make informed choices.” For example, Level 1 involved discussions on “the laws that govern sex work”, “the challenges students can face”, “motivations for entry for students” and the “impact of Covid” on the industry.

There has, unsurprisingly, been a backlash. MP Diane Abbott called the move “horrific”; Further Education Minister Michelle Donelan warned that the university is “legitimising a dangerous industry” and Only Fans model Kaya Corbridge said that Durham is “preying on people’s vulnerability.” 

Durham University’s course details

On the one hand, some of the moral panic seems unnecessary; it is hardly a recruitment or marketing exercise. Most headlines have used the word ‘training’, which is somewhat misleading — the course is designed for students already involved in sex work, and it is unlikely to ‘encourage’ other students to consider the profession. There are many reasons why students may choose to sell sexual services — high cost of living, low wages associated with other professions, lack of financial assistance or grants — and ultimately students will be swayed by financial factors above all else.

The problem is that the debate has become about whether or not sex work should be promoted or condoned, and not about how best to protect sex workers from physical and mental harm. Durham’s student union may argue that knowledge is power, but making something ‘more safe’ does not mean it is actually safe; sex work is inherently dangerous, and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

Even more ‘sanitised’ forms of sex work such as selling images or videos online carry risk — for example, psychological distress, blackmail, or ruined future employment prospects — and highlighting these threats isn’t enough. It doesn’t matter how many potential risks are flagged; if it’s a question of prostitution or poverty, then how can students ever make ‘safe and informed choices’ when consent is no longer clear-cut?

Support for sex workers needs to be proactive as well as reactive. For example, one of the aims of the course is to inform student sex workers on how to report violence, exploitation and blackmail; however, at this point, the damage is already done. The only way to genuinely protect students from these dangers is either to give them the necessary support to leave the industry or stop them from joining altogether. What we must not do is pretend that with a simple ‘toolkit’ students can continue sex work consequence-free as if they were taking part in any other form of labour.

Earlier this year the Office for Students gave an additional £50million worth of funding to universities to address student hardship. However, there are other options that would also help: for example, re-establishing Maintenance Grants for the most disadvantaged students; ensuring that student work placements are always paid; or introducing rent caps for student accommodation. Alternatively, Durham could use some of its £86million endowment to directly help its student sex workers who it has now seemingly identified. 

There is no doubt that student sex workers deserve to be supported and protected, and we cannot do so by pretending they do not exist. Yet the reality is that the vast majority of students enter this inherently exploitative industry out of economic hardship, and so if Durham wants to provide genuine pastoral care for them, then it should put its money where its mouth is.

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Mirax Path
Mirax Path
10 months ago

There’s an assumption that ‘poverty’ is a root cause for the particular kind of prostitution that middleclass university students seem to engage in increasing numbers these days. Quite a number of these new sex workers are clear that they do it for a luxury lifestyle, so the effort to increase public funding to alleviate hardship is not going to work.
The progressive mindset revels in monetising one’s sexuality as an act of liberation, while reviling a sex crime ‘epidemic’ on campus; luxuriates in the excesses of an instagrammable lifestyle while denouncing late stage capitalism as exploitative. There are too many contradictions here to square. The problem is that very few dare to interrogate ‘progressive’ thinking and its fundamental assumption that society has to come to the aid of women making stupid, selfish and shortsighted choices. But then that would be too prejudicial and judgmental and we cannot have that.

Last edited 10 months ago by Mirax Path
Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
10 months ago
Reply to  Mirax Path

Excellent comment. I’m particularly struck by the lack of consideration for the short-sighted aspect of such choices. It doesn’t ever seem to be mentioned.

The truth is, if you imagine for yourself a future life of permanent commitment and children with someone, don’t be a prostitute in the present! Apparently, this simply doesn’t occur to too many women, hence articles by current and former sex workers utterly baffled that no man wants to marry them. They seem to assume that if they change their lifestyle, the slate’s wiped clean.

It’s not exclusive to women, but women do seem more prone to not thinking ahead to possible outcomes.

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
10 months ago
Reply to  Mirax Path

I have a problem with this: “fundamental assumption that society has to come to aid of women making stupid, selfish and shortsighted choices.” This implicitly assumes that man do not make stupid, selfish and shortsighted choices. It should be noted that most violent crimes are committed by man.

Last edited 10 months ago by Vijay Kant
michael stanwick
michael stanwick
10 months ago
Reply to  Vijay Kant

The article is careful to use the term ‘students’. There is no mention whether it is women and/or men. Thus the original comment seems to assume ‘students’ is a euphemism for women. I don’t think of itself it is saying men do not make stupid, selfish and shortsighted choices because it is only commenting on women students as being involved in sex work. That perhaps is the implicit assumption.

Mirax Path
Mirax Path
10 months ago
Reply to  Vijay Kant

I only wrote that because this issue is primarily about young women in the sex trade. Granted that there are also gay men selling themselves, but they are in the minority.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
10 months ago

It’s called ‘Training opportunity’ and the topics covered include ‘destigmatisation.’ In other words, prostitution is fine by us and we’ll show you how to do it.
So don’t send your daughter to Durham University.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
10 months ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

or your sons. The example it sets to young men is as bad and, perhaps, more dangerous.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
10 months ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

I don’t think the training is actually compulsory…..
Also, a rather unfortunate patronising attitude to daughters! Perhaps they could decide which university they wish to attend!

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
10 months ago

Selling your body to another person for their s*xual gratification is not a profession, so let’s not call it one. It is one of the most degrading things that a person can do to themselves. Of course there is the risk of psychological distress – If you do not respect yourself, then no one else will do it for you.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
10 months ago

The most effective protection for sex workers tends to be to ensure that they have someone to check out the punters and ensure someone is in the next room to respond to any threat of violence. A Madam in fact.
Perhaps, Durham Uni should bring the trade in house so that the students can be properly protected. A 10% discount could be offered to Lecturers and staff, who presumably would be sufficiently woke as not to raise any worry about threats of violence, unless perhaps the student sex workers were TERFs or discriminatory in any way.
As students receive a maintenance grant It is unclear why they should be in such dire need as to resort to this sort of work, as opposed to bar-work or any other normal casual work. It seems particularly odd that the course is offered by Durham Uni which has a reputation for attracting the offspring of the well heeled.

Last edited 10 months ago by Jeremy Bray
Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
10 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

It doesn’t seem odd to me. Long have Durham had a reputation for innovative staff. It’s true that student sex work may be more prevalent at Uni’s that tend to have take on poorer students. For many years, Portsmouth Uni had by far the most students signed up to Seeking Arrangements. But as per an article on unherd back in September, even Cambridge has almost 1,000 students signed up. That’s just one platform in one type of sex work, and it was in 2019 before Covid. (Though to be clear it’s only about 100 new students per year signing up, so no where near as high a % as happens at some of the less prestigious unis)
 
For years now ‘sex work is work’ has been the dominant view on many campuses. Students have long been discussing it as a respectable earning possibility in informal & formal student societies. At least with a uni run course they’ll likely get a more realistic view of the downsides. That said, I agree with the article it would be much better to reduce the economic driver with a generous welfare. Universal basic income for all, and cheap sexbots for incels!

Lindsay Snoman
Lindsay Snoman
10 months ago

There have been stories circulating for years about young women turning to stripping and fetish modelling to pay off their student debt. The question begs, if they can’t research the work and legalities of the work they are about to enter, should they even be at university, where research is a fundamental aspect of university life?

Last edited 10 months ago by Lindsay Snoman
Claire D
Claire D
10 months ago

I never thought I’d say it but I’m with Diane Abbott on this. Interesting comparison with the article “Why Make Stealthing Illegal?”
On the other hand I suppose it’s just women freely exploring their sexuality. (Irony)

Last edited 10 months ago by Claire D
Claire D
Claire D
10 months ago
Reply to  Claire D

My joke just seemed to join in with the whole cynical enterprise too much.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
10 months ago

‘Did you have a part-time job at Uni, Mum?’
Awkward silence.

Julia H
Julia H
10 months ago

I’m fairly sure this is linked to the increasing use and subsequent normalisation of porn. Technology allows people to make videos of the sex they would be having anyway and then to sell them on online platforms. It’s not just women, The BBC had an article where a gay man said that selling online access to him and his partner having sex was a great deal for all parties involved. The remote version of sex work is obviously less risky than in person sexual encounters with strangers.

What next though? Maybe the university should just go the whole hog and set itself up as a broker for those really ‘out there’ students who want to earn the big money by selling a kidney?

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
10 months ago

The main problem here, is that due to globalisation and to national division and decline, the UK is becoming a poorer (and more insecure) country.

And that, sadly, is good for prostitution and its visual counterparts like porn.

Mirax Path
Mirax Path
10 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

There are much poorer countries where the women students at elite educational institutions are not selling themselves. This is a western first world problem.

James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago

If we replaced the word “student” with “woman, women, or girls” would the article be different in any way?
I’m not sure that the uni should be teaching this as a form of entrepreneurship, but hey, I’m open-minded. But since we want to “smash the patriarchy,” it seems a bit paternalistic to seek to protect “students” (women) from all possible harm. There are risks in life. Sara Everard was not a sex worker, and took reasonable steps to minimize her risk, yet she was killed anyway. Life has risks, and sex work can and should be made safer.
Finally, the headlines: I understand there is a disconnect between the author of the article and the author of the headlines, but please, make an effort:
The student union can’t make an inherently dangerous industry ‘more safe’
Ahh….Yes, it can. That statement is just dumb. Most things, and most industries, can be made safer, if common sense is observed, logical laws are followed. The Australian and New Zealand model for sex work definitely makes sex work “more safe.”

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
10 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Angel dancing on a pinhead – chances of being assaulted reduced from 80% to 79.9%. Yeah that’s safer.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
10 months ago

As long as there is no use of sexist terms or behaviours then we’re ok with women debasing themselves consensually.
Jeez it must be so confusing for people these days.