Durham University in England has chosen to publically defend its decision to offer training sessions to assist its students in the sex industry, following a wave of media attention and criticism.
The controversy has garnered both national and international attention – sparking debates about what purview universities should or should not have on complex ethical issues.
The university’s student union emailed students and staff with a “training opportunity” for “students involved in the adult sex industry”.
Durham University said the courses were organised due to requests being made "from a small number of concerned students".
Durham University’s one-hour workshop was run by external Students Involved in the Adult Sex Industry, who the university describes as experts. It consisted of two sessions, one for students and staff, and one for staff only.
The training was conducted in collaboration with the North East Sex Work Forum (NESWF), a group of agencies that support people working in the adult sex and entertainment industry.
It should be noted that two of the Board members for NESWF are connected to Durham University. NESWF co-founder and board member Professor Maggie O’Neil is the former Principal of Ustinov College Durham University and Dr Alison Jobe is a current professor.
Further Education Minister, Michelle Donelan, accused the University of "legitimising a dangerous industry which thrives on the exploitation of women".
“[Durham is] seriously neglecting its duty to protect students by offering a course seeking to normalise sex sales.
“Any university that does this is seriously failing in its duty to protect students. It is right that vital support be offered to women who are exploited, however, this course seeks to normalise the sale of sex, which has no place in our universities.”
Labor MP Diane Abbott also condemned the universities actions as “horrific” iterating that universities “should have nothing to do” with sex work.
Horrific that Durham University is offering training to students who want to be sex workers part-time. Sex work is degrading, dangerous and exploitative. Uni should have nothing to do with it https://t.co/BpuVdaLTmN— Diane Abbott MP (@HackneyAbbott) November 12, 2021
One Durham student said it “could cause a real problem, making it part of university culture and making work a normal activity in the sex industry.”
Another said that the training “suggests that being an adult sex worker is another run-of-the-mill activity and is put down as an official DSU position”.
Jonah Graham, the union’s head of welfare and liberation, defended the training saying it was “an attempt to support students in difficulty due to rising costs of higher education”.
A spokesperson for the university said "We are emphatically not seeking to encourage sex work but we are seeking to provide support to our students” and claimed that students working in the sex industry "is a feature within the [Higher Education] sector across the UK”.
Durham's statement defending the training has garnered a great deal of public commentary, both for and against the university's actions.
Durham is a safe place to live, work and study, but we want to make it even more so. As a responsible University, we strive to ensure that students who may be vulnerable or at risk are protected and supported.— Durham University (@durham_uni) November 12, 2021
Full statement: https://t.co/PeBS5QkyKV pic.twitter.com/KBDvOQnEwF
Surely then, support should come BEFORE your students feel the need to enter sex work? Financial/employment support? If that fails, then obviously, other safeguarding should be put in place. But surely, prevention should be key? Who goes the university with this in their plans?— Carla (@CarlaLinford) November 12, 2021
I am deeply worried that your students are turning to sex work. I hope you are doing everything in your power to discourage this.— Anya Brooks (@AnyaBrooks8) November 12, 2021
Thank you for this statement. Well done for standing up for student sex workers and offering them support.— Amélie 🦋 (@afrenchstripper) November 12, 2021
This is amazing. As someone who works beside sex workers I can tell you most are doing it because they choose too and are happy educated people. This is great news rather than brushing it under the carpet and putting them at risk. Well done!— Lianne Young (@HouseofArdent) November 12, 2021
Durham isn’t the first UK university to get into hot water over their support for students in the sex industry.
Just last month, Leicester University was criticised for its Student Sex Work Tool Kit.
Over 10,000 people signed a Change.org petition urging the university to repel the toolkit, saying it “reads more like a guide to getting into the sex trade”.
There are many other UK universities which offer support services for students in the sex trade, including Newcastle University; and the University of Manchester who offer “one-on-one and group support sessions, CV checks and careers/academic advice, support with rape allegations on campus and creative opportunities” for students in the sex trade.
Concerningly, the number of UK students becoming involved in the sex industry appears to be on the rise.
A survey of more than 3,300 undergraduates, by Save the Student, found that the number of students working in the sex industry has doubled from 2017-19, with one in 25 students (4 per cent) admitting to “trying adult work”, which is any job that involves nudity or erotica.
The survey also found that students are “most likely to sell intimate photos or used underwear to get cash.”
The Student Sex Work Project at the University of Swansea found that nearly 5% of UK students who were surveyed had been involved in the sex industry.
While some were driven by the money and the “anticipated pleasure” they felt the industry could bring, respondents listed many side effects to their participation in the industry.
There were many who feared violence and negative judgement from friends, family and professional bodies.
The research also demonstrated that a large number of students involved in the sex industry were vulnerable or from marginalised backgrounds.
71 per cent identified as women and 17 per cent as non-binary. Over 70 per cent identified as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Queer with over half describing themselves as having a disability; 14 per cent were international students.
The “rising costs of higher education”, the economic struggles faced by students, and the increasing number who are turning to the sex industry to support themselves, is precisely why universities promoting prostitution as work is so disturbing. As the Swansea research project affirms, and as we have known for some time, those who end up in the sex industry often come from disadvantaged, vulnerable backgrounds, and financial hardship is a key driver for entering the industry.
Instead of normalising a dangerous, violent, exploitative industry that many turn to as a result of desperation, real support for students would involve assistance and training to find work or access financial support that would enable them to live and study without being sexually exploited. It would involve informing them of the physical, psychological and emotional dangers of prostitution and offer them support and advice for exiting the industry. And it would necessitate that all students, no matter their background or lifestyle, are made aware that genuine, non-judgemental support is available to them should they need it.