Opposing ‘sex worker toolkits’ for women students

Phoebe Williams argues that 'sex worker toolkits' promote the industry to students rather than providing a means of exiting it
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When I was a young teenager growing up in the 2010s, I used a lot of social media. One of the main social media sites I used was Tumblr – i’m sure all of the millennials and older Gen Z reading just shivered! For those who were lucky enough to avoid that internet hellscape, Tumblr was a social media site that allowed hardcore porn on its platform. I remember being 13 and seeing gifs of young women being choked, slapped, degraded, spat on, punched, and worse. I saw the glamorisation of stripping, camming, sugar babying, prostitution, and escorting.

This planted the idea in my young brain that this was sex, that this is what men wanted, that this was what I had to do to be desired and loved. So, it’s no surprise that at the ripe old age of 17, I was being used and abused by god knows how many adult men both in-person and online. I was trading photos and videos for money. I was receiving fleeting validation I felt like I didn’t get in my regular life.

The day I turned 18, I opened an account on any adult site I could find – I was a verified Pornhub amateur with hundreds of thousands of views, I had accounts on camming sites such as MyFreeCams, and accounts on sugar baby websites. I used these sites to gain quote-unquote ‘clients’ to partake in private camming sessions, where I would be at the mercy of their disturbing commands (at least if I wanted to make any money).

You may be wondering, why didn’t I just get a regular job? And well, the answer is sadly extremely common. I was a disabled, mentally ill teenager, who was struggling with education and finding employment, living in an emotionally turbulent home. I saw this as my only option, and I saw it as empowering – well, at least that’s what the internet told me it was! In reality, I was suicidal, self-harming, and traumatised. I very nearly ended up in prostitution, after getting countless offers from my online clients, but luckily, I never went through with it, as I managed to leave the industry at the old age of 21 after I began receiving adequate disability benefits and no longer needed to exploit myself for money.

And now here I am, a sex trade abolitionist communist in my mid 20’s, seeing this same cycle of social media and society grooming teenage girls into so-called ‘sex work’. Except now instead of just Tumblr, it is TikTok, Twitter, and even worse, their own places of education.

This brings me to why I am writing this today. In December 2020, the University of Leicester released their ‘student sex work toolkit’ for staff and students alongside an event about the same topic and a ‘student sex work policy’, and in November 2021, Durham University offered training to support students in the sex industry. Whilst this sounds positive and sounds like the universities are trying to help their students, there is an insidious truth beneath the surface. Quoting from a Nordic Model Now article on this issue, “While the policy does not explicitly promote prostitution as a reasonable response to students’ economic hardship, that is the implicit message – along with the suggestion that prostitution-buying is an ethically neutral activity.”

On the second page of the University of Leicester’s student sex work tool kit, they discuss consent, saying, “It is legal to sell and buy sex between consenting adults in the UK. If the sexual act is not consensual, it is not only not legal, it would also not be classed as sex work. Non-consensual sexual interactions are sexual violence – one example being sex exploitation.” Now I believe the incredible survivor and organiser Esperanza Fonseca, known online as ‘proletarian feminist’, puts the idea of ‘consensual sex work’ into context when she said in her incredible article ‘A Socialist, Feminist, and Transgender analysis of sex work’ that “Consent does not exist in a vacuum, sealed off from the other conditions of society. To decontextualise consent from the broader structures of the economy and society, which both create the options we are able to choose from, and apply pressure for us to choose certain options over others, is to only understand consent in its most superficial meaning.” The documents talks about ‘sex work’ like it is any kind of work, and the phrase ‘sex work is work’ is pervasive in the liberal feminist internet world, but it is in fact not like normal work. In no other industry is it more common, or more expected, to be raped. If women were being assaulted and murdered at the same rate in the retail industry, there would be countrywide outrage.

The student ‘sex work tool kit’ by the University of Leicester states on the second and third pages of the document that the “research highlighted that a large proportion of student sex workers were from marginalised backgrounds or were vulnerable. 71% identified as women and 17 % as non-binary. Over 70% identified as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Queer with over half describing themselves as having a disability; 14% were international students.” When I read this section I thought great! They’re going to discuss how scary and upsetting it is that marginalised people are overrepresented in this industry because of how they are treated in society as a whole! I thought wow, maybe we’re about to see them push the point that the sex trade amplifies and represents the systemic inequalities marginalised people face!

Imagine my disappointment when I read the next paragraph – “Diversity within the online sex industry, the most utilised aspect of the market by students due to its hidden nature, was highlighted within the largest online research project ever conducted within the UK, Beyond the Gaze. The Beyond the Gaze study revealed the diversity of sex workers using the internet in their work. Although the majority were female, male, and transgender, non-binary and intersex identities were also represented working within a variety of roles, both direct and in-direct and using a variety of platforms. There are also other markets such as ‘sugaring’, where commercial relationships are made in return for intimacy. *jumping in here out of the quote to say that this is still prostitution by the way, no matter what fancy name people give it! Now back to the quote* Beyond the Gaze reiterated the continued safety risks that workers face within the industry due to having to work alone or lie about their activities. This again highlighted the need to improve awareness, education, and acceptance of selling sexual services.”

I tried to find a way to edit this quote down, but I felt like the entire section shows just how pervasive this pinkwashing of the sex trade is. In this quote we see them skip past the violence and safety risks, as they do many times in the document! They are framing the sex industry as an inclusive, diverse industry to work in, instead of asking the big questions – why are so many marginalised people entering the trade? And what can we do to prevent this and offer support before they resort to being exploited?

We know for a fact that transgender people, especially transgender women, are pushed out of jobs due to their gender, we know for a fact that disabled people are less likely to be hired for jobs, and we all know for a fact that women are paid less than men. Due to this, along with a multitude of other reasons, marginalised people are often desperate for work and financial support. And these documents make sex work look appealing, as they frame it as a job where you work for yourself and have control, something marginalised people so rarely have, when in reality this is not the experience of the vast majority in the industry, especially those from vulnerable backgrounds.

As a disabled member of the LGBT community myself, I was horrified to see my identity being used as a selling point for the industry. We deserve support, advice, and care – not to be groomed into an industry that serves to oppress us and fetishise us.

For those who are not convinced that this is truly a gendered issue, I would first of all recommend looking at the statistics of those in the sex industry, for example, 2006 estimates suggested that 85-90% of those in the industry were women, and 2018 statistics showed that in terms of sex trafficking, 46% of victims were women, 19% were young girls, 20% were men, and 15% were young boys.

Additionally, digest the following quotes from two student sex workers at Durham University. When asked about their sex work by BBC, the quotes given by the female student and the male student differed in some blatant ways. The female student said “They can be really scary people and you can find yourself in scary situations that you get yourself into through this line of work…I think, because it was all day, every day, that you kind of have to engage with these people…It’s a lot and you are essentially marketing yourself as a product.” The male student said “I’ve done it for cash, for meals at some amazing restaurants or even foreign holidays – including one coming up to a city in the US…I did it for the thrill of it and maybe a bit of an ego boost.”

Although these are just the quotes of two people, they highlight the common differing experiences of men and women in the sex trade, especially at university. The male student could opt-in and out for some extra cash, whilst the female student had to market herself as a product and was always on the clock. This leads me to briefly mention how the normalisation of pornography and prostitution has warped young men’s attitudes towards women. The university normalising the sex industry surely will not help lessen the sexual assaults at universities, fight the horrifying sexually violent group chats male students are part of, or encourage students to respect each other!

As the incredible Marxist feminist Alexandra Kollontai said: “The further development of prostitution, instead of allowing for the growth of comradely feeling and solidarity, strengthens the inequality of the relationships between the sexes.”

Within these documents released, the universities seem self-aware that the main reason students are entering the sex industry is due to student loans, living expenses, lack of job opportunities, and financial hardships. I asked a female university student her thoughts on why so many students are entering the sex trade, and this is what she had to say…

“I completely understand why some girls feel the need to turn towards sex work during university. £9,000 is not enough to survive on for a year, especially in a city. Due to timetables it’s incredibly difficult to get a part-time job, as you know I’m currently in an extremely exploitative zero-hour job, they didn’t pay me £100 of what they owed me last month because the client didn’t want to pay up, so I had £20 to survive for 3 weeks after I paid my phone bill and bought some groceries. I know a girl at my university, who I’ve done an article with, who has had to start an OnlyFans because of immigration issues not allowing her to get a maintenance loan, she says she enjoys it but she should never have been put in that position in the first place. The universities themselves offer virtually no help at all, and to receive any help you have to meet strict criteria. Not to mention Student Finance basically hearing your mum won a fiver on a scratch card and giving you the minimum loan.” A student at Durham University has been quoted as saying that the training being offered could “Cause a real problem, making it part of university culture and making work in the sex industry a normalised activity.”

But nowhere in these documents do they offer a solution or a plan to prevent students from entering the sex industry. Nowhere in these documents do they propose the abolition of student debt and university fees. Nowhere in these documents do they advocate for support around the extortionate rent fees students pay. Nowhere in these documents is there a material analysis on the sex industry. Nowhere in these documents do they explicitly warn young women of the violence and trauma in the industry. Nowhere in these documents do they actively encourage the right to exit the industry. Instead, they just provide the names of organisations that can provide support whilst they are in the industry, and after they leave. How disturbing is that? They encourage young women to stay in the industry by offering quote-unquote ‘support’ and to simply deal with the trauma later!

At the bottom of the University of Leicester ‘toolkit’, they link to multiple organisations that can support students in the industry. They link Basis Yorkshire, who are “a Charity who supports indoor and street sex workers who identify as women, and young people who are sexually exploited.” They link The Men’s room, who “Offer outreach & support to marginalised young men engaged in sex work or at risk of exploitation.” They link the Red Umbrella Project, which they describe as “A service to combat instances of violence and crimes committed against anyone in the sex industry.” They link National Ugly Mugs, which is a “Reporting scheme to help protect people involved in Sex Work from violent and abusive individuals. Their mission is to end violence against sex workers.”

I believe that these organisations they link, along with their descriptions, say the quiet part out loud. “Exploitation”, “violent”, “crimes”, “at risk”, “abusive”, “marginalised”. This is the reality of the sex trade for the majority involved. And yet, within the toolkit released by the University of Leicester, this reality is barely mentioned throughout. In fact, on the second page of the toolkit, they say “The most negative aspects of the work was cited by respondents as having to keep their work secret, fear of violence, and negative judgement from friends, family, and professional bodies such as universities, with the latter being recommended to “recognise the presence of students who work in the sex industry.” Here you can see how they once again completely skip over the fear of violence, and instead focus the document on combatting stigma!

Durham Universities’ student union’s welfare and liberation officer, Jonah Graham, defended the training being offered by the university, by saying it was “an attempt to support students in a difficulty arising from the reality of rising costs in higher education.” But once again, where is the push to help students in a way that does not involve them having to sexually exploit themselves? Where is the push from these universities to prevent students from having to enter the sex industry to survive? Where is information being provided on how to actually exit the sex trade? In fact, in their list of do’s and don’ts in the University of Leicester’s ‘toolkit’, they includeDon’t: assume the student wants to leave sex work.”

This is a complete distortion of the facts around the industry, as multiple surveys and studies have shown that when women in the sex trade are asked if they would like to leave the industry, 9 out of 10 said YES. When asked why they have not left the sex trade, the most common answer is that they do not feel like the resources are there to support them.

So my question to universities is this: why are you allocating resources to support women to stay in the industry, and not to get them out? You claim these ‘toolkits’ and ‘training events’ have been, and I quote “informed by the relevant legislative framework, policing guidance, research and established best practice”, but there is no acknowledgment that the legislation and policing guidance available is coming from a racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, xenophobic and deeply classist system.

How on earth could anything coming from this be considered best practice? Quoting from the Nordic Model Now article, “there is more than one way of viewing the sex industry – meaning that what is considered “best practice” is not settled – and is very much under debate. You would not know this from reading the policy.”

I think we all agree that no one should face stigma for being in the sex industry, especially when it’s for survival. Stigma, harassment and abuse help no one, and steps should absolutely be taken to prevent all of these issues. There are definitely some valuable links provided in the documents, which I am sure will be a huge help to some students in the sex industry, but this is not the point we as proletarian feminists are trying to make.

We are simply trying to point out that these universities, rather than supporting students financially, removing the barriers to access financial support, supporting and encouraging them to exit the industry, and providing alternative suggestions for a flexible income.

They are indirectly and sometimes directly encouraging students to either get into ‘sex work’, with phrases such as “flexible”, “diversity”, “inclusion” or are offering alleged ‘support’ that just ends up keeping them trapped in the industry. This is not about a personal choice; this is about an industry that only exists to further oppress women and other marginalised groups. This is about leaving behind the individualism perpetuated by liberal ‘choice feminism’ circles that promote sex trade expansion. This is about supporting our student comrades before prostitution and the wider sex industry becomes their only option.

I would like to leave you with the words of Kathleen Richardson, a Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI at the De Montfort University in Leicester, who I believe sums this issue up brilliantly in her introduction to the Nordic Model Now handbook for universities. “The promotion of prostitution at a university – for example, through the pro-prostitution toolkit produced by Leicester University – is a sign of our times and a culture of low expectations. We are rapidly losing the ability to come up with a meaningful politics informed by empathy, reciprocity, and mutuality as fundamental to our relationships with each other. Instead, even our universities are in the grip of a dehumanising politics, with young women the primary casualties.”

Phoebe Williams













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