Durham University has come under fire for organising safety training for students also working as sex workers. The university brought in the external “Students Involved in the Adult Sex Industry” in response to calls to ensure students who may be at risk “are protected and have access to the support to which they are entitled”.
The decision was criticised by the Tory Minister for higher and further education, Michelle Donelan, and Labour MPs including Diane Abbott, following The Times newspaper’s online coverage under the headline “Durham University trains its students to be sex workers”. The newspaper has since changed the headline to “Durham University offers safety training for student sex workers”.
Abbott wrote: “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.”
The local Labour MP Mary Foy, also a member of the Campaign Group, has rightly criticised the moral panic and backed the University.
“The Minister for higher and further education, Michelle Donelan MP, and The Times, have categorically failed Durham University and its students.
“Following contact with the Vice Chancellor, Director of Advancement, and the Durham Students’ Union this afternoon, I feel confident in offering my support to the University.
“The university consulted carefully before deciding to provide this support, engaging with student representatives, members of the university’s sexual misconduct and violence operations group, equality, diversity, and inclusion unit, counselling and mental health service and safeguarding representatives.
“This was not a decision made on a whim or to promote sex work. The safety and well-being of students in Durham is paramount and I would urge the Minister to reconsider her comments.”
A survey by Save The Student found three per cent of students have done sex work. A further nine per cent said they would turn to sex work in a financial emergency. Fees and expensive housing mean many students are facing financial emergency and the survey likely underestimates numbers who have engaged in sex work.
The survey suggests there are hundreds of thousands of student sex workers who face particularly risks and universities are right to promote safety, legal advice and support. Along with Durham, the University of Leicester, Newcastle University, and Manchester University all offer advice and safeguarding resources to their students who are sex workers.
Abbott expresses concern about “degrading, dangerous and exploitative” work, but closing off support for such workers makes them far more vulnerable to degrading, dangerous and exploitative conditions. Student sex workers need the rights and means to organise, and moral panics about “legitimising” sex work only make that more difficult.
There will continue to be student sex workers and universities and student unions should do all they can to protect their health and safety.
The labour movement should be promoting organising these workers, not joining in with Tory attacks.