U.K. university creates protections for 'student sex workers'

A university in the United Kingdom has a new policy providing new protections for "student sex workers."

The policy comes as a study found that more U.K. students are turning to sex work to pay their tuition.

A public university in Leicester, England, issued campus-wide guidelines for protecting students who disclose their status as sex workers, according to documents recently obtained by Campus Reform

In December, the University of Leicester unveiled the Student Sex Work Policy, a list of directives that school administrators will impose on students and staff to mitigate the “social stigma directed at sex workers.”

The guidelines, which created a new protected class of students at the University of Leicester, will, college officials said, “ensure that any students who are sex workers are positively supported” by the university.

The campus-wide protections for student sex workers come at a time when the number of British students reporting to have engaged in prostitution to pay their bills has doubled

When SavetheStudent.org, a UK-based-nonprofit that tracks the financial habits of English students, conducted its 2019 National Student Money Survey of 3,161 students, it found that four percent of respondents –up from 2 percent in 2017 –received monetary compensation for sex. Ten percent of respondents said they would resort to sex work, which is legal under the laws of the United Kingdom, “in a cash emergency.”    

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This growing trend has produced in the UK a growing movement of student sex workers demanding that their colleges offer increased support and tolerance of their lifestyle. The stories that have fueled the movement include Jessica Hyer’s, a University of Manchester student and sex worker who in 2019 founded Support for Student Sex Workers, a student organization at the University of Manchester that hosts “creative workshops and meaningful activities” for student sex workers lacking structures of familial and emotional support off-campus. It is listed as a resource on Leicester’s Student Sex Work web page.

According to a 2019 story by the London office of Grazia, an Italian fashion magazine, Hyer began working as a sex worker after finding herself in financial strain during her freshman year at the University of Manchester. To make ends meet, she joined Seeking Arrangement, a California-based “sugar baby and sugar daddy dating website,” founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumnus Brandon Wade. 

The work exposed Hyer to men who refused to wear protection. Hyer also said that at one point she was sexually assaulted.  Hyer refused to give up sex work, however, insisting that others “not judge” students like her. The Support for Student Sex Workers website does offer help for people working to “get out” of the sex industry.

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Advocates of student sex workers have, at times, outraged university officials in the U.K. 

In October 2018, Brighton University in East Sussex vowed to investigate how Sex Workers’ Outreach Project Sussex (SWOP) were able to occupy a stall at a fair it hosted for freshmen students. 

In a statement released after the incident, Brighton affirmed that it did not, despite appearances to the contrary, “promote sex work to its students.” But SWOP said it wasn’t “encouraging [or] glamouring” sex work, but rather as demonstrating “why students may turn to sex work,” adding that “navigating the legal precariousness as well as potential danger mean that students are extra vulnerable.”

The exchange of public statements between Brighton University officials and Sex Worker’s Outreach Project Sussex represents an ongoing disagreement between those who say that student sex workers require tangible support and protection from colleges and others who worry that designating student sex workers as a protected class without encouraging them to reform their behavior is harmful.

Sarah Ditum, a feminist scholar and  critic of the transgender movement, said Leicester’s measures would be “inadequate” if school officials do not tell students that the “sex industry is enormously harmful to women and has a really toxic influence on men as well.” 

Websites like OnlyFans, which allows online users to pay "performers" directly for explicit content "are actually exploitive sites of abuse and dangerous things for women to get involved in.”

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University of Leicester Professor in Criminology Teela Sanders disagrees. 

“We’re talking inclusive learning, we’re talking about not discriminating against somebody, not being judgmental if you find out your student’s doing sex work,” she told BBC Radio 4 in a December interview. “The point is really that sex work is generally legal, it’s a legal activity between two consenting adults and universities are not there to give moral judgment in relation to what people do.”

The University of Leicester has chosen to take the approach of “non-judgment.” 

A list of “Don’ts” included in the Student Sex Work Toolkit directed staff never to assume a student worker “wants to leave sex work.” All student sex workers will now fall under the care of Leicester’s Student Welfare Service, Students’ Union Advice Service, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Team, and can report incidents of “bullying, harassment, abuse, and/or violence” to Leicester’s Report & Support Online Disclosure System. These policies, Leicester said, will protect sex workers from  being “targeted or harassed.”

Sex workers can also be granted a C-Card, a debit-card-sized pass with which they can access “free condoms and lube from a range of venues.” And they are linked to Ugly Mug, an organization that promotes “sex worker safety” by harvesting reviews of potentially dangerous clients and sharing the information with other workers.

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Shortly after Leicester made available its Student Sex Work Toolkit to students and staff, Monique Huysamen, a research associate at Manchester Metropolitan University, praised the school’s efforts on Twitter. “This incredible work has been led by Teela Sanders,” she said, “I hope many universities will follow suit to create more inclusive and supportive environments for student sex workers.

While prostitution is not legal at the federal level in the United States, some American cities, such as Washington, D.C., have begun taking steps to decriminalize sex work. Vice President Kamala Harris, as a presidential candidate in 2019, was asked whether she believes the U.S. should decriminalize sex work. She responded by stating, "I think so, I do."

Follow the author of this article: Dion Pierre