This year, Brighton University chose to include a stall at their fresher’s fair, offering advice and support to students who are choosing to use sex work to help support their studies. Predictably, this has sparked a debate over whether supporting, or even promoting, sex work to students is morally right or safe. Many people have misguidedly argued that the presence of SWOP (the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project) at the event advocated for and encouraged students to move into sex work, and accused the organisation of normalising the sex trade. Others have called the presence of the stall disgusting and disgraceful. It seems some people’s outrage is focused more on the public acknowledgement that sex workers exist, and aren’t morally corrupt criminals, than on whether supporting students might actually take priority over their personal views, and what the wider implications of having the stall at the fair might be.
Living in 2018 it’s unreasonable to view sex work as a cultural taboo. We live in a society where we’re fortunate enough to have autonomy over our bodies; prostitution is not illegal here, and we have laws in place to safeguard and protect those who choose to be sex workers. Offering advice and information to student sex workers helps them stay safe, act within the terms of the law, and know their rights. The people who are so adamantly against students receiving this service, under the false pretence of caring about student welfare, clearly care more about their prejudices against sex work as a whole than the students themselves.
The reality of the situation is clear: students will be entering this line of work with or without the presence of the stall. Becoming a sex worker is not a choice being made on a whim after seeing a stall at a fair, so why people are so outraged is beyond me. It should be obvious that the priority here is to offer these students the support they need and keep them safe and healthy, rather than allowing an environment that shames students and upholds the existing taboos around sex work. According to SWOP, 1 in 6 students at least consider going into sex work. If universities don’t offer support for students going into this work it won’t stop them, it will only make an already risky line of work even more unsafe.
It’s clear to me that this should not be a debate over whether sex work is okay, or whether inviting SWOP to a fresher’s fair is appropriate. Regardless of the answers to those questions, the safety and wellbeing of students should always be the priority. Instead of criticising the University and its Union for providing this support, people should be celebrating them for offering a service that students need, and should be asking why students are needing to turn to sex work in the first place. That is the real debate to be had here. We should be using this controversy as a spring board to discuss the actual issue that this stall is merely a symptom of: that many students simply don’t have any better options. The declining financial support provided for students has left many with few other places to turn to raise the money to pay rent, pay bills, and even buy food. We need only look at the landlords in our community who are offering ‘sex for rent’ schemes to see the position that students are in. It is not organisations offering support to sex workers that are the issue, but rather the fact that an environment has been created where students might genuinely be pressured into sex work, as they have nowhere else to turn.
The necessity of this stall is an indication that students need more financial support. With tuition fees on the rise, maintenance loans scrapped, unreasonably high rent prices and debt building up, it’s no wonder sex work has become a real, even necessary, option for some students. Taking a step towards supporting those students is not only smart, but necessary. Sex work may not be the ideal, but until the situation changes it is the reality we live in. Until we create an environment where students are not driven to extremes we cannot reasonably refuse to offer them support.