A piece by Andrew Gilligan in today’s Sunday Times:
A university has been accused of encouraging its students into prostitution after hosting a stand at its freshers’ fair advising new undergraduates how to be sex workers.
Alongside the hockey team and Amnesty International, the freshers’ fair at Brighton University last week also included a stand run by the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project (Swop) Sussex, which calls itself an “advocacy” and advice service “representing student sex workers”.
Swop tweeted last week: “1 in 6 students does sex work or thinks about turning to sex work. We can help.”
The group publishes leaflets offering tips on how to be a prostitute, reassuring those who are considering it: “You cannot be prosecuted for just selling sex . . . it is not illegal to work as an escort or to sell sexual services.”
The leaflets offer a wide range of advice on techniques for “safer escorting”, including: “If you don’t have anyone to look out for you, fake it! Make your punter think that someone else knows where you are. Pretend to make a call . . . to make it look like you are confirming your arrival . . . put men’s shoes or clothes out.”
Free condoms and lubricant were available at the freshers’ fair stand and students as young as 18, many of them away from home for the first time, were invited to “come and play on our wheel of sexual wellbeing”, with prizes including underwear.
Last month, on the day A-level results were announced, the group tweeted: “Look out for us at . . . Freshers Fairs for information and advice around #studentlife and #sexwork.”
Swop defended its presence at freshers’ events, saying in a tweet, later deleted: “Rising living and tuition costs mean that more students than ever are turning to sex work and Swop believe that they deserve our help as well. Sex work is work.”
It added that it did not “idealise” or encourage sex work but offered “support and advice without judgment”.
However, one feminist activist, Sarah Ditum, said: “This is essentially a grooming operation, pitching prostitution as a manageable, desirable lifestyle, equivalent to joining the rowing club.
“It is preying on the naivety of young students. It is incredibly irresponsible to promote an industry that is the cause of massive violence and exploitation against women as if it was the same as working in a bar.”
Soliciting remains a criminal offence and a conviction has the potential to limit students’ future careers, or end them entirely if they are studying subjects such as law. It is also illegal for people under 18 to sell sex, even though the age of consent is 16.
Prostitution can be a highly risky occupation. In a 2001 study by the British Medical Journal, half of women engaged in street prostitution in three UK cities, and a quarter of prostitutes working indoors, reported having been subjected to violence by clients in the previous six months.
Swop is part of a charity, the Brighton Oasis Project, which last year received more than £150,000 from public bodies including the NHS, Brighton & Hove city council, the Home Office and other government departments, plus a further £400,000 from the national lottery.
A 2015 study by Swansea University found that nearly 5% of students had been a sex worker at some point in their lives, and more than 20% had considered sex work to help pay their bills.
However, senior academics at Sussex University, including Alison Phipps, a professor of gender studies, oppose what Phipps called “contemporary feminist opposition to the sex industry”, which involves an “emotionally loaded” attack on sex workers’ rights.
In response to the controversy triggered by Swop’s presence at freshers’ fairs, Phipps sent a tweet thanking the group for the “great work you do”.
Brighton University’s freshers’ fair was organised by its students’ union. Tomi Ibukun, president of the union, said: “Swop was at our freshers’ fair event to raise awareness of the specialist support they provide should it ever be needed.
“They were not there to advocate sex work as an option to our new students. It is unfortunate that some people have misinterpreted the attendance of Swop at our freshers’ fair.”
You can subscribe to The Times here.
If everyone who read this gave us just £1.00 – or even better, £1.00 or more, monthly – we could change the world. Click here to make a difference. Thanks.