Sex work: some students’ voices are more uncomfortable than others

Universities often proudly trumpet that they value the “student voice.” As a full time SU officer at one, whenever I bring an item to an agenda, our senior management’s first response is, “well how do you know that’s what students want?”

The drive for an “authentic” student voice is so pressing that several institutions have invested in apps that can collect “real time” feedback from students. Some are employing companies to analyse social media sentiment. Others are mining information from course reps and launching endless surveys into aspects of the student experience.

Some – a growing number – are taking groups of students that share particular characteristics (particularly those with attainment gaps or the most vulnerable) and seeking to understand and act on their “lived experience”. The little things feel much bigger when commuter students, or those first in their family, or those subject to racial microaggressions, experience lots of them in a given day.

Who are we missing?

But one demographic that these schemes continue to miss is student sex workers. Save the Student thinks that around 4 per cent of students have done some kind of adult work. In 2015, the Student Sex Work Project at Swansea University surveyed 6,773 students and found 5 per cent had engaged in sex work – and a further one in five students had considered it. 67 per cent of the sex workers said they are in the industry to pay for their living costs.

As student accommodation costs continue to rise at an alarming rate, with maintenance funding barely covering living costs of higher education, this shouldn’t surprise us. There are relationships to other equality agendas too – 55 per cent of student sex workers interviewed had a disability – but we know there are major problems with disability funding and support in the sector.

My SU’s student paper ran a survey in 2015 which found that there were around 400 student sex workers at our institution – a figure broadly consistent with the STS and SSW projects referenced above. Of course, this number is open to question – how many workers didn’t declare their status on a survey that required their university login details to access? But that’s not the angle that questions from my university came from. When we took the number to university management, we got “that figure doesn’t seem right”- and they weren’t worried that the figure seemed too low.

How do we handle this then?

Aspects of these issues attract public and particularly press attention, but institutional responses can feel like the sector’s head is in the sand. And what’s really fascinating about debates about how to handle these issues – ranging from everything to support services at Freshers’ Fairs to university network censorship to the wording of disciplinary clauses – is the absence of the perspective of the workers themselves.

We shouldn’t blame them. Who dares speak out about their lived experience of struggling to balance study with a means of paying the bills when doing so can cause you to be sexually harassed by lecturers abusing their power (with no one to hold them to account)? Or could cause you to be evicted from your student rental property with little recourse to appeal, or thrown off the very university course that you’re trying to pay for? And these aren’t hypothetical scenarios – they are all real things that have happened to real student sex workers I’ve met.

Universities, in other words, need to take a step back from scratching their heads and pondering “what do student sex workers need us to do?” and move to considering what’s preventing these students from telling them.

Clause for

One of the main barriers to the “student [sex worker] voice” are the morality clauses many institutions still have in place. These are behavioural standards which all enrolled students are held to so as not to bring the university into disrepute, and they tend to be deliberately vague so that a university can apply them to a range of circumstances. The upside is that a university wanting to expel a racist, or the perpetrators of a WhatsApp group of men discussing how they’d like to rape a classmate, has a clear justification.

But there’s a downside too. Morality clauses have been historically used to penalise the vulnerable and often marginalised individuals who make up the student sex worker demographic. And even where they’re not used in this way, the scope of these clauses has a chilling effect on students in these vulnerable positions, who believe that they might be weaponised – leaving student sex workers with little input into the institutional structures impacting their daily lives.

Some would argue that listening to the “lived experience” of student sex workers will always be difficult, and anyway there is a wealth of existing research into sex work that can be drawn on. But sex workers historically engaged in research are often found through outreach initiatives, or through initial NHS or police contact, and so are usually on the more vulnerable end of the spectrum. It’s not that these workers’ voices are not important, or that their situations do not need attention. It’s that they are very different to the needs of university students. And even with research from The Student Sex Work Project, each institution and city vary so widely that closer scrutiny is necessary.

Things can change

I’m pleased to say that Exeter altered its morality clause after I, along with other students and the SU, lobbied them in 2017. We’re now hearing much more from the student sex workers themselves. At the SU, we’re supporting sex workers through ensuring that they can speak in a non-judgmental space where they will not face a disciplinary procedure. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than another (unnamed) institution which allowed a sex worker to identify herself, only to later force her into a compulsory “fitness to study” evaluation, along with a counselling session, that the worker says she neither wanted nor needed.

The impact of morality clauses on student sex workers doesn’t stop at the bounds of the university or their student homes. This same worker was evicted from her private rental accommodation when her landlady discovered her line of work. Her university did nothing to help her then, either. Police have been known to routinely dismiss sex worker complaints, with one worker who was assaulted by a client threatening to kill her telling me that the police told her “don’t press charges” because “it’ll go big and you wouldn’t want your uni finding out, would you?”. In this case her university’s morality clause enabled a violent man to evade justice.

None of this is to suggest that sex workers don’t need counselling, or financial support – that comes with the nature of their work. But it is to say that they need to be able to ask for help without repercussions. The impact of outreach, counselling, and hardship funds are the sex work equivalent of puppies in SU bars and free fruit during exam season – pointless if they exist without wider institutional change. Universities need to create policies more pertinent to the material reality of the student sex worker, and step in when these students are being discriminated against by third parties. And if we want to access the real, lived, “student voice”, we need to create circumstances where they feel allowed to speak.

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