Who thought a freshers’ fair stall could be so controversial?
The Sex Workers’ Outreach Project (SWOP) attended the University of Brighton’s freshers’ fair at the beginning of this year. Their presence led to a noticeable amount of online criticism, with some higher-profile figures labelling it as “beyond disgraceful”.
So, what do SWOP actually do? It was established as a branch of the Brighton Oasis Project in 2000, a “substance misuse service for women and families in the heart of Brighton”, with administrative offices opening in 2012. Amongst a wide range of services, they promise a “judgement free” advice hub, providing information on sexual health, a helpline for sex workers, and information on the rights of sex workers and the laws surrounding their industry. Full confidentiality and non-association with the police is also promised.
Their stall at the University’s freshers’ fair prompted an outcry from some as a promotion of sex work itself. Possibly the most publicised opinion was from Julie Bindel, an academic, author, journalist and co-founder of the law reform group Justice for Women. She said “This is beyond disgraceful. It makes me so angry that the sex trade’s become normalised and pimped to women”. Although I wholeheartedly respect Julie as an academic and support her work as a radical feminist and campaigner for women’s justice, I have to disagree with her denunciation of SWOP. Julie is against the decriminalisation of prostitution as she believes it is “inherently abusive, and a cause and a consequence of women’s inequality … a one-sided exploitative exchange rooted in male power”. Whilst her views stem from the best will and intentions, I think her condemnation of SWOP seriously misses the mark, and in some ways contradicts what she stands for.
One of the biggest issues for people working in the sex trade is their lack of support. Not only is support on a governmental level extremely limited, but the fact that it is such a taboo topic of discussion and apparently shameful act makes seeking advice a difficult task for those involved. Sex work also isn’t just prostitution, it can also take indirect forms such as webcam sex, and organisational roles like “pimping” or managing sex workers. This means a lot of sex work is hidden by those involved and goes largely unnoticed. The attendance of SWOP at the university event may seem like an unexpected location for some people, but a study called the Student Sex Work Project found that almost 5% of student respondents had worked in the sex industry at some point, with one in five students considering it. Interestingly, it also found that male students were more likely to be involved in commercial sexual activity than their female counterparts, and the money gained was usually spent on daily living expenses.
This clearly shows that the role of the sex industry in students’ lives has to be considered. Whilst it is upsetting that some students feel that they have to take part in sex work for money, why should we not mitigate the potentially harmful consequences of engaging in such work? Advice and support are not promotion; which is why we don’t put down Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as promoting alcoholism, for example. The issue needs to be approached as an institutional one, where we consider the causes of young people entering the industry – Namely the funding given to students who are financially struggling and whether they are given the appropriate help. What SWOP seeks to do is admit that people are currently involved in the industry, including students, and that they should not be denied support.
It is inherently damaging for the presence of advice services at student events to be devalued because it will only further ostracize students involved in the sex industry who may need help. Whatever your moral position on the sex industry, the most important act of support is to view those who are involved as struggling in the same way that people do in other industries. Therefore, seeing that denial of the right of advice and help surrounding their physical, mental and legal positions only further exacerbates their struggle. Whilst we campaign for legal changes and increased assistance for students from universities themselves, we must support a healthy dialogue between advice services and students to limit the damage that may be caused by being involved in the sex industry.