By Jonah Graham
I urge students not to fall foul of the misinformation encircling Durham’s Supporting Sex Worker Training. The training was not teaching students how to perform or engage in sex work. It was created to teach staff and students how support student sex workers if they come to them for help. It is a ludicrous suggestion that Durham University, one of the most prestigious, traditional, and conservative universities in the UK, would facilitate student sex work. I was proud that my colleagues at the university stood by the training in the face of faux moral panic, manipulation, and misrepresentation in the national press.
Student sex workers are still students – young people completing their studies who may reach out to University staff members for help just like any other student. They are entitled to adequate support. According to the Student Sex Worker Project, one in twenty students have been involved in sex work and one in five have considered it. The training equipped staff and students with the knowledge they needed to support student sex workers and tackle pervasive cultural stigma. It covered issues of safety, legality, and responding to disclosures so student-facing staff members will be able to respond to sex workers appropriately and professionally.
Sex work is a complex issue and the training acknowledged that. It is an umbrella term that will mean different things to different students. Such nuance or complexity was largely missing in national media coverage.
The national coverage, particularly from socially conservative sources, misrepresented the training for their own ends. By disproportionately focusing on ‘prostitution’ and escort work they generated panic and shock. If journalists knew the contents of the training, they would have found out escort work is relatively uncommon among student sex workers. Whilst there are issues around safety and consent within sex work to present sex work as inherently damaging or all sex workers in need of ‘rescue’ is incorrect. Unfortunately, these tactics were successful – politicians from multiple parties furthered the misrepresentation, by using their platforms to criticize the training without fully knowing its contents. Politicians should not be targeting support structures for potentially vulnerable students.
Ultimately, the myths and insensitive comments in the resulting discourse prove the need for the training. Stigma is still present in our society. It’s clear that several of the attacks used a facade of student safety but were actually efforts to morally police student behaviour. I am grateful to anyone who has combated this odious misinformation as it’s rare students vocally praise the University. Regardless of your opinion on sex work, this training solely aimed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of student sex workers and it deserves your support.
Image: Amana Moore