Durham Students’ Union and the University have responded to criticism over Durham SU’s recent advertisement of training sessions for “students involved in the adult sex industry”.
Durham SU advertised the training sessions in an email to students. The advertisement stated that “student sex workers should not face any barriers to accessing support which is well informed and free from prejudice. The SU position on students in sex work are clear: support, informed advice, de-stigmatisation and collaboration with expert organisations. We are happy to announce an important part of the work towards our goals, implemented by the Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response team in coordination with North East Sex Work forum and Student Sex workers.”
The Times yesterday reported: “Durham University trains its students to be sex workers”, which was this evening amended to “Durham university offers safety training for student sex workers”. The article quoted Michelle Donelan, minister for higher and further education, who said that the University was “legitimising a dangerous industry” and “badly failing in their duty to protect” after it supported Durham SU’s promotion of the training.
She added that promoting such courses “seeks to normalise selling sex” and that “we know this is a sector that can target young women and students and trap them in the role. Universities should be focusing on raising awareness of the dangers of this and supporting women.”
Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, this afternoon tweeted: “Horrific that Durham University is offering training to students who want to be sex workers part-time. Sex work is degrading, dangerous and exploitative. Uni should have nothing to do with it”.
Jonah Graham, the DSU’s Welfare and Liberation Officer, has since commented on this issue. He said that “much of the media response to the University’s training has been misrepresentative of reality.
“The Minister of State for HE and FE’s comments show that she fundamentally misunderstands the training. It is an attempt to support students in a difficulty arising from the reality of their lives outside of their studies. Ultimately, any suggestion that this training aims to facilitate sex work is ludicrous. As I have attended both levels of this training, which is more than any of those writing for the national press, I know these criticisms are made in bad faith and are wildly untrue.
“We agree that ‘it is right that vital support to women is offered’, which is why the training was created. The training’s target audience is those who support students, so they understand the legal, safety, and wellbeing concerns of students and how to respond to disclosures sensitively. I am glad the minister agrees that we need to be ‘raising awareness’, and that is what this training achieves. Anyone who cares about the safety of students should support this training, and educate themselves about its actual content before making poorly judged comments.
“The Student Sex Work Project shows that there is a lack of policy and understanding in terms of supporting student sex workers. The vast majority of universities don’t have formal processes in place that staff can follow when they encounter a disclosure – a fact that could be harmful for students. Student sex workers are a fact of modern life, to deny them support in higher education is a grave mistake with real world implications for the students I represent. I am proud of my students’ union for pushing for support, and proud of my university for offering this training.”
DSU President, Seun Twins, released a series of tweets, criticising the backlash against the training: “Seems like journalistic integrity is taking a hit today with all of this manufactured outrage. Apparently educating students on their RIGHTS, SAFETY and the RISKS in the adult sex industry is scandalous.
“Working class women, their realities, their labour, their financial insecurity, their inherently valuable perspectives and narratives are pushed aside because of society’s discomfort with their mere existence.
“Sex workers exist and sex work can mean so many different things to so many different people. Pretending to be shocked by this fact does not make change reality or make sex workers any more safe and protected. Grow up and be mature about this!”
City of Durham MP Mary Foy has also come out in support of the University. In a statement on Twitter, she wrote that “the Minister of higher and further education, Michelle Donelan MP and The Times, have categorically failed Durham University and students today by running a story which was littered with factual inaccuracies.
“Following contact with the Vice Chancellor, Director of Advancement and the Durham Students’ Union this afternoon, I feel confident in offering my support to the University amidst the spurious claims that have been made in the media and online.
“The University consulted carefully before deciding to provide this support, engaging with student representatives, members of the University’s Sexual Misconduct and Violence Operations Group, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Unit, Counselling and Mental Health Service and safeguarding representatives.
“This was not a decision made on a whim or to promote sex-work, the safety and well-being of students in Durham is paramount and I would urge the Minister to reconsider her comments and The Times to reword a wildly misleading headline.”
The University has today released a statement. They said: “We are emphatically not seeking to encourage sex work but we are seeking to provide support to our students. We don’t judge, we listen, support and give practical help. We run many courses for students and staff on topics from mental health and wellbeing to drug and alcohol awareness.
“We make no apologies for working to ensure that Durham is a safe environment for all of our students and staff. We are extremely disappointed by the way the intentions for, and content of, this session have been misinterpreted.”
The University’s full statement can be found here.
Image: Amana Moore