Should student sex work still be taboo?

Many people complained after the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project Sussex (SWOP) set up a stall at Brighton’s Fresher’s Fair back in September. They invited students who were “topping up fees with sex work, or struggling to balance work and studies or want to talk and don’t know where to go” to come and have a chat. The stall offered leaflets, free condoms and a wheel of sexual wellbeing for students to play on.

SWOP is a service which aims to support women and men who are working in the sex industry by looking after their health and safety, as well as their sexual wellbeing. They offer a wide range of services, including advice on contraception and STIs, as well as tests for those infections, pregnancy tests and an appropriate chaperone for sexual health clinic appointments if needed. SWOP does not encourage sex work or glamourise it, but merely helps those working in the industry navigate any situations safely.

But why would this be relevant at a Fresher’s Fair? Well, SWOP claims that up to 1 in 6 students think about sex work or even turn to it for a source of income. Some people may be shocked by this figure; however, with rising university fees and the high interest on our student loans, I don’t think it’s that surprising. It can be difficult at university to find a job which you can fit around your studies, and while I’m neither justifying or condemning sex work as a solution, surely it’s best to acknowledge that it’s a choice some make and therefore to ensure it’s as safe as possible.

The Students Sex Work Project has undertaken research, and the results showed that 4.8% of students have actually had some involvement in sex work – that number includes those participating in porn, prostitution, strip clubs, webcams and any other work considered as being part of the sex industry. The money earned varies greatly, but the bottom line is, that’s money that the government isn’t providing, and it can be the difference between eating dinner or not for some students.

But it’s not all about the cash for everyone, some people describe having been intrigued by the work, or assuming they would find it enjoyable. Unfortunately, a feeling of being trapped in it once you’ve started is commonly reported, and it’s here that services such as SWOP can provide the appropriate support and guidance.

I’m lucky enough never to have had to consider turning to the sex industry to supplement my student loan, but not everyone is. And in my opinion, it’s important we reduce the stigma surrounding sex workers in general, as their motivations, backgrounds and current situations can vary so much. I understand how the presence of SWOP at Freshers’ Fairs could be viewed as irresponsible or offensive on the uni’s part, but I believe that their intentions were good. If I ever was working in the sex industry, I think I’d feel safer knowing that there was support out there for me and for that, I think SWOP are doing amazing work.

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