Picking up a leaflet at a freshers’ fair won’t turn you into a prostitute - Molly Smith

Posted on: 2018-10-02 07:00:00

Controversy erupted over the weekend as Brighton University was accused in the Sunday Times of “grooming” students into prostitution. The university had allowed a sex workers’ health and support service to run a stall at a freshers’ fair, with breathlessly outraged reportage noting that the organisation shared a booklet advising sex workers of their legal rights, and that the stall featured a “wheel of sexual wellbeing”.

The service in question offers nonjudgmental advice, support and healthcare to sex workers in Sussex, alongside support to women who use drugs and women who need support in escaping domestic violence.

For permitting the presence of this service at the freshers’ fair, the Labour MP Sarah Champion wrote that the university was “colluding with organised crime and abusers”. The story is indeed disturbing – but not because students are being enticed into sex work by a stall. The story is disturbing because in scaremongering about something that should be unremarkable, it represents a new attack on sex workers’ access to health and support services.

Here are some obvious truths. Students do not go into sex work because they dropped by a stall at their freshers’ fair. Like all other sex workers, they go into sex work as a result of their material conditions. For students, that means they need to be able to afford to pay fees and cover the cost of housing and living. If you want to prevent students from going into sex work, why not try to improve their material conditions – say, by campaigning for a reintroduction of grants, the end of fees or for free student housing – instead of attempting to block them from accessing health and support services?

Health and support services doing outreach is both normal and good. The Sunday Times gets in a froth over how “fun’” the stall was, which misunderstands how outreach works: no one is going to be getting serious, in-depth emotional support while standing amid a busy freshers’ fair. Instead, by making the stall approachable and filled with things that students in general might want (free condoms! silly prizes!), you highlight that this service exists, and no one “outs” themselves as a sex worker by approaching it or by taking away a leaflet along with a pack of novelty lube. Then, in the future, should a student or her friend need support or healthcare around sex work she will remember the organisation and can look them up or pass on the leaflet.

Blocking access to such services will not stop students from entering sex work. It will just ensure that those who do go into it are doing so from a position of maximum vulnerability – unsure of their rights, without access to specialist health workers, or to “bad date” lists. The outrage could make universities fearful of allowing such services to do outreach, limiting the number of student sex workers who even know that such a service is available to them and ultimately to threaten the funding of these kinds of services. Private funders are notoriously jumpy and the NHS is being subject to brutal cuts in sexual health services.

It is depressing to even have to be arguing that sex workers deserve access to health and support services. This should be something that both sex worker rights advocates and those feminists who believe in attempting to eradicate the sex industry through criminal law can agree on – yet it is the anti-prostitution feminists who have lead the charge in this confected outrage. If nothing else, this controversy reveals the extent to which pro-criminalisation feminism – such as that espoused by MPs such as Champion – has zero interest in the safety or wellbeing of those who sell sex. Access to healthcare and support is a good thing. Yes, even for sex workers. Let’s say that clearly and without apology.

 Molly Smith is a sex worker and an activist

Source: The Guardian

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