Durham university has had to defend its decision to give support to student sex workers after criticism by government ministers.

A one hour workshop on “understand[ing] the challenges and obstacles that students involved in sex work might struggle to overcome when wishing to seek support” was given to staff and students. 

“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 workshop sparked some controversy for seeming to support the idea of helping students get into sex work but the university says they were offering advice and support for those already doing it. 

The workshop was initiated by requests from students themselves, with the university hoping to encourage students to ask for help despite the stigma of the industry.

But complaints have been heard from a variety of people including a Cabinet Minister and an MP.

“[Durham university] legitimis[es] a dangerous industry which thrives on the exploitation of women” 

Michelle Donelan, the Minister for Further Education, added that the university was “badly failing” to protect its students.

MP for Labour Diane Abbott, chimed in on Twitter expressing her horror that Durham university was “offering training to students who want to be sex workers”. 

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And yet, the critical comments have come from everyone but sex-workers. It seems slightly puzzling that those with no experience in the industry are the ones talking down to institutions offering support to potentially vulnerable students. 

Figures estimate that 3% of university students engage in sex-work, and for various reasons – to support their income, or even simply for enjoyment. An additional 9% said they would turn to sex work if they found themselves in a financial emergency – a figure that sex work expert Jessica Hyer Griffin says is closer to the real number of current student sex workers and been brought about by financial difficulties over the pandemic. 

Last year, the government handed over an extra £85m to universities to help those facing financial hardship. Despite this, many students still struggle to cover the cost of living, but shaming students for making money will not fix the problem

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Why is offering help to student sex workers viewed as radical?

The criticism, lack of knowledge about sex work as well as unbalanced stereotypes about the industry (such as it only being harmful) feed into a wider pattern of stigmatisation and control.

Students should feel they can engage in work that they enjoy, that is safe from abuse and is done of their own choice. Criticising universities for trying to support students in this mission is a counter-productive and equally harmful endeavour. 

Read more from the BBC, Dazed and Save the Student.