We’re always told that you should never believe what you read, however some of the UK’s biggest newspaper publications seem to have lost the memo over the last week and a half. On Thursday 11th November, The Times reported: “Durham University trains its students to be sex workers” which was later revised to “Durham university offers safety training for student sex workers” perhaps once they were alerted that the former wasn’t actually happening. This story was subsequently picked up by the likes of The Independent and The Daily Mail who have reported on it with varying degrees of accuracy, which have later been edited.
More worryingly, MPs jumped on the bandwagon of bashing Durham. Higher and Further Education Minister Michelle Donelan was reported in The Telegraph as being “deeply concerned” by Durham’s training opportunities and accused the university of “legitimising a dangerous industry which thrives on the exploitation of women”. She wasn’t alone in her misguided comments however, MP Diane Abbott also spoke up about the training, tweeting: “Horrific that Durham 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”.
It is these exact attitudes that Durham is attempting to challenge. Their ‘sex worker training’ was in fact a level one training course that was open to staff and students with the aim of ensuring people understood the challenges student sex workers can face, particularly when it comes to barriers to getting the support they may need. In statistics from The Student Sex Work Project, 50.7% of those interviewed stated that “secrecy” was one of the negative aspects of doing sex work as well as “negative judgement from friends/family” (34.6%).
Despite the media’s insinuation that they were training a legion of sex workers, Durham University’s training was intended to ensure that support from the university was as judgement free as possible by educating primarily staff within support roles about the challenges facing sex workers in order to dispell misconceptions in order to make support and services more accessible for those who may ordinarily feel the may be judged. Ironically, this seems to be something that the likes of Michelle Donelan and Diane Abbott could do with – their comments are clearly rooted within the stigmatisation of sex work that Durham is trying to combat.
In a statement issued by Durham University, they have stated: “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.
“The intent here is to ensure that social stigma does not prevent students who might be vulnerable or at risk from accessing the support they need and to which they are entitled.
“Staff and students took part in a one hour session to understand the challenges and obstacles that students involved in sex work might struggle to overcome when wishing to seek support.
“It teaches them how those stigmas can be overcome to ensure that any affected student can receive appropriate support and feel comfortable in requesting it.
“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.”