Cambridge misses the point when it comes to sex work

Rensa Gaunt 6 December 2018
Image Credit: Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

As detailed in a recent article, some students are finding that turning to sex work is a decision they have to make during their time in Cambridge. The release of this article coincides with a talk given through CUSU Womcam by Decrim Now, an organisation pushing for the decriminalisation of sex work in the UK. This article discusses what the University of Cambridge has to learn from campaigns such as Decrim Now, and how the University’s current approach is failing students in the most serious way.

Much of the work carried out by Decrim Now reveals that sex workers are being failed at every turn; the original article upholds that this is also true for those students who have had to turn to sex work. Lack of family support, ineligibility for student finance, limited ability to work due to ill health and disability: these issues all compound into a need for money to survive, and there being no safe way to get it. Since much of sex work is illegal, workers can’t speak up about rights violations for fear of being arrested themselves, and, should they be from outside the UK, being “rescued” to a detention centre. Minority groups that are traditionally underemployed find themselves relying on unsafe work more often, because they have no other choice.

The speaker from Decrim Now spoke about having been abandoned by Student Finance, since her estrangement from her abusive family did not tick the boxes that their system required. Similarly, the support that Taylor was offered was insufficient, and now having intermitted, they are no longer eligible for any support. Going into sex work is the result of their hardship, not the initial cause of it. It is therefore perplexing that the University would suggest as part of the same article that:

‘[L]iving with the risk of physical harm can lead sex workers to enter a downward spiral in terms of their mental health’.

This inadequate and dangerous response pretends that the risk of harm is the sex work, which then causes mental health issues. In reality, the risk of homelessness is authentically harmful in itself, and causes serious distress, which can include the need to resort to sex work. Why warn us against the well-known dangers of sex work? Why not instead warn us against the danger of falling through the Student Finance net, or of being abandoned by the University when we fall ill? Or was it only ever about shaming from the very beginning?

Colleges are keen to push students to intermit when they’re struggling, and thereby remove any right to financial support. There needs to be much more consideration of welfare during intermission, including whether the student has somewhere safe to stay or the available funds to find accommodation. I find it seriously lacking that, instead of directly offering intermitted students the accommodation they need, or enough financial support to cover what is lost through intermission, the University is merely ‘concerned’ for students at risk, and urges them to ‘seek wellbeing support’, knowing full well that even if the University Counselling Service didn’t have a considerable wait, it’s still not going to be able to put a dent in the risk of homelessness, and isn’t available to students away from their studies. Are we forgetting how rich this University is, and how much property it has access to? There was £11.8bn worth of assets between the University and its colleges at the last count. Putting aside for a moment the rent issues facing students in Cambridge in general, students in ill health, with disabilities, and/or with little support from their families are all in financially precarious situations. The University is in a position to take one of the most serious worries, i.e. the risk of homelessness and rent debt, completely out of the equation. This would reduce the pressure on students to enter into sex work, and would also allow them stability, which is essential for mental health.

It is hard to imagine that the UK government will fully support vulnerable people any time soon, for example via decriminalization of sex work and the provision of universal basic income, but the University has an obligation to not allow its students to fall through the net in the meantime. Tutors can be unhelpful or actively harmful with their advice on disability, mental health, and the need to intermit, and there is no reason that students would trust them enough to confide information about sex work. People with disabilities, mental health issues, or financial issues often suffer from intersecting discrimination, for instance if they are BME or LGBT+, which is a barrier to them being taken seriously and getting the support they need. They also may not be able to rely on their family in the same way many students could.

To start off with, there need to be clear policies throughout the University that emphasise the need to protect vulnerable students, including those who have intermitted or are sex workers, and that includes training in diversity and bias awareness for staff, to close the gap in treatment between different members of staff and across the colleges. These policies would need to guarantee to students asking staff for help that they will not be made homeless, that they will not be punished for having to resort to sex work, and that lessons will be learned from existing cases. We need to give students the protection they deserve, and the confidence that they won’t be failed again.