Stu­dent sex work­ers need sup­port, says Adi MacArt­ney

In­sti­tu­tions that pride them­selves on in­clu­siv­ity should be do­ing all they can to de­fend stu­dent sex work­ers’ rights, says Adi MacArt­ney

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Adi MacArt­ney has a PhD in at­mos­phere-crust cou­pling and car­bon se­ques­tra­tion on early Mars from the Univer­sity of Glas­gow. She was briefly a lec­turer at the Univer­sity of St An­drews, and taught the mecha­tron­ic­srobotics sum­mer schools at the Univer­sity of

In­er­vously paced on the mildewed green car­pet, my body in­vol­un­tar­ily quiv­er­ing and my tummy feel­ing like it was try­ing to es­cape. My first client was about to ar­rive. The seem­ingly end­less Scot­tish rain was leak­ing though the win­dow seams in my dank Leith base­ment flat, and mould crept across the ceil­ing. “What the hell am I do­ing?” I thought. But it hap­pened, and it paid for my food that night: the best meal I’d eaten in a while. It paid for a few days’ meals, ac­tu­ally.

So one client be­came two, three, four. And be­tween my en­coun­ters with them, I read books and wrote my univer­sity as­sign­ments.

My story is not spe­cial or unique. A large and ap­par­ently grow­ing num­ber of stu­dents in the UK are turn­ing to sex work. Gain­ing ac­cu­rate fig­ures is im­pos­si­ble. Stud­ies sug­gest that be­tween 5 per cent and 10 per cent of the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion may be in­volved in sex work, but the real num­ber is al­most cer­tainly higher, since sex work­ers often do not wish to dis­close what they do. Stu­dent sex work­ers in par­tic­u­lar have a very jus­ti­fied fear not only of stigma, marginal­i­sa­tion and ver­bal and phys­i­cal abuse, but also of univer­sity ex­pul­sion, de­por­ta­tion (if they are in­ter­na­tional stu­dents) and pos­si­ble crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion – all of which would un­der­mine the very fu­ture that they are study­ing and work­ing so hard to gain.

The red um­brella is the in­ter­na­tional sym­bol for sex work­ers’ rights, and the um­brella is wide. A stu­dent sex worker may be a 19-yearold of­fer­ing sex for cash. But they may also be a 43-year-old sin­gle mother on ben­e­fits with two young chil­dren, study­ing part-time to be a so­cial worker and of­fer­ing erotic mas­sages in her spare room. They could be a 24-yearold man of Turk­ish back­ground who strug­gles with in­ter­na­tional fees and sells sex from the streets on week­ends. Or they may be a young trans woman early in her tran­si­tion who, be­cause of stigma or a lack of con­fi­dence, can­not get a pub­lic-fac­ing job and so does sex‑cam work in the evenings.

In my case, I es­corted in be­tween a six­hour-a-week main­stream job, which even­tu­ally be­came full-time. Bal­anc­ing study with any work can be ex­haust­ing, and I un­der­stand how sex work, with its rel­a­tively short hours and po­ten­tial high pay, can be ap­peal­ing to many stu­dents, who sim­ply must work, yet strug­gle to man­age both a main­stream job and in­ten­sive study. As my own main­stream work in­creased, my sex work de­creased, although with job inse­cu­rity and a fixed-term con­tract I re­mained re­luc­tant to lose my client base en­tirely. I gained my BSc and stopped es­cort­ing when I was of­fered a PhD. I had hoped to con­tinue in academia af­ter that – but, with no se­cure em­ploy­ment since com­plet­ing the doc­tor­ate in June, I have re­turned to es­cort­ing.

It is hard to know whether my open as­so­ci­a­tion with sex work and the sex work com­mu­nity dam­ages my fu­ture in academia, although it prob­a­bly does. The stigma is struc­tured so that it is more ac­cept­able to say “I was a sex worker” but have “moved on” and am “do­ing bet­ter”. The gen­eral at­ti­tude in uni­ver­si­ties is that we just don’t talk about such things – like a par­ody of din­ner with par­ents, the un­ap­prov­ing un­der­tones hid­den in the si­lence.

There was much crit­i­cism in Sep­tem­ber when the Sex Work­ers’ Out­reach Project dis­trib­uted ma­te­rial at the Univer­sity of Brighton’s fresh­ers’ fair. Ap­par­ently, recog­nis­ing that stu­dent sex work oc­curs and tak­ing steps to en­sure that those in­volved have enough ba­sic in­for­ma­tion to stay safe and healthy is a rad­i­cal and dis­rep­utable act, and the univer­sity launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Academia often talks about be­ing “di­verse” and “open”, but these are empty words. When con­fronted with raw, gen­uine di­ver­sity, uni­ver­si­ties tend to shun it, and close ranks around ac­cepted norms.

Of­fer­ing sex­ual ser­vices alone and in­doors is le­gal in the UK, but so­lic­it­ing in pub­lic is not. Broth­els are also il­le­gal, and the law states that “if more than one per­son is avail­able in a premises for paid sex, then that is a brothel”. So two in­de­pen­dent, vol­un­tary sex work­ers who share a flat for in­creased safety and re­duced iso­la­tion can be ar­rested for broth­el­keep­ing. All mo­ral judgement aside, it sim­ply makes sense to en­sure that stu­dents are aware of this – and of where non-judge­men­tal help and sup­port can be found. Yet a sur­vey led by Swansea Univer­sity, pub­lished in 2015, re­ported that univer­sity staff were them­selves un­clear about the law, and ig­no­rant of where to re­fer stu­dents to.

I am often asked if I en­joy or hate es­cort­ing (be­cause we adore di­chotomies). I en­joy it more than I used to, but that is be­cause many priv­i­leges have con­spired to pro­vide me with good clients and good work­ing con­di­tions. I like the opera or a fine din­ner as much as the next per­son. That said, I would still rather be sat read­ing and writ­ing with a cat on my lap most of the time. But who among us al­ways en­joys their jobs, and wouldn’t rather not need to work?

The key point is that en­joy­ment or oth­er­wise is ir­rel­e­vant to whether sex work­ers should en­joy rights, safety and ac­knowl­edge­ment that their labour is a form of work. And if they were se­ri­ous about in­clu­siv­ity and com­mu­nity, uni­ver­si­ties would be in the van­guard of de­mand­ing it – for their stu­dents and for ev­ery­one else.

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