The attendance of the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project (SWOP) Sussex at the University of Brighton’s freshers’ fair has been called “beyond disgraceful” and sparked a division in opinion.
The sex workers’ support group set up a stall at the fair, and offered free condoms, lubricant, and help for students. They invited visitors to “come and play” on a “wheel of sexual wellbeing”.
The Sussex organisation said that they offer “support and advice without judgement”, and tweeted: “1 in 6 students does sex work or thinks about turning to sex work. We can help.”
They added: “If you’re topping up your fees with sex work, or struggling to balance work and studies, or want to talk and don’t know where to go…we’re here for you. We respect your autonomy, privacy and confidentiality.”
They clarified that they “never idealised sex work”, and expressed that they “understand why students may turn to sex work”, and that “navigating the legal precariousness as well as potential danger mean that students are extra vulnerable”.
Regarding the stall by SWOP, the university said in a statement that the freshers’ fair was organised by students and the students’ union (SU), instead of the institution, which “does not promote sex work as an option to students”.
They added: “We provide a wide range of welfare support as well as financial assistance to any students who suffer hardship. This is offered on a confidential and non-judgmental basis, balancing respect for our students’ right to make their own decisions and our wider duty of care.”
They will be launching an investigation with the SU to “gain a full understanding of the aims in inviting SWOP”, and “ensure due care is taken when presenting students with third-party information on highly sensitive and emotive issues”.
SWOP was at our freshers’ fair event to raise awareness of the specialist support they provide should it ever be needed
– Tomi Ibukun
SU President Tomi Ibukun explained: “SWOP was at our freshers’ fair event to raise awareness of the specialist support they provide should it ever be needed.
“They were not there to advocate sex work as an option to our new students. It is unfortunate that some people have misinterpreted the attendance of SWOP at our freshers’ fair.”
Parker Robinson, SU vice president for academic experience, said it was “great knowing there are services available ready to help students through difficulties they might be experiencing”.
Reacting to the incident Julie Bindel, co-founder of law reform group Justice for Women, said: “It makes me so angry that the sex trade’s become normalised and pimped to women as though it is a harmless and respectable way to earn a living.”
Sarah Ditum, a feminist activist, responded: “This is essentially a grooming operation, pitching prostitution as a manageable, desirable lifestyle, equivalent to joining the rowing club.
“It is preying on the naivety of young students. It is incredibly irresponsible to promote an industry that is the cause of massive violence and exploitation against women as if it was the same as working in a bar.”
Others have praised and supported the work done by SWOP, including Alison Phipps, professor of gender studies at the University of Sussex, and Dr. Gemma Ahearne, lecturer and sex industry researcher at Liverpool John Moores University.