University launches probe into sex worker support group’s freshers’ fair stall

A university is launching an investigation after a sex workers’ support group ran a stall offering help for students at its freshers’ fairs.

The decision to allow the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project Sussex (Swop) to attend the University of Brighton’s events in the city and at its campus in Eastbourne on Tuesday and Thursday was branded “beyond disgraceful” and criticised online.

The group, which also said it attended the University of Sussex’s life and wellbeing fair on Wednesday, defended its actions.

The organisation is part of the Brighton Oasis Project charity and describes itself as a “discreet and confidential” service for women in the sex industry who live or work in Sussex.

On Sunday, a University of Brighton spokesman said it would be launching an investigation and “does not promote sex work to its students”.

The Swop stalls offered condoms and leaflets as well as inviting visitors to “come and play” on a “wheel of sexual wellbeing”.

In a series of tweets it promoted its attendance, it said: “1 in 6 students does sex work or thinks about turning to sex work. We can help.”

It also tweeted: “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.”

Among critics of the idea was feminist campaigner and writer Julie Bindel, the co-founder of the law reform group Justice for Women.

She said: “This is beyond disgraceful. 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. There should be an enquiry by the university into this.”

The organisation defended its position, saying it had “never idealised sex work”, adding: “However, we understand why students may turn to sex work, and navigating the legal precariousness as well as potential danger mean that students are extra vulnerable and we will help.”

It said it was not “encouraging or suggesting” that students become sex workers but cited academic research about students in sex work and said the group would offer “support and advice without judgment”.

Some academics and students jumped to the defence of the group.

Alison Phipps, professor of gender studies at the University of Sussex, thanked them for their “great work” and doctor Gemma Ahearne, a lecturer and sex industry researcher at Liverpool John Moores University, said their work was “amazing”.

Parker Robinson, student union’s vice president of academic experience at Brighton, said it was “great knowing there are services available ready to help students through difficulties they might be experiencing.”

In a tweet he added: “Obvi youre [sic] not suggesting people become sex workers, but rather youre [sic] supporting those who already are and get them into a safer place.”

Tomi Ibukun, president of the student’s union which organised the event, told The Sunday Times: “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.”

In a statement the University of Brighton said: “The freshers fair is an event organised by students for students and as such is managed by the students’ union.

“The university is nevertheless exploring this matter further with the students’ union to allow us to gain a full understanding of the aims in inviting Swop to the event and to ensure due care is taken when presenting students with third-party information on highly sensitive and emotive issues.

“We would like to make it clear that the university does not promote sex work as an option to students.

“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.”

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