One of the many depressing statistics that surfaced in the wake of this year’s new tuition fees regime, alongside the 15,000 absentees, was a ‘shock study’ by academics at Kingston University into student sex-workers. The research, which asked 130 students whether they knew others who had worked in the sex industry, suggested a 50% rise over the last six years. “One in 10 said they knew of students who had stripped, lap-danced or worked at massage parlours and escort agencies to support themselves. Just over 6% said they knew students who worked as prostitutes” (The Sunday Times October 8 2006).
The timescale, of course, comes as no surprise – the rise coincides completely with the introduction of tuition fees and abolition of the grant. Once again, we Cassandras on the left have had our doomy predictions confirmed.
There is more to the issue, however, than the simple bad reflection on the admittedly-disastrous policies which caused it. The implication is that, for the first time in quite a while, the sex industry is a live issue for students. Organisations like Communist Students, moreover, have a responsibility to offer constructive support to those employed by it.
In one sense, the sex trade is a trade like any other – there are bosses and there are workers; the former exploit the latter. The workers have to organise and fight for any victories. However, in the social climate of 21st century Britain, the sex industry is unique in many ways. Prostitution exists in a semi-legal limbo, with almost everything bar the transaction itself outlawed. Even ventures as relatively innocuous as Ann Summers sex shops are heavily restricted from normal operation (famously unable to advertise in job centres). Everything is restricted … except the exploitation, which – thanks to the difficulty in approaching the police and so on – is often intense and sometimes backed up by violence, and the indifference offered it by the state.
Unfortunately, the illegal status of sex work is actually defended by organisations of the left. The official policy of the Scottish Socialist Party – criminalising clients, not sex workers themselves – may be full of high-minded feminist rhetoric, but has little to offer a student forced into prostitution to pay the bills. The two strands of right and left moralism have reached a diabolical synthesis in Tower Hamlets with Respect’s puritanical crusade against sex-clubs, which borrows rhetoric from both sides.
Such approaches to the question are entirely counterproductive: they leave sex workers unprotected and struggling to survive since their work remains illegal. The left moralists have constructed a stereotypical prostitute who is vulnerable and utterly brutalised … but will be return smoothly to society’s mainstream if the industry that employs her is further driven underground and its owners and clients locked up. In reality, of course, the ‘oldest profession’ and similar work will go on regardless – while its workers will be more marginalised and less protected.
Instead of patronising sex workers, the left must demand that student unions cooperate with trade unions in aiding and encouraging their organisation – as they should with all students who have to work to finance their studies. The NUS should approach the International Union of Sex Workers and GMB union with this in mind. This does not contradict our fight for the abolition of fees and a living grant for all students – removing the need for students to be forced into selling their labour in work of any kind.