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Why the Sex Work Debate Misses the Point

Sex work is usually understood as an umbrella term that incorporates any kind of voluntary transactional sex service. More alternative forms of sex work, such as sugar dating (sometimes referred to as ‘sugaring’) or online paywall platforms like OnlyFans, have seen a huge spike in users in recent years. These figures have risen dramatically throughout the pandemic, especially on online platforms where subscribers simply pay for images of a sexual nature meaning no physical contact is involved. OnlyFans for example saw a rise from 7.5 million users in November 2019 to 85 million by December 2020.


With an estimated 85-90% of sex workers identifying as women, debates surrounding sex work tend to centre around whether it’s empowering or exploitative for the female gender. The former camp tends to be a younger demographic with more progressive politics while the latter is usually older and more conservative in their values. 


This certainly isn’t just a debate between the old and the young, or men and women: feminists are divided on the matter too. There are those who strongly believe a woman’s decision to become a sex worker, live independently and earn a respectable wage is the ultimate display of female empowerment. Others argue sex work only objectifies women as commodities that exist for men’s satisfaction, stemming from an archaic ideology built upon patriarchal foundations which exist to oppress women. 


Sex work, as opposed to sex trafficking, is all about consent. There’s no denying that plenty of women willingly choose this line of work, a decision that’s increasingly becoming more popular. It’s often quoted as a liberating job: workers have full control over their content, set their own boundaries and work the hours they choose. However, for some, there isn’t a choice. More and more women admit to entering this industry out of necessity, forced into sex work just to make ends meet. 


In an article for Unheard magazine, Sarah Ditum suggests, ‘it’s desperation, not inclination, that pulls most women in.’ Typically, sex workers are often single mothers, immigrants or other women from disadvantaged backgrounds who find it difficult to source more conventional lines of work. If a single mother could earn as much through two hours of sex work that she would in a full day’s work in a ‘normal’ job, it seems like a sensible option: more hours for child care and more money for maintenance. 


But an increasingly large amount of sex workers are students. A survey from Save the Student conducted last year found that 20% of students would consider sex work in a financial emergency, up 6% from the year before. According to the same survey, 7% of students said they had already turned to sex work as an alternative way of making money after losing a regular job as a result of the pandemic. This comes as no surprise; young people aged 16-25 are more than twice as likely to lose their job during the pandemic. Sex work thus becomes an appealing alternative. 


Earlier this year, Leicester University even announced plans to offer ‘toolkits’ to support student sex workers after recognising the rise in popularity. Some argued that this wrongly encourages young women into sex work, while others applauded the university for showing solidarity with its students. 


But these debates miss the point. A question often overlooked is why this should be necessary in the first place. If financial hardship among students, single mothers, or women more generally, has become so ubiquitous, why are the government or universities not stepping in to offer better financial support? Becoming a sex worker of your own volition is totally acceptable but being pressured into it for financial means is not. 


One student testimony on Save the Student says, ‘I hate that it has come to this for me to earn money. It makes me feel sick and I'll regret it for the rest of my life. I've put my own safety at risk a handful of times just so I had enough money to pay for essentials.’

If universal credit was enough to live on, and if university maintenance loans covered the ever-increasingly high student rent costs, then there would no longer be a need for most women to become sex workers. Instead, it would only be an autonomous choice, perhaps a secondary source of income rather than a primary one. Rather than petty virtue-signalling with sex work ‘toolkits’, if universities made it easier to access hardship funds, or the government bought back maintenance grants for disadvantaged students, I’m sure student sex work would dip in numbers. This isn’t a case of being a puritanical prude, it’s a matter of asking more from institutions that should support our financial welfare.

I'm Lilith, a final year English and Philosophy student at Nottingham. I'm an aspiring journalist interested in writing investigative features and opinion pieces, especially on the topic of mental health. I have an unhealthy obsession with house plants which I love to paint in my free time.
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