Doctors vote against penalisation of sex work

by Seren Boyd

The idea of students engaging in sex work to fund their studies is shocking to most people.

Location: UK
Last reviewed: 14 September 2021
34046 becky bates medical students committee

Yet a substantial number of students in general, across higher and further education, are involved in the sex industry, surveys suggest.

Save the Student estimates the number to be about 4 per cent (2019), echoing findings by the University of Swansea in 2015.

Now, doctors leaders have voted that students should not be penalised for engaging in sex work by being thrown out of medical school or subjected to fitness-to-practise investigations.

Debating a motion that had raised considerable media interest, and some media distortion, doctors at the BMA annual representative meeting voted in favour of lobbying the GMC and Medical Schools Council on the issue.

They also voted to ‘work with medical schools to develop specialised support for students involved in sex work, ensuring an environment free from judgement and completely confidential’. A number of universities have already devised policy on supporting student sex workers.

Poverty driver

Proposing the motion, Becky Bates, chair of the BMA medical students committee, insisted that debate should focus on protecting students, not on the morality of sex work. She cited the English Collective of Prostitutes’ finding that poverty is the main reason students turn to sex work – and said that fear of stigma and reprisals was preventing student sex workers from accessing hardship funds.

Furthermore, students are opting to engage in more dangerous types of face-to-face sex work, she said, for fear of being recognised on online platforms, ‘outed’ and then expelled.

‘This is not about the morality of sex work: this is about safeguarding students who may already be participating and ensuring they can seek support without fear of reprisal,’ said Miss Bates.

‘The shame lies in how our finance model is letting down our students, not in how students are funding themselves.’

Sexual abuse

dr capanna CAPANNA: Tackle stigma

She also underlined that the kind of sex work that students are involved in is wide-ranging – from uploading ‘glamour’ photos to exotic dancing to sex-for-cash – and is legal.

But others could not divorce the debate from concerns about sex work being abusive. Almost a third (32%) voted against the motion.

BMA Scottish council member Angela Dixon said that, if it approved the motion, the BMA representative body risked ‘appearing to sanction prostitution’ and spoke passionately about the risk of physical harm and long-term emotional damage.

‘The only support the BMA should be giving to students who have ventured into prostitution is to help them get out of it,’ said Dr Dixon. ‘Prostitution should be seen as an abusive ancient relic and confined to history. Prostitution is the commercialisation of sexual abuse… It's not a harmless, fun job.’

However, Mavi Capanna, co-chair of the BMA North Thames region junior doctors committee, warned that stigma posed a huge risk to students’ mental health and had to be addressed.

‘Working in psychiatry, I've seen the difficult consequences that follow a lack of support and marginalisation of groups that either through choice or necessity have engaged in sex work,’ said Dr Capanna. ‘We need to work to support universities, regulators, doctors and employers in addressing the stigma around this topic, as well as engaging with students to ensure that they're safe and not under pressure or coercion. There is no place for (…) shaming them simply because of their previous choices and actions.’

Financial aid

BMA council deputy chair David Wrigley agreed with the need to protect students and suggested the priority should be ensuring ‘financial security’ for medical students, including through the reinstatement of fully funded grants.

Doctors voted against a motion to lobby universities for the wholesale removal of ‘morality clauses’ sanctioning behaviour that might ‘bring the institution into disrepute’. Louise Irvine, a member of BMA council, pointed out that morality clauses were important safeguards against unacceptable behaviour such as racism.