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Controversy at Brighton: Is promoting the health of sex workers the same as encouraging prostitution?

Scandal arose after Brighton University allowed The Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP) to have a stall at their freshers’ fair last week. The university has been accused of encouraging incoming students to go into sex work. The “scandal” makes way for bigger issues, namely how social media has become a tool for misinformation.

Hiding away the fact that sex workers exist is not going to change the fact of their existence – even on university campuses. In a 2015 survey done by the Student Sex Work Project, five per cent of students said they were engaged in sex work. Acknowledging and providing support for such a large part of the student body should, if anything, be commended.

A series of tweets was all it took to raise the debate of whether including such a stall at a university fair is promoting sex work among young students. Molly Smith puts it like this: “picking up a leaflet at a freshers’ fair won’t turn you into a sex worker”. According to both Labour MP Sarah Champion and several media outlets, however, it might. Such claims have now forced the university to investigate the student union’s decision of including SWOP at the freshers’ fair. But should fear of spreading sex work at university cost the health of a vulnerable group of students?

The public outrage concerning Brighton University’s fair should be placed in the bigger context of the spreading of false information through social media. At a time when many students’ primary source of information are social media outlets – where click-bait articles are often measured by their popularity rather than their quality – sensationalism and lack of critical thinking lead to controversies such as this one.

The spreading of misleading information can have dire consequences in the contemporary world, something which this “scandal” painfully exemplifies. The actual scandal is the staggering fact that five per cent of UK students are in a position where prostitution seems like the only option – not that Brighton’s student union wants to include and support those in that situation. Why isn’t the anger directed towards the very policies that put them there in the first place?

It is not worrisome that SWOP was allowed a platform among students – it is worrisome that some resort to spreading misinformation about an organisation trying to help a stigmatised group. That, in my perspective, is the only problematic aspect of this debate.

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