Debating Society (DebSoc) has been accused of treating sex workers like “zoo animals”, in the midst of discussions about their controversial freshers’ week event, a debate on the motion ‘This House would decriminalise sex work.”
After a student placed a complaint about the event in August, the Sabbatical team acknowledged that the debate was “unbalanced”, but that they could not take requested action against the event unless this was decided through a democratic channel, such as Student Ideas.
At the time of the complaint, the complainant had consulted with student sex workers and was concerned that the debate would “do more harm than good”. In particular, they were concerned that the debate and DebSoc’s handling of it could put at risk the welfare of an already marginalised group of students, and that these students could not come forward out of fear of reprisal or dismissal from the University under its morality clause.
According to DebSoc, they had not been aware of the complaint until recently. In a statement, the DebSoc committee said: “We had heard nothing from the Sabbatical team with regards to this matter, which is a failing on their part. Our first awareness of this complaint to the Sabbs was when the comments came through. The only alternative given was no platforming one of our speakers (a sex worker). We don’t support taking away voices from minority groups, especially speakers that are happy to speak about their experiences with sex work; or cancelling a debate as it doesn’t allow for open discussion”.
The DebSoc facebook post advertising their Freshers’ Debate, “This house would decriminalise sex work”, was edited after students accused it of treating sex workers as a joke. It originally read: “A porn star and a sex worker walk into a lecture theatre… but there’s no punchline here kiddos DebSoc’s big freshers debate is back with a bang!”.
The DebSoc committee said: “The original post was written to highlight the fact that the topic is not a joke by subverting the traditional format of the well-known joke – hence “no punchline” – we edited the post last night as a sign of respect to those offended. This was not done because of an official Sabb complaint but off our own back”.
Several students took offence with the suggestion that sex workers do not usually enter lecture theatres, and accused DebSoc of using their speakers as “zoo exhibits” to attract an audience.
In a Facebook post from this morning, DebSoc apologised for any offence caused, and stated: “DebSoc has the utmost respect and appreciation for our speakers, without them the society would not be what it is today. It must be said that last night there were some comments questioning the legitimacy of our speakers as well as assuming things about their identity, which we will not stand for. Although the nature of debate is to widen our knowledge, no one speaker can represent an entire group nor would they claim to”. They also asked for anyone with concerns to contact them directly rather than publicly on Facebook.
Others pointed out that the speakers against the proposition have “no expertise or experience in sex work”, as they would have preferred the society to feature a policy expert. Some concern was shown that DebSoc seem more interested in causing controversy and attracting new members, doing this to the detriment of the welfare of an already marginalised part of the student body.
Debsoc was also accused of hiding comments on their Facebook posts, but have since told Exeposé that this has been reversed. The committee said: “we do not agree with the comments being hidden it doesn’t agree with the nature of the society. Comments were later unhidden but it is understandable that some mistakes were made given the inflammatory nature of some of the comments berating our speakers and their suitability.
“I’m sure we can all get behind the idea of destigmatising sex work by talking about it openly in public without fear for the safety or harassment of our speakers – hence inviting the speakers we did. Please also see our official statement on our Facebook page for further comment”.
A Guild Spokesperson commented: “The Students’ Guild encourages societies to use a variety of means to publicise their events, but to always consider the impact their promotion may have on students and others that might interact with the promotion, it is unfortunate that this time DebSoc have misjudged the reaction to their post”
“Having passed through our process for events with external speakers we are confident that the debate will be a balanced one, however we also recognise that individuals in the audience may have their own views on if the speakers are the best ones to represent a side of the argument”
“The Students’ Guild recognises that the topics discussed might raise welfare issues for some students, and we encourage anyone who is impacted by these to contact the Advice Unit for more information on the support that is available.”
UPDATE: Pamphlets handed out by the opposition to the motion “This House would decriminalise sex work” are currently under investigation by the Guild, as confirmed on twitter.
We are shocked that these made it into the event without being disclosed or approved. We are investigating this as a matter of urgency.
— Exeter Guild (@ExeterGuild) September 22, 2017