Banning sex work advertising online will put sex workers in danger

The proposed online advertising ban was met with a furious response from sex workers’ groups and researchers. Andy Rain/EPA

Just months after the US government introduced an outright ban on advertising for sexual services, an unlikely coalition of politicians fronted by the Labour MP Sarah Champion held a House of Commons debate calling for similar measures in Britain. Following a report from Champion and her colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group for prostitution, the debate took aim at websites and online adult platforms offering sexual services.

Yet the majority of sex work experts argue that, as research has demonstrated, banning online sites would drive commercial sex work underground or back onto the streets, increasing the dangers sex workers face and making it harder to detect and prevent crimes against them. More importantly, this is also the view of sex workers themselves – as voiced at a spirited demonstration outside parliament during the MP’s Westminster Hall debate.

It happens that the British Society of Criminology Conference was underway in Birmingham just as this debate opened. One session on Rights, Victimisation and Sex Work warned that the US legislation (known as FOSTA and SESTA) introduced in March 2018 has already had consequences. There have been reports of assaults on sex workers, and even deaths, and it has affected sex workers’ rights of association. Organisers cancelled the famous three-yearly Desiree Alliance sex worker congress, stating “we cannot put our organisation and our attendees at risk”. Sexual health, training and support have been put in jeopardy owing to fears of being criminalised in the new climate.

The facts of the matter

Regardless of the stock photos of women on street corners, in Britain most commercial sex is advertised and negotiated online. Most advertisements are from adult sex workers working as independent escorts, or from agencies working with a number of women.

Contrary to Champion’s confident but unsupported assertions, findings from Beyond the Gaze – the largest research project on the online sex industry in the UK – have shown that websites allow sex workers to keep themselves safer. They enable more control over bookings, facilitate online interactions with potential customers, and reveal warning signs of problematic behaviour. Sex workers using the internet experience lower levels of serious crimes than others, while arranging commercial sex online leaves a digital footprint which can be used to trace violent or offending clients, or those involved in trafficking and modern slavery offences.

Sex workers share information with each other online to reduce the risks they face from potentially dangerous clients. Operations such as the National Ugly Mugs reporting scheme are supported by adult services websites, and feed information to the police to tackle crime. Only through the visibility of online sex work can exploitation and crimes be easily identified.


Listen to our podcast on the future of sex work in The Anthill 22: Sex


The impact of an advertising ban

One effect of banning sex work advertising and online platforms particularly would be to criminalise people who do sex work for a short time in their lives, for example students or single parents. These and others often use the same platforms, not to meet up in person but to sell pictures, videos, or live camera sessions with their clients. Surveys conducted for the UK Office for National Statistics make clear how providers mix and match between in-person and other services. But Champion does not differentiate between these, and this skews the debate.

A ban would divert policing resources away from genuine harms such as trafficking and sexual exploitation, to be spent instead on closing down sites used by consenting adults. A blanket ban makes it harder for people to exit sex work, as some women run websites, assist, or rent space to others in the process of leaving the industry.

Criminalisation would increase the stigma around sex work, leading to more sex workers ending up with a criminal record, making it harder for them to get a job outside the industry. It would amplify the hostile environment for migrant and LGBT+ sex workers, when false assumptions are made as to their status. Campaign groups seeking to criminalise sex work frequently regard any non-British sex worker as trafficked, and this deliberate indistinction allows for wildly inflated statistics.

The all-party group’s report appears to follow suit, talking of “potential victims” as being Romanian or other non-UK nationals. It does not clarify what a “potential victim” is, nor how it differs from someone who is not, in fact, a victim, but an uncoerced woman who happens to be foreign.

Some years ago the former MP for Rotherham, Denis McShane, used such statistics to argue for the de-facto criminalisation of sex work before being called to account by sex workers on national television. Proceeding under the same hysterical reaction, two nationwide police operations, Pentameter I and II, raided over 500 premises and found fewer than 0.01% and 0.021% of sex workers they encountered had been trafficked. McShane’s time might have been better spent fighting for the protection of girls in care homes, and against the grooming gangs in his constituency – Champion, having replaced him as MP for Rotherham, should take note.

The issue of criminal gangs, of coercion, trafficking and organised prostitution is something that must be tackled. But further criminalisation will not help.

Uneasy bedfellows

Champion’s move is supported in some quarters, including by the hardline Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, and this will not necessarily come as a surprise to those aware of the provocative attitudes of the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution. Under strong influence from religious members such as MPs Gavin Shuker and Fiona Bruce, their report is completely at odds with the previous coalition government’s policies, under which a Home Office review concluded priorities should be the safety of sex workers, support for migrant sex workers, and an investigative focus on grooming.

Instead, politicians should call for a compulsory rollout of the Merseyside+ Model to all police forces, a multi-agency approach to support sex workers and combat crimes against them and the community. They might look to other cross-party work, such as that convened by Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell MP in a report published with the English Collective of Prostitutes. Or to the Liberal Democrats’ policy, developed with evidence from experts and sex workers, which calls for decriminalisation of consensual sex work as a harm reduction measure, refocusing police activity on fighting coercion, defined broadly as fear, force, or fraud, and to support those seeking to exit.

A rational approach to harm reduction for sex workers is commended by health professionals, such as in an expert view published in the British Medical Journal. There is no appetite for dangerous laws that misdirect scarce resources toward the wrong targets. Academics have always offered their expertise and research to politicians to help build policies on evidence, not dogma; it is time they heard it.

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