Briefing: Online Safety Bill – Criminalising sex workers’ online adverts will undermine safety
Please click here to use our quick online tool and template letter to ask your MP to call for the removal of Clause 16 (Section 7 – Priority Offences) of the Online Safety Bill and urge them to speak out against this dangerous attempt to criminalise sex workers’ online advertising.
Online Safety Bill: Criminalising sex workers’ online adverts will undermine safety. Remove “controlling/causing/inciting prostitution for gain”
Issued by the Safety First Coalition (SFC)
The SFC, which campaigns to decriminalise sex work and prioritise women’s safety, is coordinated by the English Collective of Prostitutes and was launched in 2006, following the murders of five young women in Ipswich. The coalition includes anti-poverty campaigners, church people, residents of “red-light” areas, health workers, lawyers, trade unionists and organisations campaigning for the rights of sex workers, prisoners and drug users.
Contact: English Collective of Prostitutes 020 7482 2496 / email@example.com
PROPOSED ONLINE SAFETY BILL
The draft Online Safety Bill was published on 12 May 2021 with the stated aim of cracking down on “harmful” content online. Internet platforms that allow people to post their own material, such as social media and video-sharing platforms, as well as search engines, will be obliged to remove illegal content and take proactive measures to stop the most harmful “priority” forms of online illegal content being posted in the first place. Initially this included terrorism and child sexual abuse and exploitation.[i]
INCITING/CONTROLLING PROSTITUTION ADDED TO THE BILL
A clause has now been added to the bill to include the offence of “inciting or controlling prostitution for gain”[ii] as one of the priority offences that tech companies have to look out for – firms then are obliged to remove any content from their platforms that could be construed as committing this offence. Controlling prostitution for gain is interpreted very widely in the criminal courts. Some women in the ECP have been prosecuted under this offence just for helping a friend build a website or place an advert.
Advertising platforms will be under pressure to pre-emptively removing sex workers’ advertisements in order to avoid any chance of being prosecuted – essentially criminalising the online advertising of sex work. Our experience shows that in any crackdown like this, migrant and women of colour are particularly targeted.
It is worth remembering that the exchange of sex for money itself is not illegal.
PREVENTING SEX WORKERS ADVERTISING WILL INCREASE VIOLENCE
Preventing sex workers from advertising will increase violence and the risk of attack. Research shows that internet platforms have allowed more sex workers to work inside where it is safer than on the streets, and also to work independently of managers or agencies who may be exploitative. Sex workers can screen clients and have more control over their rates and services.[iii]
Rob Richardson, the head of the National Crime Agency’s Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit, has stated that adult service websites have a safety benefit:
“ASWs [adult services websites] … [provide] a safe environment for sex workers to advertise their services, so it can be argued that using ASWs takes sex workers off the streets and potentially puts them in control of the services they offer. They are able to vet clients and they are able to be clear in the services they offer, so the ASWs do offer some kind of safety benefit.”[iv]
The Terrence Higgins Trust issued a joint letter with the National Aids Trust in 2021, stating that criminalising sex workers’ advertising will increase harm:
“[criminalisation of] many of the means through which sex workers market their work … would in effect criminalise sex workers by proxy, shift demand to less safe spaces, and increase the threat of violence and other harms.”[v]
IMPACT OF SIMILAR LAWS IN US
Similar legislation (SESTA/FOSTA)[vi] was passed into law by Trump in the US in 2018. These laws made the owners of websites criminally liable for any trafficking content posted by third parties. Internet platforms rushed to block and ban sexual content to avoid falling foul of the law. Prostitution adverts were particularly targeted. Research found that online communication platforms have excluded people working in the sex industry as a result.[vii]
US PROStitutes Collective described the impact in detail:
“We found that there was a scramble to find clients in a safer way post FOSTA and most of us were hurting financially. We see more women facing poverty and destitution . . . Most of the women in our network are mothers and caregivers who are struggling to make ends meet. … As a result, more women have to work the streets where it is more dangerous to work. We could operate more independently before FOSTA and now some of us have to depend on third parties who take a cut from our earnings and who can sometimes be exploitative. … Being pushed offline means we are cut off from community support, safety tips, and other help and advice from fellow sex workers. Increased poverty, especially since the pandemic and especially among women, and low wages in many other jobs traditionally done by women means that people don’t have the option to leave sex work. So we are forced to take clients we would previously refused and take risks to earn enough to live on.”[viii]
This account is backed up by evidence[ix] showing an increase in poverty, insecure housing, suicide, murder[x], isolation, and the deterioration of physical and mental health for sex workers[xi]. Many reported that the loss of their online presence made them more susceptible to labour exploitation and trafficking, or forced them to work outdoors. [xii]
The name of the law shows the claimed intent: Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). But evidence shows that these laws did not reduce trafficking or other violence, and increased harm towards sex workers.[xiii]
Law enforcement agencies have raised that such laws make it more difficult for them to locate traffickers, as advertising websites have been shut down.[xiv]
Sergeant John Daggy, undercover vice unit, Indianapolis Police Department comments:
“We’ve been a little bit blinded lately because they shut Backpage down … it has blinded us. We used to look at Backpage as a trap for human traffickers and pimps.”[xv]
Furthermore, despite the initial effect of this legislation on advertising websites, “ads rebounded with new sites springing up very much like the old ones. By 11 August 2018, the daily volume of ads had climbed steadily and was already back to about 75% of pre-law levels”.[xvi]
INCREASED ONLINE PROSTITUTION DUE TO POVERTY & PANDEMIC
There has been a dramatic increase in online prostitution especially since the pandemic as sex workers’ incomes disappeared overnight and most sex workers were deprived of government support. Those that could moved to working online in order to survive.
The relentless sensationalised reporting about this ignores that prostitution is going up because poverty, especially women’s poverty, is increasing. Most sex workers are mothers[xvii] struggling to provide for themselves and their families.
Even before Covid, approximately 86% of austerity cuts had targeted women.[xviii] The £20 cut to Universal Credit pushed many women in our network to breaking point. Women are having to work in ways that are more dangerous and take clients they would previously have refused. Some women who had left sex work a decade previously have had to go back to it.
Measures that would help women exit prostitution when they wanted include: repealing universal credit, benefit sanctions, the benefit cap and bedroom tax, reinstating Income Support for single mothers and a Care Income which acknowledges caring work as a vital contribution to society.[xix] Instead the government is inviting MPs to join a moralistic crackdown that, existing research shows, will endanger the lives of vulnerable women.
TRAFFICKING VICTIMS PENALISED AND DEPRIVED OF HELP
It is particularly galling that tackling trafficking is given as the justification for adding these measures to the Online Safety Bill when Part 5 of the Nationality and Borders Bill currently going through parliament reduces support for victims of trafficking and penalises any victim who delays speaking about what they have suffered, regardless of circumstances and/or trauma.[xx]
DECRIMINALISATION IMPROVES SAFETY
New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003 with verifiable success. Over 90% of sex workers said they had additional employment, legal, health and safety rights. 70% said they were more likely to report incidents of violence to the police. There was no evidence that decriminalisation had led to an increase in the number of people working in prostitution nor in the number of people trafficked into the sex trade.[xxi]
The UK parliament Home Affairs Committee 2016 Inquiry recommended that:
“… the Home Office change existing legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence and so that brothel-keeping provisions allow sex workers to share premises.”
“… previous convictions and cautions for prostitution [to be deleted] from the record of sex workers.” [xxii]
Decriminalisation is supported by prestigious organisations such as: Royal College of Nursing, Women Against Rape and internationally by Amnesty International, World Health Organization, UNAIDS, Human Rights Watch, Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women among others.
Given all this evidence, why is decriminalisation not being considered?
18 March 2022
[i] Draft Online Safety Bill, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
[ii] Press release: Online safety law to be strengthened to stamp out illegal content
[iv] In town for one week only: How crime gangs are using legal adult websites to sell their victims – and why vice squads back them | Sunderland Echo
[v] To help end new cases of HIV, we say no to the Nordic Model for sex work | Terence Higgins Trust
[vi] The 2018 SESTA/FOSTA acts claimed to reduce human trafficking by holding internet platforms accountable for the content posted by users. The effect of this was that online platforms for advertising sexual services were shut down or shut themselves down in order to avoid being prosecuted under this law.
[viii] Has FOSTA Accomplished Its Goals? – Liberal Currents
[ix] ‘Erased: The impact of FOSTA-SESTA and the removal of Backpage on sex workers’, Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 14, 2020
[x] On Backpage, Tits and Sass: Service Journalism for Sex Workers
[xi] Erased – The Impact of FOSTA-SESTA 2020, Hacking Hustling
[xii] Impacts of SESTA on US Sex Worker’s Vulnerability to Infectious Disease, SWOP USA & Reframe Health Justice Consulting
[xiii] ‘Erased: The impact of FOSTA-SESTA and the removal of Backpage on sex workers’, Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 14, 2020
[xiv] Police realizing that SESTA/FOSTA made their jobs harder; Sex traffickers realizing it’s made their job easier | Techdirt
[xv] Running Blind: IMPD arrests first suspected pimp in 7 months | WRTV ABC Indianapolis
[xvi] Emily Kenway, The Truth about Modern Slavery p.95
[xvii] Home Office. (2004). Paying the Price: A Consultation Paper on Prostitution.
[xviii] Women bearing 86% of austerity burden, Commons figures reveal | The Guardian
[xix] In the UK, the English Collective of Prostitutes, Support Not Separation, the Global Women’s Strike and a number of other women’s organisations, as well as the Green New Deal for Europe, are campaigning for a care income to address social and environmental justice. They point to the fact that 80% of women are mothers and that overwhelmingly mothers are the primary carers and are impoverished as a result. An income that addresses mothers’ poverty and recognises their vital contribution to society would go a long way to tackling the economic conditions that drive women, especially mothers, into prostitution.
[xx] Thousands identified as suspected modern slavery victims not referred for support | The Independent
[xxi] Prostitution Law Reform in New Zealand, New Zealand Parliament
[xxii] Decriminalise sex workers, says Home Affairs Committee