For Britain’s sex workers, the threat of new legislation is all too real. Recent calls from MPs to ensure that prostitution websites “cannot financially benefit from exploited women” have caused anxiety among sex workers, who say that advertising their services online has improved their safety.
The pressure applied to the Home Office during a debate in the House of Commons stopped short of demanding an outright ban on ads for sexual services on Vivastreet and Adultwork – both of which are registered outside of the UK and dominate the online prostitution marketplace. But sex worker rights groups have expressed concern about what they perceive as a steady march toward legislation.
Potential changes in the UK would follow the introduction of a new law in the US – the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (Fosta), which was signed by president Donald Trump in April.
According to official figures from the UK’s National Crime Agency, the number of potential victims of trafficking and modern slavery referred to the authorities had climbed by more than a third from 3,804 in 2016 to 5,145 in 2017. When these figures were released in March, the NCA’s Will Kerr claimed the rise in cases was due, in part, to an “evolving threat”.
“The criminals involved in these types of exploitation are going into online spaces, particularly adult services website, to enable their criminality,” he said at the time. But campaigners have disputed MPs’ claims that prostitution websites have been fuelling an increase in sexual exploitation on an “industrial scale”.
“We don’t think the websites, in themselves, encourage trafficking. Anybody who is forcing someone into sex work gets away with it because women are fearful of coming forward,” says Cari Mitchell, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). “Sex workers who use websites to advertise say they have been vital in enabling them to work independently and to check out clients.”
Mitchell explains that many sex workers do not report violent attacks to the police, because “prosecution has been prioritised over protection”. Criminalisation, she argues, would drive prostitution underground and undermine the safety of sex workers, some of whom have shifted from the streets to the web.
“Two years ago, I built my own website which meant I could be my own boss and leave the parlour where I worked and where they took a large slice of my income,” says Cybil, a sex worker from Luton. “Now I can work with complete anonymity, from the safety and convenience of my own home. I keep every penny I earn, all without the interference of an agency or other ubiquitous middle man.”
Another sex worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that if the government legislates to stop her from advertising online, she will be unable to advertise independently. “I will have to find either a brothel or a pimp who can advertise for me,” she says. “I will be more vulnerable and open to being exploited. Also at the moment I use some websites for protection warning me about dangerous clients. Would they also be closed like what has happened in America?”
Dr Erin Sanders-McDonagh, a criminology lecturer at the University of Kent, says that the negative impact of Fosta was already visible in the US. “Legislation like this [in the UK] would only serve to further stigmatise sex workers and could actually exacerbate exploitation or trafficking. Approaches like this move us further away from decriminalisation which is what sex workers say they want, and evidence from New Zealand suggests works.”
In England and Wales it is not considered an offence to buy and sell sex. However, there are laws in place that are designed to protect prostitutes against exploitation and to prevent clients from buying sex from someone who has been a victim of trafficking.
During the Commons debate, Labour MP Sarah Champion – who is a member of the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution – said it would be wrong to suggest that commercial sex worker sites were a safe haven for women. She cited the Joint Slavery and Trafficking Analysis Centre, a multi-agency intelligence unit established last year by police, the government and the NCA, which concluded in evidence given to the all-party group that “adult services websites represent the most significant enabler of sexual exploitation in the UK.”
In one incident, Lancashire police told the inquiry that a man under investigation for sex trafficking had spent £25,000 to advertise women on Vivastreet. The website subsequently gave the man his own account manager.
However, the all-party group’s report has also noted the difficulty in nailing down the exact scale of organised sexual exploitation via sites carrying classified ads. “Important additional evidence of potential third-party exploitation would be available to the website operators and owners – who currently operate with impunity,” the report explained.
In stark contrast with the MPs’ conclusions, Dr Rosie Campbell, a researcher at the University of Leicester, says that sex workers use sites such as Adultwork because of the safety functions they provide. “I feel safer meeting a client who has booked me than I do if I was to meet someone off a dating site such as Grindr or Gaydar,” a male escort told the university’s research team, which carried out a detailed study of web-based sex work in the UK. “This is because there is a lot more communication between myself and a client before we meet – and the communication is a way of negotiating (what activity is engaged with, timings, etc) which reassures me. If a client requested to do something that I didn’t want to do, I would turn them down.”
Visitors to the Vivastreet site are met with a disclaimer before being able to browse the various classified ads offering services which include sellers of secondhand goods, handymen, and escort workers. The company behind Vivastreet says it “provides advertising space for adult entertainment providers, and for adults seeking adult entertainment services. Vivastreet is not an escort agency and does not play any part in the booking of any services”.
Sites such as Vivastreet – which is owned by a holding company based in Jersey, operates in 19 countries, trades under the name W3 Ltd in the UK, and claims to have made a relatively modest profit of £42,000 in the 2016-2017 financial year – characterise themselves as benign businesses that simply make money from classified ads. Vivastreet says it has worked with authorities to remove “any potential exploitation” from its platform.
“We take the issue of exploitation extremely seriously, and we are working closely with the Home Office to help develop an industry-wide approach to identifying and preventing online trafficking,” a spokesperson says.
When asked to explain the the technical details behind the system it was using to flush out traffickers from its site, the spokesperson added that any suspicious content was handed to the police via a partnership with National Ugly Mugs, a charity that works with police forces across the country and is supported by the National Police Chiefs Council.
The Home Office has said that companies such as Vivastreet and Panama-based Adultwork, which could not be reached for comment, would be expected to be responsible for the content hosted on their sites.
“Through engagement with such industries, we seek to ensure that they do what they should to ensure that their sites do not host criminal and exploitative behaviour,” Victoria Atkins, a Home Office minister, told MPs. She added that “technological capabilities” were being developed by officials to help identify trafficking online. The Home Office declined to say what that means in practical terms.
The government recently awarded the University of Bristol £150,000 to fund research that it said would help to assess different types of prostitution on the streets and online, as well as to develop a better understanding of the scale of sexual trafficking activity that has been facilitated on the web. “We are committed to protecting those selling sex from harm and enabling the police to target those who exploit vulnerable people involved in prostitution,” says a Home Office spokesperson. “The government currently has no plans to change the law around prostitution. We recognise the need for research on the nature and prevalence of prostitution before considering any changes”.
The University of Bristol’s findings are expected to be published in spring 2019. Only then will it become clear how much of a crackdown, if any, the government is ready to pursue.