When the COVID lockdown hit in 2020, Audrey, a sex worker based in Bristol and campaigner for United Sex Workers, found that her client pool shrank dramatically. This put her livelihood at risk and Audrey found herself having to make choices that she didn’t feel completely comfortable with.
"What it meant was that [sex workers] had to see clients who we knew were more dangerous. There was a client who I had refused to see multiple times prior to COVID but since COVID hit, I've had to see him," Audrey explains.
Now, with a new law going through parliament with the intention of making online spaces safer, sex workers are worried that their jobs could get a lot more dangerous, forcing them into making riskier choices like Audrey found herself doing during lockdown.
A recent amendment to the Online Safety Bill (which will be scrutinised next week by the Public Bill Committee) will target online adverts for sexual services in a bid to stop traffickers from using online platforms to exploit victims. The Online Safety Bill is a huge piece of legislation with multiple focuses but is primarily aimed at protecting children and other vulnerable groups from harmful online content. However, the recent amendment lays out "inciting or controlling prostitution for gain" as a priority offence that tech companies must crack down on.
While it’s true that young people can be groomed for trafficking online, evidence shows that the vast majority of people working in the sex industry in the UK are not trafficked. Campaigners believe this amendment wouldn’t do much in the way of supporting actual victims but would push online platforms to take down sex workers’ legitimate ads in order to avoid fines.
Laura Watson, spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, explains that the wording of the amendment is also a cause for concern. "There are lots of different situations where adverts would be removed and because [the wording of the legislation is] so broad, we're worried it would be applied to many, many sex workers."
Independent sex work, which is most often arranged through online ads, is legal in the UK. If these ads are removed, sex workers could end up being pushed into already criminalised routes of work on the streets or in brothels. Others could be treated by the police as traffickers themselves for helping a friend with their ad, for example, making them convictable under anti-trafficking laws.
Kelly, a sex worker and member of the English Collective of Prostitutes, explains that online ads play a key role in sex workers’ livelihoods.
"Not many sex workers use their real photos, it's like an advertisement by a fast food chain – what you see on the pictures may not be what you get. It is just an advertising technique to attract more customers," Kelly explains. "I don't know how we are going to survive without any advertising online. The only way out is to work on the street, which will put us in real danger."
Research from the US, where both buying and selling sex is illegal, showed that 80% of street workers in New York had experienced violence or threats, compared to 46% of indoor workers. Since US lawmakers introduced measures that targeted sex workers’ online ads in 2018, 72.5% of workers have reported increased financial insecurity, according to one survey. Far from protecting against trafficking, campaign groups like United Sex Workers say this puts workers at higher risk of exploitation in the sex industry.
Ivy, a porn actor who also meets individual clients for sex work, uses an escort listing site and her own website to advertise for work. It allows her to request client references or details such as their workplace and social media links to help vet their trustworthiness. She says: "The escort listings site allows members to leave feedback for each other, which means that there is a level of accountability and members are less likely to misbehave or be a bad client if they know they can receive negative feedback."
Sex workers in the UK have developed their own platforms and blacklists for vetting, which can be used before meeting a client. Alternatively, Audrey says that working in person means that "you just have to make the decision there and then based on vibes".
Being able to advertise online and find work legally also allows workers to unionise and support each other. As an organiser for United Sex Workers, Audrey was able to provide legal support to a worker who hadn’t been paid by a client. "[We] sent some scary legal letters and, if we wanted to, we could have pursued that through court," she says, explaining that the union was able to get the money back from the client, something that wouldn’t have been possible if the worker had been criminalised.
Elaha Walizadeh is a practitioner in the gender-based violence sector and has worked directly with survivors of abuse for seven years. Elaha has worked directly with survivors of trafficking who have been groomed online and explains that there are far more valuable ways for the government to support victims of trafficking. She points out that support services for victims of trafficking are underfunded and overstretched. According to Elaha, there’s also little emphasis on educating young people about digital safety from an early age, when harm can be prevented.
"Why have other things not been considered to protect victims of trafficking?" Elaha asks. "Even with relationships and sex education – it’s very dated, we don't talk about technology in relation to children and young people. We're not having enough dialogues [with young people] about how we can navigate those risks."
While resources are allocated to effectively criminalising sex work, education and support services are underfunded, resulting in a failure to empower those most at risk of exploitation, many of whom are marginalised by poverty.
Poverty and the need for flexible employment are among the main reasons people turn to sex work, and a majority of sex workers are mothers. As living costs in the UK continue to surge, Audrey has already noticed that she’s had to increase the amount she works to earn enough to pay her bills. With next to no government support being provided to families, it’s likely that more women will turn to sex work in the coming months and years. The prospect of them entering a more dangerous industry, with less access to community resources, scares Audrey.
"It's a lot easier to criminalise sex workers into invisibility and let us die – because that's what will happen – than it is for [lawmakers] to be like, 'Right, what are some very real ways that we can tackle poverty? What are some very real ways that we can provide free childcare?'" she says, emphasising that the trafficking amendments to the Online Safety Bill are not being matched with measures to improve things for women who are struggling. "This is an empowerment of violence from many different angles."