Just months after the US government introduced an outright ban on advertising for sexual services, an unlikely coalition of politicians fronted by Sarah Champion, a Labour MP, 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 MPs took aim at websites and online adult platforms offering sexual services.
Yet most sex work experts argue that 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 MPs’ Westminster Hall debate.
It happens that the British Society of Criminology Conference was under way in Birmingham just as this debate opened. One session entitled Rights, Victimisation and Sex Work warned that the US legislation introduced in March this year 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 thrice-yearly Desiree Alliance sex worker congress, saying “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.
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.
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, such as 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 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 leave 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 of sex work, leading to more sex workers 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.
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. The issue of criminal gangs, of coercion, trafficking and organised prostitution is something that must be tackled. But further criminalisation will not help.
Champion’s move is supported in some quarters, including by the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, and this will not come as a surprise to those aware of the provocative attitudes of the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution. Under influence from religious MPs such as Gavin Shuker and Fiona Bruce, its report is at odds with the previous coalition government’s policies, which under a Home Office review concluded the 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 roll out of the Merseyside model to all police forces. It's 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 John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, 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 at 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.
Belinda Brooks-Gordon is a reader in psychology and social policy at Birkbeck, University of London and Teela Sanders is a professor in criminology at the University of Leicester. This article originally appeared on The Conversation
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies