Sex work today is often advertised digitally, or conducted exclusively online. Over the last 15 years the rise of digital platforms like Adultwork, Vivastreet and OnlyFans has transformed the logistical side of selling sexual services, replacing or supplementing more traditional methods such as word of mouth, picking up clients outdoors or working in brothels. There is evidence to show that these online platforms provide significant increases in safety and independence for many of the workers that use them.
Recently, however, anti-sex-worker campaigners have started to target the sites that sex workers use, attempting to shut them down. They believe that prostitution is inherently a form of violence against women and girls, and view the crackdown on websites as a step towards the eventual abolition of the sex industry. Few are willing to hear from current sex workers, whose lives and livelihoods are at stake. What’s the reality on the ground, and what would sex work look like if these campaigners got their way?
Many sex workers in Britain today use online platforms like Adultwork and Vivastreet as advertising directories creating profiles to find clients. While third-party managers might take this role in agencies or brothels, these platforms help independent workers to develop their own client bases. Workers can orient their profiles towards different services, including full service work, BDSM provision, or online content such as webcamming, messaging, pictures or videos. Clients are also able to set up profiles and send messages, arranging to purchase services. Some platforms are specific to particular forms of work. OnlyFans, for example, geared itself towards online workers. It used a subscriber model for access to online content like videos, photos and messaging. In August 2021, under pressure from investors and payment providers, the platform announced it would be prohibiting the publication of pornography.
At present, in the UK, selling sex is partially criminalised. It is legal to sell and buy sexual services in England, Scotland and Wales, while clients are criminalised in Northern Ireland. ‘Brothel-keeping’ (the definition of which includes working together with a friend for safety), ‘loitering’ and ‘soliciting’ are criminalised. Acting as a third party – which includes being a boss of an agency, but has also resulted in criminal charges for receptionists and maids in venues selling sex – is illegal. Paying for sex with someone who has been coerced is also a criminal offence.
Given this legal framework, some of the logistical change of online platforms is positive. Not all workers wish to work indoors, but platforms can open up access to indoor work for those who do. This is often safer. Outdoor sex workers are legislated against on grounds of ‘anti-social behaviour’ and ‘loitering’, and are more likely than indoor workers (who are less visible) to be subject to incarceration and police violence.
With the freedom to set up and market their own profiles, workers are better able to advertise independently of third parties like managers and bosses. It also makes working casually – around school hours or a disability – more possible. Crucially, the platforms also allow for more extensive safety screening practices. Messaging can enable screening in advance of an in-person meet, and review systems mean workers can share positive and negative feedback about clients.
Nicola has been a full-service sex worker for ten years. I asked why she uses sites like Adultwork and Friday-Ad. She said:
A life’s work is on those websites – photographs, feedback, emails, numbers, notes to myself about clients, notes to other girls, previous names that clients have used to try and outsmart us … girls can share information privately and leave feedback about a client … If I didn’t have that, it would be dicing with danger every time I answer the phone.
For sex workers, then, there are clear benefits to using websites to facilitate their work. However, while advertising online is ostensibly legal in the UK, this could be about to change, with a push for more criminalisation that explicitly targets sex workers’ access to online platforms.
Campaigners pushing to shut down and criminalise online platforms used by sex workers have rallied around the Nordic Model Bill. The bill draws its inspiration from Sweden, which was the first country in 1999 to implement legislation that decriminalised sex workers while criminalising their clients. Since then, similar legislation has been passed in Norway, Iceland, Canada, France and Ireland. Though lobbying has been ongoing for decades, 2021 has seen a particular parliamentary mobilisation, with repeated attempts made to pass a Nordic Model bill in England and Wales. Spearheaded by Dame Diana Johnson MP, the most recent bill has supporters including Sarah Champion, Diane Abbott and campaign groups like Nordic Model Now!, as well as a supportive layer of journalists writing within the national press. A 2020 report titled ‘Online Pimping’ draws heavily on statements from law enforcement and anti-trafficking groups, presenting sexual services platforms as ‘major enabler[s] of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation‘.
Some anti-sex-worker campaigners believe that criminalisation will ‘end demand’ from would-be sex buyers, reducing the amount of sex work in total and sending the cultural message that purchasing sexual services is gendered exploitation. They argue that the provision of exit services – as part of Nordic Model legislation – will support women selling sex to find alternative forms of work. A minority of anti-sex-industry campaigners are women with experience of prostitution, whose violent experiences have led them to the position that the industry must be abolished for all. Yet for many anti-sex-worker campaigners the cause is more abstract, their opposition based on the principle that men should not be able to buy sex from women.
This position appears not to take into account the ongoing, tireless work of the sex-worker-led movement in the UK, including groups like the English Collective of Prostitutes, SWARM, SCOT-PEP and Decrim Now. The movement is united in its fight for full legal decriminalisation: the right to work free from criminal punishment or police brutality. In diverse ways, sex-worker activist groups seek to end violence against sex workers, and towards sex-worker survival. They argue that ‘sex work is work’: a slogan which doesn’t necessarily mean that sex work is good, desirable or empowering work, but rather that it is often the best option for those with a constricted range of choices – where the other option may be poverty, starvation or homelessness.
Anti-sex-worker campaigners often conflate sex work, commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, arguing that a labour rights framework, in which exploited workers are supported in unionising for rights at work, doesn’t apply where sex is involved. In her Sexual Exploitation Bill, Diana Johnson characterises online platforms as part of the issue, describing them as ‘profitmaking pimping websites operat[ing] free from criminal sanction, helping sex traffickers to quickly and easily advertise their victims and reaping enormous profits from doing so’.
This approach paints online platforms as primarily aiding exploitative third parties, ignoring the evidence that the information sharing and community building they facilitate improves safety. Much of this kind of rhetoric aims to discuss sex workers without having to see or hear from them. Social media platforms in particular help to amplify sex workers in speaking for themselves. It is harder to make false claims about what sex workers want when they can more directly tell you what they think. This is perhaps one reason why sex workers’ greater ability to speak independently via the internet is being targeted.
In April, a coalition of sex-worker groups in the UK, united under the banner Decrim Now, released a letter opposing attempts to criminalise their clients and close down their websites. It said:
Criminalising clients has been shown to increase violence for the most marginalised workers, the same workers often conflated with trafficked victims. With the fall in clients, sex workers are forced to say yes to dangerous clients and services they would otherwise say no to, just to survive.
The letter also explains that with websites taken down, workers are more likely to rely on exploitative bosses to find clients, while losing access to vital safety resources. Those who oppose sex work, and those who advocate for sex-worker rights, all agree that trafficking and exploitation are abhorrent. Human trafficking, forced labour and sexual exploitation are already illegal under the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. As Decrim Now argues, further criminalisation doesn’t help end trafficking or exploitation:
Just as other industries where trafficking occurs are not criminalised [the solution is to] ensure people have legal ways to migrate, have routes out of poverty, and are empowered to seek support from authorities without the fear of penalty such as detention, deportation or destitution.
Cracking down on online spaces used for sex work will not help to end trafficking or exploitation. In fact, as Decrim Now points out, it worsens the problem. Nonetheless, recent legislation in the US has already led to the closure of websites similar to Adultwork that had helped sex workers make a living and keep safe. In 2018, former President Trump signed two bills which led to the closure of advertising sites, titled FOSTA-SESTA (the Fight OnlineSex Trafficking Act, and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act). FOSTA-SESTA makes online platforms legally responsible for the content they host. Against the threat of liability, sites responded fearfully. The FBI seized the popular US site Backpage days before the bill’s passage. Then Craigslist personals, Eros, Cityvibe, community ‘subreddits’ and independent sex worker websites hosted on US-based servers were removed, almost overnight.
When sex workers are moved offline they are not magically able to find better incomes or other work; they are forced to work in worse conditions, or face poverty. Taking accounts down only exposes them to greater danger.
A community report based on research and data collected by two sex-worker organisations, Hacking//Hustling and Whose Corner is it Anyway, conducted online and verbal surveys with US-based sex workers 18 months after FOSTA-SESTA was signed into law. They found that 72 per cent of those surveyed faced increased economic instability, while 33 per cent experienced increased violence from clients. A total of 99 per cent said that the law did not make them feel safer.
To defend sex workers’ right to find work online is not to imagine that large advertising directories are proworker. Building a client base online can involve a form of gamification: workers invest increasing capital and time to buy advertising slots and appear higher in the feeds. While platform owners, like other third parties, may provide sex workers with a useful service, they also enact a worrying level of control over how workers are able to work.
Like other platforms, such as Deliveroo, Uber or Spotify, directory sites extract profit from workers, and appoint themselves as money-making middlemen in a way that is unaccountable to the workers themselves. As monopolies, they squeeze out alternatives: only the most well-off independent escorts can afford to keep separate websites competitive. And, of course, advertising online requires internet access, capital for hotel rent, outfits and photos, and language fluency for copywriting. While some workers prefer the autonomy of outdoor work, this bar to access continues to mean that the most marginalised women are concentrated in lower paid and higher risk parts of the industry.
However, we have to look at the alternatives, as well as the history of what happens in practice when methods of advertising and selling sex are shut down. Over recent decades, as sex workers have used one method of advertising, the government criminalises it, and the pattern repeats. The criminalisation of the public display of sex-worker business cards exemplifies the trend. From the 1990s onwards, sex workers working indoors in London and Brighton used to advertise by placing what were colloquially called “tart cards” in phone booths. These business cards would display a name, phone number, a picture, and a brief slogan suggestive of the services offered.
In 2001, Sections 46 and 47 were added to the Criminal Justice and Police Act, making leaving sex-worker business cards by public phones subject to a fine or up to six months imprisonment. This kind of criminalisation is about making sure that sex work is not seen publicly, not about making it actually go away. Save Our Eyes is the name of a contemporary anti-sex-worker group, confident in saying the quiet bit out loud. They have campaigned to have Holbeck, a managed zone for outdoor workers in Leeds, shut down on the grounds that it “blights” the area.
Evidence suggests that criminalisation alone does not lessen client numbers. Meanwhile, it will do nothing for sex workers’ need to survive. As Juno Mac and Molly Smith argue in Revolting Prostitutes: ‘Clients are not the demand, but the supply … any campaign … to reduce business for sex workers will force them to absorb the deficit, whether in their wallets or in their working conditions.’ In a similar way, the push to close down sex workers’ online platforms does the opposite of what advocates say it will do: it risks increasing violence against women. I asked Nicola what she felt would happen if sex-worker online spaces were banned.
It would be the equivalent of going to work and seeing my office has burned down and there’s no one around to talk to. If something like Adultwork shut down, I could kiss goodbye to thousands of pounds of income. I would be destitute.
In an ideal world, sex-worker groups would be able to organise against the profiteering middlemen who run online platforms. Properly resourced and free from criminalisation, workers could run their own sites, whether individually or cooperatively. However, the current climate to anti-sex-worker agitation and attempts to close down their work – online and off – makes this a distant hope.
From banning tart cards to the current attempt to stop online advertising, the reality is that many people are uncomfortable seeing sex workers (at least in public) at all. It’s a vicious circle: when criminalisation removes sex workers from public discourse, anti-sex-worker lobbyists are able to claim they are voiceless. To end this, it is vital to see the attempted crackdown on online platforms as an issue of worker solidarity: for sex workers, and all workers.