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28 March 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:24pm

How a crackdown on Google and Facebook is making life more dangerous for sex workers

As is already happening in the US, vital websites for sex workers could be shut down by laws aimed at curbing trafficking.

By Dulcie Lee

In the early 1990s, BT began cutting off the landlines of sex workers who advertised in telephone boxes. The cards, often put up by young people or pensioners for a fee, allowed women to publicise their services while staying off the streets. Once their lines were cut off, they were forced into taking more dangerous work.

At the time, BT claimed disconnecting the lines was legal, but, eventually, after sex workers fought back, the telecoms giant watchdog Oftel ruled that doing so contravened its obligation to provide a non-discriminatory universal service. BT was breaking the law, and the phone lines of the women affected were immediately reconnected.

In the age of the internet, sex workers now face a similar battle. Andie is a 29-year-old sex worker who operated independently and did porn work, predominantly in the UK. She advertised her services on AdultWork, a hugely popular website where people can distribute and market their adult services. Or, she did until her livelihood disappeared overnight.

“I had a potentially dangerous client hack into my account,” Andie explains. Her account was deleted, with devastating consequences. “I lost my main platform, my main source of work, which meant clients couldn’t get in contact with me.”

The hack wiped out her video content, destroyed her carefully cultivated online persona, and severed her connections with clients. Unsurprisingly, she found herself short of work.

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“It basically pushed me into doing more work that I didn’t want to do,” she says. “I’ve had to go into brothel and parlour work to get an income, to survive.” Working independently, by contrast, had allowed Andie to screen clients extensively online, decide her own working conditions, keep all the money she made, and determine which services to offer and to whom. After the hack, her options were severely limited.

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Andie’s story is just one example of how a sex worker is affected when their main source of income was taken away. But now, sex workers’ livelihoods are being threatened en masse by new laws taking aim at internet giants.

Last month, the UK government told the Sunday Times it would examine landmark legislation in efforts to hold internet giants such as Google and Facebook liable for sex trafficking postings hosted on their sites. The powers would be based on new American legislation, known as FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex-Trafficking Act), which came into law on Friday.

At first glance, the laws look like a sensible plan to cut off hotbeds of sex trafficking and curb modern slavery. About a dozen human trafficking organisations endorsed the US bills. Comedian and actress Amy Schumer participated in a pro-SESTA video, saying: “today you can go online and buy a child for sex. It’s as easy as ordering a pizza”. Proponents argue that sex traffickers can advertise freely online, allowing web giants to profit from modern slavery. Stopping this practice would help curb trafficking, they claim.

In the UK, it is reports of “pop-up” (i.e. temporary) brothels, believed to be linked to trafficking, that have been driving the latest moral panic over sex work. But the association between pop-ups and trafficking is shaky, with the National Police Chiefs Council admitting in November that it had no data on who is operating in pop-ups, nor the extent of trafficking taking place within them.

“We haven’t seen any evidence that there is a big connection to trafficking,” says Laura Watson, from the English Collective of Prostitutes. “In our experience, the pop-up brothels are just short-term lets that sex workers are using, which is not anything new.”

Many working in the sex industry worry that web companies will be left with no option but to be overcautious, resulting in a mass cull of prostitution-related websites. This fear is becoming reality in the US – since Friday, Reddit has already closed down sex work forums, Craigslist shut down its personals section, and WordPress has reportedly been removing escort websites.

This is already affecting US-based users of the sites, and sex workers from both sides of the Atlantic have been vociferously opposing the new legislation. Support sites and advertising pages have become essential to many of the estimated 72,000 sex workers operating in the UK.

Placing adverts relating to prostitution is a crime in the UK. Such advertising laws are designed to deter people from the industry (after all, you can’t work if people don’t know you’re working), keep it away from certain public spaces like phone boxes, and generally make it harder to operate. In reality, the laws aren’t particularly enforced – last year, 52,403 women were booked through AdultWork in just one month. Until now, advertising hasn’t seen a major crackdown in the digital age.

Perhaps because of the lack of draconian laws, recent research confirmed that sex workers are using the internet to develop services, work independently, have greater control over working circumstances, and improve safety strategies, even cross-referencing violent clients. Yet these websites, used by sex workers for sex workers, are now at risk of closure.

Tony Shea works for the charity National Ugly Mugs, which collates information on dangerous clients to be shared among sex workers – a practice supported by the National Police Chiefs Council.

Tony says he’s worried that FOSTA-type legislation could seriously jeopardise their work. “The technology to accurately distinguish between an online sex work posting and an online sex trafficking posting does not exist,” he says. “Online platforms would, in an attempt to comply with the legislation, have to set up their filters to be over-sensitive and over-censorial.”

The new rules, he fears, could block crime-reducing and harm-reducing opportunities, forcing sex workers to access clients offline – which has been shown to be more risk-laden and damaging to personal and public health.

Such a censorial approach also has the potential to restrict the online reporting and alerting opportunities for those people who are being trafficked.

The illegality of activities relating to prostitution means sex workers are already hesitant to report acts of violence (in one survey, four in five respondents said they had experienced at least one kind of crime in the last five years, yet only 23 per cent of them said they had ever reported incidents to the police). “There’s a lot of violence going on which is going completely unmonitored even, let alone actually dealt with,” Laura says. “Violence is a spectrum and it includes force and trafficking, and when things are reported the police are not interested. Why not start with that?”

Andie is frustrated that, time and again, sex workers are left out of the trafficking conversation: “At no point do they ever try to work with sex workers in order to crack down on trafficking.” This seems all the more like an oversight, when the difficulties of tracing victims are considered. “Who do you know is going to have more access to trafficked victims?” points out Andie. “It’s going to be sex workers. We’re more likely to come across them.”

There is evidence that traffickers use the internet to move people around. But those in the sex industry worry that such FOSTA-type legislation in the UK would force online activity, including trafficking, onto the unregulated “dark web”. 

Legal crusades that end up hurting those in the industry are nothing new: there is a long history of anti-sex work laws being used for populism at the expense of the safety of sex workers and trafficked victims, says Laura. “A lot of the prostitution laws are a scam – how they’re presented to the public is not what’s actually happening to sex workers,” she says. She gives the example of brothel-keeping laws: owning or managing a brothel is a crime. The law is designed to prevent people from controlling and exploiting vulnerable people, but, in reality, also prevents sex workers from operating together – which, for obvious reasons, is far safer.

The laws surrounding prostitution are complicated, and while prostitution itself is legal in England and Wales, lots of related activities are illegal. Successive governments have tried to keep prostitution indirectly criminalised, seeking to deter people through criminalisation. “Over and over again it’s the sex workers that the crackdown is detrimental to, rather than any violence being dealt with,” says Laura.

Now the UK government has a chance to look at how the legislation is working (or not) in the US, and think carefully about the implications for people on all ends of the spectrum of the sex industry. Andie is defiant about the future: “Sex work is always going to be around. It’s not going to stop sex work, it’s not going to stop it, but it will push it further underground.”

“I really hope that they don’t bring this in,” she says, “but we’re always being threatened, sex workers are always being threatened, the sex industry is always being threatened. We’re going to fight, we always do, and we always will fight it.”