New laws designed to make the internet safer could endanger the lives of sex workers by forcing them into street prostitution, a former chief prosecutor and senior politicians have warned.
Campaigners raised concerns about the Online Safety Bill, which came into force last October, which will see sex workers’ online advertisements removed from platforms, putting them in more dangerous situations.
The legislation forces advertising platforms to remove material they believe promotes prostitution for profit, with the threat of fines for bosses if they don’t comply.
Audrey*, a 29-year-old sex worker, says fear of the bill and the cost of living crisis drove her to work in a brothel where a pimp takes half her money and puts her at greater risk from customers because they cannot screen them online.
Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor for North West England, said The independent: “The protection of sex workers is not a moral issue, it is a matter of protection.”
Mr Afzal, who took on cases involving violence against women and child exploitation while working for the Crown Prosecution Service, added: “Anything that pushes them into more dangerous ways of working must be avoided. This ban on online contact will only drive them further underground and make them more susceptible to abuse and exploitation.”
Although the bill has already come into force, details of how it will be implemented in practice are still being decided. UK communications regulator Ofcom is currently consulting on the first draft of codes of practice for companies and recently met with the Sex Workers’ Union to discuss the rollout.
Sex workers on the street are so much more at risk of intimidation or violence, both by clients and the police
Naomi McAuliffe, policy director at Amnesty International UK, also warned that the legislation could “make sex work impossible or risky”.
She added: “Sex workers face human rights violations every day and are constantly at risk of rape, violence, extortion and discrimination. Far too often they receive no or very little protection from the law or legal remedies. We should not add another law that disproportionately harms sex workers.”
It is not illegal for individuals to buy or sell sex from each other in Britain, but many activities associated with sex work are against the law, including working as a prostitute with another person or group to stay safe , including working in a brothel. .
Audrey, who has been doing sex work for five years, told me The independent she combines her services in a brothel with work she receives from online advertising platforms for prostitution.
She added: “I don’t really want to work in a brothel. I would prefer to work for myself, so that I don’t have to deal with a pimp taking half my money or the fact that I have no influence on my own working conditions. But because of the Online Safety Act, I feel forced to keep my job at this brothel – just in case the websites where I sell independently are closed down.
“Out of fear, I feel forced to stay in a criminalized workplace where I have no rights and the police could come in. I’m breaking the law because more than one person works there.”
It is clear that women rely on online advertisements to screen customers and everyone knows that if customers think they cannot be traced, they are more likely to insult or rob women.
Audrey, who lives in Bristol, said many of her colleagues have started working in brothels because of the threat of the online safety law hanging over them.
“Street sex workers are so much more at risk of harassment or violence, both from clients and police,” she added. “The main motivation for people who do sex work is poverty. And to me, the way sex workers are criminalized seems like a consistent attack on the working class. It is also patriarchal. It is 100 percent misogynistic.”
Andrew Boff, Speaker of the London Assembly, condemned the Online Safety Bill as an “illegal restriction of a legal business”, arguing that sex work will always happen whether the government or the public likes it or not.
Tory Party member Mr Boff added: “If it goes ahead it has to be safe. One of the benefits of getting customers online is that you can routinely check to see if they are a problem customer. There are many inspection services.
“All of that [checking] applies if your only interest is pushing it underground. The Online Safety Act is very, very dangerous. There will be serious violent consequences if sex workers go underground.”
Research shows that violence and rape are reported much more often among sex workers on the street than among those who work inside.
Niki Adams, spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes, which supports sex workers, says they receive calls every week from ‘scared’ sex workers asking for information about the legislation.
“It is clear that women rely on online advertising to screen customers and everyone knows that if customers think they cannot be traced, they are more likely to offend or rob women. Theft is a very big problem.”
Sex workers sometimes use messaging groups to pass on information about violent clients. Ms Adams said fear of the legislation is driving women to censor themselves because they fear they could be punished for helping other sex workers.
She noted that the term “controlling prostitution for profit,” which is explicit in the online safety law, is difficult because it is vague. She warns that the only existing definition is the one used in criminal courts.
Nadia Whittome, a Labor MP who campaigns for the rights of sex workers, said losing the right to advertise online could “push them into the arms of those who want to exploit or control them”.
“It is vital that the impact of the Online Safety Act on sex workers is assessed and any necessary changes are made to protect them from harm,” she added.
A government spokesperson said: “Providers of in-scope online services have a legal duty to tackle the harm and exploitation that can be associated with prostitution by promptly removing illegal content. The law will not prevent people from engaging in lawful activities that do not involve exploitation.”
However, Audrey explained that the “sense of threat” fellow sex workers feel about the legislation is profound. “Every other sex worker I know is also terrified of this bill,” she added.
An Ofcom spokesperson said: “We recognize the importance of ensuring sex workers can operate safely online and are not pushed into less safe environments. This is something we have taken into account in our draft guidelines on how the new laws should be implemented.”
*Name has been changed