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Illustration Callum Abbott

The UK government is pushing sex workers offline and into danger

The new Online Safety Bill will force tech companies to crack down on content that encourages ‘prostitution for gain’. For UK sex workers, it’s a death sentence

Lydia, a sex worker based in South East England, burst into tears when she read through the Online Safety Bill last week. Speaking to Dazed, she describes the bill as a “death sentence” for sex workers.

On Thursday March 17, the long-awaited Online Safety Bill – a raft of proposed legislation intended to limit access to ‘harmful’ content on the internet – was finally introduced to Parliament. Within the bill is an amendment first suggested in February, which sees “inciting or controlling prostitution for gain” added to the list of offences that tech firms must clamp down on. As failure to comply could result in fines for online sites and jail time for bosses, this new law will likely result in platforms removing sex workers’ advertisements in order to avoid prosecution. In layman’s terms: the proposed legislation essentially criminalises advertising sex work online.

“I’m terrified,” Lydia tells me. “We have to understand this bill in the context of a sustained, brutal attack on sex workers’ rights over several years. Me and most of my friends are burnt out and exhausted: we have been fighting proposals, inquiries, bills and amendments with no breaks. I’m scared – not just of this bill, but also of the fact that we have been worn down so much that I don’t know what level of fight we’re going to be able to manage.”

Lydia adds that she’s worried about how the bill will impact her day-to-day life. She explains that as online sex work becomes more restricted, it’s likely more sex workers will seek out jobs in brothels like the one she works in. “When there is someone ready to replace you at any given moment, you have no power to assert rights in a criminalised workplace and obviously a flood of workers into a limited number of workplaces reduces everyone’s income significantly,” she says. “Sex work is, for so many of us, literally our last option. When it’s no longer viable, what are we meant to do? Die?”

Research proves beyond doubt that the internet has made sex work safer. A 2018 survey of UK-based sex workers who use the internet to find clients or perform services found that only five per cent of those surveyed had experienced physical assault in the last year. Another study published in 2018 also found that the advent of the internet has largely benefitted sex workers as it has allowed them to work without reliance on third party management, avoid interaction with the criminal justice system and to earn better money by targeting advertising to richer clientele. Naturally, the internet has also permitted more sex workers to work indoors where it is much safer than working outside.

“Sex work is, for so many of us, literally our last option. When it’s no longer viable, what are we meant to do? Die?” – Lydia

Anna, a sex worker based in Bristol, tells Dazed that she relies “entirely” on the internet to source clients and screen them before agreeing to meet them in person. She’s not only concerned about the Online Safety Bill threatening her ability to advertise services, but also the accessibility of community forums, apps, and support groups that help sex workers identify predators and abusers. “Anything that we rely on to keep ourselves safe could be potentially targeted as ‘inciting prostitution and shut down,” she explains. “When I first started out in sex work, I wasn’t aware of these community resources and one of my first clients assaulted me. I later found out that this person was a known abuser and that there were alerts about him in these spaces. I rely massively on our community resources, as many sex workers do.”

“One of my friends describes working without these resources as relying on ‘literally just vibes’,” she continues. “The problem is, sex workers end up dead, assaulted or raped and there is virtually no recourse for us. We have to rely on each other. Closing down our community spaces is not legislating for safety, it’s legislating for violence.”

Audrey, another sex worker from Bristol and a spokesperson from United Sex Workers, is also extremely concerned about the bill. “If the Online Safety Bill comes in and I’m unable to advertise online, then I’m going to have to go back to working in a brothel which means that I’ll have 30 to 40 per cent of all my earnings taken off me at the end of every shift and I’ll not be able to vet my own clients,” she explains. “I could also have to start working as a street-based sex worker, which would put me in further danger of meeting violent clients or getting a solicitation caution from the police, which could affect me later on in life as well.”

“If the Online Safety Bill comes in, then I’m going to have to go back to working in a brothel, and I’ll not be able to vet my own clients” – Audrey

“I became a sex worker because my mental health makes it difficult for me to hold down a more traditional, 9-5 job, and part-time work still doesn’t pay enough for me to pay rent, pay my bills, and survive the ongoing cost of living crisis,” Audrey continues. She tells Dazed that her existing mental health issues won’t “magically” go away if this law is implemented (if anything, the proposed legislation will only exacerbate sex workers’ existing mental health issues). “I think policymakers who write these laws don’t ever seem to engage with the fact that even if you make something illegal, people still need to pay their bills.”

Devastatingly, we’ve already seen the extreme damage such a law can inflict on sex workers. In 2018, Donald Trump passed two bills that banned the online advertisement of sex work – known as FOSTA-SESTA – into law. Since then, a US survey of sex workers by campaign group Coyote found 60 per cent were forced to accept less safe clients since the new measures were introduced. Stories have also abounded online about US sex workers going missing; being murdered, and committing suicide.

It’s right that MPs are seeking to crack down on human trafficking. But punishing sex workers will only put more people in harm’s way, and it’s ever clearer that decriminalisation is the only way to truly protect vulnerable sex workers. While the dire situation for sex workers in the USA demonstrates what can happen if we continue to criminalise sex work, the very different landscape in New Zealand – where sex work was decriminalised in 2003 – shows us how much safer things could be. Research found that over 90 per cent of sex workers in New Zealand said they had additional employment, legal, health and safety rights, while 70 per cent said they were more likely to report incidents of violence to the police. Ultimately, as they are able to report crimes committed against them without fear of reprisal, it’s easy to see how decriminalisation will help reduce violence and trafficking.

The government will never succeed in ‘eliminating’ sex work. As Lydia puts it: “When you take our websites, sex workers don’t disappear – we just lose our independence.” It’s time the people in power realised this: if we want to be serious about protecting vulnerable people we need to pivot to protecting sex workers, rather than oppressing them.