Violence against sex workers will rise under proposed measures outlined in the government’s new online safety bill, campaigners have warned.
The legislation will stop sex workers from advertising their services on the internet, which sex workers argue will drive prostitution underground.
English Collective of Prostitutes, a leading campaign group which supports sex workers, told The Independent the legislation, introduced to parliament on Thursday after long delays, will force sex workers to seek out clients on the street.
Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the organization, said this routinely results in them having sex on the street or in the cars of clients.
The online safety bill states “inciting or controlling prostitution for gain” is one of the offenses that tech firms are obliged to clamp down on. The social media firms and online sites can be fined and bosses can be jailed if they fail to comply with the rules.
Ms Adams, whose campaign group supports the decriminalization of prostitution, argued the government’s “late in the day” decision to sneak the “horrifying” measures into the legislation was “very underhand”.
The proposed regulations will harm sex workers’ safety and wellbeing – forcing them to find other ways to contact clients which place them “more at risk of exploitation and danger”.
She said: “So many sex workers work online now. If sex workers are prevented from advertising online, we will be forced to work in more dangerous ways and be unable to screen clients and unable to work inside.
“So they will become street-based sex workers which means you have sex with men on the street, down alleys, or sometimes in cars. Women on the street say it is much more dangerous to work this way, but they say ‘If I can’t work inside, then what is my option?’
Ms Adams noted her own organization and National Ugly Mugs — an app where sex workers can confidentially report incidents of abuse and crime — found it is 10 times more dangerous to work on the street rather than inside.
“We have seen over and over again when they close down premises or they ban working inside, women don’t have the option to give up prostitution so, of course, they end up on the street,” Ms Adams added.
Jasmine, a sex worker, said advertising online has enabled her to choose clients from a bigger pool and meant she can screen clients. Whereas before she could only choose who to meet based on their voice and manner on the phone.
She noted advertising online means it is possible to see a client’s credit card, which means she can google their name, and also get their phone number and run that through Ugly Mugs to check they are not listed as being violent.
Ms Adams added: “If men think they are anonymous and can’t be traced, they are more likely to think they can get away with violence and abuse.”
She said the English Collective of Prostitutes’ helpline had been deluged with calls on Friday from sex workers panicking about the prospect of the new measures being introduced.
The campaigner noted a law banning advertising of sex work introduced in America resulted in tech firms “preemptively” taking down sex work adverts to avoid investigations, as she warned the new online safety bill will result in the same thing happening in the UK.
A US survey of sex workers by a campaign group called Coyote found 60 per cent had to accept less safe clients to make ends meet since the new measures were introduced on ads.
Ms Adams said making tech companies in the UK remove any material that could be “constructed as controlling, inciting or causing prostitution” is worrying as it is a “very wide catchall”.
“Especially in the way it is currently used in the criminal law where controlling is used to criminalize any activities where somebody associates with a sex worker,” the campaigner added.
The legislation will also cause women’s income to “drop off a cliff” and they will be left “scrabbling to survive”, she said, noting this will force women to take more risks and go with clients they would have previously refused.
Ms Adams said it is particularly worrying the government is planning to introduce this measure when “prostitution is increasing” as poverty is surging.
She added: “Everybody is finding it hard to make ends meet. Bills are going up left right and center. Especially for mothers who are supporting children.
“It will mean desperate women will be even more desperate. It is bound to lead to an increase in violence. We have had a decade of Conservative austerity and then a pandemic, which particularly destroyed sex workers earnings and saw sex workers denied any government support. It is punishing women for one of the ways we found to survive so far.”
It is not illegal for individuals to buy or sell sex from each other in the UK, but soliciting and sex workers banding together as a group are outlawed.
“If this is true, this will be the end of me. My income will just disappear. I have no other way of supporting myself. I am going to end up homeless and with nothing,” Lily*, a sex worker, said.
Sherry, another sex worker, said: “Before I could work online, I had to work for an agency or a brothel, and someone would take half of the money I earned.”
*Names changed to protect identity
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.