Scottish MSP’s have recently launched an inquiry in parliament on SEA (Sexual Exploitation Advertising) with the goal of targeting websites on which Sex Workers advertise with a new offence by updating the law to include charges against “enabling or profiting from the prostitution of another person”.
They note that a large number of Sex Workers in Scotland use these websites to advertise.
They argue that these websites act as an exploitative agent against women, furthering inequality in society. Their argumentation relies on framing the websites as ‘pimps and traffickers’.
This line of reasoning is not only flawed but dangerous.
In understanding the role online advertising plays in Sex Work, it is important to look at its history. The internet has undoubtedly changed the vast majority of industries, with Sex Work being no exception. The end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st saw a considerable shift from public solicitation to online advertising, and now the majority of Sex Workers advertise online. This shift occurred naturally as Sex Workers were able to take fewer risks by advertising online and as even early as 2006 studies have shown that 85% of Workers use online advertising with a minority who are street based.
Despite this the majority of research is focused on street based Sex Work, furthermore the majority of services are centred around street based Workers. This has resulted in a deficit of research into the larger online industry; however, studies have shown that through advertising online workers have significantly more independent agency over their working conditions. The same study of Sex Workers in the UK determined that 80% of Workers feel safer working thanks to the internet.
This has been linked to significantly lower rates of violence against Workers, particularly as Workers are better able to screen clients. In analysing the risks of online Sex Work, studies indicate that the largest risks factors are based in stigma and fear of ‘outing’.
The policy proposed by some Scottish government MSP’s is designed to counter trafficking and exploitation but fails to consider the diversity of Sex Workers, with many acting out of free will. It also fails to consider the research conducted after similar legislation was passed in the US which resulted in a degradation of Workers ability to operate safely and independently. One reason for this is Workers without the ability to advertise online often opt to working on the street. Beyond this the legislation in the US is currently subject to a lawsuit from Human Rights Watch for being counter to freedom of speech.
Furthermore, although more research is needed, COVID has shown that making working conditions worse does not result in a drop in the number of people engaged in Sex Work, but rather the inverse. This is due to the fact Workers enter the industry for a diversity of reasons, one among them economic factors. The proposed legislation would not change the push or pull factors influencing entry into the industry. Rather, it would further marginalise and destabilise Workers already suffering from the effects of COVID-19.
In order to combat exploitation it is necessary to treat it as a separate issue (Sex Work is consensual, trafficking is not) and to give Sex Workers agency in their working conditions as well as adequate funding of support programs for those in the industry. The proposed policy would have harmful effects on Sex Workers in Scotland and for this reason Umbrella Lane is opposed to the legislation.
Sex Worker advocacy largely supports decriminalisation as the best policy approach to protect Sex Workers by focusing on harm minimisation and human rights, ensuring safety and health and the priorities of policy and laws. For that reason Umbrella Lane recommends decriminalisation as an alternative approach.
The language used in proposing this policy reflects that as despite calls from Sex Workers and Sex Worker organisations, terminology such as ‘prostitution’ is used. This encourages and fosters stigma, and adversely impacts a Workers willingness to engage with services.
In the experience of Umbrella Lane, Sex Workers only feel comfortable accessing non-judgemental and inclusive services, and are often unwilling to access services that take a hostile approach. In a recent survey conducted by Umbrella Lane, many members expressed feeling like Umbrella Lane was unique in Scotland, and even the only non-judgmental service available to Sex Workers in Scotland.
The proposed legislation also excludes male, trans and other genders of Sex Workers by narrowing the scope to only women; this is despite the fact that trans Workers are evidenced to be the most vulnerable to violence. Any change in policy related to online advertising of sexual services directly impacts their working conditions and risks of violence.
Sex Workers, whom Umbrella Lane seeks to advocate for, are opposed to SEA legislation. Their concerns about the negative consequences of legislation are backed by academic research in the area and supported by international standards of Human Rights.
As an organisation relied on by over 500 Sex Workers in Scotland, Umbrella Lane requests this legislation does not go forward, and that an inclusive and democratic approach is taken in future policy planning affecting Sex Workers.
Murphy, A.K., Venkatesh, S.A. Vice Careers: The Changing Contours of Sex Work in New York City. Qual Sociol 29, 129–154 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-006-9012-2
Sanders, T et al, ‘On our own terms : the working conditions of internetbased sex workers in the UK’, USIR, http://dx.doi.org/10.5153/sro.4152
Beyond the Gaze, 2017 https://www.beyond-the-gaze.com/
Scott Cunningham, 2019, Craigslist's Effect on Violence Against Women
Golding, J. et al, (2016) ‘An Exploratory Study of the Growth of Online Male Sex Work in Manchester’, Q-Step Centre
Yale Global Health Justice Partnership, ‘SEX WORK VS TRAFFICKING: HOW THEY ARE DIFFERENT AND WHY IT MATTERS’, Issue Brief, https://law.yale.edu/sites/default/files/area/center/ghjp/documents/issue_brief_sex_work_vs_trafficking_v2.pdf
Hacking//Hustling, 2020, Erased: The Impact of FOSTA-SESTA
Smith, M. (2018) ‘If sex workers can’t advertise online, it forces them on to the street’, Prostitution, The Gaurdian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/06/sex-workers-advertise-online-pop-up-brothels-criminalised
Human Rights Watch, 2018, Why We’ve Filed a Lawsuit Against a US Federal Law Targeting Sex Workers
Oppenheim, M. (2021) ’Growing numbers of women turning to sex work as Covid crisis pushes them into ‘desperate poverty’’, Home News, The Idependant, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/sex-work-coronavirus-poverty-b1769426.html
Preble, et al (2019) ‘“It’s like Being an Electrician, You’re Gonna Get Shocked”:Differences in the Perceived Risks of Indoor and Outdoor SexWork and Its Impact on Exiting’, Victims and Offenders, 14(5):625-646