Largest study of UK online sex work reveals findings and recommendations

Researchers with expertise in studying the sex industry from the Universities of Leicester and Strathclyde have carried out the largest study to date of UK online sex work, examining the working conditions, safety and policing of the industry.

The project, titled ‘Beyond the Gaze’, is the first UK-wide study to examine current policing of internet based sex work and highlights how approaches to policing online sex work markets is still in its infancy for many forces, with only a small amount carrying out wider work to increase online sex worker confidence to report crime.

The research, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, shows that online sex markets have been pervasive since 2000 and available evidence indicates that the online sector is the largest sector of the UK sex industry – although it is difficult to map/quantify.

The findings show that while the majority of police are aware that sex markets have changed, detailed knowledge of the nature and extent of these changes was variable.

The study included the largest online surveys carried of sex workers (641) of all genders and their clients (1323), a survey of support projects and interviews with sex workers, police officers from sixteen forces, managers or moderators of online advertising platforms/ forums/safety schemes for sex workers and mapping online spaces where sex workers market and/or provide services.

Professor Teela Sanders, Principal Investigator on the Beyond the Gaze project from the University of Leicester, said: “There is little research about online sex work despite it being the largest sector of the UK sex industry. We’ve carried out a significant study examining how online and digital technology has reshaped the sex industry, working practices, safety issues for workers and how the police and other authorities have responded. We’re really excited to publish our findings and we hope they will make a contribution to informing policy, practice, law and wider public education. Evidence based policy is important in an area where stereotypes abound and stigma silences many working in the industry.”

Dr Rosie Campbell OBE, principal researcher on the project, comments: “Our work with sex workers and practitioners shows that health services, outreach and other projects working with sex workers,  should ensure their provisions are accessible to online sex workers, provide appropriate provisions which meet their needs and also recognize and promote  peer support networks and sex worker inclusion initiatives.”

Recommendations from the study have been made to police forces, practitioners and health commissioners, policy makers and researchers, highlighting how online sex work is a growing sector which is underexplored and often misunderstood.

During 2018 the team will carry out further dissemination and publish a range of practical resources based on the findings.

The research has been covered by media outlets including The Guardian, the BBC, and the Evening Standard.