New project to collect evidence of modern slavery among adult websites

Adult service websites and their users have a key role to play in preventing modern slavery, according to a leading criminologist from the University of Leicester.

Teela Sanders, Professor of Criminology, is to lead a new Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded research project to examine how websites which promote and/or facilitate sex work can address sexual exploitation.

Researchers will work closely with people with a lived experience of sexual exploitation, as well as representatives of website operators and those who use their services. They will also explore the usefulness of tighter regulations to govern them and prevent harm.

The project is one of five announced today (Thursday ) by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC) designed to better understand the structural and systemic factors underpinning modern slavery, an umbrella term for practices where people are trapped, controlled or exploited and from which they cannot escape.

More than 10,000 individuals in the UK were identified as “potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking” in 2020, as per the National Referral Mechanism.

Professor Sanders will collaborate with experts from charity Unseen UK, the National Crime Agency and the National Police Chief’s Council. She said: “There is a need to include those who operate and use adult service websites in collecting knowledge about how these platforms both harbour and can prevent sexual exploitation. Taking a multi-dimensional approach to understanding the connections allows realistic thinking about how various audiences can be at the forefront of prevention efforts, working alongside law enforcement. 

“This project will provide sustainable stakeholder engagement beyond the life of the project to address the constantly changing online arena. Our research will be guided by those who have experienced sexual exploitation and those who work hard at an operational level to combat such crimes.”

Professor Alex Balch, Director of Research at the Modern Slavery PEC, said: “Modern slavery in its many forms results from multiple, overlapping drivers, creating situations where exploitation becomes easier to perpetrate.

“We need to address these wider contexts and systems to understand how they connect to modern slavery and ultimately, how we can better safeguard against people getting trapped in exploitative situations.”

Evidence collated and analysed by the researchers could be used to influence future policies, laws and business practices designed to address modern slavery.