Sex Work

The Internet Makes Life Better and Safer for Sex Workers. Obviously.

A large new study out of the U.K. proves it.


Gail Orenstein/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom

A large new study out of the U.K. formalizes what sex workers have been saying on protest signs, private forums, and social media for years: The internet has revolutionized erotic industries for the better, making sex work safer, less isolating, and less open to exploitation.

The study offers a host of findings challenging the conventional wisdom about sex workers. For instance, very few of the sex workers surveyed got their start when they were underage. Most—59 percent—started somewhere between ages 18 and 29, with about 20 percent starting after age 30. Only 5 percent said they started between the ages of 13 and 17.

For the most part, internet sex workers were satisfied with their jobs and their clients. Eighty-six percent agreed that they had good relationships with their customers, with only 11 percent saying they felt disrespected by their clients; 82 percent reported that they're either satisfied or very satisfied with their working conditions.

Sex work's pivot to digital does bring some new challenges, mostly related to the erosion of the boundaries between online personas and real identities. More than half worried that family or friends might find out what they do through the internet, and 37 percent said they'd had private information put online by someone else without their consent.

"One of the really interesting findings is that the types of crimes that sex workers are experiencing have changed," study author Teela Sanders, a sociologist at the University of Leeds, told BBC Radio 4. "So there was a much lower incidence of violent crime, sexual and physical assault than in other studies. But there was high levels of digitally facilitated crimes—harassment by email and and text, for example."

Another strain on British sex workers, predictably, came from policies criminalizing certain aspects of prostitution. Unlike in the U.S., it's legal in the U.K. to have sex for cash. But a lot of the actions surrounding this act are illegal—including, in some parts, paying for sex. Criminalizing clients means that the industry is still driven underground, with all of the attendant risks that creates. Sex workers are also prohibited from working or living together in the same space, because that would make it a brothel, and owning or managing a brothel is illegal. Seventy-two percent of the sex workers surveyed said they avoided living or working with others in their field to avoid running afoul of the brothel law, even if doing so would be safer and more profitable.

Sanders wrote the study, titled "Beyond the Gaze," with University of Strathclyde law professor Jane Scouler and several other researchers. They were aided by sex-work community partners, including the safety-focused nonprofit National Ugly Mugs. Between October 2015 and March 2017, they conducted personal interviews with 62 sex workers, 21 online platform managers, and several dozen police officers. They also conducted an online survey of 641 British sex workers representing an array of "adult" activities and sectors.

The study is the largest of its kind in the U.K., the researchers say. Read on for more of their key findings.

Demographic Snapshot

Around three-quarters of the sex workers surveyed were involved in independent escorting, though there was strong representation from other sex-work worlds as well. Nearly 40 percent said they did some webcam work, 31 percent did some phone sex work, 28 percent provided BDSM or fetish services, 15 percent provided sensual massages, 13 percent appeared in adult films, 11 percent worked as adult models, and 5 percent worked for escort agencies. Less than 5 percent each worked in brothels, as exotic dancers, or in street-based prostitution.

All lived in the U.K., and the vast majority (87 percent) were white.

More than three-quarters of those surveyed were women (including 17 transgender women), but the study also included 126 men (including two transgender men) and 18 sex workers who identified as nonbinary or intersex. Male sex workers' annual earnings were lower overall than the earnings of their female counterparts, but male sex workers were also more likely to work less than 10 hours per week.

More than half of the women said they were heterosexual and about 44 percent said they were bisexual, with only four identifying as lesbians. For men it was pretty much the opposite, with only eight male sex workers identifying as heterosexual. About 64 percent said they were gay and 28 percent bisexual.

Most of the sex workers surveyed—63 percent—were between the ages of 25 and 44, with about a fifth between the ages of 18 and 24, 11 percent between ages 45 and 54, and 4.7 percent over age 55. Only one respondent was under age 18.

Slightly over half of those surveyed made less than £20,000 (about $28,400) annually through sex work, and only 10 percent earned more than £50,000 annually (about $71,500). "Earnings largely reflected working hours," the researchers note, with more direct time with clients corresponding to higher incomes.

Fifty-four percent of survey respondents spent 10 hours or fewer per week providing client services, although this doesn't mean they weren't working other hours. Administrative tasks and other (generally unpaid) aspects of the job took up to 10 hours a week for 59 percent of those surveyed, and more for some.

'Everybody Would Be Scared' Without the Internet

"The internet played a large part in improving working practices," the report concludes. As in so many other industries, the internet has given sex workers more control over their work and more flexibility. More than three-quarters said it had improved the quality of their working life overall.

  • 89 percent agreed that the internet has enabled them to decide where they work.
  • 89 percent agreed that the internet has enabled them to decide where to work.
  • 89 percent agreed that the internet has helped them avoid reliance on third parties (like agencies, "pimps," etc.).
  • 82 percent agreed that the internet had helped them to find out more about their rights.
  • 81 percent agreed that the internet had provided them with access peer support and tips.

The net also provided a big boost to sex workers' safety, with about 75 percent saying it was very or quite important to them staying safe. The main benefits reported to researchers were an improved ability to screen clients, the chance to network and communicate with other sex workers, and the ability to access information about potentially dangerous people or situations.

"We started talking about the safety from the very get-go," said Milena, a 32-year-old independent escort and BDSM provider interviewed for the study. "If you didn't have that internet…everything would have been underground and everybody would be scared."

Safety strategies enabled by the internet include the ability to screen potential clients (44 percent), share safety information informally (40 percent), visit sex worker forums (34 percent), and subscribe to "National Ugly Mugs" alerts (33 percent).

Still, the internet poses some problems. A significant number of people reported clients harassing them through online channels or "doxxing" them by revealing their personal information online. A full 65 percent reported persistent unwanted attempts at contact through text message or social media. More than half had received threatening or harassing texts, calls, or emails in the past five years, and 36 percent had received them in the past year.

Another complaint: Around two-thirds said the internet has increased the amount of time they spend on administrative and behind-the-scenes aspects of their work.

Satisfying and 'Socially Useful' Work

The "happy hooker" trope has taken a lot of flak. But job satisfaction was exceedingly high among sex workers surveyed here.

Nearly half—48 percent—said they're satisfied with their working conditions and 34 percent were "very satisfied." Slightly over half said they're "enthusiastic" about their work most of the time, and another 21 percent said they were enthusiastic some of the time.

Nearly 82 percent either strongly agreed or tended to agree that they were well-paid for the work they did. And around 50 percent said their work was "socially useful" some or most of the time, with 22 percent saying it's socially useful all of the time.

The sex workers surveyed also showed a strong degree of control over their work, with more than 90 percent saying that they could decide when they worked, where they worked, how they spent their earnings, which clients they saw, and what sex acts they performed.

As the researchers note, the experiences of the people surveyed here—sex workers who opted in to an online survey, and who do the majority of their work online and independently—are not necessarily reflective of sex workers as a whole. But even the prohibitionists will tell you that the majority of the sex work market has moved online these days, and online forums and tools have in turn increased sex workers' ability to be independent.

In any event, the survey does reflect the reality of a significant number of sex workers. And overall, things for them seem to be going pretty OK. Perhaps even improving, thanks to the benefits of technology—and no thanks to politicians who try to portray technology as the villain here. In fact, it's government policies that are holding sex workers back and putting them at risk.

Bad Laws Make Things Worse

"The change to the law that respondents felt could most improve sex workers' safety was allowing sex workers to be based together," the report's authors note. Many sex workers said that steps to avoid breaking the brothel law were steps that made them more vulnerable to violence and theft.

Police are aware of the potential downsides of this law, the researchers say: "One of the issues raised by all groups of research participants"—including cops—"was the way in which the law is currently enforced, particularly legislation relating to brothel management or controlling for gain, which may impact negatively on sex workers based collectively."

Yet law enforcement agents were less aware of how their intensive focus on internet-enabled "modern slavery" (a.k.a. sex trafficking) may be making sex workers more vulnerable while ignoring opportunities to really stop sexual exploitation.

The researchers found that "the majority of police activities in relation to internet platforms were within a modern slavery remit," and that this had become "an increasing priority" for police during the study period. "Labor protections and the safety of those sex working of their own volition tended to be less of a consideration," the report notes.

But the high-profile online sting operations they conducted "could impact on the working practices of consensual sex workers and could have implications for their safety and privacy," the authors warn.

The researchers also found it common for police to assume "that migrant sex workers are by definition victims of trafficking." This stands in contrast to "the voices of migrant sex workers interviewed" for the study, who presented the same "diversity of reasons for engaging with sex work" that U.K. citizens did.