MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

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/NewscomGail Orenstein/ZUMAPRESS/NewscomA 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.

Photo Credit: Gail Orenstein/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • sarcasmic||

    What did the leper say to the prostitute? Keep the tip!

  • Crusty Juggler||

    You know what they say about blind prostitutes?

    You've got to hand it to them.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    What do you call two men fighting over a prostitute?

    A tug of whore!

  • Libertymike||

    Funny shit.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    It's like your face.

  • Libertymike||

    A face that can be best described as a "tug of whore funny shit"! I like it.

    I presume you meant the combo of the two because a funny shit face is not as funny as a "tug of whore funny shit" face - right?

  • Crusty Juggler||

    I presume you meant the combo of the two because a funny shit face is not as funny as a "tug of whore funny shit" face - right?

    Wrong.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Who wants sex work to be safer? No one who matters. If it's safe and easy then people will do it, and we as a society for reasons don't want people to do it.

  • Libertymike||

    One way in which sex workers strive for safety is in their associational preferences is reflected in their advertisements. To wit, one often encounters a variation on the following:

    No AA men, please.

    NO AA, no exceptions.

    NO AA men under 35

  • Unemployed Armenian Tranny||

    What do prostitutes have against Angry Asian men?

  • VinniUSMC||

    "one often encounters"

    How often do you solicit sex online?

    I doubt most of us know what "No AA men" means. No Alcoholics Anonymous men?

  • The Laissez-Ferret||

    +1 "One lay at a time"

  • sharmota4zeb||

    It's illegal, because the trophy wives don't want the competition.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Literal alt text is the best alt text.

  • Brandybuck||

    As someone who doesn't get out on the "street" much, what the heck is the difference between a "sex worker" and a "prostitute"? Are we just not allowed to call them prostitutes any more because it might make them sad?

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Are we just not allowed to call them prostitutes any more because it might make them sad?

    It's madness.

  • Libertymike||

    A sex worker is a more comprehensive descriptor of all those who provide some kind of adult entertainment service. To wit, a sex worker would include:

    (1) a street walker (typically offers full service, but not always);

    (2) an independent person offering in-call services (usually offers full-service);

    (3) an independent person offering out-call services;

    (4) a person working at a "jack-shack" - where there are multiple girls available, each with a room;

    (5) a person working for an outcall escort service;

    (6) an independent massage therapist offering in-call service (typically, though not always, the massage provider will offer a "happy-ending", but not full-service;

    (7) an independent massage therapist offering out-call service;

    (8) Gals who offer foot and shoe fetishes (typically they do not offer full-service);

    (9) BDSM and other fetish providers (typically they also do not offer full-service);

    (10) Strippers at strip clubs and

    (11) Asian massage parlors

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Which one describes you?

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Mike also does not typically offer full-service.

  • Libertymike||

    But I make sure to tell them that Lawrence v. Texas is one of my favorite cases.

  • ||

    You've left out a whole host of sex therapists, couple's intimacy counselors, sexual healers, various surrogacy services... there's also more gray-area stuff like paid and/or members only swinger's clubs.

    Sheesh it's like you stopped paying for sex by the time you were 25 or something.

  • Libertymike||

    My wallet and retirement plan are both groaning......boy, if only I had stopped paying for sex at 25.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    It's an attempt to make people think of them as service providers rather than tragic victims.

    Seriously; if a woman needs to feed herself, maybe she can get a job at McDonalds but she can almost certainly get paid to screw. And, from what my friends with fast food experience tell me, she's likelier to be emotionally abused at McDonalds.

    Prostitution is illegal because were it legal, a lot go people would find a lot of men harder to control....starting with preachers and wives. If cutting a man off from pussy isn't practical, suddenly he has one less handle. It's harder to twist him around. He might even start to wonder why the f*ck he puts up with you. And we all know that would be TRUELY DREADFUL.

  • Eric Bana||

    I imagine a lot of women would also be interested in male sex workers. I read something about that with sex robots.

  • Shatterface||

    As someone who doesn't get out on the "street" much, what the heck is the difference between a "sex worker" and a "prostitute"?

    Your mom and your sister.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    "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."

    Replacing actual harm with annoyance wouldn't seem to rise to the level of a needing a "but" in there.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Google, the biggest pimp of all.

  • Crusty Juggler||

  • Hank Phillips||

    Not the Pimpbot in the Sinfest webcomic?

  • ||

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

    Well, some sex workers anyway. Cultural libertarianism FTW!

  • Zeb||

    As safe as you make it, that industry is probably going to continue to attract a disproportionate number of messed up individuals.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Adult film star Yurizan Beltran was found dead of an apparent drug overdose

    Who would have thought that people who make bad choices make bad choices?

  • Hugh Akston||

    So wait, what was the bad choice there, getting into porn or committing suicide?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    $park¥ is firmly of the opinion that, if God wanted us to see other peoples' hoohoos, He wouldn't have invented pants.

  • Eman||

    I almost literally laughed out loud.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Yes.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    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.

    Earning enough to live on with a 10 hour workweek! I really should have dropped out of college when I was 19 and became a sex worker.

  • Rhywun||

    More than half of the women said they were heterosexual and about 44 percent said they were bisexual, with only four identifying as lesbians.

    Yeah, right.

  • See.More||

    Male sex workers' annual earnings were lower overall than the earnings of their female counterparts...

    Gender pay gap! Equal pay now!!

  • Rockabilly||

    It's hard to get a hand job over the internets. Al Gore needs to fix this.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Huh. This must be the first time religious fanatics have EVER been wrong!

  • Shatterface||

    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.

    So men don't get paid less because of sexism, they get paid less because of their life style choices.

    The so-called 'gender pay gap' is just people making different choices about a work/life balance.

  • Eman||

    I can t think of any reason those are mutually exclusive.

  • MfK||

    Sounds like a campaign Reason should support. After all, the science is settled, right?

    Let's see, straws are made of plastic, which is made from petroleum, which was in the ground for 500 million years. And the opponents of straws are upset because they are going into landfills, i.e. into the ground. I'm not sure I see the problem, here. Unless it is that something was taken out of the ground, used for human enjoyment, and then returned to the ground. That would be unutterably obscene.

  • Eman||

    if "it's illegal" is a reason why something is bad, that sounds like the government making it worse, not better.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online