A man passes by an adult video store January 8, 2009 in New York.
The passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) — two well-intentioned but ultimately deeply-flawed laws — have been devastating for sex workers in the United States by pushing them off the internet. Despite the heaps of criticism, the laws have attracted, politicians in the UK are reportedly ready to pursue similar action.
According to Engadget, a group of members of parliament have formed a bipartisan coalition under the header of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade and called for a ban on “prostitution websites” this week during a House of Commons debate.
There are plenty of parallels between the UK’s effort to pursue its own anti-sex trafficking laws and the US’ success in implementing its misguided set of protections that have made victims of sex workers.
In the US, there were two major targets of the laws: Craigslist, which shut down its personals section in response to FOSTA and SESTA becoming law, and Backpage, which was seized by the FBI and will permanently be shut down. Per the BBC, In the UK, the targets are adult, online marketplaces Vivastreet and Adultwork — two sites that charge users to post adult advertisements that visitors can respond to.
The sites were recently condemned in a report conducted by the APPG on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade, which reasoned “Adult services websites represent the most significant enabler of sexual exploitation in the UK” and offered some damning conclusions about such services:
Websites such as Vivastreet and Adultwork are key to the typical ‘business model’ used by the organised crime groups and third party exploiters who dominate the UK’s off-street sex trade. They provide a quick and easy way for traffickers to connect with men around the country who are willing to pay to gain sexual access to a woman’s body. Any notion that prostitution websites introduce ‘safety’ to the sex trade by making procurement visible is a dangerous and misleading fallacy. They hide sexual exploitation in plain sight. The websites significantly contribute to the ease and scale of sex trafficking.
The way to address those concerns, according to Labour Party parliament member Sarah Champion, is to pursue laws like FOSTA/SESTA or the “Nordic Model” — a law first popularised by Sweden that criminalizes the buying of sex acts rather than selling them. (That model has been adopted by a number of other European countries, and the results have not always been encouraging. Ireland saw an uptick in violent crimes against sex workers after its passage, according to the New Statesmen.)
It’s not lost on Champion, who is leading the debate on banning sites that facilitate sex work, that inspiration for the law comes from an administration and political leader that she mostly opposes. When confronted with the fact that she’s following in the footsteps of the Trump administration, Champion tweeted, “I do share the irony!”
I do share the irony! https://t.co/vxfAsA2THC
— Sarah Champion (@SarahChampionMP) July 4, 2018
That hasn’t stopped her and others in British parliament from pursuing such action. Nor has the outcry of sex worker advocates who warn that banning sites that allow the sale of sex would be “a disaster,” according to the BBC. Protestors gathered outside parliament on the day of the debate to voice their opposition to any FOSTA/SESTA-style legislation, and a number of groups like Amnesty International spoke out against such actions. “Taking down these platforms will push sex workers deeper underground exposing them to greater risks of violence, exploitation and trafficking,” Amnesty UK tweeted.
— Shiri Shalmy (@ShiriShalmy) July 4, 2018
As the UK looks to the US for anti-sex trafficking laws, it may also want to look at the fallout of those efforts. Sex workers have expressed fear for their livelihood, worried that losing the ability to advertise and screen people over the internet puts them in more danger as they practice their trade. According to Motherboard, pimps have already started to take advantage of the legislation by exploiting and abusing sex workers who are having trouble working independently without sites like Backpage.
The UK’s interest in censoring sites that support sex workers shouldn’t come as a total surprise. The country has been trying to figure out how to implement a nationwide system designed to prevent minors from accessing online porn for months now. Passing a law similar to FOSTA/SESTA likely wouldn’t face as many hurdles to be enacted, but would potentially have far more wide-reaching and harmful effects.