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The role of adult service websites in addressing modern slavery

Research project assessing what role adult service websites can play in addressing modern slavery in the UK.

The landscape of where modern slavery and sexual exploitation takes place has changed over the past decade with the onset of digital technologies dominating the organisation of the commercial sex industry.

Adult Service Websites (ASW), where most sexual services are advertised, negotiated and facilitated in the UK, have been identified as a space where offenders and traffickers can manipulate, entrap, coerce and force individuals into selling sexual services.

The role of adult websites in facilitating offending behaviour is complicated and unregulated. There are many agencies trying to recognise this relationship, with national intelligence services trying to understand routes to trafficking, the police working to identify victims and target offenders, and first responders delivering interventions to people with lived experience of commercial sexual exploitation.

Researchers from the University of Leicester, the National Crime Agency, National Police Chief's Council, and the Unseen will investigate what role adult service websites can play in preventing human trafficking and sexual exploitation in the UK, and their role in wider policies and laws on this issue.

It will explore how website operators see their role in preventing abuses, what those who use such websites to sell and buy sexual services think about these platforms in the context of identifying abuses and barriers to reporting, as well as exploring the usefulness of tighter regulations to govern them and prevent harm.

The design of the project includes people with lived experience of sexual exploitation who will inform the research process, data analysis and sharing knowledge between actors in this sphere. Capacity building for survivors is built into the design by implementing a training programme around research and employability skills and access to higher education.

The project will develop training for businesses facilitating sexual services around sexual exploitation and modern slavery, as well as engaging the adult website operators in developing transparent and robust mechanisms to prevent their websites harbouring exploitation. The work aims to feed directly into policymakers and parliamentary discussions and other forums where modern slavery, online sexual exploitation and policing are discussed at strategic and operational levels.

Research team: Prof. Teela Sanders and PDRA (University of Leicester), Unseen UK, National Crime Agency, National Police Chief’s Council and Unseen Survivor Network representatives.

This research was funded by an open funding call on the links between modern slavery and wider laws and policies, run in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council.