This is a research report and its summary entitled ‘The role of adult service websites in addressing modern slavery’, based on research conducted by University of Leicester, in partnership with the National Crime Agency, National Police Chief’s Council, and the NGO Unseen. The project was funded through an open call for proposals by the Modern Slavery PEC, which in turn is funded and supported by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. The views expressed in this summary and the full report are those of the authors and not necessarily of the Modern Slavery PEC or AHRC.
The landscape where modern slavery and sexual exploitation takes place has changed with the onset of digital technologies dominating the organisation of the commercial sex industry. Adult Service Websites (ASWs), where most sexual services are advertised, negotiated, and facilitated in the UK, are a relatively new space where exploiters can manipulate, entrap, coerce, and force individuals into selling sexual services.
The role of ASWs in facilitating offending behaviour is complicated and relatively unregulated as national intelligence services try to understand routes to trafficking, the police work to identify victims and target offenders, and first responders deliver interventions to support victims of sexual exploitation. This research investigated what role ASWs can play in preventing human trafficking and sexual exploitation in the UK, and their role in wider policies and laws.
Key findings include:
- Adult Services Websites (ASWs) are host to large amounts of intelligence about modern slavery and human trafficking. Therefore, regulation must increase responsibility of all ASW platforms, who must play a crucial role in the identification and prevention of modern slavery and human trafficking in the online sex industry.
- Stakeholders including police, NGOs and five ASWs interviewed argued that ASWs ought to be regulated through ID verification and reporting tools, mandatory and proactive data sharing, safeguarding policies and proactive content moderation, which is nuanced and informed whilst protecting the activities of consensual sex workers online.
- Stakeholders identified how the regulation should be shaped, highlighting the importance of adequate resourcing for implementation. Stakeholders recognised that there are potential disadvantages to increased regulation which must be overcome. This includes displacement of victims to encrypted spaces, stigma towards consensual sex work, and enforcement issues which could increase vulnerability to exploitation.
- Recent socio-political attitudes have conflated modern slavery with illegal migration. Stakeholders argue that there needs to be greater knowledge of modern slavery victimisation, understanding its distinction from illegal immigration.
- Some sex buyers believe they have responsibility to spot signs of exploitation and report these to the authorities, however, are distrusting of police and ASWs to respond appropriately. Sex buyers believe the legislation may have negative consequences on both consensual sex workers and increasing vulnerability to exploitation. Ultimately, most sex buyers want a safeguarding approach, that disrupts trafficking, without increasing surveillance of the consensual sex industry
For the UK Government
1. Formulate the Online Safety Act with prevention of modern slavery and human trafficking at its core, built in consultation with all stakeholders, including ASWs.
This research identified some key regulatory practices that ought to be adopted. Legislation must be supported by consultation with stakeholders, including ASWs who have the capabilities to distinguish between legitimate sex worker adverts and potential victims of exploitation.
2. Respect the continued practices of the wider sex industry.
Criminalising sex work in any form (independent workers, or those working together for safety in brothels) puts sex workers at increased risk of abuse, violence, and exploitation. Our research found concerns that, as happened in the USA with SESTA/FOSTA, sex work is in danger of being driven into more dangerous environments. Thus, legislation must be supported by an effort to protect the consensual sex industry.
3. Recognise that modern slavery does not equal illegal migration.
The Illegal Migration Act (IMA) seeks to criminalise illegal migration for modern slavery victims, even when this was forced or coerced, resulting in those who are perceived to be uncooperative with law enforcement investigations going unsupported if they are deemed to meet the Act’s criteria (e.g. have arrived in the UK irregularly).3 Law enforcement have not identified evidence of such abuse. Instead, they uncovered a myriad of barriers to engagement with the system.
The UK Government must recognise that the IMA’s modern slavery provisions are likely to decrease victims’ willingness to support criminal investigations and may also increase the risk of exploitation. UK modern slavery and human trafficking policy must be integrated with trauma informed support and provisions that support rather than stigmatise or blame victims of trafficking.
Establish Codes of Practice and a working group in consultation with ASWs and sex workers.
Legislation is a useful too, but it is not the panacea. This research project gathered views on the usefulness of tighter regulation, and suggestions for how Ofcom could enforce their Codes of Practice. All stakeholders agreed that legislation, whilst useful, is not the panacea and must be supported by multi-agency working groups, consultation with sex workers and educational efforts to identify modern slavery, protect sex workers and prevent the criminalisation of migrants.
1. Towards a better understanding of modern slavery and human trafficking.
Ofcom need to better understand what modern slavery is, the ways in which victims are recruited and trafficked into the UK, and the ways ASWs are used to facilitate consensual sex work as distinct from exploitation and trafficking.
2. Monitor ASWs.
Ofcom need the tools to monitor ASWs or work closely with partners to identify violations. This includes ways to prevent encrypted spaces being an alternative to facilitate exploitation.
3. Code of Practice.
Ofcom’s Code of Practice must include minimum standards and guidelines for ASWs to improve their modern slavery detection and eradication, including ID and consent verification.
Ofcom need to build their Codes of Practice in consultation with expertise in the field. This includes setting up a working group with ASWs, law enforcement, NGOs and practitioners, sex workers, and survivors of exploitation whose knowledge can shape the regulatory framework.
Increased responsibility and regulation of online platforms that disrupts modern slavery and human trafficking and protects consensual sexual activity.
1. Collaboration with ASWs is key.
ASWs must be included in the conversation, collaborating with NGOs, law enforcement and sex worker communities to stay abreast of ongoing modern slavery and human trafficking and internet safety trends, to share tips for identifying modern slavery and human trafficking and be proactive in referrals of suspicious content.
2. Support broader efforts to increase responsibility of ASWs.
Explore ways to increase responsibility of ASWs to proactively prevent modern slavery and human trafficking on their platforms whilst reassuring them of their rights to continue to facilitate the purchase and sale of consensual sexual activities. This could include stakeholder working groups and financial repercussions for failure to cooperate. Also included in this is an incentive scheme to abide by Ofcom’s Codes of Practice and increase proactivity and working relationships with law enforcement. ASWs should also explore ways of making it easier for sex buyers to report concerns, given their appetite for responsibility in this area.
3. Areas identified for ASW implementation include:
- modern slavery and human trafficking policies, codes of practice (outlining what content and behaviour is allowed and banned on platforms), DMCA take-down policy, and crime reporting protocols.
- Proactive sharing of financial, advert and personal data with law enforcement to assist criminal investigations.
- Trust & Safety Centre which provides support, advice, and resources sex buyers and sellers.
- Transparency reports whereby the platforms publish monthly and/or annual reports both of their work with law enforcement to ensure action against illegal acts and to prevent fraud, money laundering and modern slavery and human trafficking and to share any requests for assistance.
- Pop-up & accessible reporting mechanisms for users of ASWs including partnerships with Unseen who run the UK’s Modern Slavery Helpline.
- Human and AI moderation of content including hash scanning, google content safety API, algorithms and fingerprinting of all content and the proactive removal of suspicious content.
- Multi-layered safety/verification processes. These include ID, age, and consent verification measures, including ‘know-your-customer’ processes, and mandate use of identifiable payment methods.
- Education for ASW platforms on modern slavery and human trafficking. Sharing intelligence on emerging and changing trends and adaptation of internal safety measures.
The research utilised a multi-methods study comprised of:
- Semi-structured qualitative interviews to understand working relationships and greater responsibility of ASWs, including the role of increased regulation to prevent modern slavery and human trafficking on ASWs, with the police (n=30) across 23 forces in England & Wales, practitioners (n=13) and ASW operators (n=5).
- A semi-structured survey with sex buyers (n=142) to understand their role and responsibilities as whistle blowers against modern slavery and human trafficking.
- The study also analysed contemporary historical records and data from Unseen’s Modern Slavery Helpline Records between 2017 and 2021, to identify knowledge on the role of ASWs in reported cases of modern slavery.
Central to the research process was a participatory action research approach with survivors of modern slavery, in partnership with Unseen. This project recognised the survivors’ experience and expertise as co-researchers. Consequently, ten peer researchers from eight different countries were hired, eight female and two male, ranging in age from mid-20s to 65+. They were actively involved through participation in the advisory group, instrument design, implementation, analysis, and the dissemination phase of the research project.