Just as the Internet has changed how we buy books, holidays and electronic items, so it has changed how prostitution is organised. Now the Internet is one of the main ways that punters connect with the women (and others) they pay to use sexually.
AdultWork and Vivastreet are the biggest online sites that advertise ‘sexual services’ in the UK. Ostensibly individuals place and control the adverts for their own ‘sexual services.’ However, research by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade (the APPG) found that in fact pimps and traffickers often place the adverts for women (often for multiple women) who have little or no control over their profiles.
The sites charge for placing adverts but punters do not have to pay to contact the women – typically the ads provide a mobile phone number which punters can contact directly. However, punters can pay for some additional services, such as intimate photos and webcamming.
According to University of Leicester research, there were more than 18,500 active profiles on AdultWork alone during a three-month period in 2017. To remain competitive, there’s therefore pressure to add ‘extras’ (for which the site rakes in extra fees) – which is driving a general race to the bottom in terms of control and conditions for the women.
The pimps and traffickers who place ads typically make huge profits. In May 2017, David Archer, from Essex, was sentenced to a total of 13 years in prison – for sexual assault, controlling prostitution, trafficking, concealing criminal property and identity fraud.
The report of the case in the Daily Mail says he “recruited ‘vulnerable’ women to work as prostitutes while cruising around shopping areas, before creating profiles for them on AdultWork.” It put his total worth at £16 million and said he’d earnt “£1.6 million from the brothels in just one year.”
When profits for a relatively small-scale local pimp are so huge, it’s not surprising that whenever a new woman who is truly independent places an advert on any of the sites, she risks being called, harassed and threatened by pimps demanding a cut of her earnings.
We have heard from women who have now exited the trade that their pimps would take intimate photos of them and put them onto websites, such as in the ‘Private Gallery’ section on AdultWork. Men pay to view these photos but the pimps kept all the earnings. It’s likely that their pimps are still earning money from the photos long after the women escaped their clutches.
Some people argue that these websites make prostitution safer because they make it possible for women to screen punters. But the Internet also provides new opportunities for punters to control and harass women in prostitution.
Like Airbnb, AdultWork has a mechanism that allows both participants to review each other. But this is not a fail-safe screening mechanism because, unlike Airbnb, punters are not normally required to supply ID – so if they get a bad review, there’s nothing to stop them creating a new profile. But this is not a realistic option for those placing adverts. So the reviewing mechanism has an inbuilt imbalance of power – just like the system of prostitution itself.
Punter reviews determine how much women can charge in the future and how many punters they will attract. Of course punters know this and use it to their advantage – for example, to coerce women to engage in more painful and risky behaviour or to give discounted rates. Independent punter forums (such as UK Punting) provide further opportunities for men to retaliate against women who do not please them. Sometimes they do this in groups, like a pack of hyenas.
And of course, pimps have their own system of reprisals when the women they control get bad reviews.
Far from making the women safer, the review mechanisms make women vulnerable in whole new ways.
Neoliberal capitalism obscures the online pimps’ profits
Profits from the online advertising of prostitution are vast. Backpage no longer hosts ads for sexual services. But according to the California Department of Justice, in 2014 when Backpage still hosted these ads, its revenue was $135 million, of which 90% came from ‘adult ads.’
Most of the companies behind the large advertising websites are opaque and complex, split into components that are deliberately dispersed around the world, particularly where regulations are favourable, and registered in tax havens. This makes it hard to investigate their activities and finances. Typically they pay little or no tax.
For example, Vivastreet is owned by W3 Ltd, a holding company founded by Yannick Pons and registered in Jersey. 90% of its shares are held by ELCAN Nominees Ltd, which was allegedly mentioned in the ‘Panama Papers’ tax evasion scandal. There are a number of other companies related to Vivastreet, such as WebDM UK, DM Services, Digital Ventures Holding, and IVI Ltd. Yannick Pons is listed as one of the 500 richest people in France.
These obscene profits are based on the systematic sexual exploitation of (mostly) women and girls.
AdultWork has a page listing services that provide support to those in prostitution. It doesn’t charge organisations to be included on this page.
There’s also an option for NGOs to create a Support Services profile to advertise their services and contact women directly on the site. Generally this leads to many more responses from women than a listing on the services page elicits.
However, AdultWork charges organisations for this. Rates are understood to currently be £1.32 per day, with an additional charge of £1.20 per message when they contact women on the site directly. Women who reply are charged 60 credits (equivalent to 60p) per message.
These prices put this feature outside the reach of most of the service organisations – the vast majority of which are under-funded, with many relying on unpaid volunteers for much of their work.
It is well documented that many women involved in prostitution want to exit but don’t know how, that many suffer from PTSD, anxiety and dissociation disorders caused by their experiences in prostitution, that many see suicide as the only possible escape, and many are victims of violence from punters and pimps.
AdultWork is not content to get richer than most people could dream possible from these women’s suffering, it also insists on extracting profit from the poorly funded services that attempt to alleviate some of the women’s pain.
It is no wonder that on forums where women involved in prostitution can speak freely, there are many complaints about how the faceless men behind these sites get rich off their suffering.
The UK has obligations under CEDAW to suppress third parties from profiting from women’s prostitution. Unfortunately the law in England and Wales does not fully meet these obligations. Although Section 52 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 prohibits ‘causing or inciting prostitution for gain,’ it is of little, if any, practical use for prohibiting adverts.
The Advertising Regulator, the ASA, isn’t much use either. In 2016 it ruled that placing porn and sex ads in a newspaper is ‘responsible marketing,’ provided they are not on the back cover.
Last year the United States passed what’s known as the SESTA-FOSTA Act. This created new criminal offences of running websites that facilitate prostitution, while providing the possibility of civil redress to those whose sex trafficking was facilitated by these sites. This has led to the closing of many such websites. Already there are indications that the sex trade in the US has shrunk as a result and this is likely to mean a fall in the numbers of girls being trafficked.
“The owners and operators of prostitution procurement websites directly facilitate and profit from the prostitution of others. They are third party profiteers of commercial sexual exploitation and are the most significant enabler of sex trafficking in the UK.” – APPG report, ‘Behind Closed Doors’
If the UK is serious about cracking down on human trafficking, now often called ‘modern slavery,’ it must hold third-parties who profiteer from women’s prostitution to account, as it is obliged to under international law.
We call on the UK government to follow the example of the US and urgently introduce legislation banning prostitution procurement websites operating in the UK.
- MYTH: Punters respect the women they buy
- MYTH: Punters are lonely single men
- What’s Wrong with Prostitution?
Thanks to Megan King, Francine Sporenda, and Eleanor Gaetan who all provided invaluable input to this article.