Another sex trade propaganda project from Leicester University

Professor Teela Sanders, who was behind the misguided and now withdrawn, Leicester ‘student sex work toolkit’ is leading a new publicly funded project “to examine how websites which promote and/or facilitate sex work can address sexual exploitation”. [Our emphasis.]

There is so much wrong with this, that it’s hard to know where to begin unpicking it. But let’s start by asking what is “sexual exploitation” and how does it differ from “sex work”?

What is “sexual exploitation” and how does it differ from “sex work”?

For the definition of “sexual exploitation”, we will turn to the United Nations Glossary on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. This defines sexual exploitation as:

“Any actual or attempted abuse of position of vulnerability, differential power or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another.

Comment: ‘Sexual exploitation’ is a broad term, which includes a number of acts described below, including ‘transactional sex’, ‘solicitation of transactional sex’ and ‘exploitative relationship’.

It defines transactional sex as:

“The exchange of money, employment, goods or services for sex, including sexual favours, other forms of humiliating, degrading or exploitative behaviour. This includes any exchange of assistance that is due to beneficiaries of assistance.

Comment: Sex, including sexual favours, is understood to mean ‘sexual activity’.”

In other words, “transactional sex”, also known as prostitution or “sex work”, is itself a form of “sexual exploitation”. Furthermore, profiting from the sexual exploitation of other people is a form of sexual exploitation.

So Teela Sanders is running a project, with public funding, to examine how websites that promote and facilitate (and profit from) sexual exploitation can “address” sexual exploitation – by which we assume they mean how they can reduce and prevent sexual exploitation. This is a bit like examining how websites that specialise in selling books can reduce and prevent the selling of books.

If you really want to stop websites selling books, the only realistic solution is to ban them doing so. Of course, most reasonable people don’t want to ban the selling of books. But most reasonable people do want to reduce and prevent sexual exploitation.

This project of Professor Sanders, funded by public money, is therefore predicated on an oxymoron. On the kind of thinking that Alice had such difficulty with when she was in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

This is not surprising, given Teela Sanders’ history of promoting the idea that “sex work is real work” and that if only women would take a few precautions, it can be made reasonably safe – even though her own research suggests that this is simply not possible.

Language as a tool to confuse and obscure reality

This down-the-rabbit-hole thinking was epitomised by the University of Leicester “student sex work” toolkit that was the outcome of another of Professor Sanders’ recent projects. That toolkit, also funded by public money, has now been withdrawn – presumably because the University of Leicester eventually arrived at the sensible conclusion that it was misguided and dangerous. The ESRC, the funding body, apparently withdrew funding for that project.

One of the many disturbing things about that project was the number of people, including senior personnel in academia, student support services, and national funding bodies, who approved and facilitated what large numbers of ordinary people could clearly see was a Very Bad Idea.

We must assume that another raft of senior personnel has signed off on this new project. The statement about it says that Sanders “will collaborate with experts from charity Unseen UK, the National Crime Agency and the National Police Chief’s Council”.

One of the most pernicious issues with the Leicester “student sex work toolkit” was how it sanitised and normalised a toxic, dangerous and profoundly sexist industry. One of the key ways it did this was in the use of language. The term “sex work” implicitly frames prostitution as a normal form of work and not as the violation of human rights it is recognised as under international law.

This project appears to be taking a similar approach. Do you think those senior staff would have signed off on the project if they’d used the language of international law? For example, if instead of saying it was going “to examine how websites which promote and/or facilitate sex work can address sexual exploitation”, it had said it was going “to examine how websites which promote and/or facilitate sex trafficking can reduce and prevent sex trafficking”, or even “to examine how websites which promote and/or facilitate prostitution can reduce and prevent prostitution”?

This is why we do not use the “sex work” terminology. It is a euphemism that’s promoted exactly because it confuses people and obfuscates the awful reality.

What are “adult websites” anyway?

“Adult websites” advertise human beings (mostly women) so that other human beings (almost entirely men) can rent them for sexual use and abuse. You can browse the women like you can browse books and electronic equipment on Amazon and similar sites. In other words, they are online brothels.

Before the advent of the internet, pimps and panderers (known colloquially in Britain as ponces), would find “clients” for women involved in indoor prostitution. Now these websites largely perform that task and, just as has happened with the rest of the internet, a few huge websites (e.g. AdultWork and Vivastreet) now dominate the market. The commercial organisations behind these large websites rake in eye-watering profits. Yannick Pons, who founded the organisation behind Vivastreet, has been listed as one of the top 500 richest people in France.

These websites act as pimps and panderers and facilitate the pimping and sex trafficking of women. Rather than “adult websites”, they are pimping websites. They are pimps and they facilitate pimping and sex trafficking.

The relevant law in England and Wales predates the development of these websites. Sections 52 and 53 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 make “causing or inciting prostitution for gain” and “controlling prostitution for gain” an offence, respectively. They were clearly written with individual pimps and panderers in mind. The Sexual Offences Act 1956 defines several offences related to keeping a brothel. But again, these predate the development of large-scale online brothels. 

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has advised that posting adverts for ‘sex for rent’ may fall under Section 52 because it is “inciting prostitution for gain.” The only possible reasons that I can see for the CPS not also suggesting that third parties posting adverts for prostitution wouldn’t also be covered by Section 52 is that they have fallen under the influence of the “sex work is real work” propaganda and the lobby promoting it, or they are men who are themselves prostitution buyers, or women who are in thrall to such men.

For more about these websites and how they work, see:


Megan King, a member of the Nordic Model Now! group, went on what she thought was a date with Paul (not his real name), a man she met on an internet dating site. By the end of the evening, he’d set up a profile for her on one of the large pimping sites and had driven her around outer London suburbs and coerced her into having several prostitution encounters. Paul was later convicted of pimping offences and subsequently had some of the obscene profits he’d made from Megan’s and various other victims’ prostitution confiscated.

It is highly unlikely that Paul would have succeeded in any of this without the large pimping website(s) that he used.

Institutional capture

We have been long aware that the ‘sex work is real work’ lobbyists have captured many of the relevant UK institutions, including the Home Office and the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), both of which now refer to prostitution as “sex work” – even when referring to child sex trafficking.

We believe a similar policy capture was responsible for the UK’s adoption of the “modern slavery” term (which has no definition in international law) rather than the well-defined “human trafficking” term. The latter is based on the perhaps rather archaic meaning of “trafficking” as “dealing or trading in something illegal” (i.e. a form of slavery) rather than anything to do with transportation. But this hasn’t stopped the trafficking term being understood in the UK (and defined in the Modern Slavery Act 2015) as a matter of transportation and hence largely an immigration crime.

Anyone who is familiar with the international definition of sex trafficking will know that what Paul did to Megan (and almost certainly to his other victims) was sex trafficking – a very serious human rights abuse under international law. He was not prosecuted under the modern slavery legislation but as “controlling prostitution for gain” under which he was given a derisory prison sentence of less than a year – as if what he had done was as trivial as shop lifting.

This is where the adoption of the sex industry’s terminology and world view has led us. We do not believe that any further “research” undertaken within this paradigm will do anything other than further obfuscate the reality.

The Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (the Modern Slavery PEC) also appears to have come under the worldview of the sex industry lobbyists. On their website, they say that this new project “will, for the first time, bring together organisations who are working to prevent modern slavery facilitated through adult websites. The project aims to understand, share new knowledge and work towards strategies that can reduce human trafficking and sexual exploitation.”

This is not true. There has been considerable research in this area but they appear to be discounting it – presumably because it comes to the conclusion that “adult websites” can never “reduce human trafficking and sexual exploitation” because that is the basis of their business.

For more about this research, we recommend the report of the inquiry by the Scottish Cross Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation.

For a summary of our profound concerns about the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and how it defines sex trafficking, see our recent briefing paper.

Further reading

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