In general, those who support a Fight Online Sex Trafficking Approach (FOSTA) - as used in the United States and gaining increasing interest in the UK - say that it is necessary in order to stop online sex trafficking and to “save” the “vulnerable women” and children who are being exploited.
When politicians and policy makers consider and vote on legislation intended to stop such crimes, crucial elements - such as the distinction between trafficking and exploitation within the sex industry on the one hand, and consensual sex work on the other, or an objective analysis of the possible consequences of such legislation – are often deprioritised or ignored. For many, including the US Department of Justice, sex trafficking survivor groups, sex worker community groups and sex worker rights advocates, FOSTA is an example of just such a misguided approach to sex work policy.
National Ugly Mugs, as a national service that aims to end violence against sex workers, staunchly opposes the introduction of FOSTA-type legislation in the UK. National Ugly Mugs wholly supports the stated aim of such legislation; putting an end to online sex trafficking; a FOSTA-type approach however, is not an effective method for achieving that aim whilst also representing a great potential harm to sex workers.
Sex workers are disproportionately both at risk of, and impacted by, violence, but they are less likely to report such incidents due to the criminalisation and marginalisation attached to sex work and the consequent danger of stigmatisation and arrest faced by sex workers who report that they have been the victims of crime. Recent research has shown that an increasing number of sex workers are using online platforms not just to advertise and contact clients, but in order to access safety information, peer support and warnings about individuals who have been deemed unsafe. Sex workers say that access to online platforms and services significantly increases their safety. National Ugly Mugs has demonstrated that sharing information about violent and potentially dangerous clients online is an extremely effective crime prevention tool; a finding supported by the National Police Chiefs’ Council. A FOSTA-type approach would jeopardise the availability and effectiveness of such online safety tools.
In terms of the implementation of FOSTA-type activity, the technology to accurately distinguish between legal and legitimate online sex work posting and an online sex trafficking posting simply does not exist. As a result, online platforms would be forced to set up their filters to be over-sensitive and over-censorial in order comply with FOSTA-type legislation. The potential outcomes of this are that
- Existing online services such as National Ugly Mugs, SAAFE forum, the ECP, SWARM collective, SCOT-PEP, uglymugs.ie and a growing number of peer support and information sites - which are proven to reduce crime and the risk of harm within the sex industry - would be blocked;
- Criminal activity within the sex industry, including trafficking and exploitation, would shift to the unfiltered, unregulated and hidden “dark web”; making it more difficult to identify, monitor and police.
- Sex workers would be forced to access clients off-line, which has been shown to increase the risks faced by sex workers and be more damaging to personal and public health
- Such a censorial approach will restrict the online reporting and alerting opportunities for people who are being trafficked or are otherwise the victims of crime.
National Ugly Mugs urges that the consideration of new or extended legislative approaches designed to combat sex trafficking should include a full, frank and open discussion about the decriminalisation of sex work including:
- Evidence-based calculation of the police resources that decriminalisation would free up and which could therefore be re-deployed in order to combat trafficking.
- The proven potential for decriminalisation to empower sex workers and those who are being trafficked to report the crimes against them without fear of prosecution or social stigma.
- The ability for decriminalisation to not only further increase the safety and wellbeing of sex workers but to reduce the stigma and marginalisation which they currently face.
CEO National Ugly Mugs