‘Beyond the Gaze’ new research findings from University of Leicester

Professor of Criminology Teela Sanders at the University of Leicester (the research also involved Strathclyde University, from our SIPR regional colleagues) updates here on a new study called Beyond the Gaze, all about UK online sex work, examining the working conditions, safety and policing of the industry. The overarching question the research explores is:  How has the Internet shaped the 21st Century adult commercial sex industry in the UK and what is the role of regulation?    It aims to;

  • Understand how new online and digital technologies have changed sex work in the UK.
  • Map the spaces where online sex work takes place/is facilitated and understand the working practices, safety related issues and policing of this sector.
  • Learn how safety and health services working with sex workers have responded to the needs of this sector, identifying and sharing good practice

Beyond the Gaze is the first UK-wide study to examine current policing of internet based sex work and highlights how approaches to policing online sex work markets is still in its infancy for many forces, with only a small amount carrying out wider work to increase online sex worker confidence to report crime.

The research, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, shows that online sex markets have been pervasive since 2000 and available evidence indicates that the online sector is the largest sector of the UK sex industry – although it is difficult to map/quantify.

The findings show that while the majority of police are aware that sex markets have changed, detailed knowledge of the nature and extent of these changes was variable.

The study included the largest online surveys carried of sex workers (641) of all genders and their clients (1323), a survey of support projects and interviews with sex workers, police officers from sixteen forces, managers or moderators of online advertising platforms/ forums/safety schemes for sex workers and mapping online spaces where sex workers market and/or provide services.

Key findings of the report include:

  • Online & digital technologies have reshaped sexual commerce
  • The diversity of sex workers using the internet in their work – 73% were women, 19% male, 3% transgender and 3% non-binary or intersex
  • The majority of sex workers who took part in the study worked in independent indoor sectors, such as escorts, webcam workers, phone sex and BDSM service providers
  • Online and digital technology has facilitated more mobile and fluid forms of sex work across different jobs/services within the online sector
  • The maximum number of sex work jobs worked in was nine, with the average (mean) number of sectors being two
  • Study highlights the need to make a distinction between the use of temporary premises by independent workers and their use in circumstances which involve, trafficking, slavery and coercion
  • The majority were self-employed sole traders who worked alone (72%)
  • Just over half (51.9%) had gross annual earnings of less than £20,000 from sex work, only 10.1% earned £50,000 or more annually, earnings largely reflected working hours
  • The internet is of significant importance to sex workers in different aspects of their work including: developing services; enabling independent working; and giving greater control over working circumstances
  • Sex workers reported high levels of job satisfaction, the ability to take decisions about different aspects of their work was linked to this
  • 81% said the internet provided access to sex worker networks and peer support, with social media and messaging apps playing an important role
  • Online and digital technologies had improved safety strategies for 85% of sex workers in the survey
  • Nearly half had privacy concerns, with fears of being ‘outed’ and stigma detracting from job satisfaction
  • A majority, 81%, had experienced at least one form of work-related crime, with high levels of digitally facilitated crime reported
  • Current policy and law is focused primarily on areas such as trafficking/modern slavery or child sexual exploitation, and based on certain conceptions of vulnerability, which fail to reflect diversity in the sex industry


Note: BtG is not a study of modern slavery and trafficking within the online adult sex work sector nor is it a study estimating the size of the online sex work sector generally or the percentage of those within who are victims of modern slavery or who are coerced.


For the police the key issues are:

  • Infancy: many forces identified their work on the policing of online commercial sex markets as in its infancy. Yet there was a continuum along which forces can be placed from little knowledge and police engagement with online markets at one, to the other end, where proactive operational, strategic and community relations work was taking place.
  • Historic focus on publicly-visible sex work: many felt that police policy on sex work had been focused on street sex work and the indoor massage parlour and sauna sector. Sex work has increasingly moved into internet-mediated private spaces yet law enforcement has traditionally focused on more publicly-visible forms of sex work. Police forces had little knowledge about online sex work practices, yet there are legal and safety implications which need to be considered.
  • Varying knowledge & limited intelligence: overall familiarity with online markets varied across the country. Most forces felt that they were still learning about the nature and extent of online sex work and that intelligence was limited. In many instances police forces had not developed an organised approach to data collection.
  • Mapping & monitoring: some police force areas were considering, or had already commenced some form of scoping exercise into internet-based sex work and some had already undertaken their own mapping exercise to inform their future approach. These varied in terms of the scope and methodology, with resourcing flagged as an issue by many. Only a minority of forces mentioned that they had utilised or were considering using existing online search tools used more generally by police analysts as a tool for aiding mapping of online commercial sex work markets. A small number of forces were undertaking more routinised regular monitoring on online platforms, this tended to be part of work to identify and investigate modern slavery and trafficking.
  • Awareness: forces appeared to be reaching a critical mass point in terms of an awareness that the online sector was a significant sector and that they should at the very least be aware of its scope and nature.
  • National & specialist resources: when asked about national resources/ tools to support policing forces identified the NPCC guidance on sex work generally and pointed to the NCA as an organisation that may be developing tools. The majority were not aware of specialist specific resources, guidance or tools and were not aware of national coordination of monitoring of the online sector.
  • Modern slavery & vulnerability/safeguarding agendas: the two main ways that forces were engaging with online markets was to identify and respond to modern slavery and public protection agenda, specifically within ‘vulnerability’ and safeguarding work. Most police activities in relation to internet platforms were within a modern slavery remit. There appeared generally to be less awareness of the independent/voluntary nature of much online sex work.
  • Range of vulnerabilities: some police forces identified that amongst online sex workers some experienced a number or vulnerabilities or indeed their involvement in sex work meant that they were targeted by a range of criminals which made them a ‘vulnerable’ group. A primary element of activities in relation to monitoring sex markets was the identification of certain indicators of vulnerability and exploitation.
  • ‘Pop up Brothels’: some police participants referred to the identification of ‘pop up brothels’ defined as properties (be they houses, flats, holiday lets) that were rented temporarily and used for sex work, with services being advertised via the internet. Most of forces who mentioned such premises focused on these as places where migrant sex workers may be coerced and where potential victims of slavery may be located. Fewer forces acknowledged that these could be premises where voluntary sex workers, both UK nationals or migrants, may work as part of work patterns including touring and travel to work in cities or tourist locations away from their home base.
  • Challenges of identifying victims: officers who had been involved in cases or initiatives related to slavery or trafficking identified the challenges involved in identifying if a sex worker was a victim of trafficking/slavery/coercion and those who might be working of their own volition, especially in circumstances where time pressures were present and disclosures had not been made.
  • Modern slavery identification, actions & impact: There was some consciousness amongst officers that certain indicators of slavery and exploitation used might also flag up sex workers who were not trafficked or otherwise exploited, although this was not the intention of specialist teams. The potential implications of police actions related to modern slavery work which also involved those working of their own volition included disruption of sex workers’ business, stigmatisation and potential threats to their safety if they are forced to work differently or to move from their current premises because their privacy has been compromised or due to increased reluctance to trust and report crime to the police.
  • Community development work less common: A minority of forces pointed to approaches in which they had ongoing community development work with sex workers and projects to build trust to better facilitate reporting of crime and coercion including disclosures of slavery & trafficking.
  • Proactive work rare: proactive work with the online sector (beyond the trafficking and modern slavery agenda) was rare, one force stood out in terms of such work and this had been enabled by a grant from the Home Office, several forces had plans to develop work in this area.
  • Under-reporting of crime: only a minority of forces referred to specific cases of crimes against online sex workers that had been reported to them and investigated. Force areas who had a sex work liaison officer/s, whose remit was all sectors, described cases they had dealt with.  Most of forces felt crimes against internet based sex work were under-reported to them.
  • Limited involvement in safety work: few forces had been involved in safety work with online sex workers or targeted initiatives to improve the reporting of crime amongst this sector to the police. The force area where a grant had been received for work with the indoor and online sector was one of a small number of notable exceptions.
  • National guidance approach: many forces said that the same approach they applied to sex work more widely was being, or would be applied, to online markets in new strategies on sex work. Forces (in England and Wales) referred to the National Police Chiefs Council guidance on sex work with most seeing this as having changed the balance of policing priorities in relation to sex work and identified that either existing/developing strategies would be informed by this guidance, which emphasised the safety of sex workers with a move away from enforcement
  • Mixed views on regulation: there were mixed views about how sex work should be regulated. Only a small number of police participants felt there should be more stringent regulation of websites advertising sexual services. Others felt this could reduce cooperation between sex workers, police and websites, make it more difficult to identify and investigate those who exploit sex workers such organised crime groups, driving the sector underground and possibly onto the dark net, making it even more challenging for police forces. These potential impacts were seen as particularly heightened with current limits to resources and cyber skills capacity.  Yet several forces felt online advertising platforms should be more proactive in measures to safeguard against exploitation, trafficking and slavery.


If you would like to download our PDF briefing for the police, or briefing on Mapping the sex industry please go here: https://www.beyond-the-gaze.com/briefings/

If you would like further academic work this article in Technology in Society is free to download


If you would like bespoke training on the internet sex industry, possibly with our partners National Ugly Mugs, contact Professor Teela Sanders on teela.sanders@leicester.ac.uk


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