Over the past months we have often heard people speculate that an upside of the pandemic will be a reduction in sexual exploitation. Their reasoning being that the presence of a virulent airborne virus will reduce demand for prostitution. In reality, demand has not abated. Often, it has simply been channelled elsewhere: namely online.

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights are aware of this, and recently released a new report titled Addressing Emerging Human Trafficking Trends and Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The report highlighted the fact that, sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic has not dented human trafficking across the globe:

The findings indicate that through the COVID-19 pandemic and afterwards, exacerbation of vulnerability of women and girls to Trafficking in Human Beings (THB) for the purposes of sexual exploitation will increase.

The trade is thriving, and indeed, this is the case in the UK too, as the Centre for Social Justice and Justice & Care joint-report established earlier this year.

While there are many forms that human trafficking can take, it is trafficking into sexual exploitation that remains the most profitable, despite not necessarily being the most prevalent reasonfor trafficking. This has manifested in two clear ways in recent years.

Firstly, as Per-Anders Sunesson, the Swedish Ambassador at Large for Combating Trafficking in Persons, stressed, trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is inextricably linked to the system of prostitution. A worrying trend that has developed in recent years, and has been exacerbated during Covid-19, is the displacement of those being sexually exploited and trafficked for the purposes of prostitution into an online setting.

As the report states: There are also indications that trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation online, including the demand for Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) has increased.

While the advertising of victims of trafficking online is not necessarily a new phenomenon, the reduction in face-to-face interaction during Covid-19 has resulted in massive increases, including a 280% increase in the West Midlands of advertising of sexual services online. The Scottish Government have just begun a consultation process to examine exactly how prevalent this is in Scotland too.

Secondly, as the #TraffickingHub campaign shows, those who are trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation may also subsequently be forced to create or engage in pornographic content.

The lines are becoming increasingly blurred between prostitution and pornography, particularly with the introduction in recent years of digital platforms such as Backpage.com and PornHub which represent the nexus of trafficking, prostitution, pornography, and the internet. Those trafficked for the purpose of being prostituted may also have pornographic content made of them during the trafficking process.

The UK Government have recognised the increasing harms that the porn industry presents, with a substantial section in the upcoming Online Harms Bill dedicated to protecting children from harmful “adult” content, but at CEASE UK we firmly believe that this does not go far enough.

The White Paper only represents a fraction of the harms of the porn industry, with a focus on material that may not be deemed “suitable” for children, as opposed to material that is wholly criminal and exploitative. As the UN, Scottish Parliament, and others have recognised, international criminal networks that profit from the sexual exploitation of vulnerable women and children are thriving due to the free and open market that the internet provides them, and this is only getting worse during Covid-19, when internet use is at an all-time high.

 As we await the Government’s overdue Full Response to the Online Harms White Paper, CEASE UK is calling for recognition that the harms of the porn industry extend far beyond simply “harmful material”, as the White Paper puts it. Robust and powerful regulators need to be established to combat the growing trend of online platforms facilitating and encouraging the commercial sexual exploitation of others, whether that is through trafficking or by other means. Granted, these are complex and expansive issues, but only recognising one aspect of the harms of the porn industry is akin to plugging a leak with plaster. It isn’t effective, and is bound to fail. It is incumbent upon the Government to make sure it doesn’t .

CEASE UK will be publishing our response to the White Paper in the coming weeks. Please sign up to our mailing list here for updates and further information.