The Scottish Parliament cross-party group tasked with investigating commercial sexual exploitation this week announced a new inquiry into websites being used for sexual exploitation. This move by MSPs should be applauded and encouraged, particularly in a year when daily and prolonged internet use has become the norm due to lockdown restrictions.

The links between the internet and various forms of commercial sexual exploitation have been growing in recent years, but it remains an issue that is difficult to get to grips with, due to its somewhat-hidden nature. A ten-year evaluation report of the Nordic Model in Sweden highlighted that in all countries, irrespective of the legislative approach to prostitution, online advertising of prostituted individuals had increased, although it was unclear by exactly how much. That report was published in 2010, and by all accounts things have not improved.

Indeed, the recent joint-report undertaken by the Centre for Social Justice and Justice & Care in July 2020 highlighted that online advertising was “thriving during the pandemic”, with a 280% increase in online advertising for “sexual services”  in the West Midlands area, with extremely close links to international trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

On this point, the Scottish Parliament’s rationale for setting up the new inquiry is explained as: “MSPs are concerned that laws allow website operators to act like pimps by advertising victims of sexual exploitation to sex buyers, making Scotland a magnet for sex traffickers.”

The fact that the cross-party group has recognised this fact is encouraging. Research consistently demonstrates that wherever commercial sexual exploitation occurs, so too does trafficking. The use of the internet as a tool for advertising the sale of these victims of exploitation has only provided a further layer of anonymity for the exploiters themselves.

Typically, exploitation and trafficking are intrinsically linked to both pornography and prostitution, which both thrive in the digital age. As the on-going #TraffickingHub campaign clearly demonstrates, there are numerous accounts of individuals who have been trafficked either directly into the porn industry, or who have had their sexual exploitation (which occurred in the process of being trafficked) disseminated on sites such as PornHub. And as previously mentioned, the advertising of those in prostitution often involves women and children who have been trafficked into the UK.

The upcoming Online Harms Bill would do well to recognise the distinct and sadly enormous impact that the internet has had on sexual exploitation specifically, instead of simply subsuming it into a large, one-size-fits-all Bill that covers various different types of harm. As the Scottish Parliament has recognised, the ubiquity and accessibility of the internet has meant that pimps, punters, and traffickers can act with relative impunity when it comes to exploiting individuals for profit.

Our Government should follow the strident lead of their US counterparts in recognising the urgency and rapid growth of online sexual exploitation, who totally shut down the website Backpage.com for its links to both trafficking and so-called “child prostitution”.

Here at CEASE, we applaud the efforts of the Scottish cross-party group in their investigation into the links between adult websites, trafficking, and wider commercial sexual exploitation, and we urge the UK Government to follow their lead and initiate a UK wide inquiry. The internet is by its very nature a borderless phenomenon, and so too is the type of exploitation that can be facilitated and propagated by those who use it.