NET REACH: Learning from online outreach with women selling sex during Covid-19 is a new report published today, which has found a clear link between the poverty created by Covid-19 and a rise in women advertising to sell or exchange sex online. The report is based on research conducted as part of Changing Lives’ online outreach work. You can download the report here:

NET REACH: Learning from online outreach with women selling sex during Covid-19 December

‘Netreach’ – the term used for outreach conducted online – was carried out during lockdown earlier this year to support people who were advertising the sale or exchange of sex online. Changing Lives engaged in netreach across multiple websites, including specialist subscription-based adult platforms and community selling pages, offering support and access to therapeutic services.

The research focused in detail on over 900 profiles listed on two paid adult websites, alongside a number of free community selling pages. It found:

  • A powerful link between the poverty and destitution created by Covid-19 and women advertising to sell or exchange sex online. This includes women selling or exchanging sex for the first time who cited the pandemic as a reason in their adverts.
  • A worrying number of young women and girls advertising online, raising concerns about child sexual exploitation and ongoing vulnerability to abuse as they reach legal adulthood.
  • Additional safeguarding concerns, including increased risk of physical and sexual violence, risks to safety as a result of location tracking and loss of access to vital public services during Covid-19, including sexual health and mental health services and support from safeguarding teams.

The research was carried out as part of Changing Lives’ netreach across the North East of England. This programme was funded jointly by Kim McGuinness, Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner and Steve White, Acting Police Crime & Victims’ Commissioner for Durham.

Laura Seebohm, Executive Director at Changing Lives, said: “This report highlights our concerns that an increasing number of women are turning to online sites to sell or exchange sex as a result of the financial hardship created by Covid-19. We found that women have felt they have no options other than to sell or exchange sex to be able to buy food, secure somewhere to stay or provide for their children.

“It is not acceptable that women have had to engage in survival sex – selling or exchanging sex to meet an immediate need – in order to get through the pandemic. The restrictions in place throughout lockdown meant more women are turning to online sites to advertise, and we are concerned that this puts them at risk of sexual exploitation and other harms.”

Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, Kim McGuinness, said: “Anyone turning to sex to survive is extremely worrying. Regardless of whatever brings women into sex work, we know they’re often vulnerable and have found themselves in terribly desperate situations. In some cases it’s to meet the needs of addictions, in other cases it’s women feeling the worst of austerity – they feel they have no other way to keep their children fed and a roof over their heads.

“Poverty is a real impact of this pandemic and it is without a doubt that more Government funding and specialist support is needed. Some of these women have never been in this situation before but the current crisis has pushed them to the brink. Here in the North East, outreach work and support services like Changing Lives play such a crucial role working alongside our police and local authorities. This ‘Netreach’ project is a great local initiative to try and safeguard vulnerable people and try and get the right help to those who need it.”

Amongst other recommendations, Changing Lives is calling for:

  • Adequate, sustainable and long-term funding for specialist services to support women selling sex, including netreach workers who understand how to engage and support people selling or exchanging sex online, and how to spot and report harms to the police.
  • Increased accountability of subscription-based adult websites and free community selling pages, including more stringent requirements around ID and age verification.
  • Rapid progression of the Online Harms Bill and associated activities to tackle online abuse and exploitation.
  • The Minister for Safeguarding to introduce a statutory duty for local authorities, to ensure they understand and respond to the complex circumstances which may lead women and girls to become involved in selling sex and/or targeted for sexual exploitation.

Laura Seebohm added: “Having a specialist netreach worker meant we have been able to support people who we might not have previously been able to reach. It’s absolutely vital that support services for women who have experience of selling sex, survival sex and/or sexual exploitation includes trained support workers who understand how to engage and support people online, and recognise harm.”

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