A cross-party group of Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) is calling on the Scottish Government to outlaw online pimping, after an inquiry found that commercial websites are facilitating sex trafficking and sexual exploitation with impunity. The inquiry, conducted by the Cross-Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation (1), concludes that Scotland’s laws against sexual exploitation have failed to keep pace with technological change. The report calls for a new offence of ‘enabling or profiting from the prostitution of another person’ – which would apply to websites – and urges Ministers to strengthen support services for victims of sexual exploitation. The inquiry findings will be launched at an event for MSPs on Friday 19 March 2021 (2).

The inquiry into Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites was launched by MSPs in response to mounting reports that websites hosting prostitution adverts are fuelling sexual exploitation and organised crime in Scotland (3). Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites are typically free to use by sex buyers, who use the sites to find women to pay for sex. However, the websites generate profits by charging individuals to place adverts or boost the prominence of their advert. On a single day, the Cross-Party Group found 570 prostitution adverts for Scotland on just one market-leading Sexual Exploitation Advertising website.

During the inquiry, MSPs took evidence from international experts, front-line support services, law enforcement officials and survivors of sexual exploitation.

Main findings from the inquiry:

The role of Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites in facilitating sex trafficking and sexual exploitation:

  • Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites are a major enabler of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation in Scotland.
  • ‘Market-leading’ Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites centralise and concentrate demand online from sex buyers.
  • Opportunities and incentives for third parties to traffic and exploit women via Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites cannot be ‘designed out’ of the websites.
  • Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites knowingly facilitate and profit from the prostitution of others.
  • Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites do not enhance the safety of women. They endanger vulnerable women by incentivising and enabling sex trafficking.

Government and law enforcement responses to Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites:

  • Existing Scottish legislation on sexual exploitation fails to prevent the operation of Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites.
  • The scale of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation facilitated by Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites vastly outstrips policing capacity to respond to it.
  • Current UK-wide law enforcement collaboration with Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites is failing to meet its ostensible objectives, provides political cover to the website companies, and underplays the level of threat posed by the websites.
  • Successful international legal and law enforcement initiatives to tackle Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites enable evidence-based action in Scotland.
  • The inquiry has recommended the following reforms to Scottish law:
    1. Introducetheoffenceofenablingand/orprofitingfromtheprostitutionof another person.
    2. Introducetheoffenceofprovidingorofferingmoneyorotherbenefit(including food and accommodation) in return for a person performing sex acts.
    3. RepealSection46oftheCivicGovernment(Scotland)Act1982inorderto prevent victims of sexual exploitation from being sanctioned for soliciting in a public place. Expunge previous convictions under Section 46 of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 from individuals’ records.

Outlawing Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites would bring Scotland’s laws in line with countries such as France and the United States, which have both recently taken action to crack down on online pimping (4).

Ruth Maguire MSP, Co-Convener of the Cross-Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, said:
“Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites have turbo-charged the sex trafficking trade. The websites incentivise sexual exploitation by making it quick and easy for pimps and traffickers to advertise their victims to men who pay for sex. Online pimping is taking place on an industrial scale in Scotland. Yet the operations of these pimping websites fall through the cracks of our outdated prostitution laws – and the website owners exploit with impunity.
“The Scottish Government must lead the way in adopting laws against sexual exploitation that are fit for the twenty-first century. That requires making it a criminal offence to enable or profit from the prostitution of another person, tackling demandby criminalising paying for sex, and decriminalising and supporting victims of sexual exploitation. It’s time to put the traffickers and pimps out of business.”

Rhoda Grant MSP, Co-Convener of the Cross-Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation, said:
“The commercial sexual exploitation of women harms both individuals and our society. It is a barrier to true equality. Websites that promote this exploitation and profit from it need to be held to account for their abuse. I hope this report provides the evidence and the catalyst to change that. The operators of Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites are fully aware of the misery their actions cause, but their greed negates even the most cursory concern for the welfare of those they exploit. The clear action required from our investigation, that can be seen in this report, is that these websites must be criminalised.”

Megan King*, a survivor of sexual exploitation, told the inquiry:

“[The] man who recruited me into prostitution managed to serve prison time and will be subjected to a proceeds of crime hearing to pay back the hundreds of thousands of pounds that he earnt from exploiting me and others. But the websites that directly profit off every booking, off every girl who advertises globally, have no repercussions for their exploitation. This feels like an extreme injustice to our trauma.”

Detective Superintendent Filippo Capaldi, Head of Police Scotland’s National Human Trafficking Unit, told the inquiry:
“[On these websites] there will be people who are being subjected to horrific and degrading treatment and there are organised crime groups who will control these women and will facilitate these adverts. Of that there is no doubt.”

Linda Thompson, National Coordinator of the Women’s Support Project, told the inquiry:
“A lot of the women that we have worked with have said they had no choice in an advert going up [on a Sexual Exploitation Advertising website]. Natasha, who I worked with, had been trafficked into Scotland from Romania; she had no involvement in the writing of her advert. That advert was placed on her behalf, and it listed what sexual services she was ‘really in to’ and ‘could not wait to offer to men’. She never wrote that. She never agreed that. And she talked about punters arriving and she did not speak English. And they would have negotiated what was going to happen in that room with her. That punter would have negotiated that with her trafficker/pimp.”

Bronagh Andrew, Operations Manager at Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance (TARA), told the inquiry:
“Often traffickers use the profiles or the images [on Sexual Exploitation Advertising websites] as a tool to continue control and coercion: ‘So, if you don’t do as you’re told, I’ll send your mum or your father this profile and they’ll know what you were

doing’, or ‘the police will see that profile and you’ve got a big smile on your face so they won’t believe you’ve been coerced’.”

Valiant Richey, Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), told the inquiry:
“These websites increase the scale and profitability of the market dramatically. …It made it much easier for traffickers to advertise people and much easier for buyers to find them. And any time you reduce that threshold, those barriers to accessing the market, you are going to see more engagement and that’s been the major problem. It also reduces risk for traffickers, so it makes it much more attractive.

Diane Martin CBE, a survivor of sex trafficking, told the inquiry:

“Profiteers, pimps and organised crime groups have used these websites to create a mainstream market to sell women for sex. Trafficking and pimping is big business, and these websites incentivise that and make it easy. …They are a key part of the supply chain connecting traffickers with sex buyers.”

On behalf of the Cross Party Group, Ruth Maguire MSP spoke with Good Morning Scotland about the findings of the inquiry, listen here (50:51 minutes):

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000t6x0