Websites offering sexual services are becoming a major part of the 'gig' economy, according to a new study. Yet those sex workers supplying online sex chats and webcams are being ignored when it comes to policy debates about the regulation of temporary and short-term work.

Ongoing research led by Helen Rand from the University of Essex into these platforms and their users shows that the employment model of sexual services on-demand is similar to that of modern taxi or delivery services and other online marketplaces.

The findings will be the focus of an event as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Festival of Social Science.

"The assumption is that sex work takes place on the streets or behind doors in brothels," said Ms Rand, from the Department of Sociology.

"Yet increasingly it’s taking place at home via technology such as texting or by video. The appeal is that all you need is a laptop. Women especially can fit it in around other commitments such as caring for elderly relatives."

"We’re talking thousands of people, yet those taking part are effectively silenced and marginalised. They’re excluded from debates around the rights of self-employed people and the modern labour market. This is despite being just as vulnerable to exploitation as other 'gig' workers."

Income generation through online sexual platforms is precarious. Online sex workers access customers by connecting to web platforms from home. Some platforms take a large percentage of the money charged and can shut down profiles without any warning.

"It[ the fee taken from the platform] is very hefty. It’s about 30% I think. So it is a big chunk of your money taken off. I don’t think anybody likes it. They are the biggest most well-known platform for that kind of work. You don’t really have much choice." (Sarah, 38, online sex services provider).

The research by Ms Rand focused on interviews with a sex worker organisation, five customers and 19 online sex workers from across the UK. Ms Rand contacted the major platforms but none of them were willing to be interviewed for the research. Those people providing sex services ranged in age from 20 to 65, and included one woman who had first started offering ‘virtual’ sex in her late 50s, after early retirement.

One major online platform has an estimated 35,000 workers providing sexual services. The company operates in a similar way to other online on-demand businesses, says Ms Rand, by matching freelance labour with customer demand.