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Sex work and online platforms: what should regulation do?

Nick Cowen (School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln, Lincoln, UK)
Rachela Colosi (School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln, Lincoln, UK)

Journal of Entrepreneurship and Public Policy

ISSN: 2045-2101

Article publication date: 8 December 2020

Issue publication date: 13 July 2021




The purpose is to assess the impact of online platforms on the sex industry, focusing specifically on direct sex work, and evaluate what approaches to platform regulation is likely to align with the interests of sex workers.


The paper presents a review of interdisciplinary conceptual and empirical literature on sex work combined with analysis of key issues using a transaction cost framework.


Online platforms generally make sex work safer. Regulation aimed at preventing platforms from serving sex workers is likely to harm their welfare.

Research limitations/implications

Regulation of online platforms should take great care to differentiate coercive sex from consensual sex work, and allow sex workers to experiment with governance mechanisms provided by entrepreneurs.


The paper demonstrates how a transactions costs approach to market behaviour as applied to personal services like ridesharing can also shed light on the challenges that sex workers face, partly as a result of criminalisation, and the dangers of over-regulation.



This paper forms part of a special section “Startup Innovation: The Role of Regulation in Entrepreneurship”, guest edited by Richard A. Epstein, Seth Oranburg and Liya Palagashvili.The authors are grateful to the editors Prof. Liya Palagashvili and Prof. Nikolai Wenzel, as well as several anonymous reviewers, for their patience and advice on revising and improving the manuscript.


Cowen, N. and Colosi, R. (2021), "Sex work and online platforms: what should regulation do?", Journal of Entrepreneurship and Public Policy, Vol. 10 No. 2, pp. 284-303.



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Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited

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