It recently hit headlines that certain MPs were using sex workers abroad while on parliamentary trips.
While this activity happens, sex workers in the UK are being dealt an increasingly rough hand.
Earlier this year, the government introduced the Online Safety Bill, which criminalises advertising sex work online – some workers called this a ‘death sentence’.
By making sex work online harder to sustain, those in this industry could be more tempted by in-person work, which has greater safety issues.
Sex workers rights have increasingly taken a hit, but the law, like the actions of said MPs, is contradictory.
It is legal to be a sex worker in the UK, but it is illegal to promote sex work – for example by advertising or walking the streets – in order to get clients and make a living.
Just last month, Newham Council proposed a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) for Romford Road, which if successful would increase police powers against sex workers – anyone attempting to buy or sell sex could be fined £100 on the spot.
So for sex workers, after two years of lockdowns and being ineligible for government financial support schemes (due to a lack of records of taxable income), the road ahead is still tough.
Jade*, a 30-something sex worker based in London, says the past few weeks ‘have been quiet’, and now she’s worried about the cost of living crisis taking a further knock to her already-impacted finances.
She says: ‘I’m luckily have some regulars. The problem is, no matter how quiet it is, I have to pay the rent on the flat where I work in central London, so I have to make a certain amount.
‘I have been opening earlier and closing later.
‘I am lucky, nothing bad has happened so far but I am worried about the clients I see later on in the evening.’
Having to make herself available for longer each day has increased the risk of running into unsafe clients to make ends meet – and her screening process has become less thorough.
She continues: ‘I mostly open 11am-2am but I don’t have clients the whole time.
‘In the six years I have been working in this area, things have changed a lot. During the pandemic and I was in a lot of financial trouble because I couldn’t work and couldn’t get any help from the government.
‘My landlord tried to evict me because he reduced the rent and then increased it back to normal rates before lockdown was lifted.
‘Even though I won in court, he continued to harass me and even threaten me with violence.
‘I would stop sex work if I could but I don’t have any qualifications or spare money to start re-training.’
Jade feels trapped – she needs to continue in sex work to get by, and finding alternative income to support her family feels out of reach.
‘I started sex work because it was the only job I could do where I made enough money to support myself and my family,’ she says.
‘I am very worried about the bills this winter and the cost of living generally, and if I will have enough money to get by.’
She is by no means the only sex worker in this boat.
Grassroots organisations and collectives supporting sex workers, such as the English Collective of Prostitutes, Sex Worker Advocacy, Umbrella Lane and Resistance Movement (SWARM), and United Sex Workers, have combined forces to launch a campaign called Hookers Against Hardship.
It calls for increased awareness around the cost of living impact on sex workers and urgent government action.
A spokesperson from the English Collective of Prostitutes told us that more people have been contacting them for support and guidance in recent months, and that many feel they ‘can’t say no’ to any clients – even if they appear risky.
The campaign reads: ‘The spiralling cost of living means that more people, especially women and mothers, will be pushed into sex work; and current sex workers will be facing worse financial hardship.
‘[…] Many sex workers are experiencing a loss of income due to appointment cancellations, decreased demand for services, and workplace closures.
‘Sex workers cannot access labour protections such as paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, or maternity pay: there is no safety net for sex workers when we are unable to work.’
While the last few years have been strenuous on all industries, sex work has gone under the radar due to the legal complications around it – and it’s high time we all paid it greater attention, and vitally, the government steps in to help.
To find out how you can help, see the Hookers Against Hardship campaign here.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.