After a long working day at a London-based office job in the charity sector, there’s nothing Alex* would love more than to go out with friends or sit and binge on boxsets.
Instead, Alex opens their ‘sex work’ phone en route to the gym and quickly replies to messages from clients who they’ll be seeing that evening, lining up dates for later in the week, and screening people who are interested in their services.
‘I go for a quick weightlifting set at the gym, shower, do my make-up and hair in the locker room, make sure my nails are done and everything is on point, and then head to wherever I’m going to see sex work clients,’ Alex explains.
‘By doing this, it keeps me in central London, rather than going home and then back out. I usually get home really late, even though I always have an early start with the day job. I just have to try to get whatever sleep I can in between.’
When Alex first came to the UK from overseas to study at university ten years ago, they weren’t able to officially work on their student visa and decided to start supplementing their income with cash-in-hand sex work – which included both camera work and full-service. Something, they are still doing today.
Although Alex, 26, now has a work visa and a 9-5 job, they tell Metro.co.uk they aren’t able to stretch their wages to cover the everyday cost-of-living in London, especially in the middle of a financial crisis. Alex’s work visa prohibits a second job to plug the gap.
That’s why, once the day job is over, Alex spends evenings as a sex worker to make up the difference between income and outgoings. ‘Thankfully, all of my bills are paid for,’ they explain. ‘I’m not at risk of poverty right now, and it’s because of sex work. I’m happy I have an alternative stream of revenue and to have some options.’
With much of the UK in financial turmoil, there is a barely an industry that hasn’t been affected by the cost-of-living crisis – and that includes sex workers.
That’s why a new grassroots coalition of sex worker-led organisations, Hookers Against Hardship, is raising awareness and demanding change regarding their specific experiences.
Alex is part of the group and is one of hundreds of sex workers across the UK selling sexual services to stay afloat as inflation nears 11%, pushing the country into a prolonged recession and forcing people to do whatever work necessary to pay the bills.
‘The cost-of-living crisis is having a terrible effect on sex workers,’ explains Niki Adams, of the campaign group English Collective of Prostitutes, which recorded a 30% jump last year in the number of callers seeking support for starting sex work. ‘The people who are calling us are upset and scared. Women are frantically asking if we can provide food vouchers for food banks. One person hadn’t eaten properly for three days.
‘Others have rung in with housing problems, being threatened with evictions or having been bullied or harassed by landlords,’ adds Niki. ‘They are desperately trying to work out how they are going to get through the next week.’
Meanwhile, The Sheffield Working Women’s Opportunities Project, which provides support to vulnerable women in street sex work, and Manchester Action on Street Health have both reported an increase in people accessing their services.
Unable to live on the wages of their day jobs, many are turning to sex work to cover basic items like food, rent, and transportation, explains Niki. ‘We’ve also seen women going back into prostitution having left decades ago,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘They are all doing sex work in the evenings, or whenever they can fit it in.’
While Alex can afford rent, food, gas and electric right now, it comes at a cost. ‘I sacrifice all my free time,’ they admit.
Before the cost-of-living crisis hit, Alex had hoped to retire from sex work. ‘I would have liked to have stopped working, but I need the money,’ they say. ‘I can’t afford to retire. If money wasn’t an object, I wouldn’t do sex work.’
During the last six months, since the worst of the cost-of-living crisis, Alex has pushed themself to work, where they would have had a break before. ‘There are times now if I’m feeling sick or burned out, I will keep going on anyway because I don’t know if work is going to slow down. I would have just cancelled before. That uncertainty means I keep working even when I think I should take a break.’
While millions in the UK are currently impacted by the cost-of-living crisis, sex workers face unique struggles as a result of the criminalisation of sex work in the UK. ‘It is illegal to work both on the street and to work together with a group of other sex workers,’ explains Niki. ‘Women are being criminalised for refusing poverty.’
Since sex workers are not recognised as workers, they are not entitled to the same labour protections as other professions and are unable to organise to improve working conditions or pay, as we have seen among nurses and railway staff.
‘We face the stigma and discrimination of being a sex worker so we cannot be public, and we live in fear of being arrested,’ Niki says. ‘It’s a great injustice as it prevents people finding out who sex workers are and entrenches stereotypes like the ‘happy hooker’ or ‘poor victim’. In reality, sex workers are your mothers, sisters, daughters, aunties, and people who live next door.’
It also means that while sex workers fight to pay their bills, they are being forced to work in conditions they don’t feel safe or comfortable in.
‘As women get more desperate for money, they end up having to take risks and see clients that they previously would’ve refused,’ adds Niki. ‘Women in our network describe how they are taking on extra shifts at brothels, working very long hours, or going out of town to work, which means they are working in unfamiliar areas, with clients they haven’t been able to properly screen. The risk of attack is massively increased. Violent men know women can’t easily report violence to the police for fear that they will be arrested themselves.’
After obtaining an arts degree in university, Emily* worked various minimum wage jobs in Bristol to stay afloat.
‘I was living paycheque to paycheque,’ the 26-year-old tells Metro.co.uk. ‘I don’t think anyone should have that constant stress and worry. After a few years of struggling financially, I decided to start dancing and stripping. It wasn’t something I really wanted to do, but it came to a point that there weren’t any options left and dancing was the best available to me.’
Having known friends who had been in the sex industry for years, Emily started working alongside them in 2019, transitioning from part-time work to full-time within a few months.
She soon felt she was financially stable, able occasionally to treat herself to ‘extras’ and to spend time on her beloved hobby of art, not just on work.
‘And then the pandemic hit,’ Emily recalls. ‘I was finally economically stable and then it just got taken away from me. All the Bristol strip clubs shut down in March 2020 for 18 months. I wasn’t eligible for any kind of financial support from the government, so was just living on Universal Credit and a bit of savings. It was soul destroying.’
When strip clubs opened again in June 2022, Emily resumed work, hopeful about getting things back on track. ‘But then I seriously injured my back and was unable to do anything for months,’ she says. ‘I’ve gone back recently, but it’s really stressful because I’m still recovering. I can’t work as much as I used to. When I do, the money is just not great. There has been a massive decrease in the number of customers we see because of the cost of living.’
The clubs Emily works at in Bristol have also had to raise their house fees (the amount dancers and strippers pay to work under their roof) for sex workers, reducing the profits they make from working.
‘We are fighting to keep our clubs open, and then we have to travel to other cities because we hope business might be better there,’ she says. ‘But clubs have varying degrees of safety. Sometimes you get pushed and feel you have to do things you wouldn’t normally do or accept. We end up having to talk to people we normally wouldn’t talk to or entertain people who are rude and disrespectful. When there are 50 dancers and only 30 customers, the clubs and customers see we are desperate and push boundaries. We have to offer more, for less, because we don’t have any other options. It can be really difficult and scary to navigate.’
With her rent going up again next month, Emily is worried about how she is going to continue covering her costs. ‘I’m not physically well enough to work more or do anything else,’ she says. ‘I just have to deal with it. It’s draining to see my income massively decrease, quite heart-breaking.’
Several dancers Emily works with have started working as full-service sex workers to cover their bills. ‘I don’t feel I need to do that at the moment,’ she says. ‘But it’s a decision people who have more expenses or have a family are facing at the moment – to go from dancing, which is a fairly safe job, to full service, which is pretty much criminalised.’
With the English Collective of Prostitutes having teamed up with the Hookers Against Hardship coalition, Niki Adams says that they are ‘demanding some immediate action that would massively help’.
The group is working to alleviate sex workers’ unique financial hardship and lobbying politicians to combat criminalisation and danger faced by sex workers. They have called for a suspension of evictions and an amnesty from arrest for sex workers so that women can report violence without fear.
Niki often encounters people asking if sex workers want to be doing it. ‘It’s a difficult question because it’s like any other job,’ she says. ‘How many women would ideally like to be a bartender or an admin worker or work in retail? Usually, sex workers are making the same decisions as other women.
‘When you’re deciding what job you do, there’s often not a lot on the menu to choose from for those of us who are working-class women or facing discrimination in the job market. Our options are closed down so we take what we can get knowing that what we decide is the best choice out of a set of bad choices.’
During this cost of living crisis, sex workers are also calling for the government to act by implementing amnesty from arrest and fines for sex workers, moving towards decriminalisation of sex work, and ending benefits sanctions.
‘No women should be punished and criminalised for refusing poverty and earning an income to survive and support loved ones,’ says Niki.
Meanwhile, Emily admits to worrying about what 2023 might bring for her and those in her industry.
‘The cuts from the energy bills only last through to March and it’s going to go downhill from there,’ she suspects. ‘I’m just going to have to keep working through it no matter if it takes a toll on my body. It’s just how it is going to have to be.’