UK sex workers selling themselves for as little as £5 to survive

Research shows many exploited women are exchanging sex for a place to stay or for drugs in ‘hidden’ sex markets

Sex workers in the UK are selling themselves for as little as £5, for a place to stay or even in exchange for clean clothes, research has shown.

Charity Changing Lives has been carrying out research into what has been termed survival sex work and its occurrence within “hidden markets” - where there are no clear red light districts – focusing on the North East of England.

The charity provides specialist support services to vulnerable people and their families and Laura Seebohm, its director of women and criminal justice services, said survival sex workers are often people who “lead a really chaotic life”. They may be street homeless and in need of a place to stay, or may be dependent on drugs and alcohol, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation, she told The Independent.

Evidence from the charity’s most recent peer research stated that several of the exploited sex workers had been “offered as little as £5 when ‘punters’ have noticed they are ‘rattling’ or, coming down off drugs which they are addicted to”.

“One of the peer interviewers notes that sex workers ‘feel like they have a sign on their heads’ and ‘are usually approached by the men at a vulnerable time in their life’.

Changing Lives has been carrying out the research since 2007 and in this time has recorded instances of women selling themselves for as little as £2 or in exchange for clean laundry.

The peer-to-peer research has been conducted by women who have had experience of sex work and have access to the hidden markets where men and women are being exploited. They have been specially trained to interview their peers, which Ms Seebohm said gives “a much more genuine picture of the lives of these workers”.

Ms Seebohm said a rising area of concern is “children in the age of transition”. This is children aged between 16 and 18, who may be too old to be part of children’s services but too young to be in adult care, and are in danger of “slipping through the net” and becoming sexually exploited. Changing Lives has started working with this age group as a result.

The charity provides help and support to survival sex workers such as trauma informed practice, immediate support needs such as help with health or housing, group therapy work and recovery programmes, as well as community integration and employment training.  

While the research has been carried out in Tyne and Wear and the North East of England, Seebohm believes this kind of exploitation is happening across the UK. “Just because there is no visible red light district doesn’t mean that people aren’t involved in selling sex, it’s just more hidden,” she said. 

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