Sex workers left penniless and pushed into homelessness due to coronavirus

Pandemic 'adds to an existing crisis', campaigner says

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Tuesday 31 March 2020 11:38 BST
Coronavirus in numbers

Sex workers are being left penniless and face being made homeless as they struggle for income during the coronavirus outbreak, campaigners have said.

The government has brought in strict lockdown measures to limit the spread of the virus, with people told to remain at home and avoid contact with anyone who does not live in their house.

Social isolation measures call on the public to only leave the house to buy food from a nearby shop or do exercise once a day.

Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), told The Independent the pandemic had left sex workers destitute.

She said: “It adds to an existing crisis. We have already seen a big increase in sex work in recent years across the UK because of Tory austerity measures. But coronavirus has been a disaster.

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"The nature of sex work is you are in close contact. Most sex workers are mums working to support themselves and their families. All their income has been taken away. People have no savings."

She added: “Loads of women in our national network of sex workers are absolutely destitute. They are literally penniless. If you go out to work on the streets as a sex worker in the current climate, you get immediately picked up by police. In some cases, women are starving. They are going out to get a little bit of money but the police are being very heavy-handed.

"The only places I've heard of women working are parkland or wasteland ex-industrial areas which are very dangerous. Sex workers should not be forced into the shadows and made to choose between earning an income or protecting health. Women are in desperate circumstances - particularly those with kids.”

Ms Adams said she had spoken to a sex worker who was threatened with eviction after she fell slightly behind on rent due to her income “falling off a cliff” in the wake of sex work drying up amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The campaigner cited an example of another woman, who supports her nine-year-old daughter, disabled brother, and elderly mother through sex work, who has been left “absolutely destitute” by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The flat where the woman, whose working name is Susan, sells sex closed down last weekend so she has had a whole week without no money since then,” said Ms Adams, whose campaign group supports the decriminalisation of prostitution. “And it was quiet for four weeks before that. She earned half of how much she usually would. What she earns covers food for her mum, who is in her seventies and on a tiny state pension, and the rest of her family.”

Ms Adams argued the lockdown measures introduced by the government made sex work more dangerous due to women being less likely to come forward to report sexual violence to the police.

Fears of being prosecuted for prostitution are compounded by anxiety about being hit by “draconian measures introduced by the new coronavirus bill” which give the authorities new powers to detain any one deemed to be infected with coronavirus, she said.

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Ms Adams called for the government to provide sex workers with emergency money and introduce legislation to decriminalise sex workers as recommended by the Home Affairs Committee.

It is not illegal for individuals to buy or sell sex from each other in the UK but soliciting and sex workers banding together as a group are illegal.

Lydia Caradonna, a spokesperson for Decrim Now, a grassroots sex work campaign group, said: “As an iteration of the gig economy, it was inevitable that sex workers would be hit hard by a crisis like Covid-19.

"So many of us work in illegal or informal workplaces and are not able to access the same government support as other people; without a decriminalised sex industry, none of us are able to access labour rights like sick pay.

“We have seen outrage that some sex workers are continuing to work despite the virus and ask those shocked instead: why is it that sex workers can’t afford to put our health first? What more can be done to stop us making the decision between risk and starvation? We really need unconditional and substantial support packages like a universal basic income to prevent further harm to sex workers.”

The most wide-ranging study ever into British sex work, published by the Home Office last Autumn, found austerity was pushing women into prostitution and the criminalisation of the industry is putting them in danger.

Female sex workers directly linked experiences of physical and sexual violence to laws which criminalise the practice in the UK.

The Independent previously reported increasing numbers of public sector workers are being forced to turn to sex work due to austerity measures and welfare cuts.

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