Increasing numbers of women are turning to sex work for the first time as the pandemic pushes them into “desperate poverty”, campaigners warned.
Leading organisations which support sex workers said there has been a substantial rise in women doing sex work for the first time due to being over-represented in sectors hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis.
The English Collective of Prostitutes, a leading campaign group which supports the decriminalisation of prostitution, said hundreds of teaching assistants, waitresses, cleaners and beauticians had made inquiries about starting sex work for the first time since the Covid emergency hit in spring.
Meanwhile a study by the organisation, shared exclusively with The Independent, found sex workers are unable to feed themselves or their children and are being pushed into destitution and homelessness during the public health crisis.
The survey of 222 female sex workers found almost two-thirds were struggling to afford to eat and were in need of emergency food vouchers, while three in ten were finding it difficult to access benefits from the government.
Samantha*, a sex worker who works in south London, told The Independent: “Our income has been completely cut off. You have to beg and borrow. We are on the floor. We’ve had to go to our regulars and say: ‘Can you lend us money please? I’m in trouble’. We’re not magicians.
“And you know what this country is like, if you can’t pay a bill, they’ll give you a bigger one. Fifteen years ago, you could make money in this industry but now we can just about get by. People think we are s***ting diamonds. Nothing could be further from the truth. We were scraping getting by before Covid. Now we’re in debt.”
The 42-year-old, who has been doing sex work on and off for more than two decades, said she was struggling to afford to buy food and has resorted to vouchers. She said she knew many sex workers who had been made homeless during the pandemic.
She has been inundated with increasing numbers of women wanting to do sex work for the first time ringing her for work, she said.
Samantha added: “There are so many more women ringing for work. A lot of people that haven’t ever done it before. For safety reasons, I don’t want to work with someone who has no experience and doesn’t know the dangers and the pitfalls.”
She explained the flat she works in had been shut during the first national lockdown which was declared when coronavirus hit in spring and the second lockdown during November.
Samantha called for sex work to be decriminalised - explaining that women break the law to work together in groups, which she says reduces the risk of abuse and attacks.
“We share the space in case a woman cries out or someone is alarming or aggressive,” she adds.
“We spend our days making people happy but we get judged by everyone. We have a lot of vulnerable clients who can’t create bonds in real life, but they are human. We’re not lawbreakers. It is the law that criminalises us. We have to be recognised for who we are. We are normal people. We pay council tax. We are someone’s neighbours. We are not aliens with two heads.”
Samantha said she would not tell the police if she was attacked by a man buying sex because she fears she would be criminalised as a result.
While it is not illegal for individuals to buy or sell sex in the UK, soliciting, working on the street, sex workers banding together as a group and prostitutes advertising themselves is illegal.
Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes, said there has been a substantial surge in women calling to inquire about doing sex work for the first time or going back into it after having left for years during the Covid crisis.
She added: “The pandemic has been devastating for sex workers. Women’s income has dropped off completely. We have helped hundreds of sex workers in need of emergency food with vouchers and also helped them with benefits.
“This is a government saying they are interested in finding routes out of prostitution but their own cruel austerity measures are pushing us into prostitution and trapping us in it. The government hasn’t provided any tailored support.
“We are disadvantaged because we have been locked out from the government’s support packages. Most sex workers are mothers but people don’t know that. When you have a kid, your options of finding a job that pays enough to cover childcare, are limited. But politicians have judgmental, moralistic and contemptuous attitudes to sex workers.”
Ms Adams noted many women combine sex work with badly paid precarious jobs with zero-hours contracts - adding they may be “carers, nurses, teaching assistants, cleaners, waitresses, or working in a nail bar”.
She argued violence and stalking of sex workers they support has increased during the crisis as men take advantage of desperate women. Heightened police attention in the wake of the pandemic and new lockdown rules mean sex workers are now under far greater scrutiny from the police, she added.
“Clients take advantage of this,” Ms Adams said. “Sex workers are working in riskier situations. The safety mechanisms they had before, they can’t implement. The criminalisation already put women in a vulnerable situation. By working with other women, you are risking arrest. But men now know it is an even more hostile environment for sex workers.”
She argued the combination of the “layers of criminalisation, stigma and illegality” and not receiving emergency support from the government, has left sex workers destitute - adding that women were pushed into choosing between risking being exposed to coronavirus by working through the pandemic and seeing their children go hungry.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
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