Sex Workers Say They Risk Starvation Because of COVID-19 Lockdown

The sex industry has suffered job losses like every other industry as a result of COVID-19 but it specifically has led to some of the most vulnerable women in society losing their incomes overnight.

They have "fallen through the cracks", according to one spokeswoman, leading to some sex workers taking increased risks with violent clients just so they can survive.

There are an estimated 70,000 sex workers in the U.K. and, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed a nationwide lockdown in March, incomes plummeted as they moved their work online, while others chose to continue meeting clients against the regulations, putting not only their own lives but also those of their families at risk.

How did sex workers survive under the lockdown, should the government have done more to help and what's the future of the industry as restrictions are eased?

"During the lockdown, women who were able to move online did so but that is very hard work often for less money than you would've ordinarily had," says Laura, a spokeswoman at the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), a campaigning group which supports the decriminalization of prostitution and sex workers' right to recognition and safety.

"Women who couldn't, lost their income overnight and so we have been working very hard to make sure that sex workers are getting what they are entitled to in terms of benefits, are getting access to food vouchers, food parcels and hardship funds [including] one set up by a local organization for sex workers."

While it is legal to buy and sell sex in England, pimping, curb-crawling or working with other people on the same premises are all illegal so some sex workers are wary of seeking support for fear of being criminalized.

Unsurprisingly, it is impossible for a sex worker to maintain social distancing while doing a lot of their work. Most real-life meetings, sex workers tell Newsweek, have happened as they would do in pre-pandemic times.

Strip clubs in the U.K. remain closed as they fall under the same rules as night clubs.

"We've been contacted by a lot of people in desperate need of an income," Laura says.

"Women didn't want to put themselves and their families at risk [of COVID-19] and then women not entitled to benefits because of immigration status or for whatever reason had to continue working."

She described the five-week wait for Universal Credit, a social security payment in the U.K., as an "absolute disaster" that has pushed women into working in dangerous conditions and who otherwise face "starvation".

When Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a range of economic measures to support workers as the economy was bought to a standstill, which included the government subsidizing wages while the self-employed received grants, Laura says sex workers were forgotten.

Sex worker protest in Berlin
Sex workers in Berlin are keen to get back to work Getty/John MacDougall

She said: "We have been saying all along that sex workers should be entitled to other self-employed schemes that other workers are entitled to, but because it's illegal work in many ways, that hasn't been possible and the government has not commented."

Although lockdown measures are being eased again, this won't solve many of the problems, sex workers say.

"The lockdown is easing but it's still obviously a risky job and holds particular risks that other jobs don't have," Laura says.

"We are still asking for emergency payments so that women don't have to go back to work and we are still asking for schemes that are applicable to sex workers."

Women have been arrested and convicted of prostitution offenses, Laura says, even during the pandemic.

"We've been calling for a moratorium on arrests of sex workers during this crisis, the priority is financial alternatives and not criminalization," she says.

The sex workers most impacted during COVID-19, it is said, are those who do not have an established client base or online profiles.

"In general, a lot of people fall through the cracks, in terms of getting government support or self-employed grants," Jade, of the East London Strippers Collective, told Newsweek.

"But organizations like ourselves and the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM), and the ECP have all released and been supporting emergency funds and they give out emergency grants.

"Some people have had to move back home, it really is the same story as any other kind of job, just more precarious now."

Jade also contrasts the legal position towards sex workers in England with other countries, including Canada where she grew up.

All Canadian citizens who were out of work, irrespective of their job, received C$2,000 ($1,500) a month for four months.

With the U.K. economy in a recession and experiencing the worst economic figures in the G7 (the seven major developed countries) Jade fears that more people will go into sex work and conditions for sex workers will worsen.

She said: "If we look at stripping in 2008, the last big recession we had, everybody who was working pre-2008 was rolling around in money.

"I can't describe how much money was being turned around, this was the era of people paying for things on company cards, there was this massive boom of stripping. The exploitation [of workers] was still there, the difference was people were making enough money for people not to really care.

"When the money dropped, that system still stayed in place so girls still pay out 50 percent of their income to the club but unlike making a couple of grand they're now barely scraping by and still paying half of that to the club.

"The girls are the ones who have to pay out the club, with tips only, they don't get paid a wage, it forces these girls into more precarious situations and they accept more dangerous behavior from clientele. They do more for less, it makes them less safe."

The most vulnerable, says Jade, are sex workers from LGBTQ+ backgrounds who often bear the brunt of the violence.

Yet Jade warns that although some may be pleased that the sex industry is going through a difficult and bleak time, "it's not going anywhere, the industry is here to stay."

The Home Office and Department for Work and Pensions have not responded to requests for comment.