Sex workers across the UK are facing increased violence and hardship as a result of lockdowns and coronavirus restrictions, charities and support organisations have warned.
They say sex workers are in more dire and drastic situations than they have ever seen before. Women who had left the sex trade have fallen back into it, others who had regular clients and who had stopped working on the streets have had to return and some have taken up sex work for the first time because they have no money and are desperate.
Violent incidents are increasing, they say, because clients are taking advantage of the desperate situation sex workers find themselves in. Workers’ mental health has suffered considerably, with many contemplating suicide.
“The stories we’re hearing are drastic,” said Anastacia Ryan, founder of Umbrella Lane, a sex worker support project in Glasgow. “The impact [of the pandemic] is an increase in homelessness, and working in violent situations that could lead to them potentially being killed.”
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Fewer people are seeking sex workers’ services because of lockdown and restrictions, she said. As a result, sex workers can’t pick and choose who they see and may be forced to go with dangerous clients.
Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes, added: “Life has got worse. Women’s income has fallen off a cliff and they are not entitled to, or struggle to get, government support. People sound desperate. People haven’t eaten. I have got a list of people in dire straits. It’s horrifying what’s happening.”
The economic impact of successive lockdowns and restrictions has been severe. Sex workers have had to make decisions over whether to continue working and possibly risk their health or safety, or lose all income. Hundreds have contacted charities and support organisations asking for emergency food vouchers.
The stigma surrounding sex work means workers face additional barriers to accessing grants and universal credit.
Sex workers have experienced greater levels of loneliness, stress, anxiety and depression since the start of the pandemic. The Guardian has learned that three women known to one London charity have died from suicide or a drug overdose in the past six months. Two others made serious attempts on their lives but were interrupted by staff in hostels where they were staying. Many more have divulged suicidal thoughts during calls to charity helplines.
Meanwhile, sources of help, such as drug and alcohol services, sexual health clinics, mental health and domestic violence support groups or drop ins, have stopped or moved online, leaving those who can’t afford laptops unable to access services, according to Abigail Dickinson, a support worker for Beyond the Streets.
Individuals who are in hostel accommodation are unable to leave their room much and have lost a sense of community, she added. “It’s really tough for women … every week I wonder if I’m going to get an email telling me someone I was supporting has died.”
The Guardian has been made aware of individual stories of sex workers struggling to survive. One woman who left sex work some years ago when she became pregnant went out to try to sell sex again because she had no money.
A single mother is being forced by her pimp to continue work but has very few bookings and hardly any money. She is a migrant worker and so has no recourse to public funds. She was made homeless after not being able to pay rent, and since June has been living off £25 worth of food vouchers a week.
One woman had got a job in the hospitality industry before the pandemic hit. She has been unable to access benefits and has returned to sex work.
A male worker was attacked and is struggling with the psychological after effects. He faces having to choose between working and being put at risk again or not, and having no money. A student is continuing sex working because he has to pay tuition fees and is not eligible for universal credit.
Jen Riley, operations manager for Bristol women’s charity One25, said the women the organisation supports were already marginalised and highly vulnerable and the pandemic has compounded their isolation by making it harder to access support. Her team has had to put money on electricity meters during the recent cold weather and deliver food to women in need.
“We imagine women will remain stigmatised and marginalised,” she said. “Services are already stretched and struggling to meet demand and need. The long term impact of impact of isolation, increased drug use and violence will be ongoing. We can’t wait to open our drop in doors again to rebuild connections.”
She added: “In Bristol, sex work is a last resort. Women aren’t choosing to stand out there.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit www.samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org