When Nikki*, 23, suffered a mental breakdown that caused her to leave a 9-5 job, she thought the state would protect her. “I didn’t know much about politics or benefits but I knew you were meant to get support if you were disabled or out of work,” she tells me. “I was both – and I had a child to bring up on my own.”
However, when it came to navigating the UK’s complex and increasingly ruthless benefits system, things weren’t so straightforward. A “humiliating and patronising” assessment concerned almost entirely with physical capabilities resulted in Nikki being refused Personal Independence Payment (PIP). When she turned to Universal Credit, the five-week delay for her first payment pushed her further into debt and she found herself asking a sex-working friend to help her get work.
“I had a toddler to feed and I was scared of becoming homeless,” reflects Nikki. “I couldn’t find any way to get the benefits system to help me, so I just had to help myself.”
While stories like Nikki’s have long been cited by sex work activists and organisations as examples of how poverty forces vulnerable women (and they are predominantly women, including trans women) into sex work, they have rarely been acknowledged by official government bodies. But last month a Home Office-commissioned study by researchers at Bristol University described as “the most comprehensive overview of prostitution and sex work to date” clearly found what sex workers have long been trying to tell us: austerity is pushing people into sex work at the same time as criminalisation makes them less safe.
“It does mean a lot to see it there in black and white with a government logo,” says 28-year-old Irina*, who has been a sex worker alongside other part-time work for around five years. Irina entered the trade when her immigration status made it difficult for her to hold down traditional work. She now makes enough money to sustain her life here and send contributions back to her family in Eastern Europe, but says she has faced abuse from both clients and the police in the course of her work, as well as being surveilled under the guise of ‘anti-trafficking’ protections despite the fact that she is not a victim of trafficking.
“I don’t know anyone who would say it’s a perfect dream job all the time, but I’m not sure what is,” she reflects. “I’ve been harassed doing other jobs too, but the difference is I had rights and a place to turn when bad things happened.”
The vulnerable position Irina outlines is, according to sex workers and activists, a direct consequence of sex work criminalisation in the UK. For Cat Smith of the Sex Work Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM), the acknowledgement of this in the Home Office’s study is welcome.
“You can’t talk about the nature of sex work in the UK without talking about how the policy of criminalisation affects it,” she says, particularly highlighting the report’s discussion of increased police raids and brothel-keeping laws which incentivise dangerous lone working. “The more power you have as a worker the more safe you can be.”
While sex work activists and organisations like SWARM have long advocated for the full decriminalisation of the industry as a way to build worker power and keep sex workers safe, many of their opponents have continued to push for the Nordic model in which only buyers are criminalised. It’s a solution sex workers say increases their risk of harm and which organisations like SWARM argue has no basis in evidence – a fact they now say is backed up by the Home Office’s own research.
“The reason it’s important that this study paints a wider picture about low wages and inadequate benefits is because that points you to what the solution is,” says Smith. “If you want a situation where fewer people are pushed into selling sex, you have to address the reasons they do it. We hope people will read this report and see that the Nordic model doesn’t do that and there’s no evidence for it.”
"We need more routes out of poverty, and we need full decriminalisation to help those of us who can’t or don’t want to leave sex work be safer," she adds.
But although sex workers have welcomed the new report and are hopeful about the impact it could have on future policy-making, many are wary that they’ve been here before. Nikki says she “can’t count the number of surveys I’ve filled in” while Smith describes sex workers and activists “exhausted by constant consultations”.
Previous efforts to organise around political structures have seen little success; activists say DWP inquiries into universal credit have had remits so frustratingly narrow they couldn’t include a discussion of how the benefits system as a whole operated to push vulnerable women into sex work, while an inquiry into prostitution by the Women and Equalities Select Committee operated, in practice, to gather evidence for a proposal to support the Nordic model. All this, says Smith, points to the fact that sex workers and sex work advocacy groups still aren’t taken seriously or treated with respect within traditional political structures.
“Sex worker led groups are subject to smears, discredited, not listened to. Even NGOs and academics that work with us become subject to the same,” she says. “We’ve seen time and again that politicians pick and choose their own agenda and who they will listen to. But if they came to us with a genuinely open mind and listened to the evidence and the needs of sex workers they would not be lobbying to impose the Nordic model.”
With the announcement of December’s general election, the future of sex work legislation in the UK is as unclear as ever. When I asked the Home Office to respond to the study’s findings, they said the general election prohibited them from commenting. But the study was published the day the general election was first announced – something many of the sex workers I spoke to suspected wasn’t an accident. Some of those involved even suggested it had been ready for publication as early as July.
In spite of the difficult political environment, though, sex workers aren’t letting up on their fight for decriminalisation and a fairer society, both of which they say are key to reducing harm and increasing the quality of vulnerable women’s lives.
“Entering sex work wasn’t about making a good or a bad choice for me, it was just about survival,” says Nikki. “We deserve to be able to live and we deserve to live without being constantly scared and in danger. I don’t think it’s more complicated than that.”
For Irina, the political solution also seems incredibly simple: listen to sex workers when legislating on sex work. The answers, she says, lie in political and ideological changes which benefit vulnerable women of all descriptions, not in moralising about sex and sexuality.
“Actually sex work has very little to do with sex and everything to do with things like the benefits system, the hostile environment, drugs policy and the punitive criminal justice system,” Irina reflects. “It’s good to see an official report start to acknowledge the things we’ve been saying for so long. We’ll just have to wait and see if anyone listens."
* Names have been changed for confidentiality.