Saskia Murphy on the
women left streets behind

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The cost-of-living crisis has bulldozed its way into every aspect of people’s lives. It stares back at us from supermarket receipts and from eye-watering energy bills. Rising household costs are suddenly the deciding factor between going on that night out or staying at home. Spiralling bills are the worry keeping people up at night.

The consequences of soaring inflation are both devastating and inevitable. Last month a report by ITV News found food banks are at “breaking point” as they report hundreds of thousands of new users – including many from working households.

And this month two separate reports by Channel 4 News and the Financial Times have uncovered another worrying trend caused by the country’s worsening economic outlook: the women turning to sex work to make ends meet.

Speaking to Channel 4, a spokesperson from the English Collective of Prostitutes, a grassroots organisation campaigning for the decriminalisation of sex work, sounded the alarm over the “significant rise” in women returning to sex work. The organisation said the number of women contacting them asking for help had risen by more than 30 per cent compared with last year, while many were taking on potentially more dangerous work to pay their bills.

The group said 70 per cent of the women who contacted them were mothers. Among the hundreds of calls and emails received, women were most worried about housing, food banks, benefit sanctions and childcare. Many of them had office or retail jobs but needed extra money to pay bills and buy school uniforms – their regular wages no longer covering the basics.

In the FT, some of the women who have returned to the streets spoke about the dire straits pushing them towards sex work. One woman described how she was selling her body for “my family, my house, and my husband”. She described feeling a sense of pride that she could keep a roof over her family’s heads after pandemic lockdowns shut down her husband’s workshop.

Then there’s the view from the street. Outreach workers in Manchester told the FT that women were being clear that they were working to pay bills, rather than score drugs. In Sheffield women working on the streets said the going rate per client is as little as £10-£15, down from £20-£30 before the pandemic, with some women reporting the cost-of-living crisis is contributing to a drop in demand, forcing them to reduce their rates.

Women being forced onto the streets to put food on the table for their families is not new. The link between poverty and prostitution is long established, and the issue is global.

But the fact is that this cost-of-living crisis didn’t have to be so devastating. The domestic and global factors contributing to rising costs could have perhaps been more palatable if wages and benefits left people with enough money to get by.

Earlier this year a report by the Resolution Foundation found 15 years of income stagnation have left families “brutally exposed” to the current cost-of-living crisis.

The report finds that poor pay is the main driver behind Britain’s living standards slump, with typical wages no higher today than they were before the financial crisis – representing a wage loss of £9,200 per year.

The nuances around sex work are complex. But in the country with the sixth largest economy in the world, no woman should be forced onto the streets just to make ends meet.

Saskia Murphy is a Manchester-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @SaskiaMurphy

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