Online sex worker Martha blames Britain’s cost-of-living crisis for her dwindling earnings – partly due to increased competition as soaring household bills push more women to sell sex.
“People are offering more for less because they’re desperate for money,” Martha, 29, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I worry this is going to get worse as purses are stretched further,” she said, adding that her daily income had fallen in recent months to about £150 (S$241.8) from £250 previously.
Martha took up online sex work last year after being made redundant. She has since found a job as a retail assistant, but said she needs the additional income to cover rising living costs as she saves money to have a baby.
Charities and sex workers’ collectives across Britain have reported an increase in people starting or returning to sex work this year as annual consumer price inflation runs at about 10 per cent – the highest in the G7 group of big advanced economies.
The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), a network of current and former sex workers campaigning for decriminalisation, recorded a 30 per cent jump in the number of callers seeking support for starting sex work in June, while charity Beyond the Streets said it had seen women returning to sex work, or doing more of it.
Manchester Action on Street Health (MASH), a charity that supports female sex workers, recorded more than 100 new service users between December 2021 and April 2022, the highest number of new clients the charity has seen during a three-month period in four years.
As more people enter the trade and clients tighten their purse strings, sex workers may feel forced to offer services they are less comfortable with or take greater risks, campaigners warn.
“The more desperate you are for money, the more ready you are to provide services that you wouldn’t normally want to,” said ECP spokesman Laura Watson.
Exchanging sex for money is legal in Britain but support groups say they are deterred from helping sex workers by laws against inciting or facilitating prostitution, potentially endangering people starting sex work for the first time.
“People are going out there as an escort for the first time without having spoken to anyone … The possible safety implications of that are very worrying,” Ms Watson said.
Increases in food and energy prices continue to outpace pay rises in the world’s fifth-biggest economy, causing real pay for British workers to drop at the highest rate since 2001 this spring and forcing many to find a sideline.
A recent survey by insurer Royal London found that more than 5 million British workers have taken up a second job to help make ends meet.
Some are choosing sex work, either as a one-off or as a regular source of additional income, drawn by the flexible hours and instant remuneration.
“A lot of women are in other jobs or on benefits and trying to top up their income,” the ECP’s Watson said.
“Some women will just go out on the street to get enough money to pay the bill,” she said, adding that about 70 per cent of the ECP’s network are mothers.
Research from the Young Women’s Trust, a charity, found that the cost-of-living crisis is taking a heavier toll on women.
It found that almost half of single mothers had been unable to afford food or essential supplies in the last 12 months, with three in 10 young mothers skipping meals so their children could eat.
Many women lack access to the affordable childcare or flexible working opportunities that would allow them to work additional hours in regular jobs, said Ms Claire Reindorp, chief executive of the Young Women’s Trust.
But while sex work can be flexible and quick-paying, it is difficult for workers to raise prices during inflationary bouts because they lack labour protections, said Ns Tess Herrmann, a doctoral researcher at the School for Business and Society at the University of York.
“The bills go up, food prices go up, and a lot of wages remain the same, that’s especially true in precarious jobs and the gig economy,” she said.
Martha creates adult content for digital content subscription service OnlyFans, adult website LiveJasmin and clients who contact her directly via social media platform Twitter.
Online sex workers have reported being offered less money by clients, who may pay sex workers directly for content they request via private message or leave tips in addition to subscribing to content or paying per view on OnlyFans.
Some creators of adult content on OnlyFans say their income has dropped by 30 per cent in the past two months.
Nearly 200,000 more creator accounts were submitted for approval on the platform in September 2022 on the previous year, according to OnlyFans’ transparency report.
“If there are more workers fighting for a smaller amount of money, that means workers have far less power to negotiate with clients,” said Ms Audrey Carradonna, a spokesman from United Sex Workers, a union.
She echoed Ms Watson’s concerns about the risks faced by people starting sex work for the first time, saying two other measures aimed at regulating the online sex trade could push novice sex workers into riskier street work.
Last year, payment provider Mastercard tightened its policies on adult websites while Britain’s Online Safety Bill seeks to ban adverts for sex from digital platforms.
“If more people start working in known areas on the street, they might face more police interaction, which forces them to work in more isolated areas, which in turn is far more dangerous because then they’re far from help,” said Ms Carradonna.
Despite such uncertainties, Martha said sex work had provided her some financial security in testing times.
“I don’t think I could get by without it,” she said.