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How sex workers are fighting the cost of living crisis

Hookers Against Hardship is calling on the government to protect sex workers as the cost of living crisis worsens – we spoke to the organisers behind the campaign

The cost of living crisis is wreaking havoc across the UK: inflation has reached its highest rate for 30 years, one in seven people are skipping meals, and almost a quarter of adults in the UK are currently in financial difficulty. As more people are pushed into poverty, sex work is becoming a desperate measure for those who are just trying to survive.

The Hookers Against Hardship campaign is a grassroots coalition of sex worker organisations, demanding that the government act now and protect sex workers during this period of economic turmoil. The campaign highlights how sex work is inherently connected to poverty, and is a feminist issue that requires legislative change and collective solidarity.

“With the cost of living crisis, we’re seeing an increase in the number of people entering sex work,” Amélie, an organiser with Hookers Against Hardship, tells Dazed.  “But also, in every part of the industry – whether it’s full-service workers, strippers, or people who work online – we’re seeing a massive decrease in our income.”

Cuts to public funding also disproportionately impact women, with the burden falling on them to make ends meet. For Audrey, another organiser with the campaign, decades of austerity are to blame for pushing people into sex work. “We are at a crisis point,” she says. “No one should have to do this work if they don’t want to do so, which is why something needs to be done about the horrific levels of poverty in the UK. As a sex worker, campaigns like this feel like a life or death matter.”

To get to know their demands for the campaign, we spoke to two Hookers Against Hardship organisers.

Who are Hookers Against Hardship, and why have you come together now?

Amélie: The Hookers Against Hardship campaign is a coalition made up of SWARM, Decrim Now, the English Collective of Prostitutes, Scot-pep, United Sex Workers and Bristol Sex Workers’ Collective. We came together about a couple of months ago. 

Audrey: We desperately need to fight for our basic human, civil and work rights. We desperately need to be able to access basic safety when we work. We are not asking for the moon here: New Zealand and recently Belgium decriminalised sex work, Hawaii passed a law in January giving a basic income a month of $2,000 to sex workers trying to exit, and Scotland has rent controls. These are accessible demands, ones that recognise the relationship between sex work and poverty.

What are the unique factors that mean sex workers are more at risk when it comes to a cost of living crisis?

Amélie: In Great Britain, sex work is criminalised. The only way to work legally is to work by yourself and indoors – everything else is criminalised. So, while we’re seeing other industries striking for better pay and better working conditions, because of criminalisation, we can’t do that. We can’t strike for better pay. Also, a lot of sex workers are women and mums, and there’s been a lot of talk recently about the cost of childcare. A lot of women are entering sex work because they can’t afford childcare.

Our clients are aware of the cost of living crisis and they are aware that our incomes are decreasing, so they’re taking advantage of that. This leads to sex workers seeing clients they wouldn’t normally see and doing things that they wouldn’t usually do. It pushes people to work in more unsafe conditions generally.

Audrey: We are all terrified, quite frankly. As many of us perform criminalised work, we can’t organise for a pay increase in line with inflation for example. If anything, many of us are having to lower our prices just to survive. It doesn’t help that the cost of everything – like hotels, or even electricity for people who do cam work – is rising at the same time, meaning we’re left with far less money.

Some sex workers I know already have another job and turned to sex work because their other job didn’t pay them enough to live on. It’s not a case of simply quitting sex work and finding something else. Plus, many sex workers are disabled or excluded from the wider job market because they are migrants or trans and face discriminatory hiring practices.

You’re campaigning for the government to implement policies that will protect sex workers both financially and physically. What are some of the key demands you’re calling for?

Audrey: Firstly, the government needs to decriminalise sex work. The criminalisation and stigmatisation surrounding sex work is what kills us, not the work itself. It’s what forces us to work alone and prevents us from seeking help. If something terrible happens to us at work, where are we meant to turn? We need to be decriminalised so we can better protect ourselves, so we can organise for safer conditions, so we don’t have to worry about dual violence from both clients and the state.

Decriminalising sex work isn’t normalising sex work, nor is it asking anyone to think sex work is good work, it’s simply accepting the reality that sex workers exist – usually due to poverty – and allowing them to do so safely.

Amélie: Some of our demands are universal access to benefits, a living wage, an end to benefit sanctions, a moratorium on evictions, and UK-wide rent controls. And also, more generally, more support for sex workers – like amnesty from arrest and decriminalisation of sex work. Our demands are not just for sex workers, because as a coalition of sex workers’ rights groups, we recognise that the main reason why people get into sex work is because of poverty. Sex work is work, therefore we should be entitled to state protection and be able to unionise and organise for better working conditions.

“The criminalisation and stigmatisation surrounding sex work is what kills us, not the work itself” – Audrey

Despite criminal laws around sex work, what are the ways in which you are already using collective power and bargaining to make a change? 

Amélie: We started as a strippers’ union because it’s much easier to organise workers who have a collective workplace and a legal workplace. We are mainly pushing for strippers’ worker status to be recognised, to stop the misclassification of strippers as independent contractors. This would entitle us to minimum wage, holiday pay, sick pay, and protection from trade union discrimination. For full-service workers, it gets a bit more complicated, because then it’s not just traditional employment law – there’s a lot of criminal law and human rights’ law involved. 

Audrey: I feel like the only people protecting me are other sex workers. It is the sex work community that builds blacklists and vital resources that are some of the only things that mitigate potential harm to us. It is other sex workers who lead organisations providing mutual aid, hardship funds or even good legal support – like SWARM’s hardship fund, or the English Collective of Prostitutes vital work for sex-working mothers and migrants. 

What do you have coming up with the Hookers Against Hardship campaign?

Amélie: Over the next few weeks, we’re gonna release a video every week talking about different sectors within the industry, and how they’re affected by the cost of living crisis. The aim is also to raise awareness around the work that we do and create more relationships with other organisations who are fighting for the same demands.

Learn more about Hookers Against Hardship, including how you can support, here.