Tiffany smoothed her hair in the bathroom mirror and took off her wedding ring. Little knots were tightening in her stomach.

The former civil servant climbed into the car next to her husband, who dropped her off near a plush hotel in Cardiff. She slipped into the hotel bar, weaving through the hum of conversation and piano music, and spotted the man she had been messaging. He too appeared nervous.

She left the hotel later that evening feeling relieved. “I felt proud that I’m able to sort us out . . . and keep a roof over our heads,” she says. “I’m doing this for my family, my house, and my husband.”

Tiffany is one of a wave of women who, driven in part by the darkening UK economic outlook, are starting or returning to sex work this year, a finding drawn out of Financial Times interviews with 23 sex workers, as well as 14 charities and advocacy groups in cities including Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, Leicester, Wolverhampton and London.

There are many reasons that people start selling sex, from the desire to secure financial independence to exploitation by criminal gangs. But there is also a more straightforward explanation: with inflation at 11 per cent, the country appears to be entering a prolonged recession, cementing a cost of living crisis that has households braced for severe hardship.

At a time when more women appear to be selling sex, this economic outlook is also reducing demand, creating a more dangerous environment for those working in the sector as they take more risks to make ends meet. This is something felt by those who work indoors, from home or hotels with often wealthier customers, as well as women who solicit on the street.

The increase in women turning to sex work is adding new urgency to the political debate in the UK over how it is policed.

Campaigners say it is more important than ever to review laws that govern the industry, although there is a split between those who want to fully decriminalise it and those who want to outlaw the buying of sex. They all argue that sex work is a part of society that cannot be quietly ignored: the ONS estimates it contributed £4.7bn to GDP in 2021, while one in 10 men in Britain say they have paid for sex.

A stop sign and buildings in one of Sheffield’s red light districts
One of Sheffield’s red light districts which is being redeveloped, pushing sex workers into even more deserted parts of the city © Dominic Lipinski/FT

Economic pressure

Tiffany first dabbled in sex work six years ago to pay off a credit card bill. When she was later made redundant from the civil service, she lived off her husband’s tradesman income until pandemic lockdowns shut his workshop. A severe deterioration in his mental health this year means he is unable to work. Tiffany, who is in her thirties, is his full-time carer.

Soaring energy and food bills combined with debt repayments outgrew the couple’s benefit payments, she says. And with interest rates rising, Tiffany is anxious about their fixed-term mortgage deal coming to an end.

By September, Tiffany felt sex work was the only way she could earn enough to cover costs while maintaining flexibility for her caring responsibilities. She earns about £1,000 per week, which she says she has declared to HMRC, so the couple’s universal credit payments are due to stop. Sex work is “not anyone’s dream job”, she says, adding: “I’m happy doing it to support us financially and then I’ll stop.”

Five of the 23 sex workers interviewed say they returned to the sector in 2022 after years away from it and that rising living costs wholly or partly influenced their move. It is widely accepted that most sex workers are women, although male sex work has risen in recent years with the rise of casual selling on platforms such as Grindr and Instagram.

An FT analysis of all 21,000 UK escort profiles on the prominent site suggests three times as many people joined this year as in 2019. It is unclear if this reflects existing sex workers shifting to online advertising, or an increase in the overall numbers, estimated in a 2015 study to be around 73,000.

But Leanne Harper, who runs the Changing Lives sex worker outreach project in Wolverhampton, has seen a “dramatic increase” this year in local online advertising alongside a sharp rise in people returning or starting to sell on the street.

The English Collective of Prostitutes, which works mostly with brothel and street workers, says more women than usual are seeking advice on starting or restarting work, many of whom are mothers with office or retail jobs but need extra money to pay bills or buy school uniforms.

The Sheffield Working Women’s Opportunities Project similarly says its outreach vehicle and drop-in clinic were accessed 369 times from July to September this year, up from 198 times in the same quarter in 2019. While those involved in sex work represent a cross-section of society and circumstances, many of the women accessing the Sheffield service struggle with substance abuse or homelessness. Some are funding the habits of their partners as well as their own.

Rosie Peers, left, and Beth Webster in the Sheffield Working Women’s Opportunities Project’s outreach van
Rosie Peers, left, project manager at Sheffield Working Women’s Opportunities Project, and Beth Webster, a crisis support worker, in the charity’s outreach van in one of Sheffield’s red light districts © Dominic Lipinski/FT

“We’re seeing women who haven’t accessed the service for 10-plus years,” says Rosie Peers, the charity’s project manager. “A lot of them have actually managed to get themselves clean and they’re going back out because they need to pay the gas bill . . . The sad reality is once they return, the chances of exiting again are very slim and . . . they’re likely to start using [drugs] again.”

There were 310 new people using services at Manchester Action on Street Health, which serves a similar demographic, in the 12 months to September 2022, compared with 179 in 2019-20. Outreach workers at the charity say women are being unusually clear that they are working to pay bills, rather than to score drugs.

Several cars are parked outside a former warehouse turned Mexican restaurant in Sheffield
A former warehouse turned Mexican restaurant in a part of Sheffield that was formerly a red light district and is now being regenerated © Dominic Lipinski/FT

Increased dangers

Sheffield’s street sex industry ticks along in what feels like the city’s industrial backyard. Lorry drivers, some of whom are regular punters, sit parked up in the dark. The sex workers have in recent years been pushed to a few lonely back lanes with the arrival of student accommodation and warehouse-style restaurants.

The perils of street work have started to feel more acute. Street workers always take payment beforehand, but women say punters are trying more often than usual to steal the cash back afterwards, leading to violent disputes. A noticeboard at the Manchester Action on Street Health drop-in clinic describes the men behind three attempted payment thefts in the past few months, one of which a report says ended in anal rape.

“They’re being more full on and aggressive . . . A few have taken my phone instead of money and said, ‘Either give me the phone or get raped’,” says Jade, a Sheffield street worker in her twenties.

Those interviewed say the bleak economic backdrop is contributing to a more dangerous working environment. Nine women who have long-term experience of sex work say demand is dropping, forcing them to reduce their rates to attract or keep clients.

Jodie, 52, who spoke from the Sheffield drop-in clinic, first started selling sex in a sauna 30 years ago to support her children, but ended up working on the streets and using drugs to dull her awareness of it. She no longer uses drugs but sees regulars at home to boost her monthly £200 universal credit payments.

“They’ve been trying to drop the price, but I don’t mind because they’re struggling as much as I am,” she says of her long-term clients, whom she considers “friends with benefits”. In Sheffield, the women say the going rate per client is as little as £10-£15, down from £20-£30 before the pandemic.

Other women say the men — emboldened by their newfound market power — are becoming more demanding, for example, pushing for unprotected oral and anal sex.

A dark hotel room
Prostitution laws prevent sex workers from sharing premises or jointly hiring security guards, even though this can be safer © Getty Images

“Clients feel like they can try it on because they must know girls are hard up,” says Sue, a brothel worker based in Peterborough. “Violent men take that as a green light because they think women can’t refuse, and lots of the time we can’t.”

Indoor escorts like Tiffany say their clients have been less affected by the cost of living crisis, but some are feeling its impact. Two escorts say they have turned to new forms of sex work or accepted clients they feel uncomfortable with to maintain their incomes as demand has dropped.

Audrey Caradonna, a spokesperson for United Sex Workers, says she was working independently at home but joined a brothel in the past few months to secure work. She sees eight to 10 clients in the brothel to earn the same amount seeing three clients at home. When her client base shrank during the pandemic she took on riskier clients, including one saved in her phone as “avoid, avoid” and others who tried to push for services such as strangling. She fears it could come to that again soon.

A white van parked in front of a city skyline
The outreach van of the Sheffield Working Women’s Opportunities Project parked on one of Sheffield’s hills, with the city skyline in the background © Dominic Lipinski/FT

Calls to decriminalise

Several campaign groups say the solution is to abandon laws that they believe make consensual sex work more dangerous.

In the UK, the exchange of sex for money is not illegal, but most of the practices that surround the industry are: street soliciting, by both the buyer and seller, brothel-keeping and causing or inciting prostitution for gain, such as renting your property to multiple sex workers or providing them with advice.

“What case can there be for women to continue to be criminalised for working to survive?” says Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes. “Decriminalisation is needed because it’s been proven to improve the safety and even the health and welfare of sex workers. And that’s really crucial at this moment in time when so many more women are being forced into prostitution because of the cost of living crisis.”

In 2016, the UK parliament’s home affairs select committee found in an inquiry into prostitution laws that sex workers faced “considerable risk” by working alone. It found no evidence that the criminalisation of soliciting was reducing demand, though it did appear to increase women’s exposure to abuse and violence by pushing their activities underground.

The report recommended that “at the earliest opportunity, the Home Office change existing legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence” and to update brothel-keeping legislation to allow independent sex workers to share premises.

A dark lane in Sheffield
As redevelopment forces sex workers into back streets like this one, the economic crisis is increasing competition and lowering demand — clients have the market power © Dominic Lipinski/FT

Many sex workers agree this would better protect them and make it easier to report violent clients to the police without fear of prosecution.

Michelle, a 38-year-old indoor escort based in the north of England, recently worked alongside two friends in a rented apartment, charging them £50 a day to cover costs, including a security guard. Then police came to the flat and warned her that the arrangement was classed as a brothel and thus illegal. A week after the women returned to working alone, one was attacked and had a knife held to her throat.

“All the girls were in the same kind of place as me. We’ve got kids, we need to work,” says Michelle, whose husband lost his job at the start of 2020. “We were there to look out for each other . . . If [a girl’s] by herself, she could get raped or killed.”

In 2003, New Zealand decriminalised all sex work and started regulating the industry. When the government reviewed the policy in 2008, it found no evidence that it increased the number of people in the industry. Instead, it improved sex workers’ ability to refuse particular clients, increased trust in the police and led to improvements in employment conditions. Belgium copied the model this year.

But for many, legalising the purchase of sex is tantamount to condoning exploitation and the sale of women’s bodies. “I don’t think women should be criminalised, but I do believe men should be criminalised for buying sex,” says Julie Swede, who was trafficked by a pimp around the UK from the age of 15.

Swede, whose convictions for street selling have hampered her from entering formal employment, prefers the so-called Nordic model, which decriminalises selling sex but outlaws purchasing it. Proponents of this framework want to see prostitution abolished altogether and argue that fully decriminalising the purchase of sex would make it harder for the police to identify women who have been trafficked.

In 2018, the UK all-party parliamentary group on prostitution argued in favour of the Nordic model, saying it would tackle exploitation by taking on organised crime groups that recruit women into the sex trade. Versions of this framework have been adopted in Norway, Ireland, France and Northern Ireland, among others.

In reality, sex work in the UK is policed in very different ways, depending on the location. Data obtained via freedom of information requests show that local police forces take contrasting approaches to enforcing existing legislation.

A woman standing in the alley of a legalised prostitution zone in Holbeck, Leeds
A legalised prostitution zone in Holbeck, Leeds, in 2019. The aim was to contain prostitution to one area and target help to sex workers. The experiment was discontinued © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Avon and Somerset Police, which covers Bristol, seems to focus its efforts on buyers of sex or “kerb crawlers”, having issued 346 arrests, cautions and charges combined for soliciting to buy in the five years to 2022 and less than 10 for other prostitution offences. The force says its focus is on safeguarding vulnerable individuals and that it works with men who solicit for sex in public to change their behaviour.

By contrast, the similarly urban Merseyside Police has issued 66 arrests, cautions and charges combined for street selling, compared to 17 for kerb crawling, for example. In a statement, the force says its focus is protecting vulnerable people, differentiating between sex work and exploitation. Since 2020 it has only made two arrests of sex workers.

West Midlands says it targets brothels where it suspects exploitation is taking place. The Met appears to spread its efforts almost evenly across selling and kerb crawling. It did not respond to a comment request.

The number of prosecutions across England and Wales for all prostitution-related offences is low — in the hundreds annually — and falling, but sex workers and advocacy groups argue even the threat of punitive action makes sex workers more vulnerable.

“If [a client] knows working together indoors is illegal he can exploit it, can rob us or do anything as [he] knows we can’t call the police,” says Jacqueline, an indoor escort based in Glasgow. “We’re always walking a fine line between safety and criminality.”

The website is shown on a device
A proposed law could limit sex workers’ ability to advertise and vet clients, and force them into riskier ways of finding work

Online safety bill

Tensions in the legal debate over sex work may become even more stark. The online safety bill currently making its way through parliament could oblige tech companies to remove any “incitement” to prostitution “for gain” on their platforms, with the goal of tackling sexual exploitation and trafficking.

But campaigners say this could limit consenting sex workers’ ability to advertise online and drive them into riskier situations if tech platforms like Twitter and Vivastreet purge advertisements as a defensive measure.

“Sex workers will lose their place to advertise and vet clients,” says Adeline Berry, a transgender former sex worker currently doing a PhD on gender and criminology. “They’d probably find an area where outdoor workers are working and join them.”

The government says the bill is not designed to make tech platforms take down legal content but posts and advertisements that relate to criminal exploitation, given that “controlling” and “inciting” prostitution “for gain” are already illegal under UK law.

However, advocates of both full decriminalisation and the Nordic model say that most women who are not being exploited enter sex work as a survival strategy. Any government policy looking to reduce the scale of the industry would first have to tackle women’s economic hardship, they say.

“Let’s talk about poverty, women’s rights, women’s pay, single mums and the financial situation they’re in,” says Swede, the Nordic model campaigner.

Having suffered from bipolar disorder as an adult, Michelle has never been able to hold down any other job. “I’m just doing it for the money,” she says. “I’m not very good at anything else.”

As financial pressures mount, Michelle has seen customers she “wouldn’t really generally take”, including those who say “disgusting” things about women and “expect everything for nothing”.

Michelle says she has always maintained strict boundaries around what she allows men to do to her but, as her income slips, so do her limits.

Additional reporting by Dan Clark

Most of the sex workers featured in this story are referred to by their escort names or pseudonyms

This article has been amended after original publication to add the response of Avon and Somerset Police and to more accurately describe the experience of Julie Swede

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