Bristol woman forced to return to sex work amid cost of living crisis

Stock image Credit: PA

A Bristol woman says she has had to return to the sex work industry due to the cost of living crisis.

Charlotte, not her real name, has a full-time job but said it had become impossible to pay her monthly rent and bills on her current salary. Now in her early 30s, she started stripping more than a decade ago to make ends meet while studying at university.

However, after securing a job in the third sector a few years ago, she left the sex industry due to the toll it had taken on her mental health. Charlotte said: "My rent and bills are over £1,100 a month and it just wasn’t affordable anymore on my current salary.

"It was definitely a really difficult decision for me to go back into sex work and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have to.

"Every sex worker I talk to at the minute is saying it’s really tough. There has been a drop-off in clients and that makes it a stressful time.

"Something we are seeing is sex workers who are having to move their personal boundaries in order to attract more clients, to tap into a different market, or to be able to charge extra."

This is not the first time money worries have pushed Charlotte towards sex work. Born outside the UK, she has lived in England for decades, but a few years ago she lost her right to work here. Although she had been stripping since the age of 19, it was only when she lost her work visa that Charlotte started to offer "full service" - sex with penetration - to feed herself. She said: "When I was doing sex work full-time, illegally, it really took a toll on my mental health - but there are a lot of reasons for that, for example I was homeless at the time.

"There have been times as a sex worker when I have faced violence at work which I couldn't report because I might be arrested myself.

"So, I would like to see a sex worker recovery service in a sexual assault referral clinic for sex workers who have been assaulted."

When Charlotte eventually regained her work status, she secured a job for a non-profit organisation and thought she was leaving the sex trade behind her. However, unfortunately, that was not the case. "I would like to leave sex work but for that to happen there would need to be fair wages for everybody and we would need to address the issues caused by the housing crisis and the cost of living crisis," she said. Charlotte is part of the Bristol Sex Worker Collective, which provides support to people working in the industry.

Audrey, another of its members, has been an independent sex worker for around five years.

She offers full service and, until recently, found her clients online.

Audrey, who is in her late 20s, said: "I think the cost-of-living crisis has affected people in a few different ways.

"More people are entering sex work for the first time and there are people who maybe already have another job and they are having to turn to sex work to make enough to get by.

"There has been an influx of new people and a decreasing client pool, so there is more competition for everyone to earn money.

"People do feel the pressure and they are re-evaluating what they can and should offer."

Audrey added that she had needed to "renegotiate" her own boundaries.

"I have gone from being independent to working in a brothel, which is something I never thought I would do.

"But some of my regulars have really decreased the number of times they see me because they can no longer take the risk of spending that money.

"I have seen a client who I would normally say no to, because he seems like a bit of a boundary pusher, and at the start of the cost-of-living crisis I knew that if I didn’t see him I wouldn’t have made money back on the hotel that night.

"A brothel seems like a safer way of making money because I’m not spending it on a hotel room to see people that don’t turn up.

"But it means that I have moved from independent work - which isn’t criminalised - into a criminalised form of sex work."

Audrey used to work in advertising and said that working in a brothel "strangely" resembled her old office job.

"You know, we are contracted to be there at a certain time and leave at a certain time, but unlike other employees, we have no rights," she explained.

After years of unknowingly living with ADHD, Audrey left her job in advertising after it had a negative affect on her mental health.

"It was really hard to do the job and find a solution with my employers.

"Then I went through an abusive relationship and after that my mental health wasn’t good enough to work in that office anymore.

"I ended up leaving but I had rent due and I had to find a way of paying it. Part-time hospitality work would have suited me, but that didn’t pay enough and getting another office job seemed like hell at that time.

"I knew I had to pay my rent so I looked into sex work. It’s a very accessible form of work  -you can put yourself online and find someone relatively quickly," she explained.

Credit: PA

Although Audrey signed up for Universal Credit, the amount she received for housing just wasn't enough to cover her rent, she said.

"The local housing allowance hasn’t risen alongside the inflation of rent. When I left my job, my rent at that time was £700 and the housing allowance was £360.

"So I could have spent all of my Universal Credit for the month (£720) on rent and had nothing left, or I had to make up the shortfall."

Audrey's mental health improved when she went into sex work, as working independently gave her the flexibility to look after herself on down days.

However, now working for a brothel, she has had to give up some of that independence.

"It’s been hard because I am used to keeping all my own money as opposed to giving a set amount away to someone who does zero work apart from taking on the legal risk of hosting us.

"I feel a reduced level of control over the conditions of my labour. If the place itself wasn’t criminalised, then all of the workers would be able to say ‘we are employees’ and we would be due holiday pay, sick pay and labour rights."

She added that she enjoyed being around other workers, who she can exchange funny stories with between bookings.

Audrey said: "I would prefer it if brothel-keeping was decriminalised because me and my friends would probably set up a workers’ co-op.

"This is something I do because it is necessary for me to have the flexibility I need to take care of my mental health and make the money I need to live.

"While this might not be everyone’s dream job, but for most of us, this is the best option available to us right now."