An increasing number of women are turning to sex work as a direct result of financial hardship caused by Covid-19, a new report suggests.
The research, from the charity Changing Lives, found evidence of single mums selling or exchanging sex for the first time, in order to pay for food and household bills. It also uncovered adverts from students, worried about the impact of the furlough scheme on part-time jobs.
Women with existing vulnerabilities – those who have faced homelessness, addictions or are living in poverty – are further “slipping through the net” as other support services are closed, the report adds.
In the first four months of lockdown alone, there was an 83% increase in the number of women accessing Changing Lives’ specialist services for women selling sex and experiencing sexual exploitation for the first time.
The researchers looked at instances of women advertising to sell or exchange sex across specialist paid platforms, as well as mainstream community selling pages.
They looked at two websites in detail, which require women to pay a subscription to advertise. On those sites, they found a total of 911 profiles in areas where the charity provides specialist support to women selling sex.
A “worrying number” of posts made reference to the financial hardship created by Covid-19, the researchers said.
One woman, who wished to remain anonymous, told HuffPost UK she posted an advert because she didn’t have enough money to feed herself, and was “feeling very low”.
“It has been very hard finding jobs or even coping with hardly no support. I turned to this because I got the cash to help me and the attention that people wanted me, as I was very lonely,” she said.
“It did make me feel dirty, that I had to turn to this as it shouldn’t be that way. People should have more support, I was reaching for help but no one was helping me.”
The charity’s findings also show a “concerning prevalence” of young women and girls advertising to sell sex or sexual activities online.
Of the 911 profiles looked at in detail, they most commonly belonged to women aged 18-25. This age group accounted for almost three fifths (59%) of women in the Northumbria area and almost half (49%) of women across all areas where Changing Lives delivers services.
The report also emphasises the potential increased risk to women using these sites during the pandemic.
Due to the closure of most public spaces during lockdown, a number of women have been forced to use their home as a location for sex work, placing them at increased risk of physical and sexual violence, it states.
Access to vital public services – including sexual health and mental health services and support from safeguarding teams – has also been restricted due to the pandemic.
Changing Lives is calling on the government to increase the accountability of subscription-based adult websites and community selling pages, including more stringent requirements around ID and age verification.
It is also calling for the government to appoint a minister for safeguarding, to better understand the vulnerabilities that sometimes lead to women becoming involved in sex work.
“The government has been vocal in expressing its commitment to ensure that all public services have the resources they need to support people through the pandemic,” the charity said.
“We are calling on government to ensure that this translates into better support and legal protection for women facing existing challenges who have found themselves having to advertise online, offering to sell or exchange sex because Covid-19 has left them without any other choices.”