Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

From brothels to independence: the neoliberalisation of (sex) work

Sex workers in the UK are by now just another part of the online, freelance, customer-reviewed digital economy. Their story of how they got there exposes a dangerous shift.

Ava Caradonna
1 March 2019, 3.24pm
Sex workers demonstrate in London in July 2018 against a possible prohibition of online advertising for sex work.
juno mac/Flickr. (cc by-nc-nd)

On 8 October 2018 we published the BTS Round Table on the Future of Work, in which 12 experts explain recent changes to the nature of work and offer new ideas in labour policy, organising, and activism. This piece has been written in response.

For decades, the British sex industry has straddled both informal and illegal work. This is because while the buying and selling of sex is technically legal in the UK, everything that produces the exchange of sex for money – advertising, employing support staff, renting premises, working collectively – is criminalised. As a result, our workplaces in ‘flats’ (small scale brothels), saunas, and hostess clubs have never been stable or safe places.

There has never been any job or income security in the sex industry. You only make money if it is busy, and the ‘house’ takes a percentage of your earnings – sometimes as high as 65-70%. However, up until recently, the way the system usually worked was that the flat manager would cover overheads. Buildings come with rent, utilities, and maintenance costs. Venues also need interior decorating, furniture, bedding, towels, equipment, and cleaning, and in our corner of the service industry also condoms and lube. Bosses would produce and place ads in newspapers and cards in red telephone boxes. They would provide security and often a receptionist, who would screen clients either on the phone or at the door. Similar arrangements existed for escort agencies, although in their case workers were often required to sort out somewhere to receive ‘in-calls’.

While we were never paid for the hours spent waiting for clients, and while we had to cover the cost of our own work clothes and grooming, sex workers were not expected to invest time, money, and skills into our work when we were not on the job. Our only investment in marketing was the construction of a work persona. This persona existed in clearly demarcated ways. It appeared when we came into direct contact with clients – either in the room, when actively earning money, or when introducing ourselves to potential clients – and disappeared just as quickly. This meant that sex work was clearly defined as a labour practice within time and space. A job with its uniforms and costumes, tools and office politics. A performed role, which you could stop performing when not actively working. In the past five to ten years, this has changed completely.

The rise of the ‘entrepreneurial’ sex worker

In the last decade, working in flats and saunas has become increasingly risky and difficult. This is in part due to increased immigration raids, neighbourhood gentrification, and the closure of many premises by police with the help of abolitionist feminists. It is also partly a consequence of the broader incorporation of informal service work into the online, freelance, customer-reviewed ‘gig’ economy.

Today an increasing number of sex workers in Britain – although certainly not all – are ‘independent’. They are ostensibly self-employed, freelance entrepreneurs. It is a shift that has affected every aspect of sex workers’ lives. Unlike ‘flat’ managers, individual sex workers can rarely secure and afford to rent long term work premises. Instead they hire hotels or rooms by the hour and go to clients’ hotels and homes. And with expensive print advertising out of the question, sex workers must now drum up clients online. They maintain profiles on platforms such as AdultWork, promote themselves on social networks, and many even have their own websites.

The work of digital self-promotion is never-ending. Online marketplace websites require constantly updated picture galleries; a ‘personal’ story; details of services available; an active blog; reviews of clients; accepting clients’ reviews of you; and often a web-cam presence. Platforms like AdultWork penalise you or delete your profile if your response time isn’t quick enough, or if your phrasing isn’t to their liking.

As an ‘independent’ sex worker, you are not exploited by a single employer within a capitalist framework, but by the nebulous yet crushing demands of an entire market.

If you have your own website, you also need to spend money on web hosting and web design, or, if you have the skills, spend hours doing it yourself. You need to pay for photographers, outfits, and work tools. You need to spend hours on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. You need to communicate with clients via phone, Whatsapp, Skype and email. You need to have and engage with a work phone, which you are expected to check constantly. All this before you make one penny.

To understand how sex work has changed requires thinking through how both our labour conditions and the political economy of the industry has been transformed. We are no longer forced to hand over hefty house fees to a boss, but our overheads are now much higher. The economic risk of investment has been shifted onto the worker. At the same time, we are now required to invest nearly infinite amounts of unpaid labour into our ‘businesses’. Working hours now stretch into every waking moment and working spaces become everywhere and nowhere.

The isolation of ‘independence’

The term ‘independent’ brings to mind freedom and agency, but the very opposite is often the case. As an ‘independent’ sex worker, you are not exploited by a single employer within a capitalist framework, but by the nebulous yet crushing demands of an entire market. Independent workers are constantly on display while being dangerously isolated. They work alone in spaces hired by the hour, with no cleaners, drivers, or security, and with no check-in/check-out practices. Many new workers don’t even know the ‘buddy’ safety system, and lots of workers don’t have friends who can do this for them due to stigma, immigration, parenting or employability concerns.

You can no longer go to work in an anonymous destination. Your activities are all registered online. They are connected to your IP address, and in many cases, to your email and social media accounts. Many workers report clients mysteriously appearing on their private social media profiles. In order to access adult websites, you need to provide your full identity details and passport. In most cases, your face and body are also plastered all over the internet. In neoliberal speak you can ‘choose’ to not show your face in these images, but the price will be lost work. That means only workers who can afford to pick and choose can take this protective measure.

When many of us started working – in brothels, flats, peep shows, escort agencies or outdoors – we had the benefit of other workers showing us the ropes. We received recommendations or warnings about workplaces along with other imparted knowledge. How to take and store the money; how to define and protect boundaries; how to give a good service while minimising strain and risk; how to guard against dangerous clients; how to recognise burnout symptoms; how to get out of hairy situations. This shared community knowledge encompassed not just toys, tools, and anatomy, but how to handle the job psychologically and physically.

Sex workers demonstrate in London in July 2018 against a possible prohibition of online advertising for sex work.
juno mac/Flickr. (cc by-nc-nd)

Safety in numbers

Working in flats and brothels, sex workers could also share health concerns. We showed each other symptoms we are worried about, and shared information about treatment, prevention, and the best clinics. The long-established sex workers’ knowledge and vigilance regarding our health has been alarmingly diluted over the past five years.

Rarely do public discussions of sex work actually reach into the practicalities of the work. However, it is crucial that we do so. Oral sex without a condom is quickly becoming normalised, often with very little extra charged for this service. The perils of STDs are either poorly understood or viewed as an unavoidable hazard by many new ‘independent’ workers.

Vaginal sex without a condom used to be almost non-existent. It was something workers would do in secret, charging a hefty sum for the risk. It is now becoming common. Anal sex, hitherto a very specialised and high price service in the case of cis women sex workers, has also become a much more widespread and cheaper practice. The alarming decline in safety and the reduction of prices is directly related to workers’ isolation. New workers no longer come into contact with more experienced workers, and they are deprived of the knowledge, support, and pressure of their peers.

This is not to say that everything used to be roses. Of course some flat managers used to put indirect pressure on workers to provide oral without a condom. They behaved like any other bad contractor or manager who wanted workers to comply with unsafe conditions in order to keep the client happy and increase their cut. However, in our experience this was relatively rare and never compulsory. Moreover, such flats quickly acquired bad reputations as workplaces to be avoided. The pressure on ‘independent’ workers is much more subtle and oppressive. If oral sex without a condom becomes a common service, you feel that you have no one but yourself to blame if you can’t make ends meet when not offering it.

At risk for less and less

Platforms such as AdultWork are major contributors to the decline in workers’ safer sex standards. Their ‘check list’ of services is particularly damaging. This list contains a long list of practices, many of them unsafe. It indicates to new workers – and, crucially, clients – that risky practices are no longer seen as exceptional. And while a sex worker can certainly ‘choose’ to opt out of them, doing so now seems oddly limiting – to quote many clients, ‘conservative’.

Who profits from this new arrangement? Many clients are taking more health risks now, but they are also getting much more for their money. Workers also face increased risks yet earn less for their labour. Prices have dropped dramatically over the past few years. This is partly due to stiffer competition, austerity, and a lack of industry standards due to the vanishing of flats. However, there is another, perhaps more important reason: the illusion that we are making more money thanks to the elimination of the middle-person.

As ‘independents’, we are no longer obliged to give the lion’s share of our hourly rate to mediators and managers. The sum we charge the client is all ours. As a result, we feel we can afford to charge less in order to get more clients. However, the sums don’t add up. ‘Independent’ workers, in fact, invest a lot of money and labour in getting and maintaining clients. The long hours of unpaid marketing and admin work, and the stress caused by constantly being at the client’s beck and call, aren’t neither visible nor financially accounted for.

Sitting in a flat waiting for clients was also unpaid labour. But at least when we worked in this system we knew when we were working. We were able to calculate our real hourly wage by dividing our take by the actual time we were at work. We could see if we were earning enough at a specific workplace, and if we weren’t we could try somewhere else. So, as is often the case with neoliberal notion of freedom and choice, the consumer pays less, and the worker puts in more invisibilised, unwaged labour. And this time there’s no recourse, since, allegedly, we are all our own bosses.

This project is supported by the Ford Foundation but the viewpoints expressed here are explicitly those of the authors. The foundation's support is not tacit endorsement within.

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