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News & Blog > Blogs: "Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives" > Why Covid-19 has revealed the need for legal reform on sex work in the UK

Why Covid-19 has revealed the need for legal reform on sex work in the UK

Isabelle Tickel (MAGen33) tells us how the Covid-19 pandemic has shown how the current British system detrimentally affects some of the most marginalised women in British society.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the deep-rooted social inequalities that prevail across the world. In recent months we have seen how the most marginalised, stigmatised and criminalised in society have been disproportionately impacted by the disease and government restrictions. As we begin to focus on the lessons to be learned from the pandemic and how we might build back better to achieve a more just and inclusive society, I argue that Covid-19 has revealed the need for urgent legal reform on sex work in the UK. In this blog, I argue that the criminalisation of the sex industry has left already vulnerable sex workers destitute, excluded from vital government financial support and facing difficult decisions in order to provide to survive. By drawing upon the unique example of New Zealand, I say that a model of full decriminalisation offers an alternative, whereby sex workers are respected, included and protected during a global health pandemic.

The impact of Covid-19 on sex workers

In a recent public statement, Amnesty International emphasised the multiple ways in which sex workers have been impacted, not only by the pandemic, but also by the emergency responses of governments:

Sex workers are among some of the most oppressed people in the world, facing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and structural inequalities, including on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, caste, ethnicity, Indigenous identity, migrant or other status. Those who lack adequate housing, live in poverty, use drugs and/or lack continued access to healthcare, HIV treatment, as well as prevention and harm reduction measures, can be at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and of being negatively affected by it. For some, compliance with public health regulations is increasingly difficult when they lack adequate housing, access to food and water, resources to manage their personal hygiene and are excluded from government financial support schemes. In addition to serious physical and mental health impacts, sex workers are also being subjected to increasing stigma, discrimination, police abuses and criminalization during the pandemic.

A survey launched by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) to understand the impact of Covid-19 similarly found that sex workers across Europe are facing increased levels of poverty, violence, discrimination and harassment as a result of the pandemic. In the UK, sex worker-led organisations have reported that sex workers are facing evictions from their homes, dangerous working conditions, food poverty and incidents of being publicly named and shamed for continuing to work throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to a report from the Work and Pensions Committee, years of austerity and recent problems with the Universal Credit social support system have resulted in an increasing number of women engaging in so-called ‘survival sex work’ in the UK in order to provide for themselves and families. Recent estimates suggest that there are around 80,000 sex workers across the country, the majority of whom are women and single mothers working to support their families. Deprived of an income by social distancing and lockdown measures, these women have felt the economic burden of the Covid-19 pandemic like millions of others across the country.

However, while workers in other industries have benefitted from financial support schemes offered by the British government, the criminalisation of sex work has left sex workers without a lifeline in these unprecedented times. While the individual sale of sex is legal in the UK, activities surrounding sex work, including kerb-crawling, soliciting in the street and brothel-owning are all criminalised. Consequently, women engaged in these kinds of sex work are have been denied the right to financial support in the form of the furlough scheme. Meanwhile, the historic stigmatisation of sex work in the UK has made qualifying for self-employment support schemes challenging, with sex workers reluctant to share information about their businesses with HMRC. Responses collected from the NSWP survey indicated the universality of this problem, with sex workers from across Europe finding themselves excluded from the social protection and financial safety nets offered to other workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Forced to make stark choices

As a result, sex workers, who are already some of the poorest and most marginalised women in society, have been forced to make stark choices:

With the necessity of social distancing, and their lack of access to social security benefits, many women who sell sex are facing agonising decisions around how to secure resources to cover their basic needs such as housing, food and bills: decisions that involve risking their health/life and that of others.

Unable to survive solely upon the amount provided by Universal Credit, sex workers across the UK have reported facing little choice but to continue selling sex throughout the pandemic, despite the immediate risk posed by Covid-19.

Yet, the welfare of sex workers has been notably absent from mainstream discussions on the impact of Covid-19 upon vulnerable populations in the UK. In fact, sex workers have been forced to rely upon mutual aid and hardship funds established their own community to survive the pandemic. One sex worker-led organisation, SWARM (Sex worker advocacy and resistance movement), reported receiving over 900 applications for their hardship fund set up to provide cash payments to sex workers in urgent need. Reflecting upon the fund’s huge demand, two of SWARM’s members made the following comments:  

The biggest thing for me was how the crisis fundamentally highlighted the absolute failure of the state to support people.


Working on the fund made me feel a great deal of anger at the total lack of state provision for sex workers, and a sense that our community had been completely disregarded and abandoned


New Zealand: An example of an alternative

In stark contrast to the challenges faced by sex workers in the UK throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, New Zealand’s unique system of decriminalisation has offered an alternative, illustrating how sex workers can be better respected, included and protected. In 2003, New Zealand became one of the only countries in the world to fully decriminalise sex work, meaning that the sex industry is now regulated by labour laws, and sex workers are afforded workers’ rights.
The positive effects of this drastic legal reform on the safety and wellbeing of sex workers has been particularly highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic. While the Covid-19 lockdown in New Zealand resulted in a loss of income for sex workers as elsewhere, sex workers have been entitled to receive the same wage subsidy grants and sick pay as workers in other industries. Meanwhile, government outreach workers have worked actively and collaboratively with sex worker-led organisations to ensure that sex workers in desperate need of financial support have been able to access it quickly. Far from being left on the brink of poverty as seen in the UK, sex workers in New Zealand have reported applying for the government’s emergency wage subsidy for all workers and receiving financial support to replace lost earnings within just two days.


Sex workers and their allies have long been demanding a change to the laws surrounding sex work in the UK. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed more than ever how the current British system detrimentally affects some of the most marginalised women in our society. While feminists, politicians and the wider population alike may disagree on the morality of the sex industry, this global health pandemic has given us all pause for thought as to how we can better protect vulnerable populations in times of unprecedented hardship. If we are to achieve a more just and inclusive society post-Covid, we must add our voices to those of sex workers demanding legal reform. Until this happens and while social distancing measures remain in place, sex workers in the UK will continue to face little choice but to risk their own health, and that of their families, to ensure that food remains on the table. Meanwhile, New Zealand’s decriminalised system continues to offer the world an example of an achievable alternative, in which the government respects, protects and includes people who sell sex.


This is one a series of blogs supported by the IDS alumni office and written by current IDS students and PhD Researchers from academic year 2019-2020 Spring Term: Decolonizing Development begins in an unlikely location; What does our criticism of urban sustainability reveal about the hypocrisy of the West?; Why Covid-19 has revealed the need for legal reform on sex work in the UK; Covid-19 and Child Labour in Dhaka: Call for reviewed policy actions; and Impact of Covid-19 on inequalities in the world of work.

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