“Survival Sex”: Vulnerable Women Driven To The Edge To Pay For Basics

The five-week waiting times for Universal Credit payments are forcing some women into sex work to meet their basic needs, MPs have warned.
An inquiry by the Commons Work and Pensions Committee found that the wait time for payments resulted in some claimants exchanging sex for money in order to meet their survival needs. The panel also warned that people would continue to be driven to what they called “survival sex” as long as benefit rates “fail to match the amount of money that they actually need to live on.”
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Universal Credit merges six benefits into one payment and was designed to simplify the complex UK benefits system and help people move into work. But now this committee has called for the government to amend the five-week wait for the first payment, which it has described as a “fundamental design flaw” and to offer a non-repayable advance to vulnerable people."
The panel heard testimonies from women who have struggled to navigate the new system with the five-week wait pushing them into prostitution to cover basic living costs.
A 21-year-old woman, known as 'T' to protect her identity, told the inquiry that she was abused as a child and hadn’t been to school since she was 11. She got a job in a café, then as a carer, but had to leave the job due to mental health issues.
She added that she was forced to use food banks and turn to sex work in order to pay her rent because she had to wait six weeks for her first Universal Credit payment. “It is horrible to say, but it is the easiest thing to keep us girls alive,” she said.

"I only spend £20 on gas and electric a fortnight...I am trying my best. £30 on shopping, not a penny over, because if I go a penny over I can't get stuff that I need - tampons and things."

T, 21
T told the inquiry that she found Jobseeker’s Allowance much easier because you could make an appointment with an adviser and sit down with them, whereas Universal Credit is all done online.
Advances are available for those waiting for their payments, however this must be paid back out of subsequence payments, which T struggled with. “I only spend £20 on gas and electric a fortnight…I am trying my best. £30 on shopping, not a penny over, because if I go a penny over I can’t get other stuff that I need, tampons and things,” she said.
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“By the time I got [my first payment] I had spent it and then I was waiting another three to four weeks for my benefit.” She told the committee she was left with £52.50 to live on after £148 was paid back, and she now couch surfs with friends and eats Pot Noodles for dinner.
Another woman, known as M, who works in a brothel told the committee that is currently studying at university but is struggling to make ends meet.
“At the moment I am struggling to feed myself [and] to do basic things like laundry,” she told the inquiry. “Because I am currently a student, I am not eligible for Universal Credit.” She added that once she graduates she will apply but she’s frightened of the consequences of disclosing her work.

"At the moment, I am struggling to feed myself [and] do basic things like laundry"

M
The committee's chair, MP Frank Field, has called for the Department for Work and Pensions to take action and to consider "lived experience" of Universal Credit to improve the services and support for those turning to sex work.
A DWP spokesperson said: "We take all evidence presented to the Committee very seriously and are determined to ensure that no one finds themselves in this position.
“We are committed to providing a safety net for the most vulnerable in society and have made improvements to Universal Credit such as extending advances, removing waiting days, and introducing housing benefit run on."
Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said: “The benefits system is designed to help people with their finances in times of need, but too often our frontline staff and volunteers see a different story.
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“We’ve found people are losing sleep and unable to afford essential things like food and housing while receiving Universal Credit. It is totally unacceptable that our benefits system is not providing the financial safety net that people need.
“The government needs to take urgent action by reducing the five-week wait for Universal Credit and ending the freeze on benefit rates.”
Margaret Greenwood, Labour MP for Wirral West and Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, said: "The findings of this report are truly shocking: it shows just how far Universal Credit is failing that some people feel that their only alternative to avoid destitution is to turn to sex work.
"When will the government finally wake up and realise that the five week wait for a first payment is pushing people into debt, food bank use and, in some cases, prostitution?
"Advances are not the answer, they are loans that have to be paid back, often along with other debts built up as a result of the five week wait.
"Labour will scrap Universal Credit, end the five week wait and ensure that our social security system treats people with dignity and respect."
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