From Brothels to Independence: The Neoliberalization of (Sex) Work

Yves here. Further confirmation that the gig economy is not what it is cracked up to be. Sex workers in the UK have less privacy, lower returns, and much less safety in the days of online platforms than they did when brothels dominated the profession.

By Ava Caradonna, a migrant, a sex worker, a student, a mother, a citizen, a trans person, a person of colour, a teacher, a queer, a lesbian, and a militant. Ava allows us to speak from different positions as sex workers and as allies, without the stigma of using our ‘real’ names, and allows us to speak to the different realities in the sex industry and beyond. Originally published at openDemocracy

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.

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.

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25 comments

  1. Watt4Bob

    I think it’s long past time we understand that any job that ends up relying on an app, is most likely in essence an effort by the investment class to harvest what they understand as a surplus of wealth left in unworthy hands.

    IOW;

    “Wouldn’t you prefer to give me my money, that you have in your pocket, rather than force me to take the gun out of my pocket, and rob, you, thus becoming a criminal?”

    Every gig app fronts an investment group shaking down workers for a percentage of their earnings, which the group sees as a surplus which they can lay claim to.

    Just as Uber and Lyft will over time immiserate Taxi drivers, any ‘innovative’ tech-based reboot of the sex worker’s space is bound to degrade those workers earnings and probably their over all experience.

    Sex workers have enough problems already, they don’t need to become the focus of ‘disruptive technology’ barging in to steal their earnings, and degrade their working conditions.

    Reply
    1. zer0

      This will change. Apps are already in the .com bubble territory.

      They are easily replaceable. Even Facebook’s dominance is seeing signs of instability. They are fads: in for a few years (like MySpace) and out the next.

      People always think “this time is different” and it never is.

      Reply
      1. Watt4Bob

        You’re correct, apps have become passe in the tech world, but it seems there’s still some stupid money floating around looking for >20% return.

        The kids already know it’s a fad, those who see ‘opportunities’ should be ashamed of being so far out of touch.

        Reply
      2. Kevin Carhart

        But the investment group hasn’t gone anywhere. So can’t they continue to do the part of what they do which is really important to them (overlay a precarity-zone on a kind of work, let the workers puzzle over it during the early interim before the press has arrived, encourage workers to either hop aboard and play by startup-rules or avoid it and delineate themself as rarefied) while throwing out the mobile app medium when necessary? VC itself isn’t collapsing, is it? And the business schools are still portraying founding startups as desirable?

        Reply
    2. Other JL

      This is a pretty insightful comment. I think decades of neoliberalism and elevating capital over labor has led to a lot of mistrust of corporation, in turn allowing the “gig economy” to develop quickly. Unfortunately the gig economy appears mostly to be run by neoliberalists, still elevates capital over labor, capital is still in control of the enterprise, but devolves risk from the corporate structure onto labor.
      From this article it appears another major benefit of corporation, job specialization, is being reduced as well. So now in addition to taking on more risk, workers need to develop more skills and be less efficient at pretty much all parts of their job.

      Reply
      1. Lee

        There also seems to be a lot of dumb money involved in these endeavors. Not that that is any comfort to their labor force.

        Reply
  2. elaboration

    Thanks for this article. I feel curious about what caused the change, and why things have to be the way they are now. If the old flat-with-a-manager system continued, would not enough clients come, possibly because most clients search online rather than go to known local establishments? Have websites like AdultWork made themselves the only place clients know where to look for sex workers? I suppose that’s a way to get around the illegality of advertising for sex work, a workaround that the old flat-system didn’t have.

    I left Facebook years ago, and it’s helping me notice how much social and commercial activity happens online that I not only can’t participate in, but I don’t even learn about in the first place. I wonder if sex work is being affected in the same way – if you’re not online, you’re not seen.

    Thanks for any elaboration from the author or anyone else in the know.

    Reply
    1. Conrad

      Cutting out the middle madam allowed the independent sex contractors to undercut the brothels by a considerable margin would be my guess.

      Reply
    2. JBird4049

      I think it is the result of the two separate, but connected things moralistic identity politics and neoliberal economics.

      As in the United States, the United Kingdom has been increasingly bifurcated into a growing increasingly impoverish, economically unstable lower class and a smaller increasingly wealthy, or at least well off due to neoliberal economic policies.

      If voters are being economically crush with lower incomes, increasing homelessness, a worsening of any and all public services, but a small fraction is doing really well, distractions are needed to keep the pillaging going. As in American, the focus becomes on the social moralistic aspects.

      Focusing on the evils of prostitution, abortion, divorce, drug use, poor parenting and so on, while ignoring the reasons for their increase. All of these, regardless of ones beliefs, increase when the economy gets worse.

      To improve things would require a better economy for everyone and ready access to good healthcare, as part of a holistic effort, but that would decrease the economic pillaging as well as probably increase governments’ power over the wealthy and powerful individuals, families, and corporations, which they do not want. So individual attacks on the problematic which gives the appearance of doing Something while really just allowing the causes to continue because those causes enrich the already wealthy and impoverish the already poor while destroying the middle class.

      In this posting’s example, increasingly people are forced into sex work because that is only way to clothe, house, and feed themselves, but instead of helping them do that by other means, the government increasingly criminalizes the current means to camouflage the causes. Send in the police to get those bad, bad people and protect those poor helpless little people, but actively ignore the true causes. Make their lives worse, because you are doing Good Things. God’s Work. Fill up the news, the blogs, the legislature with words, words, words and more words on morally questionable, maybe even bad things so that the greater true evils can continue.

      What a bunch of psychopathic weasels. I really do hope there is an afterlife where they can get a chance to…reflect on their actions.

      Reply
    3. TheMog

      My understanding is that a major driver in the gig-isation of sex work in the UK came from the push against the shared flat system, which triggered a move to “safer” space online. The flat system seems to have been treated along to the lines of “there is gambling in Casablanca?” for a while before it became a target for law enforcement, both criminal and immigration as mentioned in the article.

      Reply
  3. Alex V

    Are there recent statistics on the number of people working in the industry? Wondering if austerity and general economic malaise in the UK has pushed more people into sex work as a form of last resort employment, thereby also reducing prices due to increased supply.

    Reply
    1. skippy

      I suggest Fragging or Frag… like a hand grenade thrown to instigate disruption. I would offer the disruption is just a reheating of the market preference to dismantle human relationships which thwart social relationships that provide friction to profit maximization.

      Reply
  4. Brooklin Bridge

    Would cooperatives be a possibility or would there be all sorts of issues and hurdles? Could they be of use with the administrative work such as web sites and/or platform presence for such things as advertiing frameworks, perhaps even some of the location management, and scheduling, and ultimately perhaps even promotion (and enforcement) of safety standards?

    Reply
  5. Jeremy Grimm

    We live in strange times indeed if prostitutes might pine for the better days of brothels, pimps, and organized crime. What a wonderful world we bring to the edge of our extinction.

    Reply
    1. Oregoncharles

      Yeah, I wondered about that, too. This article is complaining about the disadvantages of self-employment. I’ve been self-employed most of my life; so are our hosts. It does have advantages, too.

      So I wonder whether this article went astray back at the beginning. Perhaps the real problem is a deeply dishonest legal policy, which theoretically makes prostitution legal but, in practice makes it illegal and therefore more dangerous and difficult. For instance, it probably rules out the co-ops someone suggested. There is also a swipe at ” the closure of many premises by police with the help of abolitionist ‘feminists'”. Ava forgot the scare quotes around “feminist”, so I added them. These are “feminists” attacking the livelihoods of (mostly) other women.

      Of course, there is also the problem that “if your business depends on a ‘platform,’ you don’t have a business.” You certainly don’t have the independence of self-employment.

      It may be that sex work makes self-employment much less advantageous – and there are always many who would rather be employees. But I suspect that, in the UK as here, the problem is dishonest, malicious policy – being taken advantage of by parasitic apps.

      Reply
      1. DJG

        Jeremy Grimm and Oregoncharles: I think that the point isn’t having a pimp. Several comments farther up point out that what has gone on is “disintermediation.” I, too, spent many years as a free lance, and being a free lance has many advantages. But disintermediation, which is a mantra among certain tekkies and certain MBA types, means wrecking traditional relationships: If you think that it has been bad for pimps, talk to people who are real-estate agents. And in my chosen career, I’m hearing of work-sites where people bid down jobs like proofreading and copy editing. Disintermediated wages are unstable. As several commenters point out, platforms and apps destabilize wages. (You note that Naked Capitalism just had a fund raiser–which means that salaries here are somewhat precarious.)

        Ironically, I was just at the show of ukiyo-e paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago. Almost all of the paintings are of courtesans in the closed districts of Tokugawa Japan–dazzling work showing women in the finest of kimono. These women worked through brothels and had a certain amount of comfort and protection, even if they were also virtual debt slaves. Below them were several steps of sex workers, the next level being a prostitute in a respectable tea house or a prostitute in a bigger brothel still in the “pleasure quarter,” down to “streetwalkers” on the edges of the pleasure quarters with little protection and the women who set up flimsy structures along the river, who had no protection.

        If you are going to allow sex work in a culture, you’d better have protections in place, just as the waitstaff in most restaurants has some wage protection.

        And the geisha, who were not prostitutes but free lance artists, may have had the most elaborate protections of all, which is why geisha still survive as a career.

        Reply
  6. JacobiteInTraining

    I find Elizabeth Nolan Brown to be a really good investigative reporter on stories having to do with sex workers:

    https://reason.com/people/elizabeth-nolan-brown/all

    I also trumpet Maggie McNeill as often as possible – she is somewhat…errm…militant about the topic – but given her background and experience one can understand why, and factor that awareness into her blog posts:

    https://maggiemcneill.wordpress.com

    Not that I am a (*cough* *cough*) expert, but I did have some small experience in the Puget Sound ‘TRB scene’ a few years ago, and met a really nice Korean lady through it. Purely consensual, no shadowy traffickers or criminals involved, and to this day I still keep up with her – we call or text back and forth every few months. She has since become a Citizen, started a business, is taking night classes for an ancillary career, and is quite happy with her life and choices.

    I also know that exactly ZERO of the ladies that were ‘saved’ in the busts and prosecutions detailed in the following article were any different then her:

    https://reason.com/archives/2016/09/09/the-truth-about-us-sex-trafficking

    Thanks, Pigs. “…Saving women who dont want to be saved and driving men to suicides since…well…forever…”

    Reply
  7. The Rev Kev

    I began to wonder if prostitutes could organize Uber for transport between clients and Airbnb as a place to conduct business, if the tech industry might not get behind them as part of the Gig economy. Of course the whole thing is just stupid and the situation is the fault of do-gooders. The way to go is licensed brothels so that the working girls can earn themselves a decent income and pay their taxes each year and keeping out the crims. The place could provide medical services and checks to protect the girls and their clients as well. It would also provide security so that anybody causing trouble could be thrown out so hard that they would bounce. There, most problems solved.

    Reply
  8. Olivier

    I almost didn’t read the article because the virtue signaling in the capsule bio is so thick as to make you dizzy. Fortunately the article itself was quite reasonable. Three cheers for the swipe at abolitionist feminists, too: they are probably registered members of the #MeToo lynch mob as well.

    In anglo countries I am afraid moralistic hangups will always prevent a sensible approach to sex work. The number of ways in which the anglosphere is f***** probably meets the criteria for an uncountable infinity. But anglo countries are not the whole world. The system the Rev Kev describes is basically what is on offer in Germany.

    Reply
    1. TheMog

      It’s also the kind of system that is in place in Nevada, and just survived another attempt at abolition a county over from where I live.

      To me the parallels in the “War on Drugs” are quite noticeable. In both cases, most people are aware that criminalization isn’t going to eradicate the trade in services and goods, but the moralistic approach to either swipes it under the carpet and makes it hard for genuine victims (ie addicts or trafficed women) to get help without incriminating themselves.

      Reply

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