TIMES are tough for Debbie, a prostitute in western England who runs a private flat with other "mature ladies." She does two or three jobs a day. A year ago she was doing eight or nine. She has cut her prices: "If I hadn't, I wouldn't still be open." She says that she can now make more money doing up furniture and attending car-boot sales than she can turning tricks.
George McCoy, who runs a website reviewing over 5,000 massage parlours and individuals, says that many are struggling. Sex workers tell him they have been forced to hold down prices. Like other businesses, massage parlours and private flats are suffering from rising rents and energy costs. Even Mr. McCoy's website is under the cosh: visitor numbers are down by a third.
In part, this reflects the sluggish economy. Overall consumer spending at the end of 2012 was almost four per cent lower than its 2007 peak. And Vivienne, an independent escort in the south who works part-time to supplement her income as a photographer, says paying for sex is a luxury: "Food is more important; the mortgage is more important; petrol is more important." She is offering discounts out of desperation, reckoning it is better to reduce prices by £20 ($30) than to have no customers at all. Another woman says that some punters are just as anxious to talk about the difficult job market as they are to have sex.
The days of being able to make a full-time living out of prostitution are long gone, reckons Vivienne, at least in larger towns and cities. "It's stupidly competitive right now," she laments. More people are entering prostitution, agrees Cari Mitchell of the English Collective of Prostitutes. Some working women in Westminster say they have halved their prices because the market has become so saturated. In London, and increasingly elsewhere, immigrants provide strong competition. But Sophie, an expensive escort in Edinburgh, says she is seeing an influx of newbies including students and the recently laid-off, many of them offering more for less.
Parts of the sex trade are comparatively hale. At the top end of the market, Marie, another escort in Scotland, says custom has not dried up. Girls increasingly report requests for discounts, she says. But those who lower their prices sometimes swiftly raise them again, deterred by the kind of customer who is attracted to bargains. The market for dominatrices is holding up well, too, according to McCoy. Some of the cheapest massage parlours, such as Club 25 in Sheffield (the price is in the name), attractive to the skint, are busy. Some newcomers are offering cut-price services such as webcams and phone sex.
On the streets, where prices are lowest and life is harshest, things are more desperate. Georgina Perry, the service manager for Open Doors, an NHS centre in east London that offers health services to sex workers, says that in the past few years some former prostitutes who had found low-paid work, for example as cleaners, have returned to the sex trade as other jobs have become harder to find. The women are back on the streets, charging £20 at most.
Many of these changes reflect broader trends in Britain's unstable, part-time economy. But the danger in sex work is greater than in other industries. Newcomers advertising on websites include photos of their faces, their e-mail addresses and offers of risky services in their profiles, says Sophie, the Edinburgh escort, aghast. Moving around in search of clients, prostitutes must deal with unfamiliar and potentially dangerous men. Since July, 310 have contacted Ugly Mugs, a scheme that encourages sex workers to report violence, although only around a quarter went to the police. Sex workers are taking greater risks for smaller returns.