Women Use Survival Sex to Avoid Rough Sleeping in the UK

Survival Sex

Students, homeless people and those battling for welfare payments are exchanging their bodies for basics like laundry or even for somewhere to sleep at night. There is emerging evidence that cash strapped students are increasingly selling their bodies to get by, too.

BBC Documentary: Secrets of Sugar Baby Dating

Recent reforms in UK university funding make life very hard for students without a wealthy family. Students are not entitled to welfare benefits. So, they must somehow remain solvent throughout their courses, paying $12,000 a year in fees through loans. Consequently, many sell their bodies to get by.

On the 12th June the BBC broadcast a late-night documentary investigating the reality of women’s experiences on the US based dating platform, Sugar Baby Dating. The BBC state, “The websites claim sugar babies can receive thousands of pounds in cash each month, as well as luxury gifts, and the right sugar daddy can even introduce them to a world of business opportunities.”

The platform offers young women a chance to meet older, wealthy men to have illicit affairs in exchange for money and gifts. They engage in emotional relationships with men enjoying the life of a “kept woman.” Each woman may maintain three or more such affairs. The founder and CEO of the platform insisted passionately this is not an escort service where women sell themselves on the first date.

According to the documentary, the UK platform is used very differently. They spoke to students who used it to sell themselves in order to survive the financial pressures of education. A male client was entrapped by the documentary maker, herself a pretty 20-something woman, into a hidden camera interview. In the interview, he said he only paid by the hour and never engaged in such relationships. The documentary concluded that while some women succeed in being “kept,” most were in fact escorts.

The women involved were often exploited, unpaid and subjected to problems formal prostitutes face, like rape and beatings. While many sought the dream offered through these sites, they ended up using sex to pay for life and student debt.

Sex for Rent to Avoid Homelessness

In order to qualify for urgent social housing in the UK, you need to have a lot of issues. It is not enough to be a single woman for the system to kick into action. Increasingly, even having a dependent child will not result in urgent rehousing. To be considered at all, one needs a complex case for social housing.

The Changing Lives charity told a UK Parliament inquiry, “One woman we work with said: ‘I hate sleeping on the street, I tried to find a punter who would let me sleep for free sex. I hate it, but I hate sleeping on the street more’.”

Sex for rent is one of those issues identified by Changing Lives, which showed on their website: “On one day this week, four adverts offering free rent in exchange for sex appeared in the North East section of a national classified advertising website.”

This is not a new issue. Recent reports note private rents are so high, men will offer women and other men homes in return for sex. With rent inflation so steep, welfare benefits do not meet market demands. And student life can be prohibitively expensive.

Changing Lives state, “Ever since Changing Lives started reaching out to women with experience of sex work and sexual exploitation in Newcastle back in 2006, the link between homelessness and sexual exploitation has been clear.”

Universal Credit and ‘Survival Sex’

The new Universal Credit welfare system rears its head again in this extreme survival method. The UK Parliament Work and Pensions Committee recently studied the phenomenon.

According to the Committee, “Miss D”, a single mother, said she was driven to exchange sex for money due to deductions from her Universal Credit to repay debts. She also explained her ex-partner “gives me a fiver a week from his benefit for child maintenance. If I sleep with him on his benefit pay day, he leaves me a tenner.”

The Department for Work and Pensions got a kicking for its response to the inquiry. In a media release, the Committee said, “The letter published today describes how witnesses that day felt that the Department’s submission took an excessively defensive position. The submission argued that there is not a ‘direct causative link’ between Universal Credit and ‘survival sex,’ and that ‘it is clear that a correlation can often be found where it is looked for, however an actual causal link cannot be found’.”

In short, the government does not refute the idea people are selling their bodies to survive. However, it argues there is no proven causative link between people suffering under Universal Credit and selling their bodies. The Committee felt this is legalese and dodges the fact that people are in such privation.

The Committee reported: “Helen McDonald, representing campaign organisation Nordic Model Now! at the session, described the Department’s ‘dismissal of women’s lived experience’ as ‘absolutely ludicrous. What they are saying is, we do not count women who are sharing their stories. What do you have to do to be counted? If they believe there are gaps in the data, they need to take responsibility and fill those data gaps by doing their own research, rather than just dismissing it.’”

Impact on Those Experiencing ‘Meaningless Sex’

While people become hardened to repeated “meaningless sex,” there is no doubt it is a sign of the damage inflicted. Like it or not, sex is an emotional experience. Those who feel forced to put feelings aside often come away feeling defiled and used. The classic prostitute is one who uses opiates to self-medicate for emotional pain. That “medication” can dull the feelings associated with renting out their bodies. Increasingly though, large numbers of women and men are not going through this emotionally challenging experience for a mind-dulling drug. Instead, it is for basics like a shower, a warm dry bed or even just enough money to eat.

Whether opiate addict or not, all those who rent out their bodies are left damaged as people. That is a huge cost to pay just for the basics in life.

Richard Shrubb

Richard Shrubb


With a background as a mental health service user, Richard has been a leading UK social affairs writer in the past. He now focuses this energy in social justice in the most economically deprived town of the UK, Weymouth in Dorset while looking after his wife, daughter and three cats in nearby Prince Charles' housing estate of Poundbury.

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