‘DWP’s flawed assessments and harassment’ forced woman into webcam sex work

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A disabled grandmother has described how the flawed disability benefit assessment system and back-to-work harassment from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) forced her into employment as a webcam sex worker.

A*, who has had chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia for the last 10 years, has been left £25,000 in debt after having to survive without the benefits she needs.

She turned to sex work as a “cam girl” – performing for clients on the internet through live webcam footage – five years ago, after jokingly asking on Facebook (which she no longer uses): “What job can I do without getting out of bed?”

She knows at least 15 other disabled sex workers who are in similar situations because they have been unable to secure the benefits they need to pay their bills.

A, who is in her 40s, says that every time she has tried to work outside the home it has left her “absolutely ruined healthwise”.

She says she prefers working as a cam girl and having to deal with some “really quite unpleasant” men who seek her services rather than trying to, yet again, claim employment and support allowance (ESA), which she tried for several years until 2011.

“I can’t cope with ESA,” she said. “I would prefer to be self-employed and not have them pester me all the damned time. It’s more depressing on ESA than off it.”

During her years in the work-related activity group of ESA she had to cope with lengthy delays with her application, “many lost medical certificates”, a string of failed interactions with government back-to-work programmes, and being sanctioned for being too ill to show up for appointments.

She said: “I feel frustrated with my situation. I don’t actually hate my work, but I don’t like it much either.

“I would like to carry on doing it as it suits my particular conditions, and I can stay in work, away from ESA-style benefits, but I need extra financial help – I blame the DWP for not letting me have the extra help I need.”

An attempt in 2014 to claim the disability element of working tax credits – on the advice of HMRC – left her in even deeper financial trouble, after an Atos healthcare professional visited her at home 18 months later to assess her for PIP.

She had been claiming disability living allowance (DLA) but was one of the thousands caught up in the PIP reassessment programme, after the government started introducing the new benefit in 2013.

A DWP decision-maker concluded that she was ineligible for PIP after the retired paramedic who visited her on one of her better days – she has chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, which are both fluctuating conditions – decided that she had “picked up a cup of tea without obvious discomfort” and “had no problems communicating”.

Like many other DLA and PIP claimants, she didn’t have the physical or mental energy to appeal.

The PIP decision led to HMRC demanding that she pay back £5,000 in tax credits that she had been receiving for claiming the disability element of tax credits, which drove her further into debt.

She is now in the middle of a fresh claim for PIP.

Having previously twice been found ineligible for disability benefits – once for ESA and once for DLA – and on both occasions having appealed successfully, she believes the assessment system and the software used by the assessment companies are “flawed”.

She said: “None of my assessors have had any idea about my conditions. The first one was a doctor who was forced into resignation after botching an operation.”

Because she lost her DLA/PIP, and had to pay back £20 a month to HMRC, she resorted to using credit cards to eat and pay her bills – she no longer has any credit and is being chased by debt collectors.

The anxiety caused by such a large debt – in total she owes about £25,000 – caused a “complete mental breakdown” last November.

Her mental health is currently so poor that she is phoning Samaritans and the local NHS mental health crisis team at least three times a week.

She said: “I am now on Mirtazapine [an anti-depressant]to stop me going off the rails, although it’s impossible to actually treat the depression and anxiety and occasional suicidal thoughts because it’s the debt that’s mostly responsible for those feelings.

“That and being housebound and having no other option than to cater for really quite unpleasant men on the internet to get any money (I do have some nice customers on there, just not many).

“I have a grandchild now and another on the way, but I do not have time or energy to see the family as I am having to spend all my waking hours at work, and then the rest of the time trying to feel less terrible from having worked.”

She said she was “fairly naïve” when she began working as a cam girl. “Many people assume this is an easy earner, thousands of pounds, for taking your clothes off.

“This is an absolute fallacy. I can sometimes sit poised for webcam for days on end and only make £10.

“That’s me putting in 12 hours of trying to work per day, on my good days. I do occasionally get a big spender, and get £300 in an hour, but this is not often the case.”

Her average monthly income is about £500.

But A said she was privileged that she could be “out” with her family and friends about the work she does.

She said: “They all fully support me, although my parents like to imagine that what I do is much more genteel than it actually is.

“Many sex workers are not able to confide in anyone about this, so it’s not to be assumed everyone is as fortunate as I am or has any support at all.

“Sex work can be a very lonely business, no matter what sort is being conducted.”

She added: “Do not think sex work is bad, it’s just not necessarily right for a lot of people.

“It is very important to point out that the majority of sex work isn’t conducted by disabled people or addicts, as the media may portray – most people in the business are perfectly normal, everyday people who chose this because it suited them.

“This is just a personal account of one disabled person who found it to be their last option.” 

*She has asked for her name not to be used

Picture: Red Umbrella by Sonny Abesamis is licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence

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