Sex Work is Work: COVID-19’s Impact on the Sex Industry

Sex work is work
By Allison Johntry

How Does COVID-19 Affect Sex Workers?

As the number of COVID-19 cases rapidly increases and most public places have closed due to social distancing, the livelihoods of sex workers are at risk. Sex workers cite that they have lost thousands of dollars due to cancelled conferences, travel restrictions, and clients’ fears of being in public places.

Because sex work is criminalized most places in the U.S., sex workers don’t have access to employer benefits like paid leave or insurance plans and many cannot afford healthcare, so they must consider risking their own health in order to financially support themselves and their families. Some sex workers are turning to online work, such as sexting and video calls, which aids in preventing the spread of COVID-19 but is increasingly difficult due to increased regulation of sex work on the internet via FOSTA/SESTA laws. Still, there are many other sex workers who must continue their work in person; those facing financial hardship are often forced to take fewer precautions when screening potential clients because of pandemic-related lack of demand, which, at best, often means being paid less for their services. As sex workers continue their work in order to put food on the table, they also put themselves in unsafe situations that increase their risks of both assault and acquiring COVID-19.

Many perceive sex work as a “dirty” field, continuing to perpetuate negative stereotypes. However, most strip clubs aggressively clean their facilities, and strippers constantly use hand sanitizer. Monica Forrester, sex worker and outreach manager at Maggie’s: Toronto Sex Workers’ Action Project, encourages setting additional boundaries with clients during the pandemic, including direct communication about any symptoms they may be experiencing, using extra hand sanitizer, and avoiding deep kissing.

Like so many workers in other industries right now, the COVID-19 pandemic is harming sex workers’ livelihoods. But while sex workers are taking necessary precautions to stay healthy and safe while continuing to work, the criminalization of sex work makes accessing necessary services and protection much more difficult.

Why Decriminalization?

Sex workers and their advocates want decriminalization to protect the safety and autonomy of those in the industry. Decriminalization simply means removing criminal penalties for buying and selling sex. Criminalizing sex work creates an unsafe environment for sex workers, and with an ongoing pandemic, there’s even more risk.

The only places where sex work is legal in the U.S. are several counties in Nevada. There’s a high level of regulation when sex work is legalized: sex workers must only work in brothels with licenses and must be regularly tested for sexually transmitted infections. But where there are legal forms of sex work, there are also illegal forms of sex work. Legalization still has the ability to turn sex workers into criminals when they do not follow the “correct” manner of conducting business. It controls what sex work “should” look like and yet again strips sex workers of bodily autonomy by prohibiting them from working in the ways that they want. 

Thousands of people are arrested in the U.S. each year for offenses related to sex work, and a survey of sex workers in New York City found that 80% were threatened with or experienced violence while on the job. Unsurprisingly, many of those surveyed also stated that the police were no help. In fact, one in five sex workers reported having been asked for sex by a police officer, and some reported being forced to perform sexual acts on officers in order to avoid being charged with prostitution. A New York law against “loitering for the purpose of engaging in prostitution,” is not only used to arrest sex workers on the job, but also trans women–just for existing in public spaces. Police will make arrests if they think that an individual’s clothing and appearance “look” as though they are selling sex; bigotry, stereotyping, and transphobia among arresting officers results in the targeting of trans women.

How Can You Help Sex Workers During the Pandemic? 

There are a lot of ways that you can help sex workers survive throughout this pandemic, including:

  • Supporting relief fundraisers: sex worker relief funds exist for cities such as New York and Las Vegas, and there are also specific funds for parents and families.
  • Being an ethical porn consumer by researching your sources and services and paying for the online services that you use. 
  • Advocating for the release of incarcerated people, especially since incarcerated people are at a higher risk of becoming sick. SWOP Behind Bars, an organization fighting the incarceration of sex workers, compiled this list of ways to support sex workers in prison. 
  • Supporting the decriminalization of sex work and opposing legislation that harms sex workers, including FOSTA/SESTA, which removes online content related to sex work.

And remember: sex workers’ rights are workers’ rights.

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