“Prostitution is the Social Safety Net in This Country”: Sex Workers Speak Out About Coronavirus
Sex workers can't seek government relief funds. Many are already marginalized. Some are keeping in touch with clients virtually during the
coronavirus epidemic, while others are looking anywhere for help.
BY MATT BAUME
Maxine Doogan, president of the Erotic Service Providers Legal Education and Research Project, isn’t mincing words about the impact
that the coronavirus will have on sex workers.
“There’s just no business,” she says. “It’s not happening.”
Doogan works as a prostitute and dominatrix (all subjects in this article are described with the job titles of their choosing, and links to
their social media profiles may contain explicit content). In recent years she’s seen her colleagues slammed by a wave of challenges —
most recently federal legislation called FOSTA-SESTA. Though the legislation’s purported purpose was to criminalize the hosting of
content that facilitates sex trafficking, its practical impact has been to severely hamper sex workers’ safety by making it nearly impossible
for them to organize and communicate online. That legislative setback was, in some ways, a preview of the adversity they now face with
quarantine and social distancing mandates.
“With FOSTA-SESTA, so many people lost their housing within a month,” she says. “A lot of people lost their housing pretty immediately,
they lost their business, their ability to feed themselves. We’re going to see that with this quarantine, no doubt.”
While few are likely to escape the health and economic impact of the new coronavirus, individuals and families supported by sex work are
uniquely limited in their ability to seek relief, since their work exists in an underground economy and they could risk legal consquences if
they’re forthcoming about their sources of income.
“Sex workers with HIV are particularly vulnerable,” says Jenny Ross. “People of color are always more vulnerable. People who are just
trying to survive.”
Sex workers are disproportionately likely to be members of a sexual orientation or gender minority, so economic and health risks will be
felt more greatly by LGBTQ+ communities. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, one fifth of all trans people and half of black
trans women reported engaging in sex work. Transgender Americans report double the unemployment rate of the general population; a
quarter have experienced housing discrimination; and a fifth reported being denied care because they are trans.
Now, on top of those challenges, many longtime clients have stopped calling. Organizations like The Professional Association for Erotic
and Sexual Service Providers in Germany have urged members to “temporarily stop any activities that bring them into physical contact
That physical contact is highly risky right now is no surprise to many
experienced professionals, whose work demands meticulous attention to
hygiene. With income slowing and their work becoming highly risky, they must
now rely on informal support networks that they have with clients and
Fera Lorde, a chapter representative with Sex Workers Outreach Project in Brooklyn, notes that many sex workers already disinfect
shared work spaces with medical grade supplies, and have extensive precautions in place for reducing the spread of STIs. (Nevada, for
example, has extensive testing requirements in place for brothels.)
“Our livelihood depends on our ability to be healthy, as we have no sick pay,” Lorde says, “and on the health and well-being of our clients
and their desire to continue seeing us for services.”
“I have older customers that I’m concerned about their health,” says Maxine Doogan. “I’m keeping connections with people — email, and
text, and calling. It’s what we had to do when we lost our websites. We called each other, we called our customers, we kept connected.”
What’s more, many LGBTQ+ sex workers are well-versed in rapidly adopting new practices to prevent the spread of a novel virus.
“We’ve been here before,” Doogan says. “Our community’s been through this. Not knowing what it was, not knowing how it’s transmitted.
The government not being supportive, public health officials not being there. … As a nation and as a species, we’ve lived through the
AIDS crisis, we got to see what worked. Those of us who survived it.”
But while everyone’s protecting their health, many sex workers are in immediate danger of losing their income, particularly those who
belong to marginalized groups.
“Sex workers with HIV are particularly vulnerable,” says Jenny Ross, a full service provider in Seattle. “People of color are always more
vulnerable. People who are just trying to survive.”
“We are facing a lot of fear of loss of housing, hearing from people who are
forgoing medication in order to afford food, going hungry in general,” says
Lorde. “Sex work serves a vast population of people for many different
reasons, and many of us are already living with risk factors like pre-existing
conditions, lack of healthcare, family members to take care of who are elderly
or disabled, or unstable housing.”
Over the last few years, United States policy has actively weakened the country’s ability to address a crisis like the one we now face.
“The [Trump] administration’s policies on sexual and reproductive health and rights also intersect dangerously” with the coronavirus
epidemic, write Zara Ahmed and Adam Sonfield at the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization focused on sexual and
reproductive health. They point out that a recent “gag rule” forces family planning providers to choose between receiving federal funding
and providing abortion-related services. As a result, many health centers have left the funding network, meaning they have less funding to
respond to a widespread health crisis like that which we’re seeing now.
What’s more, Ahmed and Sonfield write, Republican efforts to undermine Obamacare and restrict access to Medicaid threaten to
destabilize the health insurance system and slow the response to the disease, particularly among people with low incomes, people of
color, LGBTQ+ people and immigrants.
In Europe, a robust network of counseling centers has mobilized to provide emergency relief to sex workers. Amsterdam's Prostitution
Information Center, for example, is seeking to raise $6,000 so service providers can buy basic household necessities.
Similar organizations have mobilized fundraising efforts in the United States, such as in Seattle and New York. But government agencies
lack the ability to help citizens who work in an industry that’s the target of an ongoing moral panic. Some cities, like San Francisco, are
working on establishing relief funds for small businesses affected by the quarantine, but nobody seems to know whether those grants
would be available to people in adult fields.
“The great thing about sex workers is we’re very community minded,” says Jenny Ross. “A lot of sex workers support members in their
community financially. … We help each other. We’re marginalized and misunderstood and we know how it is for each other."
As a result, sex workers are now developing their own survival techniques. There are numerous international crisis funds and
crowdfunding efforts now collecting money specifically for sex workers facing economic disaster. Many are exploring online revenue
sources, like camming, texting, and phone sex lines.
“Recently there was an email we got at SWOP from a woman who’s a sex worker, and her daughter who’s a sex worker was offering
camming lessons,” says Ross. “I’m taking it much more seriously myself … I want to keep having an income, so I’m learning how to cam
the right way.” Her advice to colleagues: “Diversify. There’s things you can do at home.”
Others have asked clients to pre-pay for sessions. And some are taking risks by seeing clients they otherwise wouldn’t.
“This weekend, I saw somebody who — they weren’t on my bad list, but they were on my questionable list,” says Doogan. Clients who
are not properly vetted could turn out to be cops, or dangerously violent, or both.
Fortunately, some sex workers have well-established networks of support that include colleagues and clients. Many have shifted their
daily routine from providing services to spending more time calling each other to check in.
“I have older customers that I’m concerned about their health,” Doogan says. “I’m keeping connections with people — email, and text,
and calling. It’s what we had to do when we lost our websites. We called each other, we called our customers, we kept connected.”
Still, we’re still a long way from a return to normalcy. “It will take ages for the market to adjust,” says Lorde. “And will require ingenuity and
adaptability as well as resources to rebuild.”
“The great thing about sex workers is we’re very community minded,” says Ross. “A lot of sex workers support members in their
community financially. … We help each other. We’re marginalized and misunderstood and we know how it is for each other. Just reach
out, get help when you can and help others when you can.”
That’s a particularly urgent message for people in marginalized groups. “Women, people of color, LGBT people have been cut out of the
social compact,” says Doogan. “Which is why a lot of us wind up working in prostitution.”
She pauses for a moment, and then adds, “prostitution is the social safety net in this country.”
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