“In order to improve public health outcomes for COVID-19, we must be willing to serve the needs of all people and take into consideration what they do for work and how that work may impact their safety.”Randi Singer, et al. “COVID-19 Prevention and Protecting Sex Workers: A Call to Action” 2020
“It is imperative that sex workers are afforded access to social protection schemes as equal members of society.”Lucy Platt, et al. “Sex workers must not be forgotten in the COVID-19 response” 2020
Across the globe, marginalized communities have been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In America, we have seen the disparities in resources and high infection rates among communities of color and other social minorities. The fact of the matter is, people cannot afford to completely alter their lives according to CDC guidelines. People need to work, even if it means working closely with others or using public transit to get to work. Sex workers face these same issues. The criminalization of their work often leaves them out of COVID relief measures altogether.
COVID-19’s impact on sex workers
Stay-at-home orders reduced business for several industries, including the sex work industry. In the case of sex workers, whose profession relies on face-to-face interactions, “sex workers needed to and did continue to work [in-person]” (Singer et al. 2020). Despite working, they are not provided health care, paid COVID to leave, or other protections usually given by the government or an employer.
By criminalizing them, the state can deny responsibility for the health and well-being of sex workers and other unrecognized labor groups (like migrant workers). Something as simple as COVID testing is an inaccessible resource due to sex workers’ concerns for the cost (Singer et al. 2020). Say there is a free testing site. Information on where to find health resources is not evenly shared.
On top of a scarcity of health resources or information, oppressive policing has not stopped. Sex workers –among other communities– have consistently faced “[p]olice arrests, fines, violence, disruption in aid by law enforcement, and compulsory deportation” (Platt et al. 2020). Sex workers are not just sex workers. They are people who belong to several and different communities. There are sex workers who are people of color, who are migrants, who are trans, queer, disabled, and so much more. Being a sex worker doesn’t erase their identities. In fact, the state exploits their specific identities and vulnerabilities even as the pandemic carries on.
Lack of support and outright attacks from the state make it difficult for people to protect themselves from the virus. For sex workers, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s responses “are likely to result in poorer health outcomes and increased inequalities…” (Platt et al. 2020). Of course, sex workers are not helpless; they have created measures to keep themselves safe as individuals and as a community.
More than moving online
Studies show online spaces have become a new place where sex work is possible. It also offers many opportunities to sex workers and their customers (Sanders et al. 2018; Henry & Farvid 2017; Jones 2015). Sex workers can have a wider range of clients, higher wages, as well as more controlled working environments (Jones 2015). As significant as this is, shifting to online work has not solved all the issues sex workers experience with the pandemic.
Often, sex workers use a variety of outlets to carry out their work (Sanders et al. 2018). This includes providing online and in-person services to their clients. In a recent study, sex workers “reported a decrease in their earnings during the pandemic” (Singer et al. 2020). Therefore, some sex workers cannot rely solely on online services and have continued in-person services (Platt et al. 2020). Screening new clients are harder during the pandemic because their need to work is much more pressing than safety (Singer et al. 2020).
Sex workers can only account for their own health and protection. This comes down to wearing face masks, testing for COVID if they are able, and self-isolating if they become sick. While there is no way for them to know for sure if their new clients are doing the same. If their work was legal, sex workers could access the same COVID relief as other workers.
Recognizing sex work as work
Conversations around sex work tend to lean towards seeing sex workers as victims or criminals. Stigma towards sex work is a direct result of social and cultural ideas of sex. In recent years, language has shifted to center sex work as a job rather than an identity for the people who do sex work (Berg 2014). Feminist discussions on sex work have also been in conflict with one another; some frame them as workers, other as hobbyists, as victims, or free agents (Henry & Farvid 2017; Berg 2014).
Whether or not sex work should be legitimate work falls into a broader understanding of gender roles. Housework and emotional labor are services women are expected to provide to men for free. Sex is also included in those services. So when someone wants to earn money through sex, it is shameful and selfish. While other jobs that work in similar veins, like egg donors and childcare workers, must spin their work as selfless acts than as lucrative work because of the emotional aspect attached to it (Berg 2014).
Yet, there is so much more that goes into sex work than simply sex. Sex workers provide services to their customers that include physical and emotional labor. The customers create demand for this service, yet they are often erased from the equation (Berg 2014). Instead, sex workers are made the brunt of the Sex Industry and the government’s response to it. Significantly, “[s]tigma and criminalization mean that sex workers might not seek, or be eligible for, government-led social protection or economic initiatives to support small businesses” (Platt et al. 2020).
Community out-reach and activism
Elene Lam’s article goes into several sex worker communities and their rapid response to the pandemic. Lam explains, “organizations all over the world have set up emergency and mutual aid funds and developed resources, programs and campaigns.” We can see then the issue is not about sexual politics. It’s about workers’ rights. Sex worker communities across the globe are calling for the protection and rights of sex workers during a major health crisis. The pandemic has shown great inequalities among vulnerable communities, including several groups of unrecognized laborers. Raising the life or death stakes of social inequalities and criminalization.
Making sex work illegal says sex workers are undeserving of care and are at fault for anything bad that happens to them. It does not hold the government responsible for them as workers even though sex work contributes to the economy. Legalizing sex work means social support services can come to their aid. Money can go to sex worker organizations and individual sex workers during the pandemic as well as after it.