The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted almost everyone’s work, in a way most of us had never experienced before. But as with any crisis, those who were already the most marginalised have been hit the hardest, and frequently face higher barriers to accessing any or adequate state support.
Sex workers have been severely impacted by Covid-19. Like many other workers, their jobs entail physical contact of a nature advised against by social distancing guidance, and prohibited now the UK has gone into lockdown. But unlike most other workers, the struggle sex workers are facing is usually hidden from view due to criminalisation, stigma and discrimination.
Since the pandemic hit the UK, the client base of full service sex workers and strippers has dwindled – and yet until recently many workers have had no option but to continue to work; either because their club or brothel expected them to, or because they simply couldn’t afford to lose their income. Many brothel and strip club bosses kept their businesses open long after it became clear that social distancing was an urgent public health measure – with some only closing over the past week or so.
Nancy Hurman/Women’s Strike
Nikki Adams, from the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), says brothels closed late, “although there was hardly any work before that”. While they were still open, police continued to enter the premises to conduct raids – or, as they call them, ‘welfare checks’ – which Adams says was “frightening workers to death”, especially migrant women and women of colour, who are at increased risk of police violence and arrest.
She says the raids during the pandemic, “raised the level of feeling persecuted and threatened by authorities, which meant workers were less likely to come forward to get support with health and safety” related to Covid-19. With police in the UK and across the world now granted increased powers, the threat to sex workers – already vulnerable to abuse and harassment from the police – is heightened.
Gemma, a stripper who has worked at clubs across the UK, says that from the beginning the virus triggered a significant decline in customers. But though making any money in strip clubs has been very difficult for weeks, managers have still been making workers come in because dancers usually pay to work, in the form of ‘in house fees’. As a result of this policy, many strippers were going home having made a loss or less than minimum wage, for fear of losing their job entirely if they stopped showing up.
When Gemma’s club was still open and pressuring strippers to come in, she says workers experienced “a lot of stress and anxiety due to the close contact nature of work – people were really worried about germs and hygiene, and there was not a lot of support from bosses”. In fact, in many UK clubs, workers are fined for not going into work if they are unwell – and this unfair and illegal practice continued in relation to Covid-19.
“Everyone felt pressure to continue to work through this period,” says Gemma, “putting themselves and others at risk”.
Nancy Hurman/Women’s Strike
Independent full service workers, too – like many other self-employed people – have had no option but to keep working as the pandemic has unfolded. The choice is often particularly stark for outdoor workers, many of whom “live on the money that they earn right there and then,” says Adams – but under the new Coronavirus Act, outdoor workers are at increased risk of fines and arrest.
But mostly, the clients simply aren’t there: economic uncertainty or hardship means men are unlikely to spend money on sex workers’ services.
The clients that are left – few and far between – are not practising social distancing or hygiene precautions, and are often “dangerous clients that workers might not otherwise see,” says Gia, a sex worker who works in the UK and Germany. She says that full service workers continuing to work out of necessity are “in significant danger”. Facing no income for an indefinite period, workers may have no choice but to accept every booking request that does come through.
“The only booking request I’ve had was somebody that was wanting something that I am really not comfortable with,” she says, “but I wondered if it would be the last client I would see for the foreseeable future, and if I should compromise – which is a really, really, really horrible position to be in – out of complete and utter fear of what the future is going to be like.”
Nancy Hurman/Women’s Strike
As a group of mostly women – including many single mothers, trans women, immigrant women, disabled women and black and brown women – under normal circumstances, sex workers are denied basic rights, are forgotten by the government, are subject to state violence, and are stigmatised by society. This pandemic has amplified existing injustices, and now incomes have dried up altogether.
For many workers, “the situation is really desperate,” says Adams, who is supporting women facing homelessness due to the impact of the pandemic. For the most vulnerable workers, she says, “housing is often very precarious, and sometimes that’s overlapping with women who are migrant or don’t have status – which means they have no fall back, are not entitled to benefits – which even where accessible are insufficient”. Covid-19 has left many of these workers “destitute,” she says.
The ECP operates out of the Crossroads Women’s Centre in London, which provides a safe space for many. “You never think: what happens if that’s no longer there?” says Adams. “It’s been literally firefighting because women have been thrown back into these terrible situations.”
Nancy Hurman/Women’s Strike
Though it is coming late and could be hard to access, strippers in the UK should be entitled to the financial support the government is offering to self-employed people – though if they had worker status, they would be eligible for the government’s 80% wage supplement and sick pay. But many women who work in brothels and independently cannot even get self-employed status because of the many circumstances under which sex work is still criminalised and not recognised as work.
Some women’s immigration status might mean they cannot register their income with the state; for others, “layers of discrimination and stigma” mean that tracking their earnings for tax as a self-employed escort might be unsafe or impossible. Indeed, when the state does not grant you your civil rights as a worker, it is unlikely you can count on its support when you are out of work.
Many in-person sex workers are now attempting online sex work to recover some income – but whilst this has been helpful for some, the transition isn’t always easy. Online work requires technology, an internet connection, a safe indoor space, uninterrupted time, for example.
Sienna has never worked online before, and says that doing online sex work out of necessity has been “stressful… like outing myself to a wider group of people”. Gemma feels similarly, saying, “I feel like sex workers have been forgotten in this situation, and I’ve been somewhat forced to venture into an area that I am not totally comfortable with – if I had the choice, I wouldn’t want to do it, but I have no choice”. Sienna wishes that sex workers were “entitled to the same amount of financial support that other workers in our society are,” so that she didn’t have to “scramble and adapt to new ways of making my rent each week”.
But at the coalface of state violence and oppressive systems, sex workers are organising to support each other through this pandemic. “I’ve never been a part of a more supportive network of human beings,” says Sienna, “and this crisis has brought us together like never before”. Collectives are providing support networks and information; experienced online workers are holding free workshops for those needing to enter the industry.
“Sex workers are fucking resourceful, and I’m seeing our community coming together in this really unprecedented and inspiring way,” says Gia. “People are coming together to help others pay rent, to go and deliver masks to those who are immunocompromised, to drop off food”.
With state financial support so difficult to access, sex workers around the world have built hardship funds for workers most at risk. At present there are around fifty funds globally – perhaps many more – including a handful the UK.
Adams says “the hardship funds are fantastic but a lot of people don’t want to have to declare themselves as a sex worker [to access the fund], even to other sex workers,” and that some women may not be able to call up or fill in an online form. As such, the ECP is working with sex worker collective SWARM to ensure the hardship fund reaches everybody who needs it.
The ECP has released a statement of demands at this time of crisis – most urgently, calling for accessible emergency payments from the government for sex workers.
The ECP is also calling for emergency housing for homeless sex workers, an immediate moratorium on raids, arrests and prosecutions, and the full decriminalisation of sex work – which increases safety and wellbeing, as concluded by a 2016 parliamentary Home Affairs Committee. The statement also supports the demand for a care income; this pandemic highlights how women’s unpaid social reproductive labour is real work, and needs compensating. Finally, the ECP is supporting the demands of other organisations calling for the release of people in immigration detention and non-violent prisoners, and secure access to health services regardless of immigration status.
Gia says that the Covid-19 pandemic has already unleashed “an unprecedented tragedy” on her community, but is tentatively hopeful that the crisis may be ripe ground for political mobilisation.
“People are being radicalised by this,” she says, “and we need to put in the work now”. Sex workers are strengthening union movements, and building “strong bonds of solidarity within community” to prepare for coming crises: “Because right now, we don’t have anything in terms of support apart from each other,” she says. “Hopefully we can use this crisis to work towards returning to a world that is different to the one we left before we went into quarantine.”
Sophie Hemery is a freelance journalist. In addition to Novara Media she writes for the Guardian, VICE, Open Democracy, CNN, Al Jazeera and Buzzfeed.