Sex workers say they have been abused and spat at, yet many can’t access government support
As everyone’s life is thrown into turmoil, it’s right to focus on those at the sharpest end of the pandemic chaos. But, in the glut of articles about sex workers and coronavirus, the reasons for sex workers’ particular vulnerability is getting lost.
In public imagination, the mental leap from “sex worker” to “disease” comes easily. “Sex workers ‘still plying for trade’ in Swansea despite the coronavirus pandemic,” read an article on Wales Online. A resident was quoted: “There’s girls there every night. I have seen punters most of whom are old men – the girls seem to target them.”
It’s an age-old trope. Sex workers as the ultimate vectors of disease. In the 19th Century, Britain’s contagious diseases act allowed any woman suspected of selling sex to be subjected to a forced examination. During the Second World War, sex workers were cast as predatory petri dishes, malignant spreaders of STIs among the guiltless troops.
In the distant world beyond the front door, Covid-19 related stigma against sex workers is ramping up. Women in walk-up brothels told the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) that members of the public had screamed at them for working during the pandemic. Outdoor workers describe being spat at and verbally abused from passing cars.
Katya (not her real name), a UK-based sex worker from Lithuania, told me she’s distressed by both colleague and client reactions. “I’m still trying to work because I need the money but it’s scary. People keep saying I’m being selfish and I’m like OK great, send me food money and bill money. I’m worried about how other workers will perceive me. Will they think I’m selfish, will they think I’m dirty and disgusting? And I’m scared clients will judge me.”
Whether it’s paying for sex or ordering clothes from an Asos warehouse, neither is an essential service for the buyer. Men can manage without sex; all of us can manage without new isolation outfits. What’s essential is people’s need to work and pay the bills. Sex work can be talked about in the same breath as other gig economy work, alongside striking Amazon employees, alongside delivery drivers, hospitality staff on zero-hours contracts.
Jodie (not her real name) told i: “The brothel I usually work at has been shut due to the coronavirus. I messaged all my clients but only two of them responded. All the hotels are shut so I’d have to invite them to my home, which I wouldn’t usually do because I’ve been stalked by clients in the past. Usually, if I’m struggling for money I do street work, but that isn’t an option for me either at the moment due to the lockdown.”
Jodie’s story could be that of any precarious worker who is suddenly unable to earn money. What’s different for sex workers is criminalisation. Brothels are illegal, working together indoors is illegal and so is soliciting. It’s illegality which means many sex workers will slip through the net in receiving government help.
Many sex workers who should be able to claim help as self-employed will miss out. Migrants who sell sex are not granted any form of worker rights and will be ineligible. Of the sex workers who are registered, few want to file taxes naming “sex worker” as their profession. Made-up job titles abound. But what if your fake job is one which could technically be done at home?
ECP has released a list of demands, central to which is an immediate moratorium all sex-work related raids, arrests and prosecutions. In 2016, the Home Affairs select committee’s 2016 report recommended decriminalising both street-based sex workers and sex workers working together indoors at the same premises.
Migrant sex workers, and migrants in general, will be hit hard by this crisis. ECP is in touch with an undocumented woman who has been forced to continue working. Should she get ill, she’ll be unable to visit a hospital because she can’t afford the fees and over her fear of deportation. The woman is in an abusive relationship she can’t leave and is “a fiver way from destitution.” Criminalisation compounds her problems from every side.
Across the world, peer-led organisations have set up emergency funds for sex workers in crisis. In the UK, SWARM is raising funds; in Ireland, SWAI is collecting. It won’t be enough though. Without government help, sex workers – particularly those with dependents – will be forced to continue working.
Sex workers aren’t the only people who’ll be forced to work through the pandemic in jobs which are utterly expendable. Many workers will be put at unnecessary risk because they need to survive. Sex work is only set apart by criminalisation and stigma so please, save your disgust.
Frankie Miren is a writer, a sex worker activist and a member of SWARM and ECP