The Critic: Sex workers and Covid-19. What the virus means for Britain’s least protected self-employed
Sex work. Aside from healthcare, it’s the ultimate close contact service. And right now, many of its estimated 72,800 sex workers in the UK are particularly vulnerable to the physical and economic effects of the Covid crisis. With a UK lockdown in force, not only are thousands of sex workers being forced to choose between their health and their livelihoods like so many of those on zero hours contracts, but also fear seeking out healthcare services and financial support in light of the criminalisation and stigma they face on a daily basis if they admit the work that they do.
Thousands of sex workers being forced to choose between their health and their livelihoods
Sarah* is 28 and a Coventry-based sex worker who sees up to 20 clients a week for services including erotic massage, role play, and oral and penetrative sex, and makes around £50 an hour per client, making anything between £0 and £800 a week, depending on who shows up on the day. But since COVID-19 hit the UK some eight weeks ago, her income has reduced to zero. “In the first few weeks, as the news began to talk about the infection here, around a quarter of my clients cancelled their regular sessions with me. But as we’ve entered lockdown, nearly all cancelled and I decided to cancel the remaining two. That has left me with no work, no income and no end in sight to when I might be able to work or earn again.”
It’s for this reason that the English Collective of Prostitutes is calling for a moratorium on the raid of brothels – until Monday 23rd March’s lockdown, they were still being conducted – and an end to sex worker arrests and prosecutions, and asking the government to grant sex workers ‘worker status’ so that hundreds of thousands can access sick pay and temporary wages. But it’s complicated. While sex workers are technically self-employed, and so should be able to take advantage of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s 80 per cent of earnings aid package offered last week, many aren’t officially registered as such, at least not for the work that they actually do, and fear conversations with the authorities, be it the police of the Department for Work and Pensions, which may put them at risk of arrest.
And then there are the health risks of doing such intimate work, for which it’s almost impossible to protect oneself against COVID-19 infection. “Is there a safe way to do sex work right now? In a word, no,” says Dr Sarah Walsh, gynaecologist and co-founder of ethical condom brand Hanx. “We know that COVID-19 spreads through direct contact with an infected person’s saliva or mucus. Therefore kissing and being intimately close with another person who is infected is highly likely to spread it.”
“We should all be staying at home where possible, but if sex workers are having to see others, then to reduce the risk of infection means keeping as much distance as possible, especially from the mouth and face, and where possible to avoid kissing or rimming as these acts are more likely to spread infected particles.”
Charlotte Rose, a sex worker and sexual trainer who hosts the Rose Talks Sex podcast has herself stopped seeing clients due to the COVID-19 outbreak but acknowledges,“that, just as in any similar zero hours profession, the most desperate will need to carry on. In that case it’s all about damage limitation. Sex workers have some of the strongest immune systems going because we share antibodies with others so frequently but we are not invincible.”
Unfortunately, “the most vulnerable street workers are working regardless”, confirms Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes, some attempting to mitigate risk of infection by wearing masks during sex – “a few of them are trying to role-play around it.” But they are also seeing clients they might once have avoided, such is the desperation to make a living, and that means clients that may have been abusive or exploitative in the past.
For those for whom working is a matter of protecting their livelihood, it’s not just COVID-19 that threatens their well-being. Sex workers that usually co-work in rented flats or pay by the hour rooms for physical safety have been giving up premises because they can’t afford the rent, while others are separating out to obey social distancing rules, so leaving them at greater risk of assault and sexual violence.
“One of the things about sex work is you’re always trying to stay as physically safe as possible which is why people work in brothels,” says Adams. “But the laws make it impossible to do that so people’s safety from physical violence is now at greater risk.”
“The fact is, most of the women we have talked with are desperate with no money beyond the next few days, the next two weeks at best.” In particular migrant sex workers, many of whom are asylum seekers who can only claim £37.75 a week from the state in benefits are even more at risk, says Adams, who is concerned they will now offer services they’d had previously not entertained, for an even lower rate, just to survive. While a group of 98 MPs has now written to the Treasury asking for NRPF – “no resource to public funds” status – to be given to some migrants as a condition of their leave to the remain in the UK, it makes no reference to sex workers.
Despite the loss to earnings that all sex workers face, those like Charlotte Rose feel strongly that sex workers should social-distance and where appropriate, self-isolate right now and sees the decrease in work everyone who engages in contact sex work as an opportunity for sex workers to diversify and so protect their income.
“Right now, we should be looking to diversify our skill set to offer more skills on webcam and online, and to make content for designated adult websites. We’ve been promoting each other’s work online.”
Camming services have certainly seen an uptake in the number of new registered users – Manyvids, which claims to be the world’s largest cam site, says its ‘MV Stars’ new account creation has increased by 31 per cent since the beginning of March, while members sign-ups have increased by 9 per, while Pornhub, which features live cams as part of its offering has reported its worldwide traffic to be up a record 12 per cent compared with February.
But for many it’s not quite as simple as shifting to virtual sex work. Besides needing funds enough to have computer and recording equipment, as both Niki Adams and Charlotte Rose point out, the majority of UK sex workers – up to 75 per cent according to government estimates – are mothers, with their children now at home during the day, where it’s simply not possible nor appropriate for them to be making adult content. Instead, says Rose, “they might grab an hour or so at night when their kids are in bed” to work on something else. But it’s clear it’s unlikely to be enough time to immediately replace the revenue they were making from face to face sessions.
Even where sex workers do use online content marketplaces such as the most popular site Adultwork, Rose counters that payments for content made and sold do not come through quickly enough. “One of the biggest issues is that when you sell content on Adultwork, it still takes a month to get your money from them. They should be offering two weeks’ payment to help people, especially given they have a monopoly.”
The majority of UK sex workers – up to 75 per cent according to government estimates – are mothers
And then there’s the matter of what punters want. 31-year-old IT worker Richard* told me that he regularly pays dominatrices to humiliate him, generally attending a dungeon every couple of weeks, but that all physical meetings have been stopped as of three weeks ago by mutual agreement between him and his mistress. While the pair have switched to camming sessions, for which he is paying a reduced fee, Richard anticipates this ‘could get boring really quickly’. And that’s a worry for those providing the service too.
Mistress Psyche is a 30-year-old dominatrix based in Greenwich, and the author of the dominatrix diary.wordpress.com. While she usually also works in the entertainment industry, both that income and her income from sex work have “vanished more or less over night.” She has been trying to work virtually but is concerned that if people get used to accessing services online, it might change their appetite for what she usually provides, going forward.
“While there’s obviously not enough research out there on what porn does to the brain, I’m concerned that if people are exposed to lots of it during lockdown, it could change their desires and what they associate with how they get pleasure, which in turn might change the mentality of people that use services such as mine.”
“What’s more, from a health perspective, HIV really messed with the way we thought about sex and it would be a shame if Covid stopped people from having sex and connecting with one another. If people start beginning to think that other people are ‘dirty’, it has big implications for mental health and well-being.”
And if there really is no sex work to be had, there is also little to no chance of being able to claim financial support, such as Universal Credit or that now offered to the furloughed self-employed, explains Niki Adams. “People that we have worked with in the past have had their benefits removed the minute someone has found out they are sex worker. Universal Credit isn’t enough to live on anyway which is why so many women especially mothers end up doing sex work in the first place. And then there’s the atrocious five-week wait to access funds. Even if sex workers are technically self-employed, many aren’t registered as such for fear of arrest. You simply can’t say you are a self-employed sex worker. Which is why we so badly need decriminalisation.”
It’s for these reasons that the English Collective of Prostitutes is asking for emergency payments to be made to sex workers, ‘without judgment’ during the COVID crisis. “If we can help the homeless right now with accommodation and aid, we can help sex workers” says Adams.
As with every profession, it’s clear that those at the higher earning end of the spectrum will more easily weather the COVID crisis.
For those earning higher rates, like Mistress Psyche, she remains quietly confident that “sex work is recession-proof”, and doesn’t worry too much about the health risks of returning to work once lockdown restrictions ease up – “If i was worried about catching something I’d be in the wrong job.”
But for the more vulnerable, it is a desperate time.
With no end to lockdown in sight, Sarah* worries about not being able to buy the basics and pay essential bills. “I have no savings and am too afraid to try and claim benefits in case the authorities figure out what I actually do for a living. I lost touch with my family a long time ago. If this goes on into the summer, I simply don’t know who I’ll turn to to survive.”