Sex work is not just work – it’s intimate labor, which means that every year sex workers are at greater risk for the common colds and flus than your typical customer service worker. With the world’s first global pandemic in over ten years, sex workers are responding to a situation already cloaked in health fears, hysteria, insufficient institutional response, with the on-going challenges of being an underserved population.
The spread of the virus since December
The Coronavirus, or COVID-19, found its way onto the world stage when, on December 31, government authorities in Wuhan, China announced they were treating dozens of cases of a new virus. On December 11 the first death from the virus was confirmed and the country responded by quarantining millions. By January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared it a global health emergency. Since then, the reactions have been staggering and stark. Worldwide, the number of confirmed cases is reaching 100,000, with 3,300+ deaths being reporting. Italy alone has had 9,000 cases, resulting in the closure of schools and universities, and the closing of national borders.
The United States has also been hit by the virus, and the ramifications on day to day life have varied dramatically by region. Nationally, there are over 1300 confirmed cases with 38 associated deaths in five states, and across the country schools and workplaces have closed, advisories have been posted, and people are taking significant precaution to limit their physical contact with others.
For people who operate in a non-essential services market which often includes intimate physical contact, the impact has been broad and swift.
Corporate bottom lines shape the travel of clients and providers
The resulting uncertainty has also hit the world markets hard. The Dow Jones, an index of 30 major stocks which is often used as a proxy for the health of the broader financial market, fell almost 2,000 points in one day – the biggest point drop in a single day ever. But these haven’t been only economic falls – one company currently testing a drug response to the virus was a top performing stock last month.
In efforts to limit physical spread of the virus, many companies, including Twitter, Google, and Facebook (as well as the federal government) have all restricted employee travel in various ways. For areas of the adult entertainment industry who are often reliant on conferences and travelers, these cancellations are really starting to add up.
“Most of my regulars don’t live [in New York] but travel here regularly for business,” said one full-service worker who declined to be named. “But when they get the memo to cancel all non-essential travel, it means I get an email to cancel. My bottom line has taken the hit, too, you just won’t see it in Forbes.”
In the hardest hit areas, local providers are struggling for how to adjust with only their local client base. Washington state has been hit the hardest, with the highest number of both confirmed cases and resulting deaths. Solana Sparks, a provider based out of Seattle, is already feeling the toll.
“At first when this started my partner [also a sex worker], thought ‘oh my god, we won’t get any new clients, we have to start saving’ and I thought it would be fine. This week I realized it’s not going to be fine. There’s a pretty good portion of my work that are people who are traveling, and everyone’s travels plans have been cancelled indefinitely now.”
But even for providers who see local clients, self-quarantining and companies asking people to work from home is meaning for those who don’t need to board a plane, Sparks is still feeling the squeeze. “I do think that everyone is just scared now.”
Intersections of the affected are already adding up
Especially for sex workers who are also caregivers, the quarantine has been additionally difficult. “My partner is a parent and school was cancelled, so she has to stay home with her child,” Sparks explained. “Working parents now have to be home with their kids and don’t have incoming money to afford childcare.”
But the need to be vigilant against unnecessary exposure is still on the forefront of peoples’ minds. “I’m forgiving all last-minute cancellations. I don’t want to get sick, so I’ll say ‘[if you’re not feeling well] please stay home.’”
But workers are resilient and continuing to adjust their work. “I don’t show my face intentionally. Part of me wants to make porn, because it’s all going to move online for a bit.” And while camming or selling clips, it's a venue which takes a level of privacy and tech access that many sex workers, especially those most struggling, lack.
Sparks also noted that it’s difficult to understand what is a precaution and what is misinformation. “I also think there’s a lot of hysteria to some extent and I don’t know how to weigh it.”
The spread of stigma and the myth of sexual disease vectors
Sex workers have also historically been targeted as “vectors of disease” for a variety of different concerns, and been blamed for everything from the spread of HIV/AIDS, to syphilis, and other sexually transmitted infections. This connection to public health has been used as an excuse to criminalize, stigmatize, register, forcibly test and at times quarantine people who trade sex, and is now largely debunked as the purview of SWERF feminists and anti-prostitution activists – not rooted in fact.
Even today, 26 states across the country include mandatory HIV testing upon a prostitution-related arrest, sometimes resulting in the public outing of that person’s HIV status.
Sex workers, though, have often been the ones on the forefront of sexual health information, including how to keep things sterilized: “I feel like I have to go above and beyond right now saying that we’re not changing anything necessarily. I have always had very strong cleanliness and sanitation practices – I sterilize my toys, I sanitize my space, my counters – the biggest thing I’m doing differently now is that I’m making everyone wash their hands when they come to see me first.”
Going beyond the incalls to provide assistance marginalized workers
Most vulnerable to the health challenges of sex work, of course, are those who are already at the greatest risk – folks working in public spaces without access to hand washing, and people who lack access to traditional healthcare services. Sex work is intimate labor, and for most is it also informal – meaning a lack of basic labor protections like sick time, health insurance, or workers' compensation for getting sick or hurt on the job. While Washington has expanded unemployment benefits, as well as created a special open enrollment period for people who are currently uninsured, this remains just out of reach for many as a venue for support.
Organizations which engage in street-based, mobile outreach like HIPS in Washington, DC, have already been feeling the challenges, especially in how rapidly things are changing. "In terms of outreach, we're operating on an 'everything is changing every couple of hours' basis," said Outreach Manager Alexandr/a Bradley. (In the time between setting up a phone call with Bradley and actually getting on the phone, the Mayor declared a state of emergency in the District.)
In Seattle, the Green Light Project has been facing these same questions, as well as the challenge of being an all-volunteer organization, including many people from community. “We have volunteers who are immune compromised, or who care for elders in their lives,” said Sparks, who also volunteers with GLP.
"It’s already hard to serve people when we don’t have the basic things we need to support folks. Our volunteers are saying ‘it’s actually a huge risk for me right now,’ so we’re trying to figure out how to address that. We don’t have workers compensation or any sort of protections and a lot of people don’t have great health insurance."
Similarly for HIPS, where the line between staff, volunteer, and client are fluid, it can become a difficult balance. "Especially because our staff and peers are also who we serve, things are just as complicated for our staff as for our clients," said Bradley.
"There's no real barrier, so everybody's trying to do their very best for everybody to stay safe."
You can donate to HIPS here, but they also requested you think about contributing to the DC-based NJNP, which provides housing for homeless and housing unstable trans sex workers, and is led and run by trans women, and will certainly be hit especially hard by this.
Sex workers are, of course, not the only ones with specific harm reduction needs who are often underserved. For people who are homeless and housing unstable more broadly, it has never been more clear the level of privilege required to enact health best practices.
Both organizations remain undaunted, though they're adjusting their practices. "We're still going out," said Bradley. "We have pretty extensive protocols like using gloves for everything, having hand sanitizer on the van, and washing your hands when you come in the building."
And community groups across the country are doing their best showing that sex workers are incredible at showing up for other sex workers. Mutual aid funds are popping up from SWOP-Brooklyn, to GLP, to an emergency fund in Detroit.
But beyond a person’s bottom line, there are many proactive measures a person can take to reduce the vulnerability to exposure. BesD, a sex worker group based in Germany, has put together a quick sheet on recommendations for sex workers and the Harm Reduction Coalition and Higher Ground Harm Reduction just released their recommendations for people who use substances on avoiding unnecessary exposure.
And Sparks reminds all of us that in the end, the two most resilient things are always going to be sex workers and the desire for sex, especially in times of crisis.
“As things get stressed out, we can be a lot of peoples’ outlets.”