Sex Workers in the Crisis of Covid

Published 04/06/2020
Author(s)  Kevin Wong, Kris Christmann, Gavin Bailey

Teela Sanders, University of Leicester.

There appears to be three residing issues for sex workers across the world in the pandemic. First the direct and immediate loss of income, pushing them to the economic margins of society. Second, the paring back (or in some cases withdrawal) of services for health and welfare. Thirdly, the risk of increased surveillance from police as they enforce social distancing, with the ramping up of stigma towards sex workers as conduits for disease.

As skeleton staffing of health care services for sex workers persists, only those with symptoms are likely to get access to treatment, and outreach services have transformed into emergency provision deliveries to where people are staying, as food and basic essentials take priority over sexual health. Despite some health care delivery taking place to sex workers, they will ultimately miss out on regular health interventions such as sexual and reproductive services, drug interventions – particularly accessing scripts at a time when normal systems are not in operation, and of course a massive reduction in mental health support. There will of course be some people still working through the pandemic because they have no income source, and where there are no health interventions, this group are at serious risk.

In the UK, the National Policing Chief Council on Sex Work and Prostitution guidance firmly supports protection over enforcement, and that welfare and safeguarding is the primary role of the police. However, as this guidance has little power, consistency across 43 police forces in England and Wales is tricky. These are strange times for the police as their role as public health enforcers is alarming and most likely to be misread, poorly understood and out of their comfort zone in terms of ordinary public order duties. With very few people in street sex work areas, the online spaces are those which may be surveyed. Trawling sex workers online profiles has long been established as not effective in spotting exploitation or organised crime, but police analysts may be using this technique to spot if direct sex is being sold. However, we know from the Beyond the Gaze project, that online negotiations and discussions happen between provider and purchaser, and that these connections do not necessarily mean real life contact is being made. Often these relationships are longer term, regulars etc, who will be making contact for social reasons and not to arrange meetings.

The online adult entertainment platforms are boldly reinforcing the message to ‘stay home’ and are deterring escorting in the physical sense of meet ups, but instead promoting their webcamming and online sexual interaction services. These platforms are providing enhanced technology to do this, bonus points for setting up new camming services during this period, and supporting hardship funds set up by activist and support projects such as SWARM and National Ugly Mugs. No doubt there is some element of this message being reinforced by the police to adult entertainment platforms as well as those frontline officers patrolling urban streets. The police must be seen to uphold the government guidelines relating to social distancing and sex is not an essential service.

Yet whilst the social distancing mantra is acceptable in order to keep everyone as safe as can be, the historical stigma attached to selling sex, and particularly women selling sex, continues in the form of treating them as spreaders of disease. Under the Contagious Diseases Act 1864 women ‘prostitutes’ were regulated, usually through Lock Hospitals, to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. There are concerns from the sex work community that COVID could be the modern day replacement and could lead to policing those selling sex further, as COVID restrictions become another mechanism of exclusion for those who do not have networks, resources, mainstream jobs or access to welfare systems. These are certainly migrant sex workers and those who do not have a wage from other income. In a country where criminalisation of sex work continues, the COVID measures could be used against the most vulnerable, who depend on an informal invisible economy which has been temporarily shut down. It has never been considered that those who want to buy sex would simply not be there, wiping out the demand and financial flow of income to sex workers. Even before the COVID crisis, in jurisdictions where paying for sex is made a crime, there is still plenty of exchange of sex for money as we know the law is not a deterrent in the sex market. But the pandemic has been a major turn off, a mega disincentive to purchase sex, and this has hit the unwaged, invisible informal economy workers very hard. For sex workers, the lack of work and the restrictions have been unprecedented. In systems where sex work is not recognised as legitimate work, this group have not been considered in any recovery plan, emergency provisions or government schemes.

There was already a crisis in provision of health and support services for sex workers, with a decade of austerity extensively reducing specialist services, dedicated outreach, or the development of new online services to reach individuals (netreach) to address the switch to working online. COVID makes this situation worse and becomes another barrier to providing health care, drug intervention programmes and prevention services. Sex workers will have even less services available, as drop in’s, outreach vans, and street based services all change the way they work to protect their own staff, abide by government guidelines and deal with the changing needs to sex workers. Yet in all of this the dedicated health and safety workers have the well being of sex workers at the fore of their missions, creatively changing their services, adapting their capabilities for service delivery, and providing support to access complex new and existing benefit systems, vouchers, food banks and basic supplies to protect the people who often have very little safety nets. Shifting funding to frontline organisations in the sex work community could immediately address the absence of a recovery plan for those truly marginalised.