Caitlin O’Donoghue investigates how sex workers have been further impoverished and endangered by the government’s pandemic response.
Far from being the great social leveller Boris Johnson’s government suggested at the beginning of lockdown, the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated existing social inequalities. Inevitably, this has disproportionately affected those the state has already ‘left behind’, particularly potent in the lived realities of sex workers. Situated at the destructive intersections of capitalism, the patriarchy and racism, sex workers are among some of the most marginalised in our societies. And yet, as pointed out in the opening of Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s thrilling and formidable work Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Worker Rights, they exist among us:
‘People who sell sex are in your staff cafeteria, your political party, your after-school club committee, your doctor’s waiting room, your place of worship. Sex workers are incarcerated inside immigration detention centres, and sex workers are protesting outside them.’
The struggle for the protection of sex workers’ rights is not a new fight. Famously the oldest profession, sex workers have been calling for labour rights and a voice in left-wing movements for decades. Among the movements where they have been met with animosity is, regrettably, the fringes of feminism. Many radical feminists advocate for policies which directly harm sex workers: aiming to dismantle the prostitution industry based on the belief that the trade upholds male supremacy, with little concern for the sex workers on the ground right now. This must change. Sex workers should be at the forefront of intersectional feminist analysis, not as afterthoughts or symbolic gestures, but as an empowered collective with the platform to create change.
The COVID-19 crisis has further exposed the deep injustices which sex workers are forced to navigate. No strangers to the anxiety that comes with infection, many sex workers have been engaged in a fight for survival, either exposing themselves and others to the virus or falling into poverty. Underlying conditions and a lack of access to public health, due to stigma or ‘illegal’ status, leave many sex workers susceptible to the serious consequences of COVID- 19. As well as this, the government’s neoliberal agenda has placed the responsibility of handling contact with the virus firmly in the individual’s hands. The duty to contain the virus lies with us, by the government’s logic, but for many there is no choice. Sex workers have been left with both the psychological burden of spreading the virus, and of navigating poverty in these scary and dangerous circumstances.
The government’s response to this dilemma has been wholly inadequate. They have suggested either to move work online or navigate the shambles that is Universal Credit. Online work is not easy, or even an option, for many in the sex industry. The digital divide remains persistent as ever, with 5 million people in the UK having not used the internet in the last three months. For those who can move onto sites such as OnlyFans this is no simple task: building up a client base from nothing in a highly diluted market with little knowledge of your financial worth means many don’t find success. Some are parents or have caring responsibilities, and with children increasingly at home, don’t have the time or space to work. For these, then, their only choice may be to claim Universal Credit. And yet, this is hardly a solution.
With the stigma and criminalisation attached to the sex industry, interaction with authorities can come with fear of persecution or deportation. Furthermore, the intricacies of the system leave many not knowing or understanding their rights. Austerity measures decimating local authorities over the last decade have left fewer staff on hand to offer support. The government’s COVID-19 policy of paying claimants an up-front loan for the first five weeks means the already measly monthly instalments are reduced each subsequent month. In addition, for sex workers with more than two children, the child limit is capped at two, with the highly immoral ‘rape clause’ retraumatising many survivors . The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the inadequacy of the welfare system, and the complete lack of regard the government has for sex workers’ wellbeing and livelihoods.
And yet, our prison state fails this industry in more ways than the welfare system. While in the UK the sale of sex is not illegal, many activities around it, such as kerb selling are. This perpetuates a classist narrative of sex work. High-end escorting, with single women in their own apartment, is legal while survival street work is not. This also puts more sex workers at risk of the violence of predators. Working with other women can not only give sex workers a sense of solidarity but a very real protection and safety network. With a decreased demand, sex workers are already vulnerable to increased violence. The impoverishment that comes with less clients on the streets translates directly into physical vulnerability. Sex workers may be more inclined to accept engaging in sex with potentially dangerous men who they otherwise may not. And the criminalisation of a myriad of activities that sex workers inevitably engage in means many don’t feel safe reporting instances of violence to the police. The state violence perpetuated by criminalisation cannot be separated from violence perpetrated by predators. Decriminalisation of all sex work is the first step, lifting the industry out of society’s dark spots, so the social inequalities sex workers face can be handled in the open.
While we have all been impacted by COVID-19, many sex workers have found themselves pushed further into society’s bleak margins. The government’s neglect is clear, but signs of hope still exist. Mutual aid groups, such as SWARM, have set up £200 relief grants. The crippling effects of a hyper-capitalist economy with a withering welfare net show that we can no longer rely on the state for support. But community organising has provided vital survival funds, and momentum for future organising. Sex workers must be protected against the inadequacies of a society still governed by capitalist and patriarchal forces, and a state which does nothing for them.
Artwork by Amelia Elson.