How can sex workers cope during a pandemic?

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There has been a huge question as to how certain industries will continue to operate during the pandemic, and sex work is at the center of it. The sex trade has already gone through plenty of transformation since the 21st-century wave of technology that saw many of their services transferring online, but physical demand is still high and the most profitable for the majority of sex workers.

More than ever we need to protect the most vulnerable members of our society. Sex workers are already more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases due to the nature of their job and COVID-19 is no exception. 

Some sex workers are adapting their services to online by joining popular explicit webcam sites. This is even becoming supported in mainstream media where popular porn subscription sites like OnlyFans are encouraged to make “easy bucks” in these trying times. 

However, not all sex workers are privileged enough to make the switch. The ability of sex workers to protect themselves at this time is significantly lower than someone who has access to health services, community support, and legal as well as economic advantages.   

Because sex workers are already a vulnerable group of people when it comes to economic standing, there is more pressure for them to defy safety standards so they can maintain their stream of income. 

This is a global phenomenon. In Japan clusters of adult video actresses and actors have tested positive putting an end to many anticipated shoots. When questioned why producers of these videos insisted on continuing business as usual during a pandemic, they reported it was due to the number of livelihoods on the line. This includes not only talent but production staff as well.  

Since then numerous sources report losing their jobs as a result of so many positive tests in the industry. So an already incredibly vulnerable population is being targeted for unemployment and heightened risk of catching and spreading COVID-19.

However, several variables go into determining this statistic. A study on HIV infection among female sex workers reports that the very nature of their job may not be the largest determining factor in their likeliness to become infected. 

The study says macrostructural factors such as migration, stigma, and work environment  (including the prevalence of violence, enforced testing, and community support) have a greater role to play in a sex worker’s safety than presumed.  

This hints that perhaps establishing a better, more supportive environment for sex workers will decrease their likelihood of jeopardizing their health. This would advocate for a focus on decriminalizing the sex trade so a healthier community can surround these men and women.  

Currently, no environmental safety nets have been put in place for people in these circumstances. The majority of helplines for people in the sex trade are underfunded and underequipped charities. 

The 2005 StreetLife project which aims to help women in sex work financially during the epidemic has delivered over 40 meals and 10 mobile devices to women seeking to convert their work online but who have no financial padding to do so. 

Overall charities like StreetLife are seeing a 69% rise in its dealings with women from the sex trade since the pandemic. This indicates an unprecedented need in this population for help that has gone ignored for centuries.  

More than ever this pandemic is revealing the holes within our systems that oppress marginalized groups. It is not these men and women’s “choice” of this profession that is increasing their likelihood of infection, but the stigma and unsupportive life environment they are surrounded by and have no control of.

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