Sex workers can’t seek government relief funds. Many are already marginalized. Some are keeping in touch with clients virtually during the coronavirus epidemic, while others are looking anywhere for help.
Maxine Doogan, president of the Erotic Service Providers Legal Education and Research Project, isn’t mincing words about the impact that the coronavirus will have on sex workers.
“There’s just no business,” she says. “It’s not happening.”
Doogan works as a prostitute and dominatrix (all subjects in this article are described with the job titles of their choosing, and links to their social media profiles may contain explicit content). In recent years she’s seen her colleagues slammed by a wave of challenges — most recently federal legislation called FOSTA-SESTA. Though the legislation’s purported purpose was to criminalize the hosting of content that facilitates sex trafficking, its practical impact has been to severely hamper sex workers’ safety by making it nearly impossible for them to organize and communicate online. That legislative setback was, in some ways, a preview of the adversity they now face with quarantine and social distancing mandates.
“With FOSTA-SESTA, so many people lost their housing within a month,” she says. “A lot of people lost their housing pretty immediately, they lost their business, their ability to feed themselves. We’re going to see that with this quarantine, no doubt.”
While few are likely to escape the health and economic impact of the new coronavirus, individuals and families supported by sex work are uniquely limited in their ability to seek relief, since their work exists in an underground economy and they could risk legal consquences if they’re forthcoming about their sources of income.
“Sex workers with HIV are particularly vulnerable,” says Jenny Ross. “People of color are always more vulnerable. People who are just trying to survive.”
Sex workers are disproportionately likely to be members of a sexual orientation or gender minority, so economic and health risks will be felt more greatly by LGBTQ+ communities. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, one fifth of all trans people and half of black trans women reported engaging in sex work. Transgender Americans report double the unemployment rate of the general population; a quarter have experienced housing discrimination; and a fifth reported being denied care because they are trans.
Now, on top of those challenges, many longtime clients have stopped calling. Organizations like The Professional Association for Erotic and Sexual Service Providers in Germany have urged members to “temporarily stop any activities that bring them into physical contact with clients.”
That physical contact is highly risky right now is no surprise to many experienced professionals, whose work demands meticulous attention to hygiene. With income slowing and their work becoming highly risky, they must now rely on informal support networks that they have with clients and colleagues.
Fera Lorde, a chapter representative with Sex Workers Outreach Project in Brooklyn, notes that many sex workers already disinfect shared work spaces with medical grade supplies, and have extensive precautions in place for reducing the spread of STIs. (Nevada, for example, has extensive testing requirements in place for brothels.)
“Our livelihood depends on our ability to be healthy, as we have no sick pay,” Lorde says, “and on the health and well-being of our clients and their desire to continue seeing us for services.”
“I have older customers that I’m concerned about their health,” says Maxine Doogan. “I’m keeping connections with people — email, and text, and calling. It’s what we had to do when we lost our websites. We called each other, we called our customers, we kept connected.”
What’s more, many LGBTQ+ sex workers are well-versed in rapidly adopting new practices to prevent the spread of a novel virus.