A lot of the job in full-service sex work is just trying not to die — and the coronavirus pandemic is making that even more difficult.
Sex work can be extremely dangerous. One study estimated that street-based full-service sex workers are 60 to 100 times more likely to be murdered than women who don’t do sex work. However, it’s impossible to get specific numbers because the murders of sex workers often go unreported and uninvestigated.
The death of a sex worker, especially a trans woman of color, is a common occurrence that’s met with little outrage. The police are yet another source of violence for sex workers.
So all we have are ourselves and one another. And virtually all full-service sex workers take some kind of precaution against getting murdered, whether it’s carrying a weapon or pepper spray, requiring references, sharing blacklists (including word of mouth) or any number of other methods.
I have the privilege to be able to screen clients, which many more-marginalized sex workers can’t do because they can’t afford to turn away clients. Similarly, when COVID-19 hit, a lot of sex workers (including myself) stopped seeing clients in person. Of course, the ability to stop seeing clients (at least for now) is a privilege that many sex workers don’t have ― I was only able to qualify for unemployment based on my straight-world freelance writing work.
Since then, the U.S. government has offered minimal support, and governors have begun encouraging businesses to reopen in states even as the rates of COVID-19 are increasing. Now, as I’m watching the COVID-19 numbers tick up on the news, I am terrified I might have to go back to work.
I am also thinking about all the sex workers who have had to continue working ― and no doubt make up a portion of the over 200,000 Americans who died from COVID-19 ― because a lot of us don’t have the ability to take time off before our money runs out. (Of course, the world will never know how many sex workers die of COVID-19 because we can’t be open about our jobs, and even when we are, our families may decide to cover up what we do.)
The decision of when to go back to work ― if you even have the privilege to be able to make that decision ― is not unique to sex workers. However, sex workers are facing extreme and unique circumstances when it comes to deciding to work during the pandemic.
First, COVID-19 disproportionately affects the most marginalized people, so it will also disproportionately affect sex workers as a whole, as we tend to be more marginalized.
Specifically, sex workers are disproportionately likely to be disabled, which means many of us are at higher risk of complications (or death) due to the coronavirus. I started sex work after becoming too sick to work other jobs. Luckily, I really like it! What kept me from doing it sooner was the danger and the lifelong stigma. Then I got sicker, and eventually the danger of sex work was less than the danger of not having the money for my medications, so I started seeing clients.
Another problem is that because of the nature of our jobs, the risk of contracting COVID-19 from clients is high. There’s just no way to do what we do without a decent amount of contact (though sex workers are geniuses and people are trying). But the defining feature of full-service sex work is the, uhhh, closeness of the contact.
A lot of people assume that full-service sex workers can just move their business online into OnlyFans pages or camming or other virtual services to solve that problem. There are many reasons this isn’t a solution.
First, while all of these are under the umbrella of “sex work,” the business models are completely different. And yes, sex workers all have some kind of business model whether the model involves accountants and LLCs, or certain areas you frequent so clients know where to find you.
Another problem with transitioning to online work is it’s not possible for the tons of us who now suddenly have kids at home because schools and day cares are closed or have remote learning.
Online work also pays much less than full-service work, especially when you are first starting out online. There are a ton of variables. Of course, those who already have a following (and there are full-service sex workers who do) have the easiest time making the change financially.
However, a lot of people have to work a full 40 hours to make what they usually make in just one hour offline. Even though OnlyFans is having a cultural moment, it still takes a decent chunk of the money you do make, and with the market so saturated, it’s much harder to make money unless you already are well-known in some way.
For me, all of those things are an issue, but primarily the fact that with my kids being home all the time, I’m not able to create the content needed for a consistently active online presence. My illnesses also make it impossible for me to make content at the pace needed to make enough money on OnlyFans.
So here I am, trying to figure out whether it is safe to start seeing clients again. On the one hand, I am in a state with low infection rates. On the other, my immune suppressants put me at such high risk that I need to be careful. Today, I have my immediate needs met. But there are bills coming due that I don’t know how we’re going to pay.
Almost all my local friends are back seeing clients, and I have started to set up socially distant outdoor dinner dates, but haven’t gone on any yet as I write this. (Yes, people do pay me sometimes to just have dinner ― I’m incredibly charming! Though I will be honest: It’s not what the majority of clients are looking for.)
I may start requiring recent COVID-19 tests, but even this plan has a lot of problems because of the wait to get results and the period of time between when someone takes a test and when we meet up. As I write this, I don’t know how else I will be able to make ends meet. So I will likely do what sex workers do every day: risk my life to pay my bills.
It’s not all doom and gloom. There is no one better to go through an apocalypse with than sex workers. The pandemic has once again shown that sex workers are the backbone of the left as many of us are organizing (and funding) mutual aid efforts for ourselves and our communities. Just because the system sees us as disposable doesn’t mean that we are. Sex workers are super-survivors and I do have faith that whatever happens, and whatever incalculable losses we endure, sex workers will get through it.