Sex workers facing economic hit amid coronavirus fears

Coronavirus Source: Pixabay

Many industries are facing a sharp downturn amid coronavirus fears, and sex workers are among those hit. Many fear they won’t be able to supplement their lost income and may be pushed into riskier options. Sex workers open up to The Feed on what the coronavirus means for them.

The coronavirus has affected workplaces across the country, especially those who work in casual work and the gig economy. In these days of social distancing, sex workers are feeling the stark economic impacts of COVID-19.

Industry representatives and sex workers have told The Feed they fear this downturn in business may drive some towards clients and practices they would otherwise deem too risky in normal circumstances. And for some who regularly work with disabled clients, they feel it's just not possible to proceed with regular bookings.

With a large section of Australian sex workers operating as independent contractors, relief measures announced by the federal government, like additional cover for sick leave, doesn't currently apply. Many are concerned about how they will cope in the coming months.

"Given the stigma that surrounds our work, we often have difficulty accessing mainstream services when we are in crisis."

The projection of the number of workers in the industry vary with the AIDS Council of New South Wales (ACON) estimating there are up to 20,000 people working in sex work any one year, while other research has suggested there are between 1,500 and 10,000 sex workers in New South Wales at any one time.

The uncertainty surrounding work has become an ever present reality. Scarlet Alliance spokesperson, Gala Vanting told The Feed “sex workers are already being financially impacted by COVID-19.” 

“As casual workers, sex workers don't have access to sick leave or the current federal stimulus measures, so there is no safety net for the loss of income we have experienced and will continue to experience,” she said.

“The impact of this is disproportionately felt by lower-income sex workers and those who do not have other employment options, or for whom sex work is the best option for their circumstances.”

There’s been growing fears among many of Australia’s sex work industry, and plans are already scheduled for a industry wide meeting on Thursday. Vanting says the loss of income on sex workers can lead some to take on work with clients they would prefer not to. 

“The inability to access any state-based financial support means that we may experience restrictions on our ability to be self-determined at work,” she said.

Vanting says there are sex worker peer organisations that provide many types of support to sex workers. The support ranges from counselling, information-sharing and recommendations for staying safe at work. But she says outside of the industry, "Given the stigma that surrounds our work, we often have difficulty accessing mainstream services when we are in crisis."

There’s been an emergence of crowdfunders raising money for sex workers who industry leaders say have a lack of government support. The crowd funder so far has up to nine thousand dollars. River has friends who work in the industry, and on Sunday was thinking of a way to supplement their loss of income. 

It all began with a post on Instagram as River was checking to see if any sex workers were in need of an emergency fund. 

“I got maybe five people reaching out, and then once I started the fundraiser more people started reaching out. I think I've got close to 40 people now that needs support,” she said.

“Some people need emergency funds this week to pay for things like rent, medication, bills and food. Other people are just anticipating that they will need support in the coming weeks and months.”

“I will likely have my electricity turned off first”

Toni works at brothels, and is already seeing a shift. They saw the news about the upcoming stimulus package but as an independent worker who doesn’t have Centrelink, they are resigned.

They told The Feed, “The government has never done anything right by sex workers.” 

Toni is frustrated with the lack of industry support, as their regular brothels have emptied, they say there have been no precautions to protect workers from the virus and others have simply closed their doors for the foreseeable future. 

“It's always other workers supporting workers, setting up GoFundMe’s to help workers struggling to pay for rent and bare essentials. We are not seen as casual workers or legitimate workers at all by a majority of the population especially those in power that could easily help,” they said. 

At the moment, Toni isn’t working, and says “it's all very stressful”, as they try to scrape by with the odd content sale and by selling their art, and is worried about what the next few weeks might mean for them. 

“I'm not actively working in clubs or brothels as it's dead everywhere for the most part and would end up costing me money to be there,” they said.

“I'm currently offering my skills as a photographer, artist, landscaper, and handyman to try and get by.  

“I will likely have my electricity turned off first and if I miss more than one month's rent I will probably be evicted. And it's near impossible for me to get a "regular" job because there's huge gaps in my resume where I've been a sex worker so it makes me look unreliable or lazy.”

“A lot of my clients that aren't traveling are disabled, and I would be way too scared to come into contact with them”

Heather Hunter is an independent sex worker who relies on clients pre-booking private sessions with her, and during the last few weeks she’s noticed a down turn, and she told The Feed that “90 percent of my bookings have been canceled.”

“I see a lot of traveling businessmen that aren't traveling for work anymore,” she said.

Hunter says she has no idea what to expect over the next month, and is afraid to travel to see some of her clients more at risk with coronavirus.

“A lot of my clients that aren't traveling are disabled, and I would be way too scared to come into contact with them because I am a relatively healthy young person, it's very unlikely that I would show symptoms,” she said.

“I would hate to infect anybody that it could actually cause harm to.”

The lack of clients means Hunter might need to create content online, something she says is a little scary, because of what being public-facing means for her safety. 

“Lots of people don't realize that being a sex worker, there's actually a lot of different things that go into it with my safety. Where I don't want my real name, and I don’t want my face out there too much, which it already is on my advertising and things,” she said.

“I've had a couple of stalkers in the past who managed to track me down through my private personal social media which I've deleted a lot of or completely turned to private. 

“And that's really scary to have people either follow me home or write me letters in public forums that I didn't expect to hear from them.”

The suddenness of outbreak means Hunter doesn’t have any safety net right now, because she says it hasn’t allowed for sex workers to “prepped” for a down period, instead it’s left her worried about her living situation. 

“Things like bond and moving fees and stuff isn't something that I had anticipated being hard for me and now it's impossible. That's a very scary fact that I am not sure of my housing, which is a position I've never been in my life,” she said.

“I don't think I'm able to worry about that. I just have to assume that I will sort it out because if I start worrying about it, I won't be able to get anything done. I have to manifest what I want to get because otherwise, I'm fucked.”

Cameron Cox, the CEO of SWOP, remains hopeful despite the concerns surrounding the impact of the coronavirus. He says Australian sex workers have managed to get through the HIV epidemic with “so little HIV transmission within the industry,” and continue to survive.

“When HIV first hit, I was sex working. I was living down with my partner in Elizabeth Bay and our income went down to zero for quite a while. So we coped and got through it, and are still alive,” he said.