The precarisation of sex workers during the COVID-19 pandemic
Sex workers around the world are unable to work because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have turned to digital sex work but many are in increasingly precarious situations and are excluded from receiving support from their governments.
Sex workers around the world have been hard hit by the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdowns, especially those involved in direct forms of sex work. Porn shoots have been cancelled, strip clubs and brothels have been closed, and many sex workers have ended up on the streets or trapped in overcrowded red light districts (Chandra, 2020; Hemery, 2020; Nasr, 2020). Some have employed creative methods to continue to earn a living, such as strippers delivering food or porn performers using video chat to film a group scene, but many are facing extremely precarious conditions (Sparks, 2020; Stern, 2020).
Countries around the world are providing financial support for their citizens during the pandemic. However, sex workers are almost completely left out of these provisions, even in countries where sex work is legal or decriminalised, or they can only qualify for support if they meet certain requirements, such as being registered as self-employed or providing proof of income (New Zealand is a notable exception) (Kirschbaum, 2020; Sussman, 2020; Woods, 2020). This leaves out many sex workers, especially those who are the most vulnerable, such as irregular migrants, asylum seekers, LGBTQ people, and survival sex workers (Bettio, et. al., 2020; ICRSE, 2020; Mercer, 2020). In the United States, these exclusions from financial support are even more far-reaching and encompass all forms of sex work or adult businesses (e.g. strip clubs or adult toy stores) (Nolan Brown, 2020). Exclusion from government aid has led to some sex workers breaking isolation orders to see clients because they have no other options to earn the money they need to survive and to support their families (ICRSE, 2020; Nortajuddin, 2020; Topping, 2020). They are working under even more precarious conditions with customers who try to take advantage of the crisis by, for example, bargaining down prices or demanding riskier sex (Mercer, 2020; Ortiz, 2020). Even if clients want to financially support sex workers without seeing them during the lockdown, it may not be possible to send money online. Many payment providers do not allow their services to be used for sexually-oriented goods and will freeze accounts and confiscate money from anyone who violates these rules (Survivors Against SESTA; Valens, 2019).
An option for sex workers during the pandemic is digital forms of sex work. Sex workers can perform for existing customers through video-chat, or sell content such as video clips or photos on various sites (e.g. OnlyFans, SnapChat, or Pornhub.com’s Amateur Program) (Dickson, 2020b). These platforms have seen a spike in both model sign-ups and viewership since the lock-down started (Dickson, 2020a; Zoledziowski, 2020). Another digital option is webcamming. Performers on webcam platforms live-stream videos of themselves to viewers around the world. Depending on the website, viewers can watch freely and give ‘tips’ or pay-per-minute for the show.
Webcamming is often touted as an easy way to make money from home with a flexible schedule. However, that may not be the case. Since the lockdown, webcam performers have reported an increase in viewers but many have also reported fewer paying customers (Delcourt, 2020; Dickson, 2020a; French, 2020). Webcamming sites were already highly-competitive and crowded with performers, and since the outbreak, websites have become oversaturated with new models (both former sex workers and people who are new to sex work) (Dickson, 2020a; Palmer, 2020). Due to the ranking algorithms on some webcam platforms, it can be very difficult for new performers to gain a foothold in the industry, and factors such as race, gender, nationality and languages spoken can also impact a performer’s income (Jones, 2020a; van Doorn & Velthuis, 2017). Potential income for webcam models is often exaggerated, and those who do earn high salaries have invested a lot of time in cultivating a paying fan base. Platforms do not pay minimum wage, they take up to 70% of the earnings, and performers may spend hours online only earning a few cents for their efforts-- far below the purported ‘six-figure’ income (Brasseur & Finez, 2020; Jones, 2020a; Stokes, 2020).
Selling digital content and webcamming are also not an option for many sex workers for a variety of reasons. In some countries, making pornography or webcamming are illegal (though it may not be enforced), and countries which have been accused of having exploitative working conditions have been banned from using webcam platforms (Biddle, 2012). Direct sex work can be done with relative anonymity while digital content comes with the risk that it will be copied or recorded and reposted, which can lead to sex workers being outed (Jones, 2020a). This may not be a risk that individuals are willing to take due to criminalisation and the stigmatisation attached to sex work. Furthermore, many sex workers do not have access to technology, technical skills, or a private space from which to perform. These hurdles can be overcome by working from a webcam studio which provides the space and technology but also takes up to 70% of the earnings from the performer (after platform deductions), and studios are likely not accessible during country-wide lockdowns (Biddle, 2012). Sex worker-led organisations have been helping those in need by providing meals, medication, emotional support or financial aid (Bettio, et. al., 2020; Chandra, 2020; Ortiz, 2020). However, more attention needs to be paid to the government policies which have created these conditions of inequality and marginalisation, and to challenge the discourse that portrays sex workers as victims lacking agency (Ortiz, 2020). The United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has called for countries during the pandemic to “take immediate, critical action, grounded in human rights principles, to protect the health and rights of sex workers”. Some of the measures called for include access to health care, housing, stopping raids on homes and places of work, automatic visa extensions, and involving the sex worker community in public health planning (UNAIDS, 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic is an unfathomable tragedy which has had the greatest impact on the most vulnerable in the world, but it can be an opportunity to rethink society and reshape policies to improve quality of life and protect human rights.