How to support sex workers during the coronavirus pandemic
Like other precariously employed people, sex workers have been severely impacted by the outbreak.
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With countries around the world going into lockdown, and the economy taking a hit, many workers are experiencing financial hardship. Although governments around are pledging billions to help businesses survive the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and keep on salaried staff who have been forced into isolation, many freelancers and those on zero-hour contracts are left unsure where their next pay check will come from. Sex workers, an often overlooked self-employed industry, are among the worst affected.
With little in the way of legal protection for sex workers who are seeing mass cancellations as social distancing takes hold, many are pivoting to online content, taking advantage of options like camming, phone sex and OnlyFans. But for those who rely on in-person encounters, including strippers and escorts, their stream of income has been jeopardised. Montreal-based sex worker Krissy Phoenix says that she will struggle to move her business into digital content because she’s not technically savvy. “I have a hard enough time trying to get my ads up for what I do so I’d find it difficult trying to do camming,” she says.
Hallelujah Annie, a sex worker based in White Rock, Canada, notes that leaks from OnlyFans and other digital content providers are a worry for many and an obstacle to building a network of digital content. “I gave digital content a try for a while but after the OnlyFans hack, I pulled my content and closed my account,” she says. “I have kids and I wasn't prepared to deal with something like that happening.”
Sites like OnlyFans and ManyVids are also up against free streaming sites like Pornhub, who have been giving users living under lockdown free access to premium content. Offers like this can be tempting, especially if your own income has been affected by the pandemic, but -- if you can -- supporting independent cam girls, performers and directors can really help those in the industry, especially when times are tough.
"Money is needed to create a sex safe environment, fair working conditions, and to safeguard sex performers’ human and legal rights," says ethical porn director Erika Lust. Erika shut her Barcelona-based offices when Spain declared a state of emergency two weeks ago and has postponed March and April’s shoots. "Keep in mind that sex work is real work," she adds. "Sex workers worldwide are mainly self-employed and don't have a fixed income. It's important now more than ever to support them -- by donating to charities that are raising funds for them, subscribing to their personal channels, and, most of all, by paying for the porn you watch -- if you can.”
With people shut inside, Erika has seen an 30% increase on her online views. But that has a downside too. Alice Little, a sex worker and influencer based in Nevada, has lost all her in-person bookings for the rest of the month because of the pandemic, and is now trying to make up for the income online. “I create content via Patreon where I have exclusive photos specifically for my Patreons,” she says. “That’s something I’m definitely stepping up. People want to be entertained so a lot of people are now expressing interest in my Patreon and my YouTube. I’m getting record numbers of viewers.”
We are so used to accessing content for free that it can be easy to take for granted that there is someone on the other side who is putting time and labour into producing it. Paying for an OnlyFans subscription, going directly to a sex workers’ website to see what online content they are selling, or paying for a video from an independent porn company is a way to support sex workers that also gives something back to you. For those still earning in lockdown -- but who perhaps don't want to pay for or watch porn -- there's the option of donating to hardship funds. London-based collective SWARM have set up a fund for sex workers in the UK to access. Payments, which can be accessed by messaging @sexworkhive on Twitter or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, are granted at a flat rate of £200 per person, and while they must be sex workers, the collective does not ask people to prove financial hardship. "We don't want to replicate the violence or the culture of disbelief and shame of the benefits system," one member explained.
“Without financial security or any safety net, sex workers are some of the hardest hit by COVID-19,” says SWARM member Lydia Caradonna. “We are particularly vulnerable in a national crisis such as a pandemic because we are not afforded rights like sick pay.”
There are other ways to help individuals more directly too, in the form of PayPal donations or gift vouchers for food and other essentials. “Any generosity outside of what a sex worker charges is always a blessing, even if it’s 20 extra,” says Los Angeles-based Nikki Chris. “That 20 extra goes towards food, a small bill, dog food, laundry soap, energy drinks. I think people forget that we are human, and we still have to pay bills, we still have to eat. Some of us have Amazon wish lists and most of us have our PayPal accounts that you can see on our websites so throwing a few bucks that way helps too. It all helps, and we understand how to stretch a dollar.”
Within the sex worker community itself, people are pulling together to help each other too, whether that’s by starting up unions or helping with grocery shopping. Many are getting creative with the kind of content they create, offering love letters and Skype dates as well as moving into influencer marketing on Instagram and YouTube. Sex worker turned entrepreneur Lydia Dupra (AKA The Heaux Mentor) knows all about transferring skills in creative and monetizable ways. "We're so adaptable and I think it has a lot to do with how many skills sex workers actually possess outside of doing the sex work,” she says. “What I recommend is looking at the skills that you've already learnt. Sex workers are really good at marketing and they're really good at customer service. Sex work is honestly really the last thing that a sex worker does. There's much more involved than that.”
If your own income has been affected by the pandemic, making donations and paying for content may not be accessible for you. You can still want to be a good ally to sex workers by sharing links and resources so that others can donate. Breaking the stigma around sex work and campaigning for decriminalisation are other routes to making sure sex workers survive in times like this and are provided for in the future. You can continue to donate, speak up and campaign once we are out the other side of this pandemic. Sex workers are being impacted by social distancing at the moment, but it’s likely many will continue to struggle financially in the months after the pandemic is over as their clients’ incomes are also affected.
While times are tough for everyone, there’s also an opportunity to come together and show support and solidarity across communities. As Alice Little puts it: “It's important for people to be kind during this time. To keep in mind that lots of folks are struggling. This isn't just a me situation. We have to think outside of ourselves.”