This issue, rogue guest contributor Emma Kelly examines the plight of sex workers in social isolation…
As well as introducing new and terrifying problems for us all, from how we’re going to see unwell or vulnerable relatives to how we’re going to pay rent, the Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted existing issues in the workforce – from the Covid-19 emergency payment being more lucrative than some minimum wage jobs, to the ease of working from home that was previously brushed off by many companies.[restrict]
And sex workers are among the workers affected the most.
Sex workers are one of the most silenced and abandoned areas of the workforce, with those in the industry fighting for their rights to work safely and without condemnation on a daily basis. Many workers already come from marginalised communities, including the trans community, with many being migrants, or living in poverty. But the pandemic has made life even more difficult.
From in-person work being drastically affected by lockdown and social distancing measures, to concern and difficulty in accessing government relief, this is a worrying time for those trying to stay afloat as well as trying to keep safe.
“It has affected the industry on all levels,” says Kate McGrew. Kate is director of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland and a sex worker herself, who can be seen discussing her experience of the sex work industry on shows including RTÉ’s Connected and The Tommy Tiernan Show.
“People are drastically having to change how they work. Everything that was risky about work is exponentially riskier now.”
Government guidelines to stay at home, work from home if possible, stay within 2km of your home and keep two metres away from anybody else severely impacts those who deal primarily with in-person services. And while people are encouraged to find alternative methods of working, that isn’t possible for many workers who are breaking guidelines to ensure they can put food on the table.
Kate says: “What we’re seeing is the repercussions of our need for survival being disregarded for what it is. There’s no real safety net for us. People still have mortgages and mouths to feed.”
While you may think that clients would be dwindling in these lockdown times, sex workers are still getting queries for client services, with many being told that if they don’t meet them, they won’t continue being a client when restrictions lift. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act was introduced in Ireland in 2017, decriminalising the sex workers themselves – although not allowing them to work in pairs or groups for safety, to advertise or to rent a room to a sex worker – but criminalising those who pay for sex, in a system known as the Nordic model.
The criminalisation of clients has led to the pool of those willing to take the risk becoming smaller, making those client relationships are more valuable than ever. On its website, SWAI advises that in-person workers who must continue with their work refrain from kissing, employ non face-to-face positions like doggy and cowgirl to limit contact and insist on the use of condoms, as well as cleaning any surfaces that clients have touched. Another route they are advised to consider, however, is online work.
Sites likes OnlyFans – the subscription-based platform where users can sell and purchase content, the majority of the adult variety – have experienced a surge in sign-ups, from sex workers and amateurs alike, since stay at home measures were introduced.
London-based Rebecca Crow’s main work is running her OnlyFans account, and she has noticed an uptick in creators on the platform. “Loads more people have turned to it, people are seeing it more as a legitimate way to earn your main income. It always has been legitimate of course, and for a lot of people it will now be their main income,” the 27-year-old says.
“There’s been loads of girls coming over, and I really hope that attitude continues after the pandemic. I’m happy for anyone joining and seeing it for what it is, which is an amazing community.”
Rebecca has a large social media following and had a loyal audience on OnlyFans pre-pandemic, so has been “very fortunate” to maintain her business. But while there’s a belief that more people at home equals more people looking for porn, she isn’t so sure that the pandemic will be all that lucrative.
“Everybody is at home with their kids, with their partners, with their families, so the whole demographic has shifted. It’s definitely bringing more attention [to OnlyFans] but whether that translates to more income, I don’t know.”
The ever-crowded market means that sex workers trying to supplement their impacted income will have a tougher time breaking into the online world for the first time, and there’s plenty of other hurdles to face.
“What we’re finding is that a lot of people who do in-person work, they prefer to do this because they feel like they have more privacy,” Caitriona O’Brien, chairperson of the board of SWAI, explains.
“With a lot of OnlyFan accounts, they show their faces. There’s a lot of reluctance around that. And you need a lot of equipment – you need a good internet connection, often you need ring lights to have good lighting. And with in-person work, maybe you’d have a hotel room or a base that you used, now you might not be able to do that, and you’re living with roommates or family, which makes things a lot harder.
“There’s a lot of advertising to do, a lot of work. Before where you’d get a call and you say yes or no and the client comes to you, now you have to do a lot of convincing to get a client to buy your service,” says Caitriona.
All of this adds up to a lot more work, and more frequently, for less income, and that’s if you’re already tech savvy. Caitriona points out that many workers in their 50s find these online platforms difficult, while older clients may struggle engage as well. Sarah*, 33 from Dublin, is attempting to supplement her own income with online work, having lost much of her in-person work due to the pandemic.
And while she is tech savvy, she doesn’t see the boom of OnlyFans as a solution to her problem.
“I never did online work before this, and while I don’t mind the actual work itself, it’s not really worth the time and effort for what I’m getting from it. Maybe if I had started a profile earlier, I’d have been able to build up subscribers, but it’s been slow to start… maybe because it’s such a saturated market now, it’s harder to get that loyalty.
“In my usual work, I have loyal clients who I meet on a regular basis, and they keep coming back. But I don’t have that loyalty online, because I’m new to the industry, even though I’ve been doing this for years now.”
Living with a number of people in her household, including one with respiratory issues, Sarah is sticking firmly to social distancing guidelines, but is finding it difficult when she’s still receiving offers for in-person work.
“My regular clients understand, but they’ve still asked if I’m still working,” she says. “And I’ve got messages from people I haven’t met before offering more than my usual rates.” For those in other industries, a loss in work has been cushioned for now by the Covid-19 unemployment payment of €350 a week. As many sex workers pay tax, a vast section of the industry is qualified to access this payment, but any freelancer or member of the informal economy will tell you that it isn’t that easy to show where your money has come from.
And many workers fear that handing over their information to the government may result in this info being mined in the future. Back in March, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) proposed a number of measures that they suggested the government provide. These measures included immediate and easy access to financial support and healthcare, a firewall between immigration authorities and health services, and emergency housing for homeless sex workers.
But Kate feels that as is so often the case, sex workers haven’t been listened to when it comes to their safety and security. “When our work is quasi-legal, when the stigma is still so great that people can wreak havoc in the structures of our lives and get away with it, this is what happens. People are not accessing the emergency payment, or they can’t,” says Kate.
“It’s massively concerning. It would have been helpful for [the government] to name us, for them to say ‘sex workers’ and assure us that we can access the emergency unemployment payments. We have a degree of distrust and wariness around making ourselves known to the government.”
While there is distrust with lawmakers and disappointment in the lack of practical supports offered to sex workers during this crisis, sex workers in Ireland and across Europe have been establishing and contributing to hardship funds, to help those most in need during the pandemic. SWAI set up a fund to help the most precarious and vulnerable workers make it through this crisis, with €24,000 raised to date, much of that provided by members of the community.
At the time of writing, more than €10,000 has been given to sex workers, with SWAI giving a non-means tested payment of €100 to those who apply for assistance. The online safety scheme UglyMugs.ie is also distributing an emergency fund of €100,000, aided by Escort-Ireland.com, to those who need it, so far helping over 550 workers.
The community may be rallying to keep each other afloat, but the pandemic has only intensified problems that were already there; problems that those affected have been trying to get rectified for years. When the Nordic model was introduced three years ago, legislators including then-justice minister Frances Fitzgerald argued that it would reduce demand. But as the current crisis shows, that couldn’t be further from the truth. “If a global pandemic cannot end demand, then what are we playing at? We have to acknowledge that this is people’s survival,” Kate says. “It is legitimate work. It simply is.”
You can donate to the SWAI Hardship Fund at swai-hardship-fund.causevox.com
Main image from by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels.com[/restrict]