For so many during the COVID-19 pandemic, work has become precarious. For others, like sex workers, it’s also become a potential threat. In a business where maintaining a distance of six feet with clients is often impossible, many are being forced to either leave the industry entirely, turn to virtual options or tighter rules — all without the protection of the government or law enforcement, and within a healthcare system that is already not easily accessible to them.
Like people of colour and those already facing systemic poverty, sex workers are one of the more overlooked subpopulations to be at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. With a dip in demand for services, and no salary or benefits, any talk of a safety net is nonexistent. Those most at risk include Queer and Trans, Black and Indigenous Communities of Colour (QTBIPOC), immigrant workers, and those living with illness or disabilities.
With sex work still criminalized in Canada, and there being a considerable stigma around it, many sex workers have felt too afraid to apply for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and share banking information. Some simply don’t qualify. But that’s where — much like in the aforementioned subpopulations — community comes in. Both Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project and Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network established an emergency fund for workers, along with creating COVID-19 work guidelines for workers, clients, and allies.
“With our labour criminalized, stigmatized, and illegitimized, there is no one sex workers can rely on but each other,” says Andrea Werhun, a writer, performer, sex worker and Maggie’s peer outreach worker. “That’s why, when the pandemic began and we all started to lose our jobs en masse, sex worker organizations stepped up and established mutual aid funds to provide financial support for sex workers in need. I can’t stress this enough: we only have each other, and it is why we have continued to survive for millennia despite constant state oppression.”
Maggie’s also coordinated a recent COVID-19 vaccination site at adult entertainment venue Zanzibar Tavern in Toronto specifically targeted at sex workers (though all have been welcome). The low-barrier clinic has not required a legal name, formal ID, proof of status or address, and is also offering private clinics in more discreet locations upon request. The organization also offers free mental health support, bi-weekly FoodShare Toronto food boxes and legal support.
Improvisation and technology
But the show must go on, and has driven many workers to the safety of the internet — even as the government has fought it with FOSTA-SESTA, a pair of bills signed into law by President Donald Trump before his reign came to an end. Meant to make online illegal sex trafficking much more difficult, it’s also made it so that website publishers (e.g. Craigslist, Reddit) can be held responsible if sex work ads are posted — even if consensually. It’s led to a censorship free-for-all. And yes, that also means it impacts Canadians, as many of them also rely on the same services, including Backpage, an adult services ad site. After all, the internet doesn’t exactly have borders.
Many sex workers have improvised, through custom content creation, live-cam shows, subscription services, paid sexting, phone sex, the list goes on. Maggie’s itself has collaborated with StrappedTO to host The Strap House, a virtual strip club that celebrates queer, Black sex workers and entertainers. It even holds life-drawing sessions — where entertainers pose for art — featuring BIPOC sex workers who are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and discriminated against in the sex industry. All funds raised go directly into the organization’s Black Sex Worker Emergency Survival Fund.
Jade, a sex worker who moved from London to Toronto when the pandemic hit, came to Maggie’s with the idea of the life-drawing class exclusively featuring strippers, which is something she originally ran with the U.K.-based East London Strippers Collective (ELSC). It’s since moved online, found a global audience, and become a massive success.
“It works really well and is popular because we touch upon the age-old tradition of artists painting the nude and sex workers modelling for them,” she explains, noting the international appeal of the class, which she recently helped bring to a Spanish-speaking audience with Chilean and Venezuelan hosts. “We use the class as an opportunity to break down stigma, allow artists to meet us face-to-face and forge long-term relationships. [This] illustrates just how important creating value and income for sex workers is, particularly as an alternative to riskier forms of sex work.”
Jade also points to technology as a harbinger of a new way of thinking about sex workers and what they do for a living.
“The ubiquity of apps like Zoom and social media have allowed us to have truly worldwide solidarity with each other,” she says. “[These organizations] are proving that the exploitative business model that clubs have traditionally used are outdated and we don’t need to be tolerating them.”
Werhun also extols the value of online platforms in allowing sex workers to continue their craft, despite a pandemic that has plagued many businesses with uncertainty. She stopped dancing at a Toronto club as the the threat of COVID-19 loomed, and, in addition to writing a memoir, turned to offering a variety of online services she calls “Hire-A-Muse,” which includes everything from her reading to writing comic books to performing dance videos.
“My awe and admiration for the ingenuity of sex workers knows no bounds,” she says. “Despite being pushed to the outskirts of most social media platforms, sex workers have still managed to carve out online spaces for themselves to thrive during this incredibly difficult time,” she says.
The issue of risk
Then there’s the question of health and safety.
Due to the pandemic, Jade is also now more selective when it comes to clients, does not accept last minute bookings and charges a premium for working during this time and potentially interacting with maskless, unvaccinated people.
But Werhun says not all sex workers have had the privilege of being able to be as selective or “pivot.”
“Since our work is criminalized, our survival is dependent on our relationships to each other and our ability to share information,” she says, adding that strategies like working in groups, sharing bad date experiences, providing references, and screening clients are all methods sex workers use to stay safe. But these boundaries also come at a cost of lost clientele.
“You don’t want to put a client off, but you don’t want to waste your time or put yourself in a vulnerable position either,” says Werhun. “But when we are desperate, as many have been during the pandemic, we may be willing to take riskier calls because we simply don’t have the choice.”
What forces sex workers into dangerous situations, she says, is a lethal mix of financial precarity and criminalization, which discourages workers from seeking protection of law enforcement, even if the simple act of selling a sexual service is legal in the eyes of the law.
“Everything but the act is illegal, and that is terrifying,” she says. “Clients run the gamut from kind and respectful, boundary-pushing and time-wasting, to violent and murderous. If a client thinks they’re going to get away with a crime, they have free reign — the law was made to protect them, not sex workers.”
Decriminalization and stigma
Decriminalization will help not only make sex work safer, but it will also reduce stigma. Other hopeful changes include classifying strippers as employees over independent contractors, Jade points out, as they do often work on shifts and submit to a host of other employment-based rules. This new classification would grant them greater physical safety and work safety in terms of benefits, sick pay, and termination notice.
“We need legal recourse as employees to access our workers’ rights in order to raise the quality and safety of our workplace conditions. I would also like to see the Canadian government — at all levels — stop using whorephobic and misogynist rhetoric when talking about strip clubs and sex work,” says Jade, referring to Toronto Mayor John Tory and Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s derogatory comments last year on strip clubs. She also hopes that Toronto will review its zoning laws and licensing around strip clubs. Current policies make it easy to close clubs, but very difficult or impossible to obtain new licenses for new venues.
“When there are less safe legal venues, dancers are less likely to speak up about workplace mistreatment,” she says. “More clubs mean they must operate with better working conditions and be considerably less exploitative, or dancers will not work for them.”
Werhun also has a few asks of the government.
“I want the government and public health ministries to acknowledge that the single greatest factor forcing sex workers into the industry is poverty. If you are serious about abolishing the sex trade, then get serious about abolishing poverty,” she says. “All this talk about sex workers as exploited human trafficking victims is nonsense if the government doesn’t put its money where its mouth is. You want us to stop being sex workers? Give us access to resources. Give us money. And tell the cops to leave us alone.”