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In the coronavirus pandemic, few professions are as hazardous as sex work. The disease spreads through close physical contact, and sex work is an activity with a high risk of transmitting the virus. But, unlike almost all other professions, sex workers have been left to fend for themselves – with potentially serious consequences for their health and livelihoods.
Lucy Platt, a professor of public health epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine explains that sex workers are as much of a transmission risk as hair dressers, bus drivers, or dentists. Yet, while those workers have been issued clear guidelines about how to interact with clients, and some have been required to shut down their businesses altogether, sex workers exist in a grey area where they are neither acknowledged nor supported. Out of desperation, some of them have kept working throughout the pandemic.
“If people are excluded from social protection schemes then it’s harder to adhere to physical distancing policies,” Platt says. “This will be even harder for people who are homeless, who use drugs or don’t have official residency status – they are more likely to be excluded from the system as well as miss out on public health messaging.”
In April, The Guardian reported that on one adult website, 800 sex workers across the UK were “available to book”. Last week, the BBC revealed that sex workers in England were travelling from one city to another in order to meet with clients.
“Nobody wants to break the lockdown regulation. But, fundamentally, these women have had no support from the government whatsoever,” says Nikki Adams, from the English Collective of Prostitutes. Many sex workers are single mothers who entered prostitution to support their families, and Adams says that they were already in a precarious financial state before the pandemic due to austerity cuts; now they are facing destitution, and some of them feel they have no choice other than to continue working.
There is little in the way of financial support currently on offer for Britain’s 72,800 sex workers, approximately 32,000 of whom work in London. Since the UK criminalises brothels, neither furlough nor self-employment support are available to sex workers. Universal credit, at £79 a week for a single person, often simply does not cut it. “The Universal credit system is responsible for a lot of women going into prostitution in the first place,” says Adams. “And the fact is you have to wait for five weeks before you get any money.” In March, her organisation called on the government to make cash payments for sex workers who were facing grave financial difficulties or homelessness, but Adams says that has not materialised.
A commentary Platt coauthored in the UK medical journal The Lancet shows that, in many countries, demand for shelter and supported housing among sex workers has increased after sex work venues shut down, making it harder for sex workers to pay their rents. The stigma associated with sex work – often framed as a vector of disease – has intensified with the pandemic, and made the situation worse. “There have been reports of repressive policing towards sex workers, who have been thrown out of housing when sex work venues have been shut,” Platt says.
This lack of government support is mirrored in most countries around the world. In Georgia, for instance, sex workers do not have access to financial aid and there is growing homelessness. In Russia, homelessness among sex workers is rising, especially within the trans sex worker community, and police raids are becoming more frequent. In the US, financial schemes like rent relief, utility payment abatements, or unemployment checks require proof of employment, which sex workers cannot proffer. The UN Aids department points out that even in places like Germany, where sex work is legalised to some degree, sex workers have been offered nothing.
Currently, the only country with any support available is New Zealand, where sex work was decriminalised in 2003. Though the scheme hasn’t included sex workers with illegal residency status, sex workers have been able to access wage benefits and other relief and support protections like other workers, and come forward to claim support without fear of prosecution or discrimination.
“That’s an enormous difference from here,” says Adams. “Other countries like Thailand and Bangladesh and Japan, have included sex workers in some of the relief packages – it’s a bit arbitrary and hasn’t removed any of the criminality or stigma – but it’s much better than here where we’ve got nothing.”
The UK does not necessarily need to look overseas to find better ways of handling the issue: it could simply turn to an old British law. “During a series of murders in Ipswich in 2006, where the imperative was to enable women to get off the street, the government provided immediate cash payments and a whole raft of other supports,” says Adams. “And women were able to stop working for a limited period while that support was in place.”
The study in The Lancet also suggests the concession of financial benefits and social protection for all sex workers including migrants with illegal or uncertain residency status, immediate cessation of arrests, raids, and prosecutions for sex work and minor drug-related offences, and Covid-19 testing and contact tracing among sex workers and marginalised group. “Sex workers need to be given the same social protection schemes as other small businesses or independent employees,” says Platt.
Right now, the only support has come from sex worker organisations. The Sex Workers Advocacy and Resistance Movement has launched a hardship fund. Umbrella Lane, a sex worker support project in Glasgow, is collecting funds through their emergency fund, and the Scottish government said more than £61,000 will be allocated to nine organisations across the country. “There’s been cuts to sex worker services over the last 12 years, so these organisations were already operating a significantly reduced new service,” says Platt.
But wholesale change is needed. “You have to face the fact that prostitution isn’t fuelled by men’s desires for sex, but by women’s needs for money,” says Adams. “You need to address women’s situations.”
Will Bedingfield is a staff writer for WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
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