Unprotected: Advocacy for Sex Workers During the Pandemic and Beyond

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Over the last six months, OnlyFans has doubled its number of registered users reaching 61 million worldwide. The British peer-to-peer subscription app allows users to create and sell all manner of original content, from lifestyle to porn. The OnlyFans subscription model has bolstered revenue for its popular registered creators, some citing upwards of $100,000 annually while celebrities rake in even more. (Actress Bella Thorne is reportedly earning $2 million from the site.)

Even ass the pandemic, subsequent lockdown, and its multifarious impacts wane, unemployed creatives and influencers have flocked to digital sex work as a way for quick cash, and maybe even a boost in their following. Meanwhile, established sex workers who rely on steady clientele for work and primary income fear losing out with the influx of new digital options.

Sex work has long been a vilified industry fraught with personal risk for its workers. In legal language, sex work is referred to as prostitution and is criminalized across the world, except for New Zealand and a few counties in Nevada. However, a growing movement has been calling for sex work to be included as a part of the larger movement for labor rights. This dates back to at least the liberation movements for queer communities in the 70s and 80s. Today sex work continues to be heavily stigmatized, and sex workers continue to be a vulnerable population facing danger at the hands of health epidemics, targeted policing, and severe cases of physical and sexual assault.

The onset of COVID-19 has exposed the egregious social, political, and institutional inequity and lack of infrastructure that further marginalize vulnerable populations. Since the start of the pandemic, governments around the world have imposed strict measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, leaving sex workers to face deep health, safety, and economic insecurities. Because sex work remains illegal and unprotected by governmental institutions, sex workers have been denied access to governmental relief programs. The financial burden is only exacerbated by a decrease in regular clientele. In a 2020 survey conducted by the nature Public Health Emergency Collection, participant sex workers reported that with reliable regular clients no longer available “the need for money can sometimes outweigh an ability to vet new clients.” Thus, potentially exposing some sex workers to COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS.

So, what does it look like to support sex workers—during the pandemic and beyond? How can we move legislation forward that will protect their rights rather than just chanting “sex work is work” without consequence? The ability of sex workers to protect themselves depends on their work environment, the availability of community support, access to health and social services, and broader aspects of the legal and economic environment.

All people deserve to feel safe. Obviously, access to healthcare and disease prevention must be accessible and safe for all. In order to improve public health outcomes for COVID-19, we must be willing to serve the needs of all people and take into consideration what they do for work and how that work may impact their safety. Why do our jobs dictate the quality of healthcare we receive? What would it look like to institute a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for healthcare providers?

Some sex workers’ organizations have developed resources to support community members. In Canada, pan-African ASWA (African Sex Workers Alliance) has developed guides for working during COVID-19; Project X in Singapore has published information on how to deal with stress; Smash in Japan has released a guide to working safely during the pandemic; and Scarlet Alliance in Australia has developed a guide for working online.

It is painful to admit that in an overtly sexual world where sex is used by everyone and for everything from advertising to entertainment to billion-dollar global media conglomerations, the workers who experience the realities of sex labor are left out of society and not afforded the most essential of human needs. Our relationship with sex work and workers speaks to a greater collective dissonance of embodiment—particularly in relation to the policing and surveillance of women-identified bodies.

So where does this leave us? Take your advice from sex workers themselves. As Arabella Sweets reminds us, “reconsider how you can support us, unpack your whorephobia, pay for your porn, and invest in some quality Only Fans from sex workers.”

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