Sex workers face new risks during COVID-19 pandemic

‘Desperation has kicked in’ for vulnerable, undocumented workers unable to access help

This story is about sex work and may not be suitable for all readers

Amanda (a pseudonym used to protect her real identity) spends hours each week, cleaning and sanitizing the condo units she rents for use by a handful of Greater Vancouver indoor sex workers or escorts, like herself.

It’s just one of the precautions she’s taking to help limit the risk of COVID-19 transmission at her condos or ‘in-call locations,’ but it isn’t her only concern.

For B.C. sex workers, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic go beyond the virus: growing financial insecurity can lead to a new desperation, potentially increasing the risk of sexualized violence.

READ ALSO: Sex workers advocate for a provincial bad date reporting system

“At this point, girls are literally booking everyone and anyone who is on their line,” Amanda says, eliminating the typical vetting process for safe, reliable clients.

“The reason that’s happening … is who knows what next week is going to bring us? Who knows what’s going to happen in two weeks? Sure they have a self-employed benefit but … we don’t know if that takes us into consideration.”

By “us,” Amanda points to the reality for the province’s undocumented workers, who are unlikely to qualify for government relief packages. Some of the women she works with claim their income, but a good portion don’t. That leaves them unprotected now that work has gone down, or stops altogether.

And many of their regulars are over 50 years old – a more vulnerable age bracket that’s now choosing to stay home.

“Our clients are reaching out to us … and they are fearful of getting [COVID-19],” she says. “For them, they might have the complications. They might need a ventilator. They might need to be hospitalized. So self-isolation for them is huge.”

And while many of the women are taking extra precautions – asking each client to shower when they arrive, asking questions about recent travel activity – it’s the girlfriend experience or GFE, that clients often come for.

“There are services in there that a lot of us are trying to avoid,” Amanda said, such as kissing or missionary position. “Any way you can deter your client’s face from being near your face, is a must … but that person, right away, might say, ‘Well sorry, I’m not coming because that’s what I want.’”

With clients down, Amanda has had to cancel leases on a number of in-call locations. Meanwhile, demand for safe spaces has gone up across various sectors of the sex work industry.

“Desperation has kicked in and we’re like, ‘Holy s*** what do we do? Where do we apply?’” she says.

“So many women are reaching out. Ones who are drug-dependent [or] alcohol-dependent workers, who are [saying] I don’t have a place to work because I can’t afford rates,” she adds. “It’s overwhelming. I would love to help every single working girl … but it’s now cycling through and I’ve met so many strung-out women in the last two weeks who are desperate, absolutely desperate.”

The needs of many have increased, says Rachel Phillips, executive director of Peers Victoria, a grassroots agency that provides support for the region’s sex workers.

She says with work down for many undocumented workers, Peers is now having to help out with rent and basic needs for many who never relied on the organization for financial support before the pandemic.

Helping street level sex workers is also a top priority. People who are precariously housed or homeless might have survival needs that eclipse concerns of contracting COVID-19.

READ ALSO: Murder of sex worker exposes Canada’s hypocrisy on prostitution: advocate

“People who are continuing to work are potentially at higher risk, and there’s a lot of stigma attached to it right now,” Phillips says. “But they don’t have a lot of choice.”

Without support, those who are struggling to stay afloat are inherently more vulnerable to violence, Phillips adds.

“You may be taking work you wouldn’t normally take or from people you don’t necessarily feel comfortable with or don’t know. There is a potential for sexualized violence to go up in this type of context,” she says. “We’re seeing this example where a different sort of emergency relief is coming up and, to date, it has not addressed undocumented workers in Canada who are vulnerable.

“Our society has never done a good job of protecting sex workers or providing for their needs. That’s something they were already facing, it’s just being compounded by COVID-19.”



nina.grossman@blackpress.ca

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