Experiences of sex workers during lockdown

Sex workers’ lives and livelihoods have been acutely impacted by Covid-19. Kristina Saunders shares insights from interviews with service providers about the pressures on this uniquely marginalised group.

The Scotland in Lockdown study has four study areas each focusing on marginalised groups and the relevant services. Interviews with third sector organisations in Scotland who support victim-survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence shone a light on the specific challenges faced by sex workers during the pandemic. Service providers raised issues around income and safety, and revealed concerns about organisational ability to appropriately meet the needs of sex workers during this time. Our research is reinforcing messages reported elsewhere about the pressures on an especially marginalised group. (Abbreviations used: SW = sex work, DASV = Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence.)

Income and financial support

Covid-19 lockdown and social distancing measures have intensified the social and economic marginalization experienced by sex workers. As one service provider reported, the need to halt face-to-face meetings between sex workers and clients has “resulted in a dramatic loss of income for some and a further pressure on already strained finances for others” (staff member at DASV organisation). Reduced income has resulted in difficulties repaying debt and paying for essentials such as food and rent, raising concerns from interviewees about the real possibility of increased homelessness due to evictions, and that some sex workers will have to give up additional rented properties that they work from. However, organisations also reported that continuing to meet with clients was an inevitability for some sex workers despite the health risk in order to make ends meet.

Though not all sex workers have the digital resources to do so, organisations were aware of a marked increase of selling sex online via webcamming or subscription based sites such as Only Fans. This is true not only amongst those who are already involved in the sex industry, but there has also been an “influx of new women” (staff member at SW and DASV organisation) previously employed in other sectors whose jobs and income have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Organisations reported that this proliferation in numbers has resulted in increased competition and “less income all round” for all of those working on online platforms.

A lack of financial support for sex workers was also raised during interviews. Informal employment status combined with fears of stigma and criminalization prevents access to government initiatives implemented during the pandemic such as the furlough scheme, and to receiving benefits such as Universal Credit and Self Employment Support. As one practitioner stated:

You’re self-employed but you’ve got no proof that you’ve been earning.  You’re not employed, so you can’t be furloughed.  You don’t want to claim benefits because they’re going to ask you what you’ve been doing and what you’ve done with all that money (staff member at DASV organisation)

As has been reported elsewhere, the complicated application process and limited support offered by Universal Credit and the furlough scheme (and barriers to accessing benefits due to having no recourse to public funds) can also be push factors to entering the sex industry as financial needs are not met. However, interviewees also reported that some Scottish Government funding has been made available for organisations to refer sex workers to, and some service providers have been directly involved with government funding meetings to make specific needs known. However, some sex-worker led organisations have faced barriers to accessing the funds made available by the Scottish Government, and have collectively organised to provide mutual aid to those they support.

Staying safe online

The shift to online sex work has also led to heightened concerns about safety, especially for those who are new to this area of the industry. As discussed by one practitioner:

Things like making sure you don’t do webcam when you’ve got your window behind you so they can see the shop across the road and that kind of thing…it’s dead easy for a punter to say, ‘oh, I know where that is’, and then turn up to the flat or whatever (Staff member at SW and DASV organisation)

Interviewees were also aware of the heightened pressures around income that led to some sex workers “pushing their boundaries or having their boundaries pushed” (staff member at DASV organisation) and engaging in more explicit and potentially violent work online. The increased risk of exposure and images being shared or leaked from online sites was also raised, along with the possibility of coercion and blackmail that may occur in conjunction. This was said to create issues around personal safety that may lead to added distress for sex workers who fear being found out by those close to them, as well as concerns around child removal.

Accessing support

One service provider expressed concerns about the support their organisation was able to offer to sex workers during the pandemic. As a relatively new service, it was difficult to create awareness about the support on offer, especially for those new to sex work who may not have information about keeping safe online or know where to access this. Echoing findings from across our research, the removal of face-to-face support can be difficult for service users and providers when trying to create and sustain meaningful supportive relationships via online or telephone communication. This practitioner referred to the lack of engagement with an anonymous online chat launched via the organisation’s website, and felt this to be a difficult place to share “really personal details about either selling and exchanging sex and webcamming or about trauma…You’ve no idea where that goes once you click that send button” (staff member at SW and DASV organisation).

There are also barriers to receiving online and telephone support for those who are digitally excluded (a key theme raised in our research), and some sex-worker led organisations have worked hard to address this issue in the absence of in-person support. Concerns were also raised by organisations about the challenges to accessing support for mental distress and substance use at this time, which are highlighted in this piece from The Lancet as key areas for intervention to ensure sex worker-centred services during and after the pandemic.

The issues discussed here offer only a preliminary insight from an organisational perspective into the heightened inequalities sex workers have experienced during the pandemic. With the tightening of Covid-19 restrictions, it is vital that an inclusive approach that listens to and acts on the voices of sex workers is taken, to ensure their safety and wellbeing as we continue to move through the pandemic and beyond.

Kristina Saunders (@KristinaS) is an investigator in the Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence Stream of the Scotland in Lockdown study. She is also a postdoctoral tutor in sociology at the University of Glasgow, with broad research interests in gender and inequalities in sexual and reproductive health.