Reviving pandemic-affected sex workApart from income loss, the pandemic has increased pre-existing inequalities for sex workers.
During the pandemic, business shifted from in person to work-from-home, which quickly became the new normal. However, it left many workers high and dry, especially those with less “socially acceptable” occupations.
The pandemic has adversely impacted sex workers globally and substantially increased the precariousness of their profession. And public health measures put in place made it almost impossible for sex workers to provide any in-person service. Although many people depend on sex work for survival, its criminalisation and policing stigmatises sex workers.
Research shows that globally, sex workers have been left behind and in most cases excluded from government economic support initiatives and social policies. There needs to be an intersectional approach to global Covid-19 recovery that considers everyone’s lived realities. We propose policy recommendations that treat sex work as decent work and that centre around the lived experiences and rights of those in the profession.
Sex work and the pandemic
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) recently reported that apart from income-loss, the pandemic has increased pre-existing inequalities for sex workers.
In a survey conducted in Eastern and Southern Africa, the UNFPA found that during the pandemic, 49 percent of sex workers experienced police violence (including sexual violence) while 36 percent reported arbitrary arrests. The same survey reported that more than 50 percent of respondents experienced food and housing crises.
Lockdowns and border closures adversely impacted Thailand’s tourism industry which relies partially on the labour of sex workers. In the Asia Pacific, sex workers reported having limited access to contraceptives and lubricants along with reduced access to harm reduction resources. Lockdowns also disrupted STI or HIV testing services, limiting sex workers’ access to necessary healthcare. In North America, sex workers have been excluded from the government’s recovery response. And many began offering online services to sustain themselves.
Government versus community response
Globally, sex workers have been left to fend for themselves during the pandemic with little to no support from the government. But communities themselves have been rallying.
Elene Lam, founder of Butterfly, an Asian migrant sex organisation in Canada, talks about the resilience of sex wokers during the pandemic. She says organisations like the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform are working in collaboration with Amnesty International to mobilise income support and resources to help sex workers in Canada.
Organisations in the United Kingdom, Germany, India and Spain have also set up emergency support funds. And some sex worker organisations have developed community-specific resources for providing services both in person and online during the pandemic.
The International Labor Organization's "Decent Work Agenda" emphasises productive employment and decent working conditions as being the driving force behind poverty reduction.
Sociologist Cecilia Benoit explains that sex work often becomes a “livelihood strategy” in the face of income and employment instability. She says that like other personal service workers, sex workers also should be able to practice without any interference or violence.
In order to have an inclusive Covid-19 recovery for all, governments need to work to extend social guarantees to sex workers—so far they haven’t. As pandemic restrictions disappear, it is crucial to ensure that everyone involved in sex work is protected under the law and has access to accountability measures.
As feminist researchers, we propose that sex work be brought under the broader agenda of decent work so that the people offering services are protected. Governments need to have a legal mandate for preventing sexual exploitation. Law enforcement staff need to be trained in better responding to the needs of sex workers. To intervene in and address situations of abuse or violence is critical to ensure workplace safety and harm reduction. Awareness and educational campaigns need to focus on destigmatising sex work. Policy-makers need to incorporate intersectionality as a working principle in identifying and responding to the different axes of oppression and marginalisation impacting LGBTQ+ and racialised sex workers. Engagement with sex workers and human rights organisations need to happen when designing aid support to ensure that an inclusive pathway for recovery is created. Globally, there needs to be a steady commitment towards destigmatising sex workers and their services.
Despite the gradual waning of pandemic restrictions, sex workers continue to face the dual insecurity of social discrimination and loss of income support. Many are still finding it difficult to stay afloat and sustain themselves. Societally, we need to recognise that sex workers have agency and deserve the same respect, dignity and aid as any other person selling their labour.
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