Editorial Notebook

Why you need to change the way you look at sex work

In a time where many businesses are struggling to survive, it’s hard to forget about the impact the pandemic has had. Every time you enter a town you feel the ghostly emptiness—sparsely seated restaurants, order-only shops, and, here and there, signs showing that a business has closed down. Perhaps every time you return home, you see your neighbor, hanging around their house because they have no job to go to. The damage of the pandemic is visible all around us. And, yet, other damages remain forgotten, shrouded by social stigma, such as the toll the pandemic has taken on sex workers.

Sex workers, including escorts, adult film actors, adult dancers, and other adult entertainment professionals are faced with their own set of obstacles when it comes to health, safety, and financial security during the pandemic. The stigmatization and criminalization of their industry makes it difficult for them to receive social support or ask for help. While some of them have found ways to keep working online, others are stuck in a position where breaking quarantine may be their only means of survival. An industry with few protections for workers is becoming even more dangerous and being driven further by the current health crisis.

The pandemic has made clear the gaps in social support systems that leave vulnerable populations further and further behind. Criminalized workers are left out of government relief and protection programs, whether for economic or health support. This inequity increases racial, economic, and social divides. The fear of persecution has kept some workers from opening bank accounts, finding safe places to work, or advocating for their rights. Their suppression leaves them further vulnerable to abuse by industry owners or police. Risks of spreading COVID-19 have led to crackdowns on the sex industry, which can only heighten the fears for individuals seeking help.

Beyond their occupation, many sex workers belong to minority groups which make them even more vulnerable. Migrant sex workers face risks of deportation if they are arrested, even if they have committed no crime. In Norway, back in January, a group of sex workers was expelled from the country after being arrested over accusations of violating quarantine, despite having been accused of no crime, and despite no action against their clients. Some of these migrant workers even intentionally work underground for fear of deportation, including many U.S. workers who were frightened when Trump threatened to disband the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and wanted to be hidden in case they lost permission to stay. Workers in poverty may also have few options for alternative work. An escort and single mother told The New Yorker that many of the women she knew who were still trying to work were just trying to provide for their families, saying, “They grew up in poverty, and they want to make sure their kids don’t have that same life style.” She was considering sending her daughter to relatives so she wouldn’t risk her safety when forced to break quarantine.

Of course, not all sex workers have continued in-person work. Some have ceased sex work altogether, and others have made the transition to the internet. Unsurprisingly, porn viewership has increased in each country after its lockdown began. But, without a large, pre-existing online following, it’s hard to make money online. Most consumer traffic goes to large, free sites, such as PornHub, which have few regulations, and often contain pirated content. On the other end, the site OnlyFans, which requires paid subscription to a given creator, while lauded for directly supporting the creator, takes a huge amount of effort to keep those loyal subscribers, along with about a 20 percent cut of their earnings. Without a following, creators are undiscovered in a sea of content. People go out of their way and pay extra money to buy from small, local businesses, such as farms but rarely so when it comes to businesses in the sex industry. If you watch porn, which surveys show more than half of university students do, take the time to do your research. Find out if the businesses you are supporting are sex worker-friendly and consider spending just a few dollars to support ethical producers or directly buy from the creators.

The greatest obstacle to sex workers is the stigmatization they face. Sex work is not seen as real work, and the industry is not seen as a form of small business ownership. This is a legal condition but also a social one. Even in organizations seeking to help sex workers, the prevailing attitude is of rescuing “fallen women” from their abusers. While sex trafficking exists and is certainly a huge problem, it should not be confused with sex work. This attitude only pushes sex workers further into silence. Even policies that criminalize buying as opposed to selling sex will inevitably harm the sellers, requiring their silence to continue their work. Instead of trying to “rescue” these people, we need to uphold their human rights, support their ability to organize, and give them safe spaces to come forward.

But you’re not a legislator, you’re not a social worker, and you’re not a police officer. You’re a student. Why should you worry about these people’s troubles and how could you possibly make a difference? Change in policy and behavior can only begin with a change in awareness and attitudes. Most sex workers are neither glamorous seducers of the wealthy nor pitiful victims of the sick. They are people. They deserve their own dignity and respect. If you believe this, you can help them by educating yourself and others. Don’t let them be forgotten.

If you want to learn more about the pandemic’s effect on sex workers, I recommend this research article as a starting point, as well as these stories from sex workers. You can also read these suggestions for how to protect health workers’ health and financial safety; this data on the effect of the pandemic on sex work activity, drug use, and support systems; this article calling for better health protections for sex workers in the pandemic; or these thoughts on how (and why) to find ethical porn.