Sex workers who do in-person work are facing a near or complete loss of income as they try to physically distance and self-isolate in response to COVID-19. The venues where they work such as strip clubs, massage parlors and dungeons are shut down. Street-based workers are working with a rapidly shrinking pool of clients as people are getting sick, self-isolating or dealing with a loss of income; they report that their work has “almost completely dried up”. Additionally, street based workers are reporting increased harassment by police in the guise of them “breaking quarantine”. Others who rely on meeting clients traveling to the city for conventions or other events have had dates cancelled or are separating themselves from clients and hotels for the sake of their own and communal safety. Adult performers cannot create content with new work partners.
The unrecognized labor of sex workers and all the implications of working in a criminalized industry are magnified by the pandemic. While workers in other industries are able to access unemployment benefits, the Small Business Administration (SBA) loan or the stimulus check, none of these options are available to sex workers. Sex workers experience heightened surviellance on tax reporting; due to formerly incarcerated, having transient housing, or as undocumented workers or spouses of undocumented peoples. Workers who experience oppression due to factors such as race, class and chronic illness are even more deeply impacted by the economic shutdown resulting from COVID-19. This keeps any and all government issued social safety nets out of their reach.
Sex workers have been relying on individual fundraisers, what little savings they’ve accumulated and mutual aid organized by other sex workers to pay for basic needs when they are unable to work due to sudden life changes such as unexpected illness, experiencing an assault, or eviction. Since many sex workers are unable to transition to online work to meet basic needs such as rent, food and shelter, Project SAFE and Philadelphia Red Umbrella Alliance (PRUA) are joining together to raise funds. Project SAFE assists and advocates for street based sex workers who use drugs and PRUA is a collective focused on broader needs and support for all types of sex workers. Both are worker led.
We hope to be keeping this as a continuous fund. We recognize that mutual aid is not charity, and redistributing wealth is only one way to practice it. While a pandemic means no one in direct services should be working, the criminalization of sex workers means a continuous displacement of workers before and after a pandemic. We recognize that while sex workers need more standing protections such as the ability to unionize and fight for their labor rights, they cannot collectivize when they fear incarceration, deportation, evictions, and other sustained institutional violence on their bodies and lives.
- Kyra Kwak