Content warning: suicide, assault, emotional abuse, slurs, homelessness, trauma. If you’re having a hard time right now, this could be a challenging read – please use your judgement.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the lives of sex workers worldwide.
When social isolation began, it was only a matter of time. Now in-person sex work has been banned in many places it previously wasn’t, leaving us unable feed ourselves, pay rent, or support our families. Those who need to work are often doing it under threat of prosecution, not to mention worrying about the virus itself.
Sex work is in crisis – and it’s not the first time. From FOSTA/SESTA (two bills introduced in the USA in 2019 that attack sex worker rights online) to the Backpage shut-down and escalating police persecution, it seems that every new year brings a new setback.
One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned in this industry is that when things go wrong, we’re usually on our own. Victim-blaming is common; we often don’t get the support we deserve from the wider community, even for universal problems. Got ripped off? ‘You should have known better than to trust a punter.’ Got assaulted? ‘That’s just how people treat prostitutes.’ Tripped over a step on the way to your client’s apartment and broke your toe? ‘See, I told you escorting was bad for you!’
Our community is our one saving grace. The generosity and friendship of our peers humbles me - from the sexy grandmother who showed me the ropes when I first started work in a brothel, to escorts who pay the advertising costs of others who are struggling to get back online. Often those who help each other are strangers. We look after each other, knowing that nobody else will.
Today, I’d like to share a few ideas for ways to look after our incredible sex work community.
Let’s be clear: I’m a VERY privileged worker. I’m fed, housed, well-supported. I’m writing this for those who, like me, have time, money, or effort to spare. Not everyone can help right now…and it’s just as important to receive as to give, if that’s what you need. But if we can help, I think perhaps we should. Even a small effort makes a difference.
Learn how to give good support.
Giving good support is something most of us can do, and it makes a big difference to the people we care about. Lots of folks think that support means solving someone’s problems, but that’s not it – rather, it means listening without judging. Often the best way we can help is by acknowledging someone’s feelings. Here's a quick guide to giving good support.
There are exceptions, of course. If you think someone is at risk of harm, it’s essential to act. And if there’s something you can do to make their situation better, that’s great too – but always ask first.
Donate money to the emergency fund (and ask others, if you’re able).
There are a number of emergency fundraisers for sex workers. In Australia, Scarlet Alliance has established a fund in cooperation with state and territory member organisations. The money raised goes directly to workers, to keep them safe, housed and fed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you’re financially secure, contributing is a great way to help. If you’re out to family and friends, consider asking them to donate. This encourages the community to support our work while also informing people about our situation.
Join your local orgs - and stay up to date on new developments.
The media has a bad track record when it comes to accurate reporting - about pandemics, sex work, and especially the two together. Sex worker organisations are a more reliable source of information. Scarlet Alliance, for example, has published statements that help explain our options during the coronavirus pandemic. Click here for an international list of advocacy organisations.
Our orgs often rely on funding and volunteer efforts from the community. Being involved is a great way to feel connected, and it puts you in a good position to help others.
Know what supports are available and pass them on.
Help is available for those who are feeling suicidal, affected by domestic violence, or need sex-worker-specific advice. When we’re stressed, we sometimes forget these services even exist, and a reminder from friends can be useful.
Here are some starting points:
Of course, not all problems can be solved with a phone call, and not all services are easy to reach during a crisis. These resources are an addition to your support, not a substitute.
Note: if you think someone is at risk of immediate harm (from themselves or someone else), you may need to skip the above and go straight to emergency services. But be aware that calling the cops can sometimes put people from marginalised groups at risk – click here to read more about making safer decisions involving emergency services.
Be wary of acting up when you’re stressed.
Stressful situations can bring out the worst in us. Your temper may be shorter than usual, or you might find yourself upset by things that don’t normally get to you. The more aware you are of your own headspace, the easier it will be to avoid arguments, blow-ups, and breakdowns that drain your energy.
Staying cool helps our community, too. When we feel down, we often assume the people around us are doing better – especially online, where a lack of nonverbal cues makes communication difficult. But we never really know what others are going through, and it’s easy to ‘punch down’ when we think we’re ‘punching up.’ Sometimes it’s safer to hold back that cutting Facebook comment, and avoid doing harm to someone vulnerable.
Have compassion for people who act up towards you.
Like giving support, knowing how to hold space for trauma is a valuable skill.
Stress can remind us of bad experiences and bring those feelings back. This may mean breaking down at unusual times, having less patience in difficult situations, or getting angry easily. Someone who’s freaked out might not express themselves clearly or politely. The result: an attempt at conversation that looks like an angry outburst.
Letting someone have their feelings – and trying to understand what’s going on for them – sometimes helps. If you can listen with compassion and hear what they’re trying to say, you might still be able to connect. It’s not always comfortable, but it’s more productive than snapping back.
Do what you can…and don’t shame yourself for what you can’t do.
I have a friend who says, ‘Don’t set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm.’ Ironically, she’s one of the most giving people I know. She understands that helping others is a marathon, not a sprint – we need to take care of ourselves or we won’t be able to keep going. This is especially important if you’re in a bad situation, but also trying to assist your fellow workers. We all have a different capacity to help; don’t hate on yourself if you can’t offer as much as you want.
Even small efforts are useful. You might be able to check in with some friends, or offer a donation, or share news on social media. You might be able to cook someone a healthy meal. Do what you can, and don’t get caught up worrying whether it’s enough – because all that angst will consume time and effort that could be used to look after others, or yourself.
This is a tough time, but it’s not the first…and it won’t be the last. We might not be able to fix everything, but there’s a lot of power in being there for each other, in whatever way we can.
Proceeds from the writing of this article have been donated to Scarlet Alliance’s emergency fund for sex workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.