With the coronavirus hitting a market which has still not recovered from SESTA/FOSTA and the Backpage seizure, sex work has taken a double whammy in a two year period, and it is most adversely affecting those of us who have the least power, influence, and resources. Still, for us survival sex workers—people who work just to survive or barely survive, people who aren’t making a revenue, people who may get one or two clients in a week even though we work tirelessly all day and night to hustle for clients—while this situation has only made it harder for us, it’s always been hard for us. When a reporter asked me recently how the coronavirus had affected my work, I told them that it’s hard out there right now, but low income, survival, and street-based workers have always struggled. Whether hardships come in the form of SESTA, coronavirus, scary/sketchy clients, or law enforcement stings, survival sex workers have always had to bear the worst of it. Along those lines, for example, sex work/tech collective Hacking/Hustling’s recent study “Erased: The Impact of SESTA/FOSTA And The Removal of Backpage” found that SESTA/FOSTA’s passing had very little effect on the lives of non-internet-using street and survival sex workers of Whose Corner Is It Anyway in Western MA, whose work was already fraught with vulnerability, surveillance, and criminalization and whose earnings were already meager.
In this way, experiencing a drastic change in circumstance because of the coronavirus is in many cases a sign of how good someone has it in the whorearchy. Recent articles in publications like Buzzfeed News or the Huffington Post focus on interviewing sex workers who have experienced a severe and swift change in their economic stability as a result of COVID-19. Of course, the negative impacts of coronavirus on sex workers are tragic and warrant the public’s and the greater sex working community’s compassion. However, the unspoken truth about many more upwardly mobile workers who’ve experienced these negative impacts is that for them, life and death struggles for survival may only just recently have become a reality. I.e.—one has to be up before they can come down.
This isn’t to dismiss or make light of the real pain many workers are feeling now. It just hurts my heart that I feel like nobody—not even other sex workers—cares about the survival workers for whom things are perennially difficult no matter what. I hear other workers complaining about the low ball offers they are now getting from clients and I think to myself that I’ve never had the luxury of setting a target fee and turning away anyone who won’t meet it. Before this whole coronavirus thing started, I was offering bareback anal for $40, because that was all I could get and I didn’t have the luxury of telling guys to fuck off. I still can’t say with certainty what my HIV or STI status is because all of my clients wanted bareback and I was too scared they wouldn’t want to see me if I made them wear a condom. I feel like mainstream society gives zero fucks about those of us for whom this has always been a reality, and sometimes I feel like a lot of sex workers who aren’t survival or street give zero fucks too.
Thinking about the routine I had when I was van dwelling homeless and doing survival sex work
Shower at the gym – gyms now closed
Sit in a fast food restaurant, make ads on free wifi, eat other peoples’ garbage – restaurants closed
See a client for $100/hr – clients not buying
— Moose Friend (@sarahthemoose) March 26, 2020
On a link to a piece on Salon about sex work and coronavirus, I see a thumbnail with what looks like three street-based sex workers of color holding out their hands for supplies from a street outreach worker. But when I click on and read the article, I discover that the piece is actually framed around interviews of three elite white escorts. Once again, women of color get to be the voiceless poster children of poverty, desperation, and sexual impropriety while the only people who get an actual say are white non-street based workers.
A related problem is that the term “survival sex work” has itself been diluted. Some white middle class escorts refer to themselves as “survival sex workers” simply because sex work may be their only source of income or because they–like EVERYONE who works under capitalism—work to survive.
Definitions of “survival sex work” can be a slippery slope. Originally, the term—“survival sex work” or “survival sex”—was coined to describe people who trade sex for survival goods like food, drugs, or a place to sleep. Then it was broadened to describe all impoverished sex workers who live day to day, even if they work for money. Now it is often overused and losing its meaning. This is most likely due to the fact that that survival sex workers are finally getting more air time in sex worker circles. Some middle-class escorts, unaccustomed to not being the focus of the attention, have begun to portray themselves as being among the most marginalized. Yes, the vast majority of people working are working to survive. But saying you are a survival sex worker as a middle class escort because you “work to survive” is an inappropriate co-optation of the term “survival sex work”. Privileged workers who use this language should be criticized. The sex workers’ rights movement, like most radical movements, requires more transparency among its members on matters of race, class, and privilege.
Sinica, a sex worker and college student from Ohio, told me, “I came from poverty. Poverty, [and] violent/neglectful homes are hard cycles to break. Being the first to go to college (with parents dropped out early high school) and the eldest of eight, breaking those cycles was a lot of work.”
“I don’t feel like an empowered queer Hispanic woman,” she went on, “I feel helpless and I don’t feel like a social worker with the drive and answers, I feel lost.”
No. Survival sex work is termed for those who trade sex for a place to sleep/ eat due to homelessness, and was coined specifically by researchers to describe homeless youth. Folks don’t get to rewrite history.
— Sinnamon Love (@SinnamonLove) January 15, 2020
We don’t hear from people like Sinica often in mainstream features on sex workers—at least, not in depth as complete human beings instead of as trauma porn or a thumbnail pic. Certain types of sex workers are still given a voice over others. The voices of sex workers like this from the bottom of the hierarchy, such as sex working queer women of color, street-based workers, houseless workers, undocumented workers, and so on—are often excluded from the mainstream press, so it can be forgotten that not everyone started from a privileged place. But many of us were all too familiar with crisis, disaster, and death well before COVID-19.
A worker named Rylee Mae related, “I spent time homeless in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside as a teenager…You already pass bodies dead from Fentanyl on the sidewalk and shelters are dangerous and crowded and sanitary conditions are horrific.”
She went on to say, “I’ve been chronically ill for a decade, which is why I turned to sex work about five years ago. In many ways, the lifestyle I live has been one of social distancing due to chronic illness and disability, so in this way responding to coronavirus hasn’t been new for me. Many sex workers have been living in a state of crisis for a long time—we have high rates of murder, criminalization and stigma.”
It’s important to remember that for many sex workers, the difficulty that coronavirus poses to our work is a new form of difficulty, but the difficulty itself has always been there. Not all of us have lost thousands in income, because some of us—like me—were always desperate, were always hungry, always had to charge clients rock bottom prices of $30 for a multi-person gangbang so we could have money for food that day. Many survival workers who are houseless and working the street are now simply grimly adding on dealing with the inevitability of getting sick because they have no place to isolate in as well as the coronavirus’ economic damage on top of the usual obstacle course of staying ahead of cops, violence, and exploitation simply to stay alive. While this might be a new struggle for you, this is how many of us have always lived. The whorearchy is alive and well, and that’s because of racism, poverty, transphobia, colorism, xenophobia and societal barriers.
Maybe the coronavirus gives us a chance as an imperfect, stratified community to collectively figure out how we can begin to dismantle these systems within our mutually shared context of sex industry work. I don’t have any easy answers in that regard, but I think that’s because dismantling those systems was never meant to be easy. And if there’s one group of people who I know can handle a challenge, it’s motherfucking sex workers, baby.
If you want to help survival sex workers during this time, there are several great organizations that focus on helping the most marginalized sex workers, such as Sex Workers Outreach Project Behind Bars, Red Canary Song and GLITS in New York City, Green Light Project in Seattle, WA, and Whose Corner is it Anyway in MA.