Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

How have sex workers been affected by COVID-19?

Sex workers were hit hard at the beginning of the pandemic, seeing their incomes practically disappear overnight. Lockdown restrictions meant that brothels across the world were shut, and escorts could no longer see clients in person.

It comes as no surprise that sex work has seen an increase in its online presence in light of lockdown restrictions. OnlyFans has exploded in lockdown with March and April, when lockdown began for most European countries, seeing a 75% increase in the number of people signing up. This leaves the site with over 30 million users and 450,000 content creators.

Online work is not for everyone

This increase in content creators hasn’t necessarily come from those who were working in brothels before lockdown began, but from people who have lost jobs or have needed extra financial support in the past few difficult months. According to adult industry journalist Gustavo Turner, the growth in popularity of websites like OnlyFans has allowed the performers who were already doing well to do even better.

However, online work is not for everyone. In an interview with the BBC conducted at the beginning of June, Estelle Lucas, an Australian sex worker, expressed the difficulty she was facing due to lockdown restrictions.  “I can’t contact my clients and just have a conversation with them. That doesn’t work in my industry. We need to build intimacy and that’s just not possible in the current environment,” she said.

The red-light district in Amsterdam reopened on July 1st after being closed for the last 3 months

Many women working in on-camera sex work have also emphasised how difficult the work can be, with many people under the misconception that it is easy. However, with restrictions now easing but social distancing and varying safety measures still in place across much of the world, the sex work industry is learning to adapt. The red-light district in Amsterdam reopened on July 1st after being closed for the last 3 months due to lockdown restrictions. It opened with strict hygiene practices, including disinfecting everything the client has touched after they have left the room. Kissing is strongly advised against due to the potential to transfer COVID-19 with an exchange of saliva.

In other countries, the struggle for sex workers continues. On July 3rd, sex workers in Berlin protested outside the Bundesrat upper house of Parliament against restrictions that are currently keeping brothels shut. Other businesses have been allowed to open, such as massage parlours and hairdressers, yet the sex work industry has seemingly been forgotten in Germany. Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands have all allowed brothels to reopen.

Sex workers have been largely forgotten

With COVID-19 spreading across the African continent, vulnerable sex workers there are suffering the most. There have been many reports of COVID-19 disrupting HIV prevention efforts in many countries such as Tanzania. Sex workers who need HIV drugs can no longer access them and health talks raising awareness as well as providing education can no longer take place.

Studies have also shown that in countries such as Rwanda, food scarcity due to COVID-19 is a barrier to taking the drugs daily and can decrease their efficacy, leaving sex workers in danger and without support. In certain places, as with Tanzania and Rwanda, sex workers have been largely forgotten.

As we continue to face the effects of COVID-19, it is clear that governments need to support their sex workers as they would any other sector of work. It will also be interesting to see how sex work will continue to adapt with restrictions and how the industry will develop as we move further along the timeline of this pandemic. Will the OnlyFans trend continue, or will websites like this decrease in popularity as more and more people are able to return back to work? Will a return of the industry in its physical form leave sex workers at a higher risk of catching COVID-19, or will through hygiene practices be effective? As with anything at the moment, only time will tell.

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