• Anika Jusuf

Sex Work During the Pandemic

As the COVID-19 virus spread worldwide, life all around the world seemed to have fallen to a standstill. With the virus raging on, people were asked to wear masks, stay at home, and remain distant from others. Luckily, during this time of isolation, many individuals received the privilege of being able to work from home, allowing them to still obtain a form of income while continuing to support their daily lifestyles. However, on the other hand, other individuals were unable to continue their line of work due to changes amidst the pandemic.

One area of work that has experienced drastic fluctuations during the pandemic is sex work. What is sex work? Sex work consists of adults consensually providing sexual services and/or erotic performances exchanged for money occasionally or regularly. Due to the pandemic, sex work has been receiving an influx of workers (both who have had previous experience in the industry and new workers who are recently entering), as individuals are resorting to this work in order to support themselves. Although, as of recently, sex workers have reached one of their highest levels of vulnerability, leading them to be more prone to victimization and unfair treatment by many facets of society. Not only are sex workers at a higher level of vulnerability because of the lack of support they’ve received from the government, but also because of the drastic changes that they have been experiencing during the pandemic. As the pandemic has progressed, sex workers were unable to come into contact with many of their clients, and their places of work (such as strip parlors, private buildings, or even hotels) were completely shut down.

Now, more than ever, sex workers are forced to fend for themselves. Whether they depend on performing in clubs, bars, or participating in personal encounters, the sex work industry has come to a halt, leading to a massive drop in the workers’ incomes. To make matters worse, in many countries like the United States, sex workers are unable to receive support from the government. They are banned from seeking loans or are unable to receive equal access to healthcare. This has led to an increased vulnerability of sex workers, as they are unable to receive benefits from government-funded public services like many other individuals are able to.

The decrease in income and lack of social support are not the only issues affecting sex workers. As the pandemic has progressed, many cases of increased discrimination and marginalization against sex workers have been reported. These cases include increases in harassment either through physical or even verbal violence. Additionally, because of the difficult status of sex workers, many are also experiencing an increase in criminalization. The pandemic has seen an increase in surveillance and policing. As a result, more sex workers have experienced raids, arrests, and fines for their work. This may increase the displacement and economic hardships of sex workers who are already feeling immense pressure due to the many changes caused by the pandemic.

Considering these experiences and the usual hardships of sex workers, it is unsurprising that their mental health has drastically declined. Before the pandemic, research suggested that sex workers already have an increased vulnerability towards issues regarding mental health. It has been found that sex workers are often exposed to key risk factors closely linked to mental health issues such as suicidal thoughts and attempts, anxiety, depression, or even PTSD. Several risk factors identified in the research include poverty, low education, violence, alcohol/drug use, HIV, stigma experienced due to sex work, and discrimination. As sex workers are at greater risk for experiencing discrimination and stigma towards their line of work, they are more likely to be involved in situations of violence or harassment, leading to an increased likelihood of PTSD. Not only that, but the financial instability that comes with the risks of partaking in sex work also often leads to anxiety and depression, which may later lead to suicidal thoughts. These are only a few examples of the risks that sex workers may face.

Not only have these risk factors increased during the pandemic, but the negative effects of these factors are also becoming more prevalent. As cases were reported in The Guardian, there has been an increasing trend in suicide attempts and risky behavior that are putting the lives of sex workers at risk. Many workers are being forced to put themselves in violent situations in order to be able to earn money and continue surviving during the pandemic. To make matters worse, as lockdown and quarantine have persisted, many who had limited funds or access to necessities such as laptops, phones, or suitable internet connection lacked access to support systems (such as psychological care) as the world went strictly online.

Despite the struggles faced, the sex work community has managed to find its own silver lining. As the struggles within the community increased, there was also a profound sense of unity. Sex workers have shown their resilience through this unity with many organizations that aim to protect and aid sex workers springing into early action during the pandemic. Hardship funds have also been frequently circulated, and there has been an increase in advocacy for the rights of sex workers and their inclusion in aid from the government. Although there has been significant progress with these changes, the most marginalized groups such as migrants, transgender individuals, or the homeless population continue to be the most affected by the pandemic. As other industries are opening and shifting towards the ‘new normal’, sex workers are still dealing with the increasingly negative effects of the pandemic.

As mentioned by the UNAIDS, regardless of one's profession, everyone has the same human rights. Sex workers’ rights are human rights and they should be treated equally regardless of their racial, social, or economic background. By providing more support to sex workers through government and social aid, or even increasing the education and awareness of the industry and the discrimination they are facing, sex workers may experience a decrease in risk factors and vulnerability against both the COVID-19 pandemic and the negative effects that have come with it.


Speaking Plainly:

  • The pandemic has affected sex work drastically - many are entering the area of work in order to gain a new form of income despite increases in their vulnerability.

  • Sex workers do not receive any support from governmental systems such as financial aid due to several rules halting the ability to partake in sex work.

  • Sex workers have been at an increased vulnerability to risk factors during the pandemic which were found to be related to several mental health issues.

  • The sex work community has tried to work together in order to help each other with funds and increased advocacy. However, many marginalized groups continue to be the most affected by the pandemic.