Sex workers face new risks during COVID-19 pandemic

Sex workers face new risks during COVID-19 pandemic

‘Desperation has kicked in’ for vulnerable, undocumented workers unable to access help

This story is about sex work and may not be suitable for all readers

Amanda (a pseudonym used to protect her real identity) spends hours each week, cleaning and sanitizing the condo units she rents for use by a handful of Greater Vancouver indoor sex workers or escorts, like herself.

It’s just one of the precautions she’s taking to help limit the risk of COVID-19 transmission at her condos or ‘in-call locations,’ but it isn’t her only concern.

For B.C. sex workers, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic go beyond the virus: growing financial insecurity can lead to a new desperation, potentially increasing the risk of sexualized violence.

READ ALSO: Sex workers advocate for a provincial bad date reporting system

“At this point, girls are literally booking everyone and anyone who is on their line,” Amanda says, eliminating the typical vetting process for safe, reliable clients.

“The reason that’s happening … is who knows what next week is going to bring us? Who knows what’s going to happen in two weeks? Sure they have a self-employed benefit but … we don’t know if that takes us into consideration.”

By “us,” Amanda points to the reality for the province’s undocumented workers, who are unlikely to qualify for government relief packages. Some of the women she works with claim their income, but a good portion don’t. That leaves them unprotected now that work has gone down, or stops altogether.

And many of their regulars are over 50 years old – a more vulnerable age bracket that’s now choosing to stay home.

“Our clients are reaching out to us … and they are fearful of getting [COVID-19],” she says. “For them, they might have the complications. They might need a ventilator. They might need to be hospitalized. So self-isolation for them is huge.”

And while many of the women are taking extra precautions – asking each client to shower when they arrive, asking questions about recent travel activity – it’s the girlfriend experience or GFE, that clients often come for.

“There are services in there that a lot of us are trying to avoid,” Amanda said, such as kissing or missionary position. “Any way you can deter your client’s face from being near your face, is a must … but that person, right away, might say, ‘Well sorry, I’m not coming because that’s what I want.’”

With clients down, Amanda has had to cancel leases on a number of in-call locations. Meanwhile, demand for safe spaces has gone up across various sectors of the sex work industry.

“Desperation has kicked in and we’re like, ‘Holy s*** what do we do? Where do we apply?’” she says.

“So many women are reaching out. Ones who are drug-dependent [or] alcohol-dependent workers, who are [saying] I don’t have a place to work because I can’t afford rates,” she adds. “It’s overwhelming. I would love to help every single working girl … but it’s now cycling through and I’ve met so many strung-out women in the last two weeks who are desperate, absolutely desperate.”

The needs of many have increased, says Rachel Phillips, executive director of Peers Victoria, a grassroots agency that provides support for the region’s sex workers.

She says with work down for many undocumented workers, Peers is now having to help out with rent and basic needs for many who never relied on the organization for financial support before the pandemic.

Helping street level sex workers is also a top priority. People who are precariously housed or homeless might have survival needs that eclipse concerns of contracting COVID-19.

READ ALSO: Murder of sex worker exposes Canada’s hypocrisy on prostitution: advocate

“People who are continuing to work are potentially at higher risk, and there’s a lot of stigma attached to it right now,” Phillips says. “But they don’t have a lot of choice.”

Without support, those who are struggling to stay afloat are inherently more vulnerable to violence, Phillips adds.

“You may be taking work you wouldn’t normally take or from people you don’t necessarily feel comfortable with or don’t know. There is a potential for sexualized violence to go up in this type of context,” she says. “We’re seeing this example where a different sort of emergency relief is coming up and, to date, it has not addressed undocumented workers in Canada who are vulnerable.

“Our society has never done a good job of protecting sex workers or providing for their needs. That’s something they were already facing, it’s just being compounded by COVID-19.”



nina.grossman@blackpress.ca

Follow us on Instagram
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Permission to develop a residential treatment centre providing mental health and addiction recovery is being sought at the Tachick Lake Resort purchased by Carrier Sekani Family Services. (Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako photo)
Treatment centre eyed at former Tachick Lake Resort near Vanderhoof

Carrier Sekani Family Services awaiting adoption of rezoning bylaw

An aerial shot of Cedar Valley Lodge this past August, LNG Canada’s newest accommodation for workers. This is where several employees are isolating after a COVID-19 outbreak was declared last Thursday (Nov. 19). (Photo courtesy of LNG Canada)
41 positive COVID-19 cases associated with the LNG Canada site outbreak

Thirty-four of the 41 cases remain active, according to Northern Health

The North Country Inn and Restaurant in Vanderhoof notified the public Friday morning of a positive, COVID-19 case for one of its workers. (Facebook photo)
North Country Inn and Restaurant employee tests positive for COVID-19

The North Country Inn and Restaurant said the employee had not been in contact with its patrons

Cases have gone up in Northern Health in the past week, as they have all over B.C. (K-J Millar/Black Press Media)
Northern Health reports new highest number of COVID-19 cases in one day

Nineteen cases were reported to Public Health last Tuesday (Nov. 17)

FILE – British Columbia provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry wears a face mask as she views the Murals of Gratitude exhibition in Vancouver, on Friday, July 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Masks now mandatory in all public indoor and retail spaces in B.C.

Many retailers and businesses had voiced their frustration with a lack of mask mandate before

A man wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of COVID-19 walks in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest day of pandemic with 13 deaths, 738 new COVID-19 cases

Number of people in hospital is nearing 300, while total cases near 30,000

(File photo)
Alberta woman charged after allegedly hitting boy with watermelon at Okanagan campsite

Police say a disagreement among friends at an Adams Lake campsite turned ugly

Court of Appeal for British Columbia in Vancouver. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. woman loses appeal to have second child by using late husband’s sperm

Assisted Human Reproduction Act prohibits the removal of human reproductive material from a donor without consent

Krista Macinnis displays the homework assignment that her Grade 6 daughter received on Tuesday. (Submitted photo)
B.C. mom angry that students asked to list positive stories about residential schools

Daughter’s Grade 6 class asked to write down 5 positive stories or facts

B.C. projects targeting the restoration of sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser and Columbia Watersheds will share in $10.9 million of federal funding to protect species at risk. (Kenny Regan photo)
13 projects protecting B.C. aquatic species at risk receive $11 million in federal funding

Salmon and marine mammals expected to benefit from ecosystem-based approach

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Barrels pictured outside Oliver winery, Quinta Ferreira, in May. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
B.C. Master of Wine reflects on industry’s teetering economic state

Pandemic, for some wine makers, has been a blessing in disguise. For others, not so much.

An employee of the Adventure Hotel was taken to hospital on Nov. 20 after she confronted a customer of Empire Coffee about not wearing a mask. File photo.
Nelson hotel employee suffers heart attack after being assaulted in anti-mask incident

An accountant at the Adventure Hotel is in hospital in Kelowna

Most Read