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

A photo illustration shows a fountain planned for Mill Lake. (City of Abbotsford photo)
UPDATED: City approves $200K fountain for Mill Lake using donated funds

Project will improve lake quality and ecosystem, say Abbotsford city staff

Linnea Labbee outside the Chilliwack Law Courts on April 1, 2021 on day 16 of her trial in BC Supreme Court where she is charged in connection with the fatal hit-and-run of a 78-year-old woman on Mary Street on Dec. 1, 2016. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Crown seeking jail time for 72-year-old Chilliwack woman found guilty in fatal hit-and-run

Trial of Linnea Labbee who struck and killed 78-year-old woman in 2016 ended Monday

The Abbotsford IHOP, shown here on April 5, is now completely removed. (John Morrow/Abbotsford News)
Abbotsford IHOP building taken down

Iconic restaurant had been on South Fraser Way for nearly 33 years

Abbotsford's Rick Hansen Secondary School is celebrating Vaisakhi virtually for 2021. (Submitted)
VIDEO: Abbotsford’s Rick Hansen Secondary School celebrates ‘Virtual Vaisakhi’

Production highlights local youth talent in anticipation of the start of annual festival on April 13

The Abbotsford Gogos are inviting local residents to watch a virtual concert in support of African grandmothers. The concert first airs on April 15. (Photo: Abbotsford Gogos Facebook page)
Abbotsford Gogos invite guests to virtual concert to support African grandmothers

Event first airs on April 15, featuring music, dance and storytelling

Burnaby MLA Raj Chouhan presides as Speaker of the B.C. legislature, which opened it spring session April 12 with a speech from the throne. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C. NDP promises more health care spending, business support in 2021 budget

John Horgan government to ‘carefully return to balanced budgets’

Surrey RCMP are seeking the public's help to locate three puppies stolen from a South Surrey home on April 10. (Surrey RCMP photos)
Puppies stolen during weekend break-and-enter in South Surrey

Surrey RCMP seeking public’s assistance in locating three American Bulldog puppies

A lady wears a sticker given out after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count slows after last week’s peak

3,219 new cases since Friday, 18 additional deaths

North Cowichan councillor Tek Manhas did not violate the municipality’s code of conduct by posting a sexist meme on Facebook, council concludes. (File photo)
B.C. municipality to take no action against councillor who posted sexist meme

Tek Manhas’s meme doesn’t violate North Cowichan council’s code of conduct, municipality concludes

Guinevere, lovingly referred to by Jackee Sullivan and her family as Gwenny, is in need of a gynecological surgery. The family is raising money to help offset the cost of the procedure. (Jackee Sullivan/Special to Langley Advance Times)
Langley lizard’s owners raise funds for gynecological surgery

The young reptile is scheduled for operation on Tuesday

—Image: contributed
Indoor wine tastings still allowed in B.C., not considered a ‘social gathering’

“Tasting is really just part of the retail experience. The analogy I use is you wouldn’t buy a pair of pants without trying them on.”

Mounties say they “corralled” four Ford Mustangs April 4 after an officer saw the muscle cars racing down 184 Street near 53 Avenue at about 10 p.m. (File Photo)
Mounties impound four Mustangs

Surrey RCMP say they seized four cars for street racing

A sign on a shop window indicates the store is closed in Ottawa, Monday March 23, 2020. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business is raising its estimate for the number of businesses that are considering the possibility of closing permanently. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Small business struggling amid COVID-19 pandemic looks for aid in Liberals’ budget

President Dan Kelly said it is crucial to maintain programs to help businesses to the other side of the pandemic

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Most Read