Sex workers around the world have been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and governments are not doing enough to protect them.
On International Sex Workers’ Day we spoke to Kate McGrew, an artist, activist and sex worker living in Ireland, about what lockdown has been like. Kate is the Director of SWAI (Sex Workers’ Alliance Ireland), which has set up a hardship fund to support sex workers during the pandemic. She is also a co-convener of ICRSE (International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe).
What are Ireland’s laws around sex work?
In 2017 Ireland introduced a law which criminalised the purchase of sex. Legislation which criminalises the buyer rather than the seller is sometimes called the “Nordic Model”. There are other laws in Ireland containing provisions which put sex workers at risk; for example, it is illegal to work in pairs or in groups.
What challenges have sex workers in Ireland faced during the pandemic?
The lockdown and physical distancing measures mean we can’t do sex work in person, which has left many people without any income. Most sex workers are already excluded from social protection which means they can’t access the COVID-19 emergency grant established by the Irish government.
There is no safety net for us. Nothing to help us cover basic needs, support our families, or help with rent. The authorities communicated that people working in the informal economy, including those with irregular immigration status, would be able to access the emergency grant. But sex workers I have spoken to in SWAI have encountered multiple barriers when trying to access it.
What kinds of barriers do sex workers face?
To access the emergency grant you need to be registered as self-employed or at least have a social security number, which excludes many sex workers straight away.
Some people were granted the support and then told to return it because they weren’t paying taxes. Others were asked to prove the sources of their lost income, but most of the time people don’t want to disclose the fact they are sex workers. This is due to the stigma, and because they are fearful of criminal and immigration repercussions.
What are potential immigration repercussions?
A great number of sex workers in Ireland are undocumented migrants. The government announced a “firewall” between immigration enforcement and social protection services to allow people to access the emergency grant, but we have heard that this hasn’t always been the case.
Undocumented migrant sex workers have more fears now. Unfortunately this means they try not to come to anyone’s attention – even if they need to access healthcare or social services.
The harassment and stigma against sex workers are huge, and with COVID-19 we feel more scrutinised than ever.
Can sex workers work virtually?
Virtual work is not an option for many sex workers. Many women who normally work in the streets simply do not have the technology, they don’t have smartphones. Or they live with other people and don’t have the privacy. Others don’t feel safe working online in case their images are made public.
The financial burden means sex workers are forced to take risks. Some sex workers have had to go back to living with abusive ex-partners for example, as a result of not being able to pay rent or having been threatened with eviction.
Some have to consider working even if it’s not safe. There is also a lot of pressure from clients – some sex workers are telling us that clients are pressurising them to work or lose their business after the pandemic.
What are the solutions sex workers propose – in times of the pandemic and also in its aftermath?
Firstly, we need real access to emergency payments, so no one has to work when it’s not safe.
But this situation has highlighted the fact that even a global pandemic cannot end demand for sex work. I hope this will allow people to see more clearly the danger that criminalising any aspect of sex work puts us in, and how many risks we must take in order to survive.
We need to look at how we can protect sex workers, starting with repealing the section of the 2017 Sexual Offences Act that criminalised the purchase of sex and the increased penalties for workers working in pairs or groups.
The more it is recognised that sex workers exist, the easier it will be to dismantle disinformation and harmful stereotypes about us.
Overall, the authorities need to provide viable alternatives for people who work on the margins and end up engaging in sex work. But they also need to accept that some people will choose to do sex work over other work, or it is the only option to earn a living in their personal circumstances.
Has anything positive come out of the pandemic?
The response to SWAI’s hardship fund has been incredible. The number of people who have contributed to the crowdfund, including sex workers and allies, has been wonderful. It’s been sex workers helping each other. I performed the other day together with other sex worker comedians in one of the virtual fundraising events for the hardship fund, it was so sweet and we will continue to do things like that.
But also, this pandemic gives us an opportunity to highlight some of the issues I’ve talked about. People need to understand that our means of survival is work. We are not saying you have to like it but it is a lifeline for people so let’s make it as safe as possible.
We need to work out ways to ensure that people who never want to do sex work don’t end up doing it,by focussing on structural inequalities and providing viable income alternatives. But we also need to keep the people who do as safe as possible, and protect them from exploitation.
SWAI provides non-judgemental support, information and referral to sex workers in Ireland, on issues such as their rights, access to healthcare and immigration law, as well as challenges the stigma and discrimination sex workers often face. ICRSE unites sex worker-led organisations and their allies throughout Europe and Central Asia.
ICRSE members have been monitoring the impacts of COVID-19 on sex workers and appealing to states to comply with their human rights obligations and include sex workers in measures aiming to support and protect people during the pandemic and as lockdowns are eased.
To learn more about what sex worker rights organizations are doing around the world to respond to COVID-19, check out: Global Network of Sex Work Projects: https://www.nswp.org/page/sex-worker-community-responses