'I Lost 75% Of My Income Overnight': What It's Like To Be A Sex Worker During A Global Pandemic

Rebecca* has been an escort for over two years, but (like so many right now) she’s facing a whole new set of challenges.

Rebecca* has been an escort for over two years, but (like so many right now) she’s facing a whole new set of challenges as she tries to navigate the world post COVID-19. The very nature of her work is incompatible with social distancing and she can no longer see clients. Sex work is her only form of income, and she's lost 75% of that overnight. Yet she’s still one of the (relatively) lucky ones.

In these times, she’s grateful for the network of independent sex workers like herself that she can reach out to. They support each other in this indefinite move from physical to online work. "When all this started, we knew that in-person visits were going to be off-the-table – for who knows how long – so that meant turning to an online market. If I had a question, I could just reach out to one of the other girls and ask them what they charge for a two-minute video."

Rebecca says that although in-person bookings are now banned, that won’t stop everyone.

"There are sex workers [who] have no choice but to keep seeing clients. It’s literally a matter of working, or going hungry. Or, you know, they have pimps that'll force them to keep working."

People who are willing to see escorts in a pandemic are going to be less desirable clients, too.

"If a client is willing to break the law, or compromise your health, then they don’t care about safety. It gives them leverage over the escort too, so they could say, 'If you don’t do X, Y and Z with me at this price, then I can report you' – the implications are terrible."

The COVID-19 pandemic has only emphasised the stigma and discrimination sex workers face. Since the 27th of April, sole traders have been included in the Australian government’s economic response to the coronavirus, but this doesn't mean everyone will be able to access these benefits.

"A lot of sex workers don’t want the government to know they’re sex workers, and for good reason," Rebecca says. “Even in places where it’s legal, there’s still so much stigma; stigma from banks. Every time I go to the bank to deposit cash I am looked up and down, glared at and interrogated by staff about where the money came from. It’s deeply unpleasant and a great source of anxiety."

There's more: "It's hard to find an accountant, future loans can be compromised and renting is impossible. They see 'sex worker' on your forms – no way will they rent to you. Worse still are the implications for future custody battles. I've heard stories of women losing custody because they did sex work. You're left with no choice, you have to lie – which creates more stigma. It's an endless cycle."

These discriminations are underlined by astounding hypocrisy. "People are like, 'I'll watch porn but I don't want my neighbour to be an escort.' If you watch porn, you are a consumer of sex work. It's like as soon as they can't see the sex, it becomes a problem."

When the COVID-19 outbreak began, Rebecca moved her dates to Skype. "I've been having weekly Skype dates with a couple of my regulars. Some of these men are pretty lonely as it is, and they are struggling in lockdown. One of them told me our Friday catch-ups are the only thing that get him through the week."

She's noticed a shift in what her regulars want out of these meetings from straight-up sex to more general support and comfort. 

"The other week I bought a vibrator, and sent [name redacted] the remote. But he didn't want to use it, he just wanted to talk and drink wine. I feel like more of a companion these days. But it's affirming to know that I can offer them something more than just sex."

As for her online work, she's been creating custom content, but it's not easy.

"In some ways online work is far more demanding. You have to hustle way harder, for less money. Maintaining an OnlyFans and Snapchat requires constant updating and replying. You have to be on 24/7. I'm sick of taking photos of my snatch. When this started, I gave camming a go, but sometimes you'll only make $20US in a night. It's not worth it. And after a month on the cam sites, you lose the 'new girl' badge, which means your placement on the site takes a nosedive. It's just a really hard side of the business to crack."

The upside..? "I know how to take really good photos of my feet now. It's harder than you think!"

The Scarlett Alliance COVID-19 impact statement says: 'Sex workers' needs for privacy and to protect themselves and their loved ones from stigma and discrimination can make it difficult, and in some cases impossible, for them to account for prior earnings if they now need urgent Government support to survive.' You can donate to The Scarlet Alliance's emergency support fund here and read the full impact and response statement here.

*Names have been changed to protect the subject's privacy.

Written by Sophie Chandler. More from her here.