Coronavirus and sex work
By: Tilly Lawless
As the coronavirus erupts, people are panicking.
Me, I’ve worked for seven years with the threat and awareness of illness and violence. My body has always been on the frontline with my work; viruses and infections are a risk with every client.
Vigilantly checking he doesn’t finger me with the same hand he just used to fiddle with his foreskin, holding the condom as he pulls out so no cum spills inside me, making a snap decision to leave my heels on so I have something to kick him off with if need be, because he seems suspect – these are all regular parts of my work.
People keep asking me if I’m scared, if I’m going to have a break, forgetting that not everyone can afford to take time off or work from home, that not everyone has an employee contract to support them.
My skin has been cracking from showers and soap for years. Immunocompromised people, the elderly and poor people without access to free health care have been vulnerable to sickness since well before COVID-19.
These safer hygiene practices should be the case always, not just in the current terror, because we exist as part of a community with social responsibility.
So in the beginning I keep going to the brothel, with its familiar smells of sperm and bleach, making money as a buffer in case I do have to quarantine at some point. Knowing that clients will still be pressuring me for natural services. Knowing that I’ll invite repulsion if I contract anything, because sex workers are seen as vectors of disease. Knowing that my body is already viewed as abject, even when healthy.
I’m pragmatic and pushing through, making the choice to stop seeing friends rather than stopping work – until, after less than two weeks, the unthinkable happens. All ‘adult entertainment venues’ have to close by midnight.
Brothels and massage parlours – those that have survived the AIDS crisis, lock-out laws and the explosion of the internet – dim their already-dim lights and shut their doors.
Whores panic. Confusion reigns. Can you still work privately? Can you get on Centrelink? Can you flee interstate and keep working?
After a few stressed days, I find myself transitioning to online work for the first time ever. Without a working laptop, camming is out, but being well-versed in social media, I get the hang of subscription site ‘Only Fans’ fairly quickly – where people can pay to access explicit photos and videos of you.
I am infinitely lucky to be able to make this change, though. For many sex workers it isn’t viable – they may not have the resources, or may be unable to have their legal name (and possibly their face) irrevocably linked to sex work. Online sites generally require photo ID to register, and they have been known to be hacked.
As an Australian citizen, I could also go on the dole if I needed to. For many migrant sex workers, that is an impossibility. I’ve paid tax over the years and have an ABN, and I am registered as a sole trader, which means it is easier for me to prove loss of income in Centrelink’s rigorous vetting process.
I am once again incredibly privileged in this. I have fallback options. The closing of brothels, as upsetting as it is to me, does not completely sabotage my survival.
For many other workers, that is not the case.
I think of the three women fined $1000 each in Sydney’s CBD in March for showing up to their massage parlour shift.
I think of how desperate for money they must have been to break the law. I think of how scared they must have been. I think of how cruel it is to fine someone who can so ill-afford it.
I think of the fact that they may have never worked another job in their life. That they may not have easily hireable skills. A support network. A resume. Speak English.
I think of the greater powers police are being given in this time and the fact they chose to target a massage parlour first, out of all the businesses that disobeyed lockdown.
That the stigma against sex work would have influenced them, that they chose to fine these women, when other people who broke quarantine after returning from overseas were only given a warning.
I think of all the changes that will come from this pandemic – some good, some bad.
I think of the corporations and universities that refused to accommodate disabled people’s requests to work from home, saying it wasn’t feasible, yet now have been publicly proved wrong.
I think of all the people who have become more socially conscious, aware of what they can spread unknowingly. I think of those who have become politicised by it, who see the flaws in a system that would freeze mortgage repayments but not rent.
But I also worry that fear of other such viruses will lead to increased whorephobia, that sex workers will become a scapegoat in a society obsessed with sanitation.
That there will be a push to keep brothels closed, that two people having sex with an exchange of money will be seen as more threatening than two people having sex with no exchange of money – even though the professional is far more likely to practice safe sex.
I worry for the future. And I worry for sex workers in the now.
Tilly Lawless is a queer, Sydney-based sex worker who utilises her online platform to speak about her personal experiences within the sex industry, in an attempt to shine a light on the every day stigma that sex workers come up against. Growing up in rural NSW, her writing is often a bucolic love letter to the countryside that she comes from, and also a deeply intimate insight into queer romance and relationships. You can read her writing in various publications, but it’s best going straight to the source and reading it directly from her Instagram, @tilly_lawless
The Scarlet Alliance is fundraising for emergency support for sex workers in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can contribute here.