opinion

'Covid-19 has pushed sex workers even further into the shadows'

Sex workers feel more isolated than ever before, writes Del Campbell, Health Promotion Specialist.

2021-05-17

Sex workers are often stigmatised in ‘normal’ times, but the CLASH (Central London Action on Sexual Health) and SHOC (Sexual Health on Call) have recognised that under COVID-19 regulations stigma has increased.

CLASH and SHOC are two NHS services that having been supporting sex workers with outreach on street and in premises for more than 30 years.

During the pandemic we have tried to get the message out there that our clinics open for sex workers of all genders. We have also continued to carry out street outreach work that targets the most vulnerable in the community.

Despite Government messages of ‘Stay At Home’ many of our patients have carried on working in order to survive. Escorts in the LGBTQ+ community are often self-employed, and their work may be their only income.

They cannot access furlough schemes and may have to carry on working out of necessity. In doing so, they are potentially putting themselves at risk. 

Del Campbell is a Health Promotion Specialist

It is certainly challenging to wear PPE when escorting, although some do improvise. However, those who continue to see clients risk being judged in a time when we are only really supposed to be having sex with people we live with and clients are not normally part of an escort’s bubble.

This in turn has left them concerned about accessing services, but the team at CLASH and SHOC is not here to judge anyone; disengaging could mean not accessing treatment for STIs and HIV, or not renewing a prescription for PrEP.

The risk of having fewer potential clients can result in a ‘buyer’s market’ and guys may end up taking more risks when they are working, offering a fuller service including barebacking, for less money.

Even if they are on PrEP, the reliance on offering unprotected sex to ensure any income can lead to an increase in some STIs. This is especially true for certain groups; trans men, for example, may find themselves offering a specialist service for regulars they can trust, but may find that these trusted clients are staying away.

We have also seen some guys and trans people willing to take drugs while working to meet the demands of the client. Taking drugs while working can blur boundaries, and some male escorts report spending many hours with a punter, often in a chemsex context, with no extra income to show for it.

Those working to fund a drug habit have reported that the quality has been compromised, resulting in potentially lethal consequences. There is also an increased risk of sexual violence and we work closely with charities like SurvivorsUK and National Ugly Mugs.

Sex workers have faced increased stigma during the pandemic

During the pandemic many sex workers have felt more isolated than ever before. Those that work together for safety may risk breaking the law in doing so. An increase in isolation inevitably leads to heightened mental health concerns while services to support them have often been harder to access.

LGBTQ+ escorts frequently work online, where they are less at risk of physical violence but are more vulnerable to time wasters, threats of blackmail and doxing (where someone threatens to link their sex work profile with their social media profile.)

On the plus side, some escorts carry out their own background checks on callers before offering a service, but all these negotiations are more challenging under lockdown. Many sex workers in our community are also migrant, and some are dealing with the added challenges of Brexit.

LGBTQ+ sex workers may also face the additional barriers of trans, bi and homophobia. Some aren’t out in their community about their work. Those that are often find the response to having a bad day in the pandemic is an unhelpful “You shouldn’t be doing it.”

Although other ‘service providers’ are congratulated for carrying on the good work, sex workers are often vilified. There are voices who seek someone to blame for the spread of the pandemic and sex workers are often in the firing line. The escort who enjoys their job and takes pride in their work may find themselves the most condemned of all.

Our advice to sex workers in the LGBTQ+ community is to talk to us, and if you know of anyone involved in the industry, encourage them to talk to you.

For more information click here.