During the pandemic, sex workers across the world have had their livelihoods put on hold. This has pushed many of them into poverty and forced them to adopt new practices, including moving their work online, in order to make a living.
Tamika Spellman, 54 years old, lives in Washington DC, USA and has worked in the sex industry for 39 years. She told Buzz: “I was 15 when I did my first trick. Worked infrequently selling sexual favours until I was 20, when it became my primary source of income.”
While the majority of her clients treat her well, Spellman has a different view of law enforcement. She said: “What I do remember the most was the negative and traumatic encounters with the police to include rape and extortion.
“The courts are no better, as the remedy they prescribe is life consuming and altering to people already struggling.”
Spellman works with the organisation HIPS, which provides harm reduction services, advocacy, and community engagement for those engaged in sex work.
She said: “Since the pandemic we have seen that violence is way up against sex workers, particularly Black and Brown transgender workers, who were already experiencing some of the harshest rates of poverty and homelessness pre-pandemic.”
Due to the pandemic, Spellman has been seeing fewer clients as she has health conditions that put her at extreme risk. However, she emphasises that many sex workers have been unable to protect their health in the same way.
She told Buzz: “ Fortunately my job pays well enough I can survive without the supplemented income but many of my cohort nationwide are experiencing significant drops in income, having to shift how they do sex work, often returning to street based work, only fans, video chatting and selling video or pictures.
“Then there’s the stress and worry over the economy and the very real possibility for many of losing housing.”
When it comes to government support for sex workers in America, Spellman said: “Most don’t qualify for government stimulus money and were already struggling before COVID-19.”
She believes that more could be done to support workers in the industry and for her and many other campaigners, this starts with decriminalising consenting adult sex work – a legal model that removes all prostitution-specific laws.
In the United States, buying and selling sex is illegal everywhere except for a few counties in Nevada. Government representatives including Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat from Massachusetts, have put forward bills and resolutions in the past calling for decriminalisation but these measures were not moved to the floor.
Without federal action in America, efforts to decriminalise the sex industry have remained with activists.
Calls to decriminalise sex work remain controversial in the U.S. – with some arguing that the industry innately exploits women. Internationally, however, there has been a growing movement to decriminalise the practice.
Sweden was one of the first countries to decriminalise prostitution, penalizing buyers of sex but not those selling it, while New Zealand in 2003 decriminalised all aspects of the industry.
Studies there have shown that women are more forthcoming to report violence against them and that they have access to labour rights and health rights like any other worker.
The New Zealand Sex Workers Collective was founded in 1987, they helped draft the Prostitution Reform Act and now support sex workers who have been assaulted.
Dame Catherine Healy, the National Coordinator, said: “During the pandemic, sex workers are allowed to work and have been treated in the same way as all other people in the work force.
“When lockdown occurred, they were provided with replacement income to tide them over. It worked well for most. However, some sex workers such as migrants who were in the country on tourist or other visas were not eligible for assistance and their situation was stressed and became very concerning.”
Vixen Temple, lives in Aotearoa, New Zealand where she started making home-made porn in April of 2018 and then became a stripper in December of 2018. Sex work has been decriminalised in Aotearoa since the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act.
Temple told Buzz: “I feel somewhat safe working as a sex worker in a country where it’s been decriminalised, I don’t have to worry about police brutality or rape (a common occurrence for sex workers in countries where sex work is illegal).
“I know that I have rights as a sex worker in Aotearoa and because of the Prostitutes Collective Act, I was able to take my sexual assault from a customer, to the police. In countries where sex work is illegal, victims of assault will be arrested over the perpetrators for being a sex worker.”
The benefits of decriminalisation are recognised by sex workers and allies across the world but Temple said: “New Zealand still has a very strong toxic masculinity culture, which feeds into the negative treatment of sex workers. It may be legal to be a sex worker but that doesn’t stop clients from trying to push our boundaries.
“Every sex worker I know has a story of assault, harassment or rape happening at their place of work.
“We have a right to feel safe in our job. Just because it involves sex – or the illusion of sex – that does not grant you the right to violate us.”
Speaking about her own experience with assault, she said: “I was assaulted because a 23-year-old man thought he had the right to violate me despite me having already told him “no”. He felt entitled to me because I was a stripper.
“He didn’t see a person, only a body. People don’t treat us as human beings. The man who assaulted me got away with a slap on the wrist, while I have been traumatised for life because of his actions.”
Along with Spellman, Temple also told Buzz that BIPOC sex workers face many more issues in this line of work. She said: “New Zealand is a racist country, as much as it tries to pretend it’s not. BIPOC sex workers are treated terribly by customers and even managers.
“I recall a time where a manager at one of my clubs complained that “there’s too many brown girls working.” Minority sex workers have it way worse than I can even begin to imagine. I am a cis white woman, and the way that BIPOC sex workers get treated is disturbing.”
The issues that sex workers face internationally leave many struggling with their mental health. Temple says many have been affected by depression, anxiety and PTSD and added: “We don’t need saving; we need to be taken seriously and treated as any other worker. We need people to listen to us, instead of speaking over us. There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing, even in countries where it’s illegal.”
She said: “It’s hard. We’re trying our best, and COVID has really made things even more difficult for us in a world that already doesn’t give a damn about us. We just want you to listen.”
Read more about the experiences of sex workers during the pandemic here.