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When Jenna Love joined the sex industry she got accustomed to hearing the phrase “sex work is recession-proof”. She was presented with the idea that no matter how dire things got, her clients would always be willing to pay for the intimacy she provided.
But in March, when Covid-19 began breaking on Australian shores, her industry, like so many others, was washed away overnight.
“Something we’ve always discussed is that the sex industry is recession-proof. But we certainly discovered that it’s not pandemic-proof,” she says.
“My in-person work just totally dried up, and that was the majority of my income.”
The vast majority of independent sex workers, brothels and other sex industry businesses in Australia had to stop work or shut down for long periods of time this year. In many states, the industry experienced some of the longest lockdowns, with a huge proportion of workers ineligible for federal government support.
Love says during the pandemic she has been “one of the lucky ones”. She lives in New South Wales, where sex work is largely legalised, making it easier to get jobkeeper. She had already cultivated an online following, making it simpler to transition to online pornography work, and her husband remained employed throughout the pandemic.
“But even still, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t have a pretty tough impact on me at times,” she says.
Love has managed to get by, but for others in the industry – those living in states where sex work is criminalised, recent migrants, those with chronic illness or supporting young families – this year has been devastating.
“It’s been the most stressful year that I’ve ever observed,” says Mikhala Batiste, the treasurer for Queensland sex worker advocacy group Respect Inc.
“I can’t even put it into words how traumatic this has been for our community. There was no timeline for how long this was going to last, and there was absolutely no support for people who weren’t Australian citizens.”
Full lockdowns on the sex industry lasted around four months in Queensland but Batiste said this hardship was compounded by “overzealous policing” in the state.
“The ‘knowingly participate in the provision of prostitution’ charge – which can cover sex workers working in the same hotel or same building, as well as sex workers sharing information for their safety, [and] hiring a receptionist or driver – increased 14-fold if you compare July 2019 to July 2020,” she says.
“The stats from Respect Inc show [requests for assistance] from sex workers accessing the Queensland organisation for legal, health and financial support more than doubled since the Covid-19 shut down. The increased number of contacts has continued, particularly for sex workers requiring legal support.”
Queensland police could not confirm this statistic, as crime data is unavailable without several weeks’ notice.
Batiste and other industry leaders say the pandemic has compounded the “urgent” need for the decriminalisation of sex work across Australia.
Jules Kim, the CEO of the Scarlet Alliance, the national peak body for the sex work industry, says the problems caused by the pandemic have been exacerbated by the criminalisation of sex work in many states.
There are no consistent sex work laws across Australia, with systems ranging from being broadly legal in NSW and the ACT, to nearly totally criminalised in South Australia.
Queensland and Victoria currently have a semi-legalised licensing system, which Kim says divides sex work into legal and illegal sectors and relies on heavy regulation from law enforcement.
“At the start of the pandemic, in-person sex work services were prohibited [in Queensland] and we got the notification at maybe 5pm, the day before a public holiday. We had six hours to try and tell the whole industry,” Batiste says.
“Literally the next day, possibly even that night, police started charging sex workers.”
Batiste says her organisation was especially worried about migrant sex workers being targeted by police. Recent migrants make up a significant portion of the industry, are likely to have less financial security and have had no access to federal support funding throughout the pandemic.
A spokesperson for Queensland police told Guardian Australia they had conducted “11,300 compliance checks to ensure non-essential businesses were adhering to closure directions and social distancing”. These include massage businesses, strip clubs, brothels, sex on premises and sole operator sex workers.
“A number of fines have been issued across Queensland by QPS members to people who are breaching of public health directives by continuing to operate … Local police, along with detectives from the prostitution enforcement unit, will continue to undertake proactive enforcement measures to ensure everyone is abiding by the public health directions,” the spokesperson says.
Kim says the Scarlet Alliance has also been assisting workers who were checked on by police despite ceasing work in a number of states, as well as observing increasing levels of policing across Australia.
“There has been a number of reports of people who are known sex workers having police checking up on them just to make sure that they’re not working … I think that there definitely has been a disproportionate targeting of sex workers by the police. And unfortunately, that’s not something that’s new,” she says.
Criminalisation and licensing systems have also prevented a large number of workers from accessing jobkeeper or jobseeker during the pandemic, Kim says.
In Victoria, in order to work legally, women must be based in a licensed brothel – which have been closed for over eight months – or be registered with the state government. This registration is a permanent and irreversible record, available to Victoria police and the courts, which Kim says comes with significant risks.
“We’ve had numerous accounts of sex workers having their accounts with financial institutions closed down once that’s been discovered … Sex workers have had their history, whether it’s current or past, being used against them in child custody cases as if it somehow means that they’re [of] less reliable character,” she says.
“We don’t have consistent anti-discrimination protections for sex workers in Australia … so there is a very real need for privacy to protect themselves and their loved ones.”
Dylan O’Hara, a spokesperson for the Victorian sex worker peer group Vixen Collective, says workers were required to register on this list to be eligible for jobkeeper.
Sarah, who asked not to use her last name, says she had to lie on her jobseeker application in order to get support.
“I wasn’t really able to be honest with the government on my jobseeker application. I said I was getting money from my parents, which is pretty far from the truth,” she says.
“It’s pretty uncommon, but some people are open about what they do with the government, but I don’t think it’s very safe. I don’t really trust the government with that information. It was pretty clear to me jobkeeper wasn’t going to be possible.”
Sarah primarily worked at brothels prior to the pandemic, which are unable to open until Victoria goes 14 days without a new Covid-19 case, despite other high-contact services such as massage parlours being allowed to resume last week.
Many sex workers are recent migrants, have chronic health conditions or are supporting families, making a sudden loss of work particularly problematic. Unable to rely on government support, the Scarlet Alliance established community emergency support, fundraising over $170,000 for around 700 sex workers in need.
“One of the really positive things that [has] come about through Covid-19 has been how the sex worker community mobilised to support other sex workers who were ineligible for government assistance,” says Kim.
“Each week 100% of those donations are processed and provided to those in need. Unfortunately, the demand has always outweighed the level of donations that we receive … We’ve probably been able to support maybe about 30% of the applicants.”
Many sex workers have been forced to pivot their business online during lockdowns, but this form of work is vastly more public than meeting face-to-face clients, and the market has been flooded in recent months.
Jenna Love has been successful in her temporary transition away from in-person work, but says this isn’t an option available to everyone.
“I just think there’s a perception that sex workers have been fine, because we can just join OnlyFans, and that’s just so far from reality,” she says.
OnlyFans is an online platform that allows creators to sell subscriptions to predominantly explicit online content, and has surged in usage in recent months.
“Even at the beginning of the pandemic we had a market that was already oversaturated,” Love says.
For many, pivoting to online work – which is inherently public – closes off a huge number of options for future employment.
“There’s a bunch of things that I have given up in my life to be out. There are a whole bunch of careers I’ll never be able to do. There are countries I’ll never be able to travel to, and I’m totally happy to do that because this is my passion,” Love says.
“But [online sex work] is just not a guarantee. There are so many people who didn’t have government support who went, ‘Oh crap I’m gonna have to start making porn’, and then made 20 bucks a week.”
Love says the pandemic has made her particularly grateful her work was legalised.
“I am thankful daily that I live in NSW. I think that is obvious that those licensing models and criminalising models are so incredibly harmful to the safety and livelihood of sex workers,” she says.
“I think that the general public hears licensing and goes ‘Oh good, I’m glad they’re regulating the whores’, but the reality is that it’s doing a lot of harm to sex workers.
“I’m sure in many industries, a lot of people fell through the cracks. But it can be more difficult for the people in the sex industry who fall through the cracks to advocate for themselves, because of the stigma and discrimination that comes along with it.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘The sex industry is not pandemic-proof’: workers in Australia faced with impossible choices | Society