How Sex Workers Are Surviving In Lockdown

Not all sex workers can turn to online services like OnlyFans - and some are struggling to survive.

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In last year’s lockdown, some sex workers were getting innovative online with new services and content — but this year’s is drenched in emotional exhaustion, financial despair, and uncertainties about vaccination authentication.

As cases continue to rise in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, some don’t know how much longer they can carry on.

Jules Kim, CEO of Australia’s sex workers association The Scarlet Alliance, says the second wave has been devastating to her industry. “We have migrant workers who aren’t eligible [to access] Centrelink,” Kim told Junkee.

Sex work is legislated by state, impacting workers’ ability to apply for COVID Disaster financial support. While it’s been decriminalised in NSW since the ’90s, Victoria only recently announced it would do the same, whereas it remains in South Australia’s criminal code and sex workers can be fined $2500 or jailed for six months for doing their job.

“There’s such heavy stigma and discrimination around sex work,” Kim says. “It makes it incredibly difficult and in many cases impossible for sex workers to be able to account for prior earnings if they need to access that critical support in order to survive.”

A Lockdown Hurting Harder Than The Last

When the 2020 lockdown hit, Jenna Love quickly pivoted, creating new online services from sexting, to a non-sexual virtual girlfriend experience, to dick ratings (her most popular service). But in the 2021 wave, she hasn’t had the energy to provide the extras she did last time.

“I’m keeping up the porn and the subscription stuff, but all those added services…my mental health is just not in a place where I can provide that level of support and intimacy and empathy for other people…Sex work can be incredibly draining emotionally and mentally, as well as physically.”

Online content can actually mean more work. “And generally, the pay is a lot lower,” Love adds.

Sex work is decriminalised in NSW, meaning Jenna Love is able to identify her occupation and access COVID Disaster payments. But others are not so lucky.

The Sex Workers Ineligible For Assistance

Na Mon Cheung is a sex worker who supports an online group of 1200 Chinese-speaking sex workers, referring them to financial support, emergency food supplies and COVID information.

“They can contact me at any time,” she explains to Junkee, adding she receives at least six calls a day. “Basically half of them have contacted me asking for information to get financial support.”

Many of them are ineligible because of their visa — often a refugee or student visa. Of those who are eligible, some worry about a language barrier and discrimination from Centrelink if they disclosed their occupation.

“All I’m thinking is worrying about the workers, ‘I know she has children, three or four children – what can I do?’ I feel helpless.”

The emotional responsibility has taken its toll on Cheung’s stress levels. “A couple of times I got burned out…and couldn’t sleep at night. And all I’m thinking is worrying about the workers, ‘I know she has children, three or four children — what can I do?’ I feel helpless.”

Last year The Scarlet Alliance quickly established an emergency relief fund of donations to help sex workers stay safe, fed and housed. Applications can be made in English, Korean, Thai or Chinese, and are assessed by a subcommittee — Cheung translates many of the applications for the organisation. They had raised $63,355 and distributed it to 517 sex workers at the time of writing – each applicant gets about around $100 to $150.

“Unfortunately, we can only distribute as much as we receive. And the need is so high that we’re only able to support approximately 30 percent of the sex workers that apply,” explains Scarlet Alliance CEO Jules Kim.

Kate* is a migrant on a temporary visa who is ineligible for any financial assistance, despite the full-fee university tuition she has to pay. She was staring down the barrel of homelessness in a couple of weeks until she managed to find a cheaper rental — in itself a challenge with no incoming earnings to show.

“I pay my rent by drawing on my retirement savings that I had put away in lieu of not having any superannuation…which I had worked a decade for to come up with,” she says.

To get by, Kate has used her retirement savings to pay rent, accepted money from a former client, and received two payments from the Scarlett Alliance totalling $260. But after weeks of no income and likely more to come, the money was “a drop of water on a hot stone.”

She feels resentful and let down by the government, now struggling through the second wave, again without assistance. “Australia is a country which is reliant on migration and heavily benefits from the contribution migrants — including myself — have made to Australia. Disturbingly, it seems Australia is happy to reap the benefits of migration, but when migrants require government support in return, we are told to weather it out or ‘go back to where you came from.'”

Kate started sex work to afford university studies, though she believes if her career opportunities would vanish if she were found out. “Brothel work and advertising as a ‘blurred’ face allowed me to uphold my anonymity in my career as a sex worker,” she explains. “Online work requires visibility… Many sex workers need to be highly cautious about protecting their privacy [due to stigma]. I am one of them… which would mean producing online content without showing my face, my body being largely covered in clothing to hide obvious identifiers, as well as not utilising my voice.”

“In a highly competitive market with free porn available and a myriad of face-out workers to choose from, nobody is going to pay to see an anonymous vagina and not much else.”

The trade-off isn’t worth it. And, “unless you already have a large, pre-existing social media presence to market your new product to… transitioning to online sex work is essentially setting up a whole new business.”

Vaccinations In Sex Work

As we strain our eyes towards an unlocked future when we can all return to work, the sex worker community is discussing how they might manage vaccine proof. Vaccination records would need to be authenticated using a full legal name, which could deter some clients.

Jenna Love feels conflicted about asking clients for vaccination proof, and the idea of a vaccine mandate conflicts with her passion for bodily autonomy. “Even though I’m vaccinated, I am personally a little bit afraid of coming into contact with people who aren’t vaccinated,” she says.

“I can understand people’s hesitation to give over their private information. But… I’m also giving you access to my body for a period of time.”

“I’m thinking I would like to at least ask to see vaccination records. It will depend how that goes…Particularly coming out of lockdown, I’m going to need money. I have received government assistance, and I’m so grateful for that, but it’s nowhere near the money I would have earned in this time. And my husband is not bringing any income at the moment either. ”

“I can understand people’s hesitation to give over their private information. But… I’m also giving you access to my body for a period of time.”

Kate* says sex workers can lose income if a client is unwilling to comply with screening requests, but she hopes that by the time we open up, they’ll comply.

“Whether that is providing their driver’s licence to confirm they are not from a hotspot, asking clients to confirm their profession [or work-from-home] arrangements to assess risk of industry…after months of checking into every other business they attend, it is not too much for clients to provide the same information to a sex worker they’d like to have sex with, if doing so can help support them in managing their health and safety at work.”

In the meantime, as many states have weeks of lockdown to reckon with, it seems nothing will get easier for sex workers in the short term.

*Name has been changed for privacy 

Please consider donating to the Scarlet Alliance Emergency Relief Fund.

Edwina Storie is a multiplatform journalist with a focus on sex and gender. Follow her on Twitter.