In April 2020, NSWP launched a global survey to understand the impact of COVID-19 on sex workers. The survey received 156 responses in total from 55 different countries out of which 53 responses were from 6 countries – Canada, Guyana, Mexico, Suriname, Trinidad, and the United States – in the North America and the Caribbean region.
“People are going hungry. People are scared to work, or not to work.” – PACE Society, Canada
Government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic
“The sex worker community in Washington state has been severely impacted by the Coronavirus and discrimination by state and federal government policies which forbid providing sex workers the same assistance as other citizens, causing many of us to continue working to pay our bills.” – Sex Workers Outreach Project Seattle, United States
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, sex worker-led organisations from all regions are reporting a lack of access to national social protection schemes and exclusion from emergency social protection measures being put in place for other workers, particularly where sex work is criminalised.
Responses reported that brothels, bars, and massage parlors have been closed in Canada, Mexico, Trinidad, and the United States. Responses from Canada, Guyana, Trinidad, and the United States also reported crackdowns in areas known for street-based sex work and increased raids, arrests and prosecutions.
In the United States, sex workers have been explicitly excluded from government aid.
“The Federal relief bill passed to aid Americans during this emergency have been restricted from being given to anyone working in the sex industry, even if they are legal jobs such as strippers or sex toy manufacturers.” – Sex worker, United States
Sex workers are also indirectly excluded when they haven’t completed tax returns (which is often not possible due to the criminalisation of sex work) or don’t have the correct official papers.
“Only the delivery of some pantries and financial support, but only to those who gave official papers. Many, especially women, distrust confidentiality in the use of these data, so many were left out of this support.” Sex worker organisation, Mexico
The treatment of homeless populations and people who use drugs came up in several of the responses from those surveyed in the United States.
“They have actually rounded up homeless people and put them all together in a government-designated wetland, and cases of hep A are spreading like wildfire.” – Sex worker, United States
“Most of the US has left homeless folks in the streets, in fact in Nevada they put homeless folks in an empty outside parking lot as if they were dogs, without tents.” – Sex worker organisation, United States
Respondents provided information on the impact of these measures on sex workers, each giving an insight in to the levels of extreme inequality sex workers are facing during this pandemic.
“Financially, physically, emotionally and as a parent.” – Sex worker, Guyana
“We're unable to meet all of our government guidelines and laws because we have no other source of income or support other than close contact work; exactly what we're supposed to be avoiding.” – Sex worker, Canada
Aditionally, respondents from Canada, Guyana, Mexico, Trinidad, and the United States reported reduced access to condoms and lubricants, reduced access to HIV treatment, and reduced access to STI testing and treatment.
How is the sex worker community responding to this crisis?
“PACE in Vancouver set up a community fund people can access; I think they've distributed $20-30K in 5 weeks.” – Sex worker, Canada
In lieu of proper government support, the sex worker community is stepping in to assist one another.
Responses from Canada, Guyana, Mexico and the United States reported that the local sex worker community has established emergency funds or were in the process of trying to find funding. Responses from Canada, Mexico and the United States reported that the local sex worker community had set up emergency food supplies.
“Some sex work NGOs have organised to gather groceries and set up small pantries to support our peers.” – Sex Worker Organisation, Mexico
Responses from Canada, Mexico, and the United States mentioned emergency housing support from the sex worker community, such as informal housing offers from peers, supplying camping equipment and lobbying local government.
“Many sex workers in the community have opened their homes to their peers in need.” – Sex Worker, United States
“Our org is pushing for the city to open hotel rooms preventatively.” – PACE Society, Canada
When asked what is needed to help protect sex workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, responses ranged from the urgent need for decriminalisation, to better social protection mechanisms, and calls for sex worker organisations to work in unity.
“It is necessary to work in unity between the different sex work organisations...Generate financial and / or food support for sex workers.” – Sex worker organisation, Mexico
“Decriminalisation is the only thing that will end the discrimination. Or at least begin the journey to mutual respect and dignity. We won't stop until we achieve it.” – Sex worker, United States