Sex workers and strippers explain how COVID has forced them to gamble with their safety
Sex workers and strippers explained how the pandemic has forced them into unsafe working conditions and hit them financially.
United Sex Workers is a trade union branch organising for better working conditions and to change the sex work industry from within. Among its aims is to establish ‘worker’ status for strippers and sex workers, which bestows basic employment rights such as sick pay and annual leave.
Its work has become even more important during the pandemic, which has seen strip clubs fall quiet and close down, and has seen sex workers often forced to gamble with their safety in order to make a living.
While some people have been able to work remotely during the pandemic, many people’s livelihoods depend on in-person contact.
To make matters worse, sex workers are classed as self-employed, meaning they can’t access sick pay or other benefits. The result is that many sex workers are left struggling to make ends meet if they test positive for COVID-19.
That puts sex workers in a uniquely difficult position – how do you stay afloat when you have no guaranteed income and no safety net to fall back on?
We spoke to members of United Sex Workers to find out what it’s been like to work in the sex industry since the arrival of the Omicron variant. They spoke about financial instability, the fear that comes with being exposed to COVID-19, and working with riskier clients in a bid to make ends meet.
Surnames have been withheld to protect identities.
December is always a slow month, yet the Omicron wave reduced it to a glacial pace. When I tested positive for COVID over Christmas it meant I had to take 10 full days off work, which only increased the anxiety I felt about not being able to make rent. When you’re self-employed, 10 days of work can mean the difference between paying bills or subsisting on super noodles. I had to take on potentially dangerous clients I would have usually refused to see just to make ends meet, alongside juggling the health anxiety of being so close to strangers in the middle of a global pandemic.
Being a hooker, I was unable to access any financial support from the government earlier in the year, and any savings I had at the start of the pandemic are now long gone, so all I can do is continue to see clients and hope I don’t fall ill again. The longer the pandemic stretches on, the more terrified I am of never being able to financially recover. I often wonder if this perpetual anxiety is how it would feel if sex work were criminalised; having to take riskier bookings due to there being less clients, knowing that with each booking I’m gambling with my own safety.
My work phone was quieter than usual and I needed to take any booking I could. This meant that I screened less than usual and men tried to push my boundaries a bit more I think because they knew I was desperate for the money.
This is what it might be like if we have the Nordic model, the nicer clients will behave and not come out and the bad clients will still be there and they will know that we need the money and push us.
Omicron has hit the stripping industry really hard. November and December is usually the best time of the year for dancers, but this year it has been very quiet. We saw a massive decline in the number of customers visiting our clubs, as Christmas parties and stag dos were often cancelled. This, combined with the arrival of COVID passports has made it incredibly hard for strippers to make a decent amount of money. A lot of us also tested positive for COVID and have had to self-isolate and miss out on work. Due to being self-employed, we had no access to sick pay.
The last two years have been incredibly hard for the industry. A number of clubs did not get any financial support as a result of their local authority discriminating against them simply because of the nature of those establishments. This has led to the closure of some clubs which did not manage to make it through the pandemic. Some of them tried to recoup their financial losses through higher house fees, fines given to the workers for very arbitrary reasons, and booking more dancers than they usually would, making it harder for everyone to make money.
Many strippers are queer, and a significant proportion of the customer base also is.
Some cities such as Bristol, Edinburgh and Blackpool have used those difficult times to try and introduce nil-caps, essentially a ban, on strip clubs. Blackpool has unfortunately been successful, although the process they went through to achieve this was more than questionable. No decision has been made in Bristol and Edinburgh so far. Those decisions from local authorities have received a massive backlash from the industry itself, with us dancers in Bristol organising ourselves with the Bristol Sex Workers Collective and advocating against the ban, arguing it would push the industry underground and make us unsafe. We have been supported by our trade union United Sex Workers, which is also campaigning against nil-caps.
These caps would not only endanger the dancers, who would lose safe and regulated workplaces, but it would also be a huge loss for the LGBTQ+ community. Many strippers are queer, and a significant proportion of the customer base also is. Closing them down would once again be removing safe spaces for the community, due to the high security presence in those venues and the very strict licensing.
I tested positive for COVID along with many others in the week leading up to Christmas. This meant that I had to isolate and therefore couldn’t work. It was very stressful to be sat at home with no income worrying that if there was another lockdown I could be facing even more losses and that I could struggle to pay my rent and bills. There’s no furlough pay and no sick pay if you’re a sex worker. I just wish that we had access to these basic rights so that we can feel protected and supported along with other workers.
At the start of COVID, I managed to take a few months off sex work because I had a few days work each week in a civvie job. When money got tight I started seeing clients again and, perhaps due to their mental health being bad, and mine too, the sessions were so difficult, with clients pushing boundaries or being more emotionally intense than usual and less respectful of boundaries.
Touch also felt strange after so long avoiding human contact. I was missing the people I wanted to be close to so much, so the touch from those I didn’t love felt stifling. I also think, as sex work is so stigmatised and I have internalised some of that, I was worried about spreading COVID that I’d picked up via clients, as if this somehow was worse than if I’d picked it up working in an office.
You can join the United Sex Workers trade union or find out more about the work they do here.