Sex work is work!
The effects of the pandemic upon workers of all professions have been both financially and mentally crippling. As mass unemployment takes hold of the UK, many have been thrown into deeply worrying situations. Following the constant changing of corona rules and a series of vague instructions, most Britons have been left feeling bewildered about what the near future holds for them. One of the groups who has been particularly feeling this pressure is sex workers.
The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) has taken to publicly claim that many British sex workers are falling into poverty as long as lockdown is prolonged. Some are even battling with the prospect of being made homeless. For some, it is already too late. The ECP declared that even before the pandemic, the UK government’s austerity measures had taken their toll on many Britons, with many having to turn their hand to sex work to simply survive. They fear as economic conditions exacerbate throughout and after the pandemic, the fabric of society will continue to tear as thousands more will be forced into sex work.
Since the UK entered its third lockdown, the number of enquiries into sex work from what the ECP calls ‘first-timers’ has skyrocketed. The mass redundancies coupled with the hospitality and entertainment industries remaining closed has left many wondering which way to turn. Especially for those with children to feed, it has been an extremely stressful period.
The ECP reported that lockdown compliant sex workers are plummeting in poverty, with a third relying on foodbanks. Although strongly advised not to, some sex workers have been putting their health at risk to make ends meet. In this sense, sex workers have fallen into a catch-22 situation.
The lockdown compliant sex workers who have had to move online are struggling to fight for their spotlight in an already oversaturated market. Some are brand new to the online game and experiencing trouble establishing themselves within it. One woman who knows all too well about the repercussions of COVID-19 is 23-year-old sex worker Mercy.
Mercy had been working as a waitress at her local strip club for over a year before she turned her hand to dancing. After becoming well acquainted with the regulars and other dancers, it seemed like an easy transition to make. Unfortunately, she had only been dancing for a few months when the strip club was closed, cutting off her main source of income. In this article, I caught up with Mercy to hear about what it’s like being a sex worker before and during a global pandemic.
Lucy: How long have you been working as a sex worker?
Mercy: One year!
Lucy: Can you explain in a little bit of detail what type of sex work you partake in?
Mercy: “I was working as a stripper before Covid19 shut everything down in March last year. Since being classed as self-employed I wasn't on any furlough scheme, I also wasn't eligible for the self-employment grant as I hadn't been dancing long enough to come under one full tax year. Since there has been no government guidance on when strip clubs will reopen, I've had to move online for other means of income. I'm now working as a camgirl, where I do shows, private shows and take phone calls. This is not something I would've ever thought about doing before the pandemic but with very little opportunity of finding another job and with no access to grants, this is now what works best for me.”
Lucy: How did you get into sex work? Was it how you expected it to be?
Mercy: “I'd be lying if I said it wasn't for the money. I was waitressing in a strip club for over a year and absolutely loved it, I felt comfortable there and wanted to give dancing a go so I did. I fell in love with it. I've always had an interest in the sex industry and I've always been very open to conversations surrounding sex and sexuality, I've always been quite a sexual person and enjoy expressing myself through this. I could never understand why others weren't and always questioned why it's deemed such a taboo subject.
It was a lot harder than I expected it to be. Doing 8-10 hours in a pair of 7inch Pleasers is no joke. I found myself having a lot more respect for anyone who is in the industry, myself included. I've been working amongst different jobs since the age of 15, I'm now 23 and it is the most emotionally and physically draining job I've ever had but it is also the most rewarding.”
Lucy: What do you like most about your job?
Mercy: “The money! There's also plenty of other things, like the social aspect of stripping was amazing. Everyone I worked with was wonderful, I really miss being in that environment. I also love the freedom of being self-employed. Deciding when I want to work and how much I want to work is great. The years I'd spent working in hospitality dealing with rude customers and complaints was very hard for me in terms of having to hold my tongue. This used to get me in a lot of bother with managers. When I started dancing, I didn't have to hold back. I love roasting a guy when they're rude to me or someone else, it's one of the best parts of the job. Meeting new people and chatting gives me so much joy. I love interacting with people, this is also the reason I'm loving working as a cam girl! A dancer I used to work with once told me, "Sex workers are really just like naked councillors.", I couldn't agree more. Men confide in us. We know things about men that their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives, sons, and daughters will never know. The job is not just physical labour, it is also emotional labour.”
Lucy: What do you dislike most about your job?
Mercy: “What I dislike most about my job is the emotionally draining side, it does get too much sometimes. If I'm having a shit day I can't go to work and 'be sad', I'd make no money. I'm playing 'Mercy', she's sensual, she's seductive and she's carefree. It gets hard playing another person sometimes but when I start feeling like this, I know it's time to take a break and refresh. Also, men who think they're entitled to my time without paying me infuriates me. I hate the lack of respect for my profession, people genuinely have whorephobia. I'll never understand the mentality behind it, and this is my younger self speaking, before I'd even entered the sex industry.”
Lucy: How much has COVID-19 impacted your work? What changes have you had to make?
Mercy: “A lot. It's made life very difficult, not just for me but for every SW. Most of us have had to move online and build up a presence from scratch in a community which was already so heavily oversaturated. Moving online is something I never would've done if it wasn't for COVID-19 as I loved the anonymity that dancing gave me. Most of my friends and family don't know I'm a camgirl, most don't even know I was stripping. Every time I work, I run the risk of being outed which scares me, I realise it's not a case of 'if people find out' it's 'when people find out'. The way I feel about this within myself angers me and upsets me, I shouldn't have to feel nervous and anxious about people finding out, but unfortunately, this is the society we live in and I have to risk this to make money to survive.”
Lucy: Do you believe COVID-19 has affected the future of sex work for good?
Mercy: “I don't want to say for good, I'd say for a long time rather than for good. It definitely has impacted this industry in terms of the rise in online users for cam sites and for adult social platforms such as OnlyFans and PocketStars. Good things have come from this in the sense that the online community of sex workers is now stronger than ever, we really do support, help and look out for each other.
However, I believe the bad outweighs the good. As this industry, rightfully so, requires anyone who works in it or consumes it to be of the legal age 18, there are no apps available for download, that's why everything is on the web. In December, Instagram updated their terms of service to explicitly state that no sexual content or the buying or selling of sex is allowed on the app. This was detrimental for sex workers, already viewed as a minority group with no support from the government. This form of advertising themselves to gain subscribers has been taken away. Accounts are continuously being shut down and users are shadowbanned, making it even harder for us to make money. It's blatant discrimination.”
Lucy: How do you feel that sex workers are portrayed in the media? How would you like this to change?
Mercy: “Sex sells. We're induced to so many images, videos and advertisements of a sexual nature every day and most of us don't even realise it. Society loves to steal performances and styles from us but will refuse to support us or be associated with us. People love to fetishize sex workers but don't see us as real people with real emotions. We're deemed as invaluable members of society when in fact, it's the complete opposite. There is quite literally a demand and supply chain when it comes to sex work. Any music video you watch today will more than likely contain stripping, people make whole movies about us without any actual sex worker representation or even having asked real sex workers to tell their stories and experiences, they make this stuff up. If you want to know about us so badly, ask us and pay us for our time!”
Lucy: If you could tell the public something important about sex workers what would it be?
Mercy: “Sex work is work! We are real people with real emotions. We matter. We demand an end to violence. We won't stop until we get it.
I would also like to add that we're fighting for decriminalisation of sex work! This pandemic has proven that decrim is needed now more than ever! FFS (Full-Service Sex Work) has seen a rise in survival sex work, these people are literally having to choose between survival and risking their own health to provide for their families. The government offers no support for FFS/SW in this situation, not even emergency housing. Decriminalisation would mean that they could have access to basic human rights such as reporting a client who has been abusive to the police without fear of prosecution. There is no other job with such high risks involved e.g. rape, murder, assault, that is given so little protection. It breaks my heart.
If I could recommend one book to read it would be Revolting Prostitutes by Juno Mac and Molly Smith. Juno also has an informative TedTalk on the importance of decriminalisation and she also explains The Nordic Model, a bill put forward by Labour MP Diana Johnson, on the 9th of December 2020. This is due to have a second reading on the 5th of February 2021. If this bill were to be passed it would criminalise the buying of sex, which only leads to unsafe working conditions rather than ending sex work, pushes the industry further underground. It also would target anyone who advertises online. It has been put in place in many other countries and has only proven to do more harm to sex workers. This link is a template to write to your local MP opposing this model: https://scotpep.eaction.org.uk/NoNordicModel/search.”
Lucy: Are there any other ways that sex workers like yourself can be supported through the pandemic?
Mercy: “There are also some amazing organisations to donate to which are helping sex workers through this pandemic:
NUM (National Ugly Mugs)
SWARM (Sex Worker Advocacy Resistance Movement)
ECOP (English Collective Of Prostitutes)
SWAI (Sex Worker Alliance Ireland)
Also, check out @cybertease on Instagram and buy a ticket to one of their virtual strip club nights, I guarantee you won't be disappointed. Don't forget to tip, tip, tip!”
Written by Lucy Rowan: Monthly Contributing editor.