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If you are a woman with lived experience of selling or exchanging sex or images – or a service with experience of providing support to women – and would like to be featured on the podcast, please get in touch. You can take part in any way that suits you – from recorded interviews, to soundbites, to anonymised quotes and stories. Drop us a message here. We can’t wait to hear from you!
HOW HAS THE SEX INDUSTRY CHANGED DUE TO CORONAVIRUS?
Women in the sex industry report feeling the effects of coronavirus as early as January and February, with significant increases in cancellations and significant declines in bookings. As we came into March and entered lockdown, government-imposed social distancing protocols made it significantly harder to meet with clients face-to-face. Faced with a significant drop in income, some women have had to consider moving into online selling/exchanging of sex for the first time via webcamming and private gallery platforms. However, it is not only women who were previously involved in other areas of the sex industry that are moving online – but also women who have lost jobs in sectors like hospitality and retail who are entering the industry for the first time via these platforms. Sites like Chaturbate and OnlyFans reported a 75% increase in new sign-ups of subscribers (e.g. people signing up to pay for content) and content creators (e.g. women signing up to post images and videos) in March.
Anastacia Ryan – the director of Umbrella Lane, a sex worker led peer support and wellbeing network – notes that not everyone is able to move their services online due to cost and concerns about safety:
“…For many of the workers within our network it’s just not been feasible [to move online] due to the costs associated with moving your business online which applies the same to sex work as it does in other industries […] For many people who engage in sex work, they’re not out to their families or their friends. By being out they run the risk of being prosecuted and criminalised in various ways, if they work in ways that are criminalised in Scotland. So, to move your business online carries obviously an additional risk around anonymity and protection of identity. So for many sex workers [moving online] just wasn’t feasible.”
This inability to move online was echoed by Jenna, a women’s worker from the Dundee-based service Vice Versa which supports women who sell sex on-street. Jenna notes that, for the women she supports, a lack of access to stable internet means that they’re not able to move online.
This means that some women are now faced with a horrible decision of: do I continue seeing clients face-to-face and put my health at risk or do I stop seeing clients and have no way of paying my bills, paying my rent, or making sure I have food on the table?
WHAT DO WOMEN NEED?
At the start of the pandemic we called out to women via CLiCK’s Your Voice platform – a space for women to share their needs, concerns, and stories. Through speaking to women directly, and through our anonymous poll, we identified a range of urgent needs, including: money, housing, safety, mental wellbeing, and sexual health.
Money was identified as the most urgent need by all the women we heard from via Your Voice. Some women we spoke with were trying to access Universal Credit for the very first time - a process which was often arduous, confusing, and frustrating. Rachel, a women’s worker from Edinburgh-based service Another Way which supports women who sell sex on-street and online, notes that financial uncertainty has been having a significant impact on women’s mental wellbeing:
“There is funding available just now and I’ve supported a number of women to access these and women are very, very grateful. But a lot of these are one off sums of money. So although that’s really, really great – and it doesn’t take away the fact that’s really useful for women – it still doesn’t take away the anxiety that they have of ‘OK it’s great I’ve got some money for just now, but what’s going to happen in two weeks? What’s going to happen in three weeks?’”
Like everyone that is experiencing lockdown, women involved in selling or exchanging sex are reporting feelings of isolation, loneliness, and disconnection. For women in the sex industry, these feelings may be increased as many women are not “out” to their friends and family about their involvement in the industry. Bronagh Andrew of the TARA Project also notes that, for women who have experienced trafficking, a lack of access to technology is increasing feelings of isolation and the dynamics of lockdown itself are having an impact on mental wellbeing:
“Women are beginning to struggle with social isolation […] many of those women are digitally excluded. They don’t have access to the internet or smartphones […] Women are struggling with their movements being restricted, which for some women echoes their experiences before…when they were experiencing trafficking and levels of control from perpetrators.”
Women are also feeling anxious about their safety during the coronavirus pandemic, particularly around their ability to safety plan and their ability to set and maintain boundaries with clients due to financial insecurity as Anastacia points out:
“…When people feel financially insecure often their decisions around sex work are related to that feeling of financial insecurity […] in a situation where you have many people working and trying to see high volumes of clients to make up for this time of having lost income, we worry about people being protected in that sense and feeling able to exert their own boundaries. To not get into situations of exploitation, to not get into situations where they feel forced to do things they’re not comfortable to do…”
Our homes should give us a feeling of a safety and security. However, in a recent article in the Huffington Post, Shelter voiced their concerns over a potential “wave of homelessness” once mortgage holidays and eviction freezes end as people’s mortgage and rent payments have continued to accumulate over this period of lockdown. For some of the women that Jenna supports there is a high level of uncertainty around what their housing situation is going to look like after lockdown, as some women are currently housed in temporary accommodation. Rachel also notes that some of the women she works with have had to give up the flat they use to meet with clients as they cannot afford rent on both this property and their own home. This means that women are becoming increasingly concerned about having to meet with clients in their own home in the future, and what this means for their safety.
Sexual health services across Scotland are currently unable to provide non-emergency care (e.g. routine STI screenings). Although this decision is understandable and necessary given the current situation, this is a concern for women who have no choice but to continue seeing clients face-to-face. Whilst some specialist clinics are still seeing women face-to-face in large cities, women who live in rural areas of Scotland may not have the same opportunity.
WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE
There was a real sense from all the services we spoke with that now needs to be a time of real creativity – across the board. Women need to be given the space and time to let services know what works, what doesn’t work, and what needs to change. However, it can’t just be specialist services making these changes. Efforts must be made by mainstream services – like housing, mental health care, and welfare – to upskill their staff to best meet the needs of women with lived experience of selling or exchanging sex or images. Calls were also made for revived discussion around the legal landscape for women in Scotland – working together to design a legislative framework that best meets the needs and rights of women who sell or exchange sex or images in order to ensure there is appropriate change at the service level, policy level, and legal level for women.
Although we’re living in uncertain and often scary times, there was a real sense of hope from services that – by working closely with women – meaningful change can be achieved:
“Why couldn’t we come up with one of the best models globally? […] Maybe this is the time actually that Scotland comes up with something that’s really quite impressive, that’s led by women, that offers opportunities for women, that has women at the core…where everybody steps out of their silos and globally people go ‘They’ve got it!’"
– Linda Thompson, National Co-ordinator Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Scotland and Co-ordinator of The Encompass Network