COVID-19 | Sex workers driven further to the margins by the coronavirus crisis by Jaffer Latief Najar

Despite inroads having been made in recent years to improve their rights and reduce precarity, sex workers are still shunned, struggling to shift negative attitudes toward this age-old occupation. The coronavirus crisis is placing further pressure on sex workers, not only leading to a loss of income, but also pushing them further to the edges of society. Jaffer Latief Najar argues that states have the responsibility to ensure the acknowledgement of sex work and its entrepreneurs so that they can enjoy the same benefits as other employees or entrepreneurs during and after the crisis.

Sex work is a centuries-old global occupation, yet sex workers have always been marginalized. The sector has historically been regulated to keep tabs on the social, racial, political, and economic mobility of its workers. The regulation of the activities and bodies of sex workers worldwide and their marginalization are predominantly a colonial legacy. In the contemporary age, sex work is approached in binaries, seen either as legal (but regulated) labour or conflated with sex trafficking, which encourages its illegalization.

Concerning the radical changes enacted worldwide due to the spread of the coronavirus, including lockdowns and the temporary halting of high-risk occupations, it appears that the livelihoods, financial mobility, and health situation of sex workers are at risk. Some sex workers have used social media platforms to point out the decline of clients, income, and increasing health risks following the outbreak of COVID-19. For instance, one sex worker used a chain of threads and tweeted that,

“There’s no clients! Nobody in their right mind is having sex with a stranger during a pandemic. So often we’re not even given the option of seeing clients! Which means we’re BROKE. ”

Some sex workers are even offering extra unpaid services to continue drawing clients during the crisis. For instance, a number of sex workers are offering services such as ‘pay for 12 hours and get 12 free’. Indeed, sex workers in the Global South, in India for example, are struggling to make temporary arrangements to make ends meet, even fearing possible starvation if the current crisis endures. It explicitly speaks to the severity of coronavirus crisis and the strategies for survival employed by sex workers themselves. More so, sex workers’ communities and collectives have also come forward to raise funds to support sex workers who are suffering from financial stress during the time of this coronavirus pandemic. But is it their responsibility to ensure their survival? What role should the state play in helping sex workers stay afloat financially?

The precarity of sex work

Policies and feminists have contesting views on approaches to sex work. Some view it as a form of ‘exploitation’, while others see it as a form of work, framed in relation to individuals’ agency. The contestation is further complicated by the global anti-trafficking discourse, which largely conflates sex work with sex trafficking and encourages the criminalization of sex work. The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (UN TIP Protocol) clearly promotes such a criminalization framework, which, after acknowledgement by the majority of nation-states, is shown to have a strong negative impact on the lives and livelihoods of sex workers. Indeed, within such a dominant frame, institutional support largely reaches sex workers when they represent themselves as victims of trafficking rather than as independent agential sex workers. My personal field engagement in India’s largest red light district in Sonagachi has provided ample evidence that the criminalization framework encourages the incarceration of sex workers who resist being framed as victims of trafficking and the dismissal of their basic human rights.

The tensions are also embedded in an intersectional system that supresses sex workers socially, politically, economically, and as individuals. During interviews conducted as part of my ongoing fieldwork on the research topic ‘Locating marginalized voices in human trafficking discourse: learning from the experiences of urban subalterns in India’ in Asia’s biggest red light district in Sonagachi, Kolkata, sex workers often noted the issue of exclusion from or discrimination in public healthcare services and in trying to access welfare benefits due to their occupation. Moreover, a majority of  sex workers are working with concealed identities and are using surrogate jobs titles to deal with social stigma and tensions in the family.

The current coronavirus pandemic creates a situation of hardship for them as they avoid working in streets and brothels and lose a share of income, which they present to their families as a salary from surrogate jobs, in addition to their crucial need to earn money to support themselves and their families. During my recent telephonic conversation with sex workers in India, after the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic, it appears that some of the sex workers are migrating back to their native villages as they can’t afford the expenses and possible risks in Sonagachi. Besides, it appears that the situation has become more risky and harsh for those migrant sex workers who stay back or even can’t go back to their native villages, especially undocumented migrant sex workers from outside states and outside national boundaries. It highlights that institutional support during such crisis situations is essential.

State support essentially needed

In pandemic situations, states largely comes forward to support those who are suffering from a loss of income (for example, see how the United States is responding). But due to the illegality or precarity of the occupation in many contexts, sex workers often are not seen as entrepreneurs who qualify for government subsidies or financial assistance. In such cases, there would be no mandate or institutional responsibility to offer financial packages, healthcare services, or relief benefits to sex workers. Industries and several unorganized work sectors suffering losses due to the coronavirus pandemic have been offered financial packages or healthcare benefits by several government agencies or employing institutions. But if sex work is not a commercially acknowledged industry, sex workers will be further cornered and will suffer further marginalization. Also, being a non-acknowledged industry, sex workers have no option of benefitting from other government support systems that have made several provisions to protect employees and companies alike. Indeed, those states that regulate sex work as work have imposed a recent ban on the commercial activities related to sex work due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has the potential of encouraging financial instabilities and further precarities among sex workers if no institutional support is provided.

The system of non-acknowledgement of sex work in established policies therefore excludes sex workers from entitlements or rights and invisiblizes sex workers during a pandemic situation, as the current coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated. It also holds back the political, social, and institutional responsibility of the state and other actors, including civil society, towards marginalized communities of sex workers. The onus, on the contrary, is indeed forcefully and irresponsibly imposed on sex workers to manage their situation, survive, and take high risks for the fulfilment of their basic human needs. Changes in the global socio-political landscape due to the coronavirus pandemic are hence leading to further burdens and precarities in the lives of sex workers, whereas an institutional system is failing to show any sign of support. But it is also a learning lesson for sex workers’ collectives and their allies in preparing responses to future pandemic situations. Last but not least and importantly, the crisis also puts in the spotlight the desirability of the criminalization approach toward sex work that exists in dominant anti-trafficking models.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.

IMG_20181117_193035 (1)About the author:

Jaffer Latief Najar currently works as a researcher in the Vital Cities and Citizen Program at International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, Netherlands. He can be reached on Twitter or LinkedIn.


Image Credit: Matt Zulak on Flickr. The image has been cropped.

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