COVID-19 and Conflict | Why virtual sex work hasn’t helped sex workers in India survive the COVID-19 lockdown

Virtual sex work, although around for many years, has become an alternative to traditional sex work during the global COVID-19 pandemic. In India, like elsewhere, sex workers due to a strict lockdown and the limiting of their movements have turned to virtual sex work to earn a living. Yet it has not become a viable solution for many due to a number of challenges the workers face when resorting to this type of sex work, write Birendra Singh and Chitrakshi Vashisht.

"Sex workers" by mo's is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By the end of 2020, around ten million people in India had been infected with COVID-19. Only the United States has recorded a higher number of infections. To mitigate the crisis, the Government of India instituted a lockdown, forcing its over 1.4 billion residents to stay at home. Among the many affected by strict lockdown measures are sex workers, who became a high-risk group during the pandemic due to the nature of their work that requires physical interaction.

Conservative estimates suggest that there are around 38,000 sex workers in the city of Delhi alone, of whom many are residential sex workers working from their small and congested houses (also the case for brothels). This poses a twofold challenge for them during the pandemic: a heightened individual risk of contracting a COVID-19 infection and lack of any other source of income to support themselves and their families in a time when the economy came to a virtual halt.

In light of this precarious situation, and as part of the ISS’s concluding ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’ (Discord) project, we conducted a small study with sex workers in Delhi, including with female sex workers (FSW – cisgender women), transgender (trans) women, and hijras (a socio-cultural group in India under the transgender umbrella which in 2014 was recognized as a third gender by the Supreme court of India). Interviews took place online in the summer of 2020, and we sought to understand the effects of the virus and the pandemic on their lives and the possibilities of new technological practices such as virtual sex for this group. We conducted six interviews: two with representatives of NGOs working with sex workers, two with representatives of the All India Network of Sex Workers, and two with representatives of the Mitr Trust. Of the respondents, three earn their living through sex work. Additionally, secondary data such as media reports, articles, and online interviews were consulted for the study.

Virtual sex work is emerging as a new typology of sex work whereby sex workers use electronic devices such as computers or (mobile) phones to provide sex services through text, audio, and video. Especially during the pandemic, a shift in sex-work practices from physical sex to virtual sex could be observed, while some claimed a potential transformation in sexuality in which virtual sex practices could have played a critical role. However, our study brings to light the critical factors associated with this practice itself that makes its feasibility as alternative livelihood for sex workers in Delhi questionable.

Challenges facing sex workers

The sex workers we spoke to belonged to the lower socio-economic tiers of society and were migrants. Most sex workers reside in congested, unauthorized housing clusters, slums, or small, rented rooms with their friends or families in Delhi. Often, men in families of FSWs suffer from alcoholism and drug abuse, while both FSWs and trans women face intimate partner violence. Due to the stigma attached to sex work and gender non-conformity (for trans women/and hijras), most are abandoned by their biological families. Amina’s story is no different. Now 19, she was thrown out by her parents when she was 16 years old. She particularly recalls: “My sister gave me 100 rupees (less than 2 euros) and asked me to buy poison and die.”

Many FSWs live dual/hidden lives, while some work as a domestic help, security guard, or in small manufacturing companies on outskirts of Delhi, using these additional jobs only as a ‘cover’ for their sex work. Trans women and/or hijras are marginalized even among FSWs since they are not considered ‘real’ women. Due to their gender/sexual expression, opportunities for decent work are often closed to them and they are forced to choose sex work, begging, and/or traditional hijra ways (singing and dancing at ritual functions) of living.

The use of virtual sex technology to keep working

A strict lockdown and fear of being infected halted sex work, with dire implications for sex workers. Some we spoke to stayed hungry for up to three days, while some FSWs lacked enough money to buy milk for their children. Hence, although not an entirely new option for some, virtual sex became the only option during the crisis. However, through it sex workers could earn only a small fraction of the income they could have earned through non-virtual sex work.

They faced many problems. To begin with, the lack of private space to interact when making audio or video calls was difficult for sex workers, as well as for their clients, because during the crisis everyone was staying at home. Especially poor and uneducated sex workers lacked the basic digital literacy to use the phone and/or the Internet, as well as the confidence and skills necessary to perform virtual sex work. Their socioeconomic background, precarious living conditions, and the stigmatization of sex work never allowed them to acquire these skills and pride in their work. Moreover, for some to meet the cost of an Internet connection or smartphone itself was impossible.

Safety in receiving payment by the clients was also among the big challenges that this community faced. Sharing phone numbers with strangers resulted in adverse consequences. Many men threatened sex workers, stating that if they did not provide them with a free service, they would ‘expose’ their identity to their neighbours and families. Additionally, many clients refused to pay in advance for the services. Many times, they would disconnect the call and block the sex worker’s account or phone number just after receiving the service virtually, while sometimes men would delay payment rather than denying it altogether and later block the number of the sex worker. Some clients also threatened to distribute their phone number to strangers who would make their life even more difficult. For most of the sex workers, the biggest problem with virtual sex was ‘no guarantee of payment’.

Not (yet) a viable alternative

Virtual sex as an innovative practice during the COVID-19 crisis didn’t work for the majority of the sex workers we interviewed because of the lack of digital literacy, access to good-quality phones or personal computers and Internet connections, privacy, and the empathy of society. Receiving safe and secure payment was also one of their biggest challenges. In the Indian context, virtual sex practices thus cannot be treated as a substitute for ‘regular’ sex work, although it has captured remarkable attention as a ‘new’ type of sex work.

About the authors

Birendra Singh is a Science Technology and Society (STS) studies researcher. He holds a Master of Technology (M.Tech) and a research Master (M.Phil) in the realm of science policy. His research interest includes, frugal and grassroots innovation emerging from marginalized spaces, politics of knowledge and social institutions. At ISS/EUR, his PhD project is aspiring to conceptualize knowledge and learning dynamics of the bottom-up frugal innovations. For more info click here.

Chitrakshi Vashisht has over eight years of work experience in development sector in the field of gender, sexuality, education, adult literacy, SRH (particularly in HIV/AIDS) in India where she worked with several grassroots level NGOs/CBOs strenuously working for the rights of women, men and transgender (including but not limited to hijra and kothi) persons. Her research interests are in the areas of policy, gender, sexuality, identity, culture, and intimate partner violence. She holds an M.Sc. in Gender and Development Studies from Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand, a Masters in Social Work from India and is presently pursuing her PhD from ISS.

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