The United States this week announced that they had passed 1.2 million recorded COVID-19 cases, and nearly 70,000 deaths. Despite these somber milestones, the country has been divided between those eager to get back to ‘business as usual’ and those who wish the lockdown to remain in effect. Left out of this debate are the sex workers who have had no choice but to continue working due to their exclusion from any government relief package.
Coyote RI (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) – a group of Rhode Island sex workers, former sex workers, and allies that are advocating for policies that promote the health and safety of people involved in sex work – reported their experiences of the crisis in the United States in our COVID-19 Impact Survey.
“Here in Rhode Island, we have hundreds of dancers and spa workers out of work, as the state mandates all non-essential businesses to close. We also have hundreds of online escorts, many stopped working to protect themselves, however many have continued to take clients because they can’t afford to stop working.”
This pressure to work has been compounded by the lack of access to emergency funds.
“In the US any sex worker who didn't file taxes, which is the majority of them, are not eligible for unemployment or anything in the federal relief package.”
Coyote RI reported that US law actively prohibits anyone involved in the sex industry from receiving any federal disaster relief funding. The small business bailout bill openly excludes sex workers from receiving any federal disaster relief funding.
Undocumented sex workers face further exclusion as they are ineligible for emergency funding and cannot access free health care.
“Only US citizens can apply for free health care. Other than mutual community aids, undocumented workers cannot get any help from the government.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continue to perform raids on homes, using the current crisis as a way of gaining entry to properties.
“ICE is still rounding up undocumented folks to detain and deport them, just last week ICE agents pretended to be medical professionals to get people to open up their doors when ICE agents knocked on their door.”
Sex workers are facing targeted exclusion from emergency funding and are forced into the decision between making money to survive or protecting their own health. This decision is made particularly difficult for older sex workers or sex workers with underlying health conditions.
“Of course, all sex workers who are over 50 or who have underlying health issues probably won’t survive the virus if they were to get infected. Mandating strip clubs and spas close, while the state and federal government locks them out of any assistance is the norm for the US, which is known for creating laws and policies that purposely harm sex workers.”
In order to try and counter these complex layers of discrimination and exclusion, Coyote RI has established a fund for Rhode Island sex workers experiencing hardships during COVID-19. So far they have processed over 50 applications, and provided them with 200 rent grants, paying out over $10,000. They have also set up a fundraising platform to raise money in order to help more sex workers, and have created a COVID-19 resource guide, which contains information on COVID-19 harm reduction, information on working online, and information for allies.
Ultimately, Coyote RI believe that legislation and decriminalisation are the ways in which the US government can begin to help sex workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We need to repeal the law that prohibits ‘people involved in the sex industry’ from disaster relief funding. We need federal discrimination legislation, that would prohibit discriminating against sex workers in housing, child custody, and employment, and we need hate crime legislation. We need equal protection under the law, to include labor rights and decriminalization of all consenting adults involved in the sex industry. We also need our government to FUND sex worker led organizations and allow the organizations to provide services for sex workers.”