Sex Work, Ending Demand, and ‘We Told You So’ in the Time of COVID
SEX WORKERS ALLIANCE IRELAND
DUBLIN, IRELAND 08/05/2020
Sex workers, like all workers, have been hit hard by the current crisis. But the reality is that the coronavirus has only exacerbated the existing difficulties faced by sex workers working in Ireland.
Ireland’s public policy on sex work was drafted in accordance with the “Nordic” or “Swedish Model”, which is purported to tackle the demand for prostitution by shifting the longstanding prosecution of sex workers to the prosecution of their pimps and clients instead. It was enacted here in 2017 and while advocates have argued that such an approach would ultimately eliminate sex work altogether, it has created a more hostile climate for sex workers to try to survive in.
According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDs report published in 2012, evidence has shown that criminal laws related to sex work do not stop nor deter demands for sex – nor do they reduce the number of sex workers. “Rather, all of them create an environment of fear and marginalisation for sex workers”1. This is because criminalisation regimes that focus on prosecutions typically do not offer the necessary social welfare provisions, legal protections, and justice for sex workers who are already working under the most precarious and oftentimes dangerous conditions.
Under the Swedish Model, sex workers find themselves excluded from basic labour protections and rights. And while shifting the criminality of sex work from sellers to buyers, it does not address the ongoing widespread policing of sex workers that pushes them further into the margins. Indeed, sex worker peer organisations and social welfare advocates have spoken to the emergence of a “buyers’ market” that has only hurried the negotiating position of sex workers and put them in more danger as clients seek to minimise their own risks.
Even before the present crisis, we’ve known that demands for sex work never really end. Not even a global pandemic will stop clients from contacting workers. In fact, clients are trying to manipulate workers by using the scarcity of clients and money as a tool. They are saying things like: “if you don’t come to me now, I will go to another worker when this is all over”. Over half of the workers we are in contact with still have clients contacting them but the significant drop in business and accompanying lack of supports have left a lot of sex workers in a desperate situation.
STATE DISTRUST AND PUBLIC SURVEILLANCE
There are state supports for workers impacted by the pandemic but many sex workers have not applied for government funds for a variety of reasons. Some don’t have PPS numbers, have never paid taxes, and don’t have bank accounts. Some are afraid that their information will be shared with other government bodies, such as immigration or revenue. This difficulty can be compounded when a worker’s first language is not English.
Sex workers are so marginalised by society that they do not feel empowered enough to apply for emergency funds, which should be available to everyone. This is what stigma does: it leaves people hungry and desperate. There is such a lack of trust in and fear of state agencies that some workers won’t risk engaging them, even when they are in dire need.
We know that some sex workers are still working and many have moved online. However, moving online is not always possible, especially for more marginalised workers. The issues that all workers face – such as accessing broadband internet, lack of privacy and lack of childcare – affect sex workers, too. Many street-based workers do not have the means to move online and have continued to try working on the streets during the crisis but, with the extension of powers for the Gardaí to move people on or arrest them, they have found it almost impossible to continue making money.
We know street-based workers are being run off the streets if they try to go out and, anecdotally, we know at least one worker who has been arrested while working, despite street sex work being decriminalised.
Street-based workers are already faced with huge levels of prejudice, abuse and surveillance and this is only further exacerbated by the current climate where members of the community are encouraged to police each other and street-based workers, along with drug users and homeless people – all of whom are viewed as irresponsible and a threat to public health.
With everyone now living under the level of surveillance sex workers are used to, we see neighbours complaining to landlords or the Gardaí about other people’s comings and goings. This has been a familiar problem for sex workers working together for safety. Street-based workers being ordered to move on is common, but now it is everyone’s problem.
As a society, and especially as sex workers, we are wary that any surveillance brought in due to COVID-19 is likely to remain. And it is worth noting that heightened policing reflects gaps and failures elsewhere — such as poor community engagement.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Street-based workers are also trying to pay for the same things as everyone else – like food, accommodation, and bills. But many have additional needs, such as addiction. The need for drugs has not disappeared during the pandemic, in fact, a lot of people who were in recovery have relapsed during this time but the opportunities to earn money to pay for them have now dried up.
Addiction services are providing as much support as they can to service users but, due to the restrictions in place and lack of resources, it is difficult to provide the necessary and full supports that some people need. Some street-based workers also stay in emergency accommodation hostels where it is difficult to maintain social distancing and adhere to recommended hygiene standards.
We’ve had reports of greater satisfaction from homeless sex workers currently in hostels since the outbreak because of the safety measures that were brought in to mitigate the spread of the virus (such as opening access to all hostels during the day and reducing overcrowding in rooms). Rooms that were used to accommodate eight people in bunks now have just two single beds. Other people have been moved to single rooms or isolation units if necessary.
But these changes only serve to highlight that it was never a lack of resources or know-how that prevented the government from improving these conditions. It was merely a lack of will. Like many others, we’ve been asking ourselves why it should take a global pandemic for the state to make even the minimum of efforts to meet the basic needs of the most marginalised in our communities.
THE ABERRATIONS OF ‘END DEMAND’
“I’m worried and scared that people I love are going to catch COVID-19 and get sick and die. I’m also worried and scared that people I love and care about are not going to make it through this time, not because of the virus, but because of the desperate situation that Irish laws, stigma and policing have put us in.”– Anonymous sex worker in Ireland
Advocates of “End Demand” have not articulated any sort of follow-up plan for what comes after the abolition of sex work. They just want us to stop working. But for those of us who are transgender, disabled, undocumented, or living in Direct Provision, there are no other options.
Shutting off our last option doesn’t guarantee that other avenues of work – ones that are more “socially acceptable” – will just spring up into place.
Yet those who’ve fought to introduce the current laws and policies around sex work have failed to provide any concrete exit supports, which were promised in their campaign agendas. It’s been three years.
And now that we are all living under conditions of state-mandated isolation where one would think that demands for sex work would evaporate entirely, this virus has only shown how unfeasible these policies really are. It has shown that the already vulnerable and marginalised among us are only further endangered because of the laws and policing, and stigma and lack of supports these policies have wrought.
Many of us are lacking even basic social supports beyond what we may find in other struggling sex workers because the stigma keeps us from telling our friends, family and neighbours. Some of us have already been found out and have lost everything.
The End Demand model was intended to put power back into the hands of sex workers but it has actually done the opposite. Now workers have to make the clients feel safe and assure them that they won’t get arrested. The reduced number of clients, especially decent ones, has led sex workers to take on riskier work.
All of this is to say that while the demand for purchasing sex has plummeted, it has not disappeared. Without a support system in place, sex workers are left to fend for themselves and navigate the prickly processes of applying for emergency funds.
The reality is that some workers are still working out of desperation. In response, we have published some harm reduction guidelines for those continuing to work. Although there is widespread stigma about those who are currently working – a sentiment that is strong even within the sex work community – we firmly believe these guidelines are necessary, even though we’ve received some backlash for creating them.
Undoubtedly prohibitionist organisations will say that Ireland was supposed to get support for exiting services. But sex workers should expect more than just the right to exit sex work. Some workers cannot or will not leave sex work and are pushed further into it amidst this crisis as they are being left to fend for themselves. Health services for sex workers have closed down and some have been judgemental against those workers who have continued to work. This will have the effect of making an already marginalised worker unlikely to engage with the state again. In such a way, this pandemic has shown “End Demand” for what it really is: a failed experiment.
1. Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (2009 – 2012) UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work. Geneva: UNAIDS; p. 31