Sex work during a pandemic

How the global pandemic has reshaped the sex industry, on- and offline

Photo by Sky on

— 10 minute read — by Derry Salter

As COVID-19 cases soar, the number of people taking to both online and offline sex work is constantly rising. In the United Kingdom alone, there are an estimated 70,000 sex workers. Yet, the pandemic itself has led to the requirement of social distancing, consequently provoking a ban on sex work.

During the first UK lockdown, the government provided a detailed outline concerning the reopening of the hospitality and retail sectors, but there was no mention of the sex industry. The uncertainty of when work may become available again coupled with the precariousness of the virus itself has resulted in much anxiety for sex workers.

Sex workers who were registered as self-employed prior to the global pandemic are able to claim grants of up to 80 percent of their income. However, for many this is not the reality. Since sex work is not recognised as a legitimate profession, many people in the industry are unable to access government relief aids like the furlough scheme. Without the government’s financial help, sex workers are struggling to stay afloat.

The UK’s approach is not globally representative. In New Zealand, the first country to decriminalise sex work, people in the industry were provided with the government’s emergency wage subsidy just like other workers in the country. Furthermore, the New Zealand government have been working closely with sex worker organisations to define guidelines on how to return to work safely whilst the lockdown eases.

The introduction of lockdown measures in the UK have left many sex workers faced with the choice between abiding by the rules with no income or continuing to carry out their work, putting themselves and others at risk.

Those who have chosen the latter option have reported increased levels of harassment, with much of it going unreported due to fears of arrest as a result of not following social distancing rules. Sex work organisations in the UK have detailed in an increase in sex workers facing evictions, poverty, unsafe working conditions, and public-shaming for continuing to work throughout the pandemic. The virulence of COVID-19 has seen many vital charities supporting sex workers close down, taking a way the small elements of safety in the profession. Sex workers can no longer frequently visit sexual health nurses with concerns or problems as all forms of sex work have been made illegal during the pandemic.

For those that have continued working, there are very few clients willing to meet in the current climate. The lack of clients coupled with the closure of public places has forced many sex workers to take on riskier clients and use their homes as a location for work, increasing their risk of both physical and sexual violence.

COVID-19 has not just changed the nature of sex work, but has also forced many people to join the industry. Research conducted by Changing Lives, a charity based in the North East of England, indicated that an increasing number of single mums have taken to selling sex for the first time in order to afford necessities during the pandemic. The Northumbria Police have reported that hundreds of women have continued to risk their lives to sell sex, even as cases soar. COVID-19 has brought with it high levels of unemployment leading to a “shift into the exploitative world of sex work”, according to local police.

The global pandemic has also reshaped the landscape of sex work in the online world. Social distancing measures have forced many people to seek out intimacy online as well as encourage those in need of money to create their own content.

OnlyFans is a prime example of an online platform providing a safe way to sell all types of content from home, albeit a majority of the website’s content is now of a sexual nature. The site has over 60 million users and 750,000 content creators, who get to keep 80 percent of their earnings with the company taking the remaining 20 percent. The popularity of the site has surged as a result of the pandemic with evidence proving that between March 2020 and July, the peak of the UK’s lockdown, the number of UK-based creators increased by 42 percent.

A majority of this surge in online sex work is down to students, with a Sky News study stating that 7 percent of students turned to sex work throughout the pandemic so to finance their education. Jade*, a student from South-East England, is a prominent creator on the site with over 1,500 likes on her page. The 21 year-old single mother set up her account in April, less than a month after the Prime Minister implemented the UK lockdown, and has made over £12,000 in the last 8 months. For those that fit in the vulnerable category and want to make money from home, OnlyFans has become a popular option among many students. Jade says, “I’ve found it very liberating. I have control of my content and my body all from the safety of my living room.”

The ever-rising success of OnlyFans during lockdown can be credited to its private chat option – a function offering the illusion of intimacy – which has become a relief for many from the loneliness of lockdown. Jade argued that online sex work during the pandemic provided her with “the perfect way to make money whilst studying and looking after [her] child.” The popularity of the site is evident and has become a more unconventional way to make money, creators have a lot of control over their content, ranging from the customisation of messages to a choice of who can access pay-per-view content. According to Jade, OnlyFans is the safest way to make money through sex work as “it is all online. There is little to no trolling because of the website’s privacy settings.”

However, the reshaping of the online sex work industry has not been wholly positive for creators. Poppy* and Tom*, a couple who have been regularly creating content on OnlyFans since April 2019, have found the change in sex work over the course of the pandemic a challenging transition. The sheer number of people flocking to OnlyFans to create their own content out of lockdown boredom has provided increased competition to its longer-serving creators. Tom argues “there is certainly a more competitive edge to the market than before”, with the couples earnings declining by nearly 40 percent in comparison to 2019. The website’s increased popularity has forced the 20 year-old couple’s content to change dramatically in order to stand out. According to Poppy, “I’ve had to open my boundaries a lot since March. Our content needs to be more eye-catching and risky – it’s not as simple as it was to make money.”

There are rising concerns surrounding students who have taken to online sex work during the pandemic. Reports state that there is a heavy emotional and psychological toll on those involved in the sex industry. Poppy recognises that although OnlyFans is vital in removing the stigma of sex work by bringing it to the public’s attention, joining the website has given her “lots of emotional and physical labour”. “I spend hours a day managing my account and speaking to people online… I only had twenty fans for the first couple of months. It was exhausting work for little money.” OnlyFans may bring in a well-needed income: but is the emotional impact worth it?

The socioeconomic inequalities sex workers face has come to light during the pandemic with multiple calls for government reform to recognise and legalise sex work. The English Collective of Prostitutes has called for government support amidst the pandemic as to stop workers from having to choose between risking their health or living in dire poverty. The government have dismissed all requests for reform, stating that Universal Credit would assist sex workers in need. A government spokesman announced “Universal Credit is providing a vital safety net to those who need support during the pandemic.”

The future of the offline sex work industry is shrouded with uncertainty and anxiety. Even when brothels reopen, there is still an uncertainty around whether this dip in income for sex workers can be recovered. The fear of getting infected is likely to remain a prominent worry for a majority of the population, even in years to come. For now, many sex workers, primarily escorts, continue to put themselves at risk of the virus as without their income, they would not be able to survive.

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.