18 March 2021 Posted By : Jessica Owen

Let’s talk about sex: Workers in the sex industry facing COVID challenges in the margins

From glory holes to making moves virtually, public health advice for sexual contact during COVID-19 has varied across Canada.

During the pandemic, people engaging in sex work are facing unique challenges not only because of the novelty of the virus, but also due to the unregulated nature of their work and the social stigma that goes along with it.

In Simcoe County, police are noting an increase in congregation complaints related to sex work, but a steep drop off in human-trafficking tips.

Jessi (not her real name) has made the move from stripper to sex worker due to major changes that have hit the industry throughout COVID-19. She was working as a stripper in Barrie up until the pandemic hit in March.

“As a single mom with seven kids, that was the only work that could support that many kids,” said the 34-year-old. “I do everything on my own.”

While the club opened again in June for a short time, Jessi says everyone was required to wear masks and stay six feet apart, which made it impossible for her to make money on private dances. 

“I found it was a waste of time. Nobody is going to pay for a dance from six feet away when you can just watch the girl on stage,” she said. “That’s when I decided to start doing this.”

Sarah Tilley has worked at the harm reduction co-ordinator at the Gilbert Centre since January 2020. Prior to that, she worked for the centre as the sex worker outreach and support co-ordinator.

The Gilbert Centre is a not-for-profit, charitable organization located in Barrie that provides programs and services to people dealing with AIDS or HIV. While the organization has evolved over the years to help members of the LGBTQ community due to need, other affected communities, such as those engaging in sex work or struggling with addictions, are also included as part of their mandate.

“Sex work is not one group or activity. There are so many different forms of sex work. When it comes to criminalization of those who are engaged in sex work, whether it be through massage therapies, escort services, or folks who are engaged in advertising on a street-based level or on social media sites, in recent years there’s been a very big focus on human trafficking,” said Tilley.

“People who are doing sex work for a variety of other reasons – it can push them to the margins,” she added.

As COVID-19 is spread primarily through through respiratory droplets and aerosols, there are ways for people engaged in sex work to do so safely.

“When it comes to sex work, even having your face associated with the work you do, there are a variety of different forms. For example, if it’s a massage parlour and the sex work is digital manipulation, wearing a mask there wouldn’t be any increased risk,” said Tilley. “Because there’s so much stigma about sex work in general, there’s increased concern about safety, not just during COVID, but it was also seen during the HIV/AIDS epidemic and in a variety of other sectors.”

Public perception of people engaged in sex work can be a barrier to making sure proper protections are in place.

“It’s almost like sex workers (are seen) as these vectors of ill health. I believe some of that concern comes from the stigmas around it and not any real potential harms,” said Tilley. “It can be difficult for them to protect themselves when they have to choose between a potential interaction or not being able to eat.”

Public health advice across Canada for sexual contact during COVID

Jessi provides any services a customer might request, but she says she does observe COVID-19 safety as best she can. This includes only meeting clients at a specific hotel, always insisting all participants, including herself, are wearing masks, and sanitizing the hotel room between clients.

She says, in her experience, the number of clients requesting services has gone up throughout the pandemic. She said she’s seeing between four and five clients per day, making roughly $2,000 per day.

“Everybody’s bored and stuck at home. Nobody can go to bars anymore, or pick people up that way,” she said. “Business has been really good.”

Earlier in the pandemic, the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) garnered laughs on social media when they suggested the use of glory holes as part of their advice on how to lower the risk of spreading COVID-19 through sexual contact.

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