Our societal response to COVID-19 has revealed a lot about who we value in society, and what we are prepared to do to protect the lives of others. How responses to the pandemic have played out has particularly illuminated the injustices that sex workers endure globally because of discriminatory laws and policies.
Around the world sex worker-led organisations have set up hardship funds to crowdfund support for sex workers who have been impacted by the pandemic. Because sex work is often not recognised as work and is so highly stigmatised, in many contexts sex workers have faced considerable barriers to accessing the financial safety nets available to workers in other occupations. Sex worker-led organisations have had little choice but to step in and fill the gap. In a recent letter published in the Lancet, experts raised grave concerns about the exclusion of sex workers from government protections. The letter also urged governments to work directly with sex worker-led organisations to respond in ways that offer sex workers the most helpful support possible during the pandemic.
While COVID-19 has brought the marginalisation of sex workers into sharp focus, the responses that have occurred are reflective of a much longer history of exclusion, where the laws surrounding sex work – and how sex work is conceptualised – shape how sex workers are treated in society.
Excluded in Scotland and Ireland
In Scotland, SCOTPEP and Umbrella Lane, both sex worker-led organisations, lobbied the government to provide financial aid to support sex workers during lockdown. They also asked for a moratorium on police arrests and fines. Funds were eventually made available, yet these were given exclusively to the Encompass Network to administer – a network comprised only of organisations that define prostitution as a form of violence against women. As a result, neither Umbrella Lane nor SCOTPEP can access the funds they lobbied for in order to assist their peers.
Umbrella Lane provides many valuable support services and had already organised a hardship fund prior to government support being announced. SCOTPEP, meanwhile, has been supporting sex workers and advocating for their rights for decades. Their exclusion is particularly unjust given they are part of the community for whom the funding is intended, are chronically underfunded organisations, and have long been doing the heavy lifting of trying to ensure sex workers have rights, access to support that respects their individual experiences, and are not criminalised.
Sex Workers Alliance Ireland set up a hardship fund for sex workers during the pandemic that has raised over €25,000 for sex workers in need.
As SCOTPEP and Umbrella Lane have pointed out, the decision is reflective of an ideological perspective pushed by some politicians and campaigners in Scotland that prostitution is a form of abuse. This stance has enabled a context in which sex workers themselves are neither listened to, nor respected as having valuable knowledge and expertise on sex work.
A similar situation is apparent in Ireland, where sex workers have been advocating against a law passed in 2017 that criminalised their clients. Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) set up a hardship fund for sex workers during the pandemic that has raised over €25,000 for sex workers in need. However, SWAI were excluded from government funding during the pandemic because they define sex work as work. Government funding for sex workers is exclusively held by Ruhama, an organisation that defines prostitution as a form of violence and that campaigned in favour of the 2017 legal change. While SWAI have lobbied the government to be included in the response to COVID-19 in their own community, these calls have gone unheard.
Integral in New Zealand
The lockdown in New Zealand, where sex work was decriminalised in 2003, was of course still challenging. Yet many sex workers could access the same government subsidies as workers in other industries who were impacted by the pandemic, or immediately access unemployment benefits without question. Government outreach workers worked with the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) to ensure sex workers who needed support could access it quickly, and sex workers’ return to work after lockdown was managed in ways similar to other close contact occupations. Government agencies reached out to the NZPC for advice on sex workers going back to work after the lockdown eased and worked in a collaborative way to determine guidelines and a return to work date. The NZPC were respected as advisors to government on sex work issues during this period.
It must be stressed that New Zealand is not perfect. Temporary migrants are prohibited from working in the sex industry, and this discriminatory policy meant that sex workers without permanent residence or citizenship could not access government support and were particularly vulnerable during the lockdown. As such, New Zealand still has a long way to go to be considered a perfect example of sex worker rights. However, the respect afforded to the NZPC during the pandemic is illustrative of the environment that decriminalisation has enabled. Sex work is defined as work, and as such sex workers are respected as the experts on their jobs. This is in stark contrast to Scotland and Ireland, where sex workers have been overtly excluded from sex work-related policy and service planning arenas and continue to live in fear of police and other state actors.
If sex workers' voices are not heard at this time of crisis, when will they be?
Unfortunately, the situation in New Zealand is exceptional. The approach taken in Scotland and Ireland is more typical of how sex workers are treated globally. There is a long history of governments marginalising sex workers and failing to value their knowledge and experience. Structural stigma is widespread – governments reproduce and reinforce stigma when they pursue policies that define sex workers as either victims or deviants, and do not allow them to be part of decisions that are fundamentally about them. In these environments decision makers oppress sex workers through the adoption of disempowering policies that send a message that they are not equal citizens. In her recent book ‘Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality’, Imogen Tyler argues that it is critical to be aware that stigmatisation occurs when there are significant power imbalances – stigma literally is a form of power. The marginalisation of sex workers through government policy enables stigma to be reproduced and reinforced, which increases their vulnerability. Thus, decision makers are complicit in the injustices that sex workers endure when they put policies in place that marginalise and disempower them.
COVID-19 has bared the deeply entrenched inequities that impact sex workers globally, imbued in laws, policies and discourses surrounding sex work. However, in shining a light on these injustices it also offers possibilities for positive change. There is an opportunity to reflect on how laws impact sex workers, the messages policies send, and consider how the situation could be different. New Zealand need not be exceptional (and indeed its framework should be improved further by extending its protections to migrant workers). The essential starting point is listening to sex workers and allocating funding to peer led organisations. They know what they need and should be respected as experts and resourced to work with their communities. This is not news. Sex workers have been saying this themselves for decades. If their voices are not heard at this time of crisis, when will they be?