By Caty Simon, September 2020
Low-income sex workers have suffered enormously during the pandemic. An in-person industry which consists of being in intimate contact with others by definition is one most customers are justifiably unlikely to patronize for fear of infection. CARES Act benefits are hard to access for sex workers with complicated financial lives who are often also housing insecure and transient people with difficulty holding on to documentation. Drug-using sex workers like me are in even more danger as opioid overdose rates rise—after all, using alone is one of the highest risk factors for overdose.
I interviewed three sex worker activists from Whose Corner Is It Anyway, a Western Massachusetts group I co-organize by and for low-income, street, and survival sex workers who use stimulants and/or opioids and/or experience housing insecurity, on what their lives have been like since March.
Ashley is a Black 32 year old woman who sees regular customers she’s met mostly by word-of-mouth. Rosie is a Puerto Rican mother of two in her thirties who used to have a regular hustle seeing residents in a local nursing home as clients. Jamie is a 27 year old White escort and occasional street worker.
How has sex work gotten harder since the pandemic?
Ashley: It’s been a lot harder because everyone is terrified of getting sick–it downsized work probably almost double depending on the customer. Some regulars definitely stopped wanting to see me until things died down, and of course, nothing has died down, so I lost out on that, and I have no other source of income.
I’ve been working on going on Onlyfans and setting up something online. I’m in the process of doing that but I haven’t been in a place where I actually was free to do that until now. [“But that market is totally saturated!” -remark from interviewer] I know, I know, I figured it was. In general, the possibilities of making the money you’d like are very low. It’s that bad right now.
Rosie: There’s no action–people are scared of people! People are so scared of this virus it’s not even funny. And I’m scared to risk exposure at the nursing home, I’m not ready to do it—and I’m not letting anyone [clients] in my home right now because of my kids. I tried street work even though I don’t do it much and I’m scared of it because there are no other options.
Jamie: It’s gotten harder because a lot of the people with more money don’t want to come out, I feel like a lot of the good clients are not willing to come out because of all the COVID stuff that’s going on, though I do feel like it’s picked up some.
I did have a really hard time in the beginning. It was horrible. No one wanted to come out, they were scared, it was just terrible, no one would call, I couldn’t get any more dates. People on the streets were more desperate and more willing to be grimy.
I had a customer who tried to rob me. He was gonna rob me for my [COVID] methadone [take home bottles]—he found out I was on the clinic, even though I was only getting a couple of bottles. He was paying people to tell him where I was and he was harassing me with his car, following me. People were trying to grab my purse, trying to grab my bags…It was way too slow and I was working the street because I wasn’t getting any escorting calls, and I had no place to put my methadone lockbox. And I was actually really scared, honestly.
It is getting better. A lot of people aren’t as nervous as they were before. It feels like it’s almost getting back to normal. I still definitely try to keep my hands clean, and I don’t kiss at all anymore.
How has being an active drug user gotten harder since the pandemic?
Ashley: I actually stopped again. This is my 7th time [trying that] and it does get harder. I don’t think my body can take another round of cold turkey, but luckily I was able to do that in my mom’s house. [Statistically, discontinuing opioids without the assistance of opioid agonist treatment like methadone or suboxone increases her overdose risk drastically.. –interviewer’s note]
It’s been a lot harder–you can’t be on the street without a face cover–it’s just a lot harder to access stuff now. The fact that you’re not supposed to be out on the street, you stick out like a sore thumb anyway. It’s harder for people to get what they need fucking done.
When I was still trying to cop–[it was difficult] because of not having any transportation [because buses were down or less frequent], people being sketched out because you’re exposed more. It’s not like the regular day to day activity, you stick out. Especially in the beginning, the streets were like tumbleweeds rolling around.
[Increased drug adulteration] was scary–a lot more people were just dropping down getting sick or getting bad reactions.
And because of all this desperation, you turn to people that you usually wouldn’t and that’s also really bad and threatening for your life.
Rosie: It’s harder to even hustle money together in the first place–lord, yes! You’re telling me there’s no soft [powder cocaine], but it’s harder to get hard [crack].
Jamie: It’s harder to make money. Obviously when you have no money, you can’t use. The methadone helps a lot. It’s a lot better than nothing. Sometimes you don’t make money, I guess it really depends on the day. I guess it really has picked up, but in the beginning…
I would agree that definitely, the drug supply is worse, less consistent and more dangerous.
I did try to go to detox in the very beginning of the pandemic. They ended up accepting someone from New Jersey or New York. He came from a really bad hot spot, and they knew, because he was almost bragging about how he took the last bus out they allowed. And they didn’t take any precautions whatsoever.
He ended up leaving because they started isolating him in his room, and everyone started asking questions, because finally they started coming out with masks. They weren’t telling anyone anything, but we put it together, and by then there were people getting sick on the floor.
I actually had to go to my [abusive ex] for a couple of days instead of staying there. I said to them, my ex has a kid who has an immune disorder, it’s not just about me, and if something’s going to affect my health, I have a right to know—what is going on?
They didn’t know what to say to me, you could tell. So they just lied to me.
I heard a rumor later from a good source that everyone at that floor ended up getting COVID and I also heard that one of the nurses at that detox passed away. [I reached out to the medical center in question to corroborate this account of a nurse’s death this spring, and was told I could be given no information on anyone who works or had worked there. I was also unable to corroborate whether or not there had been an outbreak of COVID-19 in this detox facility in March 2020. –interviewer’s note]
They didn’t believe me when I went to the hospital [reporting symptoms]. They kept telling me to just isolate. And I was really sick, I told them I didn’t have a place to stay, and I was telling them, I know I have this shit. I overheard one of the nurses saying I was lying. I was having a panic attack there.
And then a week or more later they called me and said my test results were positive and then they wanted me to come back and isolate in their hospital, and I said, fuck you guys, because by then I was finally starting to feel better.
They were really fucked up to me. I couldn’t believe it, with everything going on.
What other parts of your life have gotten harder since the pandemic began?
Ashley: Transportation has changed for a long time, though some of it has gone back to normal or at least gotten better–the bus or Uber and Lyft. Also just trying to stay active and not get harassed if your mother who has asthma doesn’t necessarily have her mask on correctly . People have become more hostile and agitated because of this whole thing. Even though I don’t want to stay in, sometimes it’s better to avoid the madness.
It’s changed my perspective on the small things–appreciation of friendships and family. My creativity is booming; a lot of fixer up projects! But yes, I’m just trying to go with the flow.
Rosie: Oh, christ. Everything—my emotional life, my home life is getting hard. It’s hard to pay the bills with no movement. Before this I was pretty sure I could get the bills together. Now, I don’t know what I’m gonna make from day to day, I have to pray for a miracle, literally. The kids aren’t even sleeping at night since they’ve been at home mostly— so my day/night cycle is messed up, all over the place.
Jamie: Like I said, I was homeless for most of the time I was sick with COVID-19, I couldn’t find a place to stay. All the hotels were shut down in the beginning, and no one wanted to take the risk of me staying with them. It made me have to rely more on other people, dangerous people. My father wouldn’t let me stay with him.
It took a long while for him to let me come back. He finally realized how sick I was, and he rented me a room for two weeks so my brother and him wouldn’t get sick, but it took a really long time, and by then I had spent weeks on the street or with my abusive ex.
Did you get a stimulus check? Did you get Pandemic Unemployment Assistance when you applied? If not, why not?
Ashley: I’m still in the process of hearing back from PUA. I had a hard time because I didn’t have my identification–and due to the pandemic, of course, it took a wicked long time to get it, I didn’t have the number on my ID because I lost it, so I had to send the Registry my social security number. Because I only had my social, it got sent to the wrong address, and I couldn’t renew my address online, so it got sent back to the registry, and they didn’t inform me that it got sent back and they destroyed the ID I first paid for after 90 days. So after the third month I called them to see what was going on and they told me to reapply for a new ID and pay for it again, and come in physically to get it. And of course the Registry is now by appointment only and you have to get to Springfield.
The entire process is just impossible.
So, I just finally got my ID and I’m going through the PUA process again. I’m on appeal for an initial denial, but they sent me a new link so I could go through the fact-finding process again sending them my new ID this time, and I just did that and am waiting for their response to the appeal.
I got that one stimulus check and I couldn’t even cash it, for weeks and weeks I had that stimulus check and I couldn’t even cash it because I didn’t have my ID, which I needed even if I wanted to sign it over to a second party.
Rosie: Nope, I got neither, and I don’t know why. Trump just doesn’t like me, seriously.
I do have SSI payments–$700—half goes to rent. Basically there’s nothing left for the month. Before, [with extra money from sex work], I could live month to month, but now it’s day by day. I was able to rely on an extra $200-400 a few times a week before.
Jamie: I got a stimulus check, but I couldn’t get the PUA thing because I had no ID, and they wanted me to send in proof of ID right away, so I couldn’t get that. I don’t have an ID because when I got into a car accident I don’t know what happened to it, I lost it somehow.
I went through that stimulus money fast, in maybe like a week.
How has the pandemic affected your ability to access services you need? Do you feel like human service workers and organizations have given you the resources you need as a low-income person to get by, such as masks?
Rosie: I’ve gone to church soup kitchen meals—those have helped me. I didn’t used to have to do that to get by. Sometimes they do go looking at you like you have the virus, though.
Ashley: Even normal state funded things like CSO, or Servicenet–everything is over the phone, it’s impersonal, it doesn’t feel they have any resources or capacity because they’re waitlisted to the max. They basically told me, “All we can do is just talk to you right now, we can’t help you in any way.”
Jamie: I don’t even go to [my local syringe exchange] anymore. I buy my own syringes, or go to the group [Whose Corner Is It Anyway] and get them.
Last time I went in there, I went in there with two other people, and they wouldn’t give me a mask [This service agency has a stock of PPE on hand which they are mandated by funders to distribute to participants. –interviewer’s note]. They were really rude about it, told me they were going to kick me out of the building.
I wasn’t rude or anything, it was all because I didn’t have a mask, so I went back outside and asked the person who gave me a ride if they had a mask and so my ride gave me theirs, which was dirty.
The way [the exchange staff] treated me was horrible, I just couldn’t believe it. They threatened to not give me supplies.
They got really offended when I asked what happened to the other people who used to work at their other site. And again, I wasn’t being rude, I was just trying to make conversation.
They said “if you don’t like it, you can just leave.”
[“And this makes it harder for you to get harm reduction supplies, during a pandemic in which overdose rates have gone up…”–interviewer’s remark]
And it’s not all the time you have the money to go buy syringes, but I just don’t want to go there anymore. I don’t know, if I absolutely had to, I would, but I haven’t been back since that day.
If you are interested in donating to low-income sex worker mutual aid efforts during the pandemic, such as harm reduction, hygiene, and reproductive health supply provision to our community, as well as help applying to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, among many other kinds of programming we create to help each other, please feel free to check out Whose Corner Is It Anyway’s Gofundme at https://www.gofundme.com/f/w-ma-street-worker-leader-stipends . The GoFundMe includes detailed weekly updates on our activities and the efforts of sex worker activists like those interviewed above.