The safest option
Tepatasi Vaina sees a bitter irony for sex workers right now: For many of the people she works with, the industry pre-coronavirus was their safest option. She works as a program manager with the United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance (UTOPIA), a queer and trans Pacific Islander-led advocacy organization that began helping sex workers in Washington state after seeing a desire for aid and community among them some years ago.
While it’s true that sex workers are at higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, like HIV, than the general population, advocates say that doesn’t paint a complete picture. Many sex workers Vaina has met through UTOPIA, many of whom are Pacific Islander and queer or gender diverse, gained their financial independence through the job.
Some, like undocumented immigrants, have told Vaina that it’s an easier way to make cash to survive without worrying about paperwork. And, for others such as queer and trans people who might find typical workplaces unsafe, working outside of an office setting is sometimes a more attractive option.
“A lot of people will say, ‘Isn’t that a dangerous job?’ and there are conditions that can make it dangerous,” she says. “But for a lot of people, it’s probably the safest way for us to work because we don’t have to deal with the discrimination from other employees, from management.”
Sly says that while other jobs also have issues with injury and exploitation, sex work often faces disproportionate scrutiny and gets conflated with sex trafficking.
“We somehow don’t trust that women can make adult decisions on what to do with their body for their own livelihood,” Sly says. “And anytime a person is facing hunger or eviction or an inability to support their children, any time they face economic pressure under capitalism, they have to make hard choices.”
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Vaina adds that for trans people in particular, sex work has historically been a way to get money when other jobs have pushed them out. It’s a trend that’s persisted even until now: A 2015 study found a much higher unemployment rate among trans people in U.S. than the general population, and that 20% of trans people have been engaged in sex work at some point in their lives.
“There are a lot of queer and trans people that we’ve found that find jobs and face a lot of discrimination,” she says. “Sex work, ironically, has become a way of making money [that] provides more peace of mind than a work setting.”
The virus, of course, changed aspects of that. Many sex workers have found that their autonomy, once a draw to the job, has been diminished. Aaliyah Topps was a stripper before the pandemic, but now she says there aren’t any options for that in Washington state. She relies on her job at a chiropractor’s office and income from two sugar daddies to get by. She has avoided meeting both in person because of concerns about getting the coronavirus, especially as one of them has health issues.
Even with those precautions, Topps feels extra pressure to ensure that the two are happy. It’s not the same as stripping, where she says she found financial freedom. With sugar daddies, she says, “you don’t know when they’re going to leave.”
“I feel like I used to do it because I liked it,” she says of sex work. “And now I’m doing it because I don’t have any choice.”
With the advent of online adult entertainment platforms like OnlyFans, it might seem an easy choice for sex workers to do virtual work during the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s not that simple. Gaining a following, which is what makes cash for webcammers on sites like these, is difficult, especially as these sites gain popularity and become highly competitive.
Moana, who does sex work full time, advertised in-person services online before the pandemic. She and other sex worker friends haven’t considered doing virtual work because it’s too much of a financial risk. She’s seen people of color have less success on these platforms, which concerns her as a Pacific Islander. She also already has a network of clients to reach out to in-person, whereas with virtual work, she’d be starting from scratch. It’s too much uncertainty to introduce to her work, especially now.
“It’s a gamble,” she says. “I haven’t really invested a lot of time into building a social or virtual platform where I can advertise.”
Moana has continued in-person work while focusing on clients she had before the pandemic began, but she’s not making as much as she used to: “I do make enough to stand on my feet, but it’s not like I have anything I can pour back into my savings. It’s more of I’m getting [enough] just to stay afloat.”