Black sex workers are struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, yet their needs are being ignored by the government and society at large. Sex workers have been singled out as being ineligible for relief funds by the U.S. Small Business Administration, even those who perform legal forms of sex work, such as burlesque and pornography.
femi babylon is one of the people affected by this exclusion. An erotic laborer, writer, and artist living in Chicago, they’ve experienced and witnessed the pandemic’s toll on Black sex workers.
“I know that those of us who were doing in-person work have really been affected. Either we’re risking COVID just to take a select few clients to keep the bills paid, or we’ve had to completely stop doing in-person work and move over to cyber erotic labor—camming and OnlyFans and stuff like that,” babylon said. “For some, it’s really easier, but as far as Black sex workers, I know that it can be really difficult to switch over to a different arena and have to build a clientele all over again.”
babylon has seen those who’ve continued doing in-person sex work chastised online by colleagues and non-sex workers alike for risking their health. They said people don’t understand how difficult it is for sex workers to switch to a different arena and noted that OnlyFans, a content subscription service popularized by porn performers, is becoming oversaturated by celebrities, influencers, and others wading into sex work because of the pandemic.
babylon explained how racial capitalism makes it harder for Black sex workers to gain clientele online: “The fact of the matter is that when we talk about racial capitalism, race, the size of your body, your body type—all of that is going to affect what kind of money you have and what level of clientele you have. Sometimes when you’re Black, no matter how cute, beautiful, handsome you are, you just may not get that clientele.”
Another problem exacerbated by the pandemic is housing insecurity. Some sex workers are living in hotels and bouncing from place to place, while others are forced to choose between reliable housing and potential unsafe circumstances.
“I know a couple of girls who were working with the men they were staying with, and the men were trying to use that as leverage because now we’re in a pandemic. If they didn’t do what [the men] wanted them to do, then they had to move around. It wasn’t explicitly said, but it was heavily implied,” babylon said. “There was a few people I know who had gone back to stay with family and that became an issue because a lot of our families either don’t know we’re doing sex work, or they don’t like it, so then now you’re in a stage where you’re not really welcome.”
Sex worker-led organizations are filling in the gaps left by governments at every level, including Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA (SWOP-USA), a “national social justice network dedicated to the fundamental human rights of people involved in the sex trade and their communities.” babylon, a SWOP-USA board member, said the group has been busy distributing mutual aid funds and personal protective equipment (PPE) to sex workers.
On July 22, 2020, the Black Sex Worker Collective (BSWC) kicked off a global fundraiser to raise $43,000 with 22 hours of virtual music, dance, workshops, film screenings, and more (as of the date of publication, the collective is halfway to their goal). The BSWC addresses the needs of current and former Black sex workers through providing education, legal assistance, healthcare resources, and affordable housing referrals.
Formerly based in New York City, the Incredible, Edible, Akynos, founder and executive director of the BSWC, now lives in Berlin, Germany, where despite prostitution being legalized in 2002, sex workers are still being singled out. Akynos said the government is attempting to use the pandemic as an excuse to ban prostitution, also called full-service sex work, and castigating sex workers as “super spreaders” and “vectors of disease.”
Germany closed down its brothels in March, and those currently engaged in full-service sex work are subject to large fines. As a consequence of sex workers protesting in the streets, the government is re-opening brothels on Sept. 1.
Akynos, who works as a web model, burlesque performer, and producer, said celebrities and others who profit from simulating sex work on-screen should be doing more to sustain actual sex workers during the pandemic.
“I want everybody that does ‘ho shit’ for their living without actually doing ‘ho shit,’ along with the general population, who also does ‘ho shit’ and wears ‘ho shit’ and loves ‘ho culture’ and loves acting like ‘fucking hoes,’ to give sex workers our money,” Akynos said.
To Akynos, supporting Black sex workers looks like contributing money to them regularly, listening to them, amplifying their activism, and holding online payment systems such as PayPal accountable for unjustly freezing their accounts.
Similarly, babylon suggested that people seeking to support Black sex workers donate resources to them, including money and PPE. Furthermore, they want people to remember that “sex work isn’t a single issue.”
“There’s a lot of different intersections in this community. I know that a lot of us have been talking about the fact that our kids are at home, and so now we have to figure out how to get work done,” said babylon, who’s a parent of two, including an infant.
Sex workers are multifaceted community members trying to take care of their families, and they’re being cut off from economic relief when they need it most. The pandemic is only compounding the oppression they experience thanks to carceral legislation, such as the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which passed in the U.S. Congress in 2018.
FOSTA-SESTA comprise measures intended to combat online sex trafficking, but sex workers say the bills conflate sex trafficking with consensual sex work and endangers them by preventing them from being able to screen potential clients, who could be “bad dates” (people known to have previously harmed sex workers). Since the bills were enacted, the number of calls to SWOP-USA’s Community Support Line has doubled. At the end of last year, a group of congresspeople introduced the Safe Sex Workers Study Act, which if passed, would study the health and safety impacts of FOSTA-SESTA on sex workers.
One of FOSTA-SESTA’s most prominent co-sponsors, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), prosecuted alleged sex trafficking crimes as the district attorney of San Francisco, then as the attorney general of California, which pushed people involved in consensual sex work into more dangerous working conditions. She has since proclaimed to be in favor of decriminalizing sex work, but her record belies this position.
After Harris was announced as the first woman of color vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket, sex workers expressed their disappointment on Twitter, including babylon, who wrote, “I know a lot of us are depressed about this Kamala shit but this is part of why I critique the laser focus on decriminalization so hard. We’re never gonna find freedom in a system like this. We need to come up with other strategies.”
Akynos is especially frustrated by people supporting Harris while fighting for Black victims of police violence in the same breath. Harris is part of the same oppressive system as the killers of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Akynos said. Only time will tell if Harris, other elected officials, and our larger society can be redeemed for the ways we’ve harmed sex workers, especially those with marginalized identities.