Jelena Vermilion has lost her main source of income since the COVID-19 outbreak — the in-person sex work she relies on.
Vermilion, based in Hamilton, Ont., now only receives requests via text message or email from clients who want to flout social-distancing practices and compromise her safety.
She declines them.
“I stopped working completely, not only for the concern of the risk to my own health but to the community and my partner,” said Vermilion, who is also the executive director of the Sex Workers’ Action Program in Hamilton (SWAP).
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus changed the way many Canadian sex workers like Vermilion operate nearly overnight.
Physical-distancing measures, closed businesses — including strip clubs and massage parlours — and concern around the transmission of COVID-19 render in-person sex work incredibly challenging, if not impossible.
“For most sex workers, their income has completely dissolved,” said Jenny Duffy, a board member at Maggie’s, a Toronto-based sex workers’ rights organization.
To help navigate the pandemic, Maggie’s recently launched a COVID-19 resource guide for sex workers that outlines best health practices. The group acknowledges that some sex workers need to continue to work to survive, even if it puts them at risk of contracting the coronavirus.
Maggie’s, alongside Asian and Migrant Sex Worker Support Network Butterfly, also started a COVID-19 relief fund to help those affected by a loss of income.
The fund is “prioritizing queer and trans, Black and Indigenous communities of colour, migrant sex workers and those with precarious status, as well as sex workers living with illness and disability and poor and precariously housed sex workers.”
POWER, an organization that stands for Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work, Educate and Resist, has also launched a COVID-19 relief fund. The fund aims to give $100 per applicant to help with urgent costs like food and medication and is prioritizing marginalized communities, too.
“In the last week, we’ve processed almost 20 applications from a very diverse group of people,” said Ryan Conrad, a member of POWER.
What about government support?
The sex workers’ relief funds are a way to help offset lost income and keep workers afloat, as not all sex workers can — or want to — apply for government funds like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
The CERB is a $2,000-a-month benefit designed to help Canadians experiencing unemployment due to COVID-19 and is available to wage earners, contract workers and the self-employed.
To qualify, you must have earned no more than $1,000 before taxes for at least 14 consecutive days in the first four-week payment period for which you apply for CERB. For followup periods, you must earn no more than $1,000 for the whole four weeks.
Other qualifications include being a resident of Canada and having had an income of at least $5,000 from work or benefits related to maternity or parental leave for 2019 or the 12-month period prior to applying.
The benefit also requires workers to report income — something not all sex workers do.
“While sex workers are eligible for the (CERB) benefit — as long as they’ve made the amount of income to qualify and have lost that income — many sex workers won’t apply out of fear,” Duffy said, explaining that many do not feel comfortable disclosing their job on government applications, as most aspects of sex work are criminalized and stigmatized.
Canada’s sex work laws criminalize the purchasing of sex but decriminalize its sale. Sex workers and legal experts argue that these laws are prohibitive and push workers into dangerous situations by criminalizing nearly every aspect of their job.
What’s more, sex workers without valid social insurance numbers may not qualify for subsidies, said Elene Lam, founder of executive director at Butterfly.
“We just did a survey, and more than 30 per cent of Asian migrant sex workers have a precarious immigration status, meaning that they cannot get government support,” Lam explained.
Within the industry, there’s also a diverse range of sex work, said Conrad. This means some people are full-time workers in legal industries, like porn, while others may do part-time escorting, for example, to supplement their income.
“Some people have really great savings and have investments and can take a break for six months, and it’s not the end of the world,” Conrad said.
“And then there’s other people who are working in street-based economies, and those people are having a very different experience.”
Virtual sex work
Some sex workers have pivoted to online platforms since the start of the pandemic, like OnlyFans, a site that provides subscription-based pornographic content. Others are sending content to clients directly or using video chat for live work.
After Toronto-based dungeon The Ritual Chamber closed due to COVID-19, dominatrix Lady Pim says she’s had to think of creative ways to supplement her income.
She has moved her business to entirely remote sessions, including phone calls, text messages, custom videos, pictures and live sessions over Skype.
“I’d do one (video) every few weeks in the past, and now I’m doing a few a day,” she said.
Lady Pim says she feels fortunate that she is still making an income. But comparing her hourly wage to what it was before the pandemic, she is making a lot less despite putting in more hours, she said.
“A typical day is I get up and do a bunch of admin work on social media and my email … I shoot a few videos, I edit those videos and, usually, I’m doing a Skype session or a phone session,” she said.
“And all evening I’m doing sexting. That’s a full day.”
Although Ontario has made announcements on a phased reopening of the province with no set dates, Lady Pim says she’s not in a rush to return to her regular services and wants to ensure it’s safe for herself and her clients.
“When I do get back in the dungeon, I’m going to keep up all my virtual services to a degree,” she said.
“But for how much work it is and how many hours I’m putting into it, I won’t be able to keep it up if I’m doing in-person sessions, (too).”
Not all sex workers have the privilege or ability to move services online.
Advocates point out that due to privacy and safety concerns, inaccessibility to resources and technology or language barriers, some workers can’t operate virtually. For street-based sex workers or workers experiencing precarious housing, an online setup isn’t always feasible.
“It does rely on having a private space, a consistent home and an internet connection,” Vermilion said.
“Not to mention you have to be able to build an audience at a time when thousands of people have newly joined OnlyFans and other platforms like these.”
After the pandemic
Sex work experts and advocates say the government needs to fully decriminalize all aspects of sex work in order for workers to not only be safer but have more job security in the future.
The pandemic has highlighted the issues sex workers face, as many are afraid to access government help and have fewer societal supports to rely on during this time, Vermilion said. As a trans person, Vermilion says discrimination is also a factor.
“Sex workers are historically targeted by the police, by the public and by the government,” Vermilion said.
In New Zealand, sex work is decriminalized. Workers there have been provided with more of a safety net, and there is more trust between the government and workers, reports the Guardian.
Currently, sex workers who need housing and to put food on the table may be forced to continue working when it’s not safe during the pandemic, Vermilion explained. If their work was decriminalized, things would be different, she said.
“At the end of the day, they may be forced to work against social distancing … which may put her or him in a much worse situation,” she said.
“They’re put in this precarious position … they still need to eat.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.
— With files from Global News’ Erica Alini