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B.C. sex workers face increased hurdles to health, safety, income amid COVID-19: Advocate

Last Updated Mar 21, 2020 at 5:40 pm PDT


Sex workers on the streets of B.C. are facing increased challenges as people are asked to self-isolate due to COVID-19

An advocate for sex workers says it’s times like these when fears for health rise and survival mechanisms dry up

People working for survival while battling addictions during this time of crisis may resort to unsafe solutions

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — As businesses around the province close and their workers self-isolate, sex workers in B.C. are facing increased challenges to their health, safety and are experiencing an overwhelming financial strain.

According to sex worker advocate and director of the B.C. Coalition of Experiential Communities Susan Davis, since the coronavirus outbreak began, workers have experienced cancellation after cancellation overnight.

“People have been left scrambling, trying to figure out how they’re going to pay their bills and feed their children,” Davis says.

Although Davis says it’s been a particularly difficult time for marginalized workers and those working on the streets for survival.

“They are really facing a difficult time at this point, for the most part, they’re doing sex work in survival mode, to begin with. So when that survival mechanism dries up, they’re really left high and dry with nothing that they can turn to.”

The advocate tells NEWS 1130 she has been working on strategies to put money into the pockets of workers as soon as possible by helping them apply for emergency funds through social assistance.

“That’s only a $200 cheque … but it is something so people could get some food and be able to stay home for a while, if they still have a home, and they’re able to self isolate that way.”

In the long term, the City of Vancouver has been developing a strategy, which Davis says should be able to address some issues marginalized people, including drug users, sex workers and homeless people, are facing.

RELATED ARTICLE: Homeless vulnerable to COVID-19 need help from governments: advocates

Earlier this week, the city partnered with Vancouver Coastal Health and BC Housing to take action and educate homeless people throughout the city.

“This plan includes using park board community centers; all centers are potentially deployable for this purpose,” reiterated Sandra Singh from the City of Vancouver on Friday.

“This is an unprecedented use of our community centers. But these are unprecedented times.”

The city adds the developments are critical to prevent the spread of the virus and mitigate the demand on our healthcare system.

On Thursday, city council also voted to amend the 2020 community service grants and renter grants.

In a follow up, Singh, who is the general manager of Arts, Culture and Community Services, says the city has begun to engage and support agencies as well as the sex work community as part of the wider project in progress by the DTES task force.

“We are working hard to identify and address their needs and share resources on safe handwashing, financial aid, food and housing. We also want to ensure that there are real options for people to self-isolate in the event they become ill and to ensure front-line workers, non-profits, and residents have what they need to stay safe,” she tells NEWS 1130 in an email.

She says this will include the city using its community centres, “which are all potentially deployable for people who need to self-isolate and are otherwise unable to.”

She adds this action is critical in trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Desperation increases risk, vulnerability

As time goes on, Davis says, for homeless workers in the industry, people working for survival while battling addictions may resort to crossing their own physical boundaries or engaging in a level of sex work they’re uncomfortable with.

The level of risk may also increase for workers with children, she says.

“It’s going to become more and more of a desperate situation for people which will leave workers in a difficult position.”

While there is a decline in business for workers on the street, Davis says there has been a push towards “just for fans” online clip selling services.

Workers are also being advised to offer webcam shows or phone sex to their clients.

By moving online, Davis says this can be a way to supplement a worker’s income at this time while self-isolating.

But she says, “Obviously, none of these things are really ideal.”

Davis says the online sex industry is a whole new field for workers, so those who are homeless can’t be as flexible with moving their services online.

“You need to have a webcam and a computer and internet connection to start with.

“Many phones these days are actually equipped with cameras. So there’s also the ability for people to use their phones to put on these shows for their clients and just on an individual basis. So you would really need to have a regular clientele, however, in order to be able to have someone to access to sell those shows to.”

Davis says webcam workers are experiencing a boom in their work as self-isolation is encouraged.

“It is difficult if you’re living in Oppenheimer Park … you don’t have the ability to sort of upgrade what you’re doing into a safer online situation.”

‘A horrible thing to do’: Clients taking advantage of desperation amid pandemic  

During this time, Davis says some clients have even been trying to take advantage of the decline in business.

“[Some] trying to offer less money, trying to negotiate for a better price, asking for services that the workers don’t usually provide.”

She says clients are negotiating, “because they know that workers are getting more and more desperate.”

“That, of course, is totally discouraged and absolutely unethical. And a horrible thing for the clients to do. And let you know, of course, these kinds of situations always bring out the worst kind of predators.”

Unfortunately, she says these types of situations are not a surprise.

“You can imagine receiving a booking request, somebody offering you half your normal wage and basically saying you’ll be lucky to get anything. It is vicious and violent in a way. When you’re talking about someone’s ability to eat and house themselves,” she says.

“Money is really the central safety feature of our lives.”

Davis sees clients taking advantage of workers as a form of violence in itself.

However, she says there have also been clients sending donations to their favorite massage parlor or worker to help them through this time, while not expecting anything in return.

“[Clients] just do it to help things keep going.”

Davis notes workers with a Chinese background have been experiencing increased racial discrimination.

“Everybody thinks that Chinese people are somehow responsible for all of this,” she says.

“It’s outrageous, but nonetheless, it’s really impacted their ability to make money.”

Fundraising, community efforts stepped up 

Davis has also noticed sex workers are attempting to raise money through GoFundMe pages.

For those who are willing to donate to help workers during this time, Davis recommends donating to local organizations like Swan, WISH, and Hustle, all organizations working to help sex workers in the city.

“From coast to coast in this country, people are in panic mode, emergency shelters, trying to, you know, food banks, you know, with all of the shelves being cleared off in these in the grocery stores and stuff, food banks are suffering.”

She says these are worrying times, and that we don’t want to leave anyone behind.

“This is Canada. We should be making sure that everybody can feel safe and feels like they’re supported by the community and, you know, have options in terms of protecting themselves during this time.”

As of Saturday, B.C. has had 10 fatalities due to the new virus and a total of 424 confirmed infections.