Image: Getty (additional design by Tina Tiller)
Image: Getty (additional design by Tina Tiller)

SocietySeptember 1, 2021

The uncertain reality of sex work in the Covid-19 era

Image: Getty (additional design by Tina Tiller)
Image: Getty (additional design by Tina Tiller)

With the country staying home to contain another Covid-19 outbreak and OnlyFans proposing a ban on explicit content last month, sex workers in Aotearoa are facing more uncertainty than ever. 

When Maddie May woke up last week and read her texts, her first reaction was panic. OnlyFans, the subscription-based online service which connects fans with adult content creators, was banning explicit content from their platform. 

The site, which exploded during the age of Covid-19 to more than 130 million users, has become shorthand for porn straight from the producer. Creators build entire communities around their online presence, selling subscriptions, PPV content and access to their inbox, as well as custom photos and videos. 

May, a sex worker and content creator from Wellington, joined OnlyFans during lockdown last year, after growing tired of micromanaging her client base across apps like Snapchat and Instagram. “It was like a sexy Facebook profile really,” she says. “When lockdown happened last year, everyone wanted to subscribe, everyone wanted to make content, and it was the perfect time to join in on that.”

The platform handles payment and processing for a 20% cut, allowing creators to connect with customers around the world without worrying about the intricacies of international wire transfers. For sex workers stuck inside due to lockdown, OnlyFans provided a desperately needed stream of income.

“There are a lot of sex workers who live off this income full time, and the fact that it could be gone in a couple months was very scary for a lot of people,” says May.

Vixen Temple, a sex worker, activist and writer from Auckland, says the proposed ban made sex work more dangerous overnight. “When online sex work is taken away, it forces people into situations they aren’t comfortable with and didn’t want to ever do. If you lose your opportunities to work online, you’re forced into other situations.” 

Vixen Temple says the proposed ban made sex work more dangerous. (Photo: Supplied)

The online reaction to the proposed ban was cruel and hypocritical, says Temple. “People sharing memes about OnlyFans girls trying to get a job at McDonald’s – when else have so many people lost their job and the reaction has been laughter?” She says that, although sex workers face discrimination every day, the billion-dollar success of OnlyFans only highlights how important and needed their industry is. 

“We are the ones deep-throating dildos and making amazing homemade porn – we made those billions of dollars.” 

Last month, after outcry from content creators who began leaving the platform in droves, OnlyFans “suspended” the policy change. It was a moment of huge relief for sex workers who felt like they’d been stabbed in the back, says Temple, but it served to illustrate the precarious nature of the industry at a time of worldwide uncertainty. 

With brothels and clubs currently closed, and online platforms subject to the whims of Big Tech, some sex workers are in a desperate position. “I have friends in full service who have clients who are messaging them asking for outbookings because they know the parlours are closed. It’s awful because they’re aware that we’re in a vulnerable position and some people really need the money.” 

Lockdowns have fundamentally changed the nature of work in almost every industry. But perhaps nowhere is the new world of quarantines and social distancing more apparent than in sex work, one of most intimate jobs of all. Dame Catherine Healy, national coordinator at the New Zealand Sex Workers’ Collective, says lockdowns are a time of “fear, poverty and hunger” for those in the industry. 

“For people without any alternative means to make money overnight it’s really hard to land in that place. I spoke to one sex worker who said that she lived under a bridge through last lockdown – she said she drank, and she found someone else who was living under the bridge, and that was it.”

While wage subsidies are available for sex workers, accessing government funds depends on historical tax compliance and a willingness to overcome the stigma and engage with the system, says Healy. “Dealing with the system is quite scary for people… A lot of the younger ones will work in brothels and immediately my concern is that they won’t necessarily have the wherewithal to access some of the wage subsidies and so on.”

For migrant sex workers, many of whom are in New Zealand on student visas, accessing subsidies is entirely impossible. Migrant sex work in New Zealand is illegal, and migrants subsidising their university accommodation through sex work may find themselves in a difficult position, says Healy.

“Sex workers often hide their occupation and there might be situations they’re in and they can’t necessarily explain why they have no money. They may well have been pretending that they’ve been working in a situation where they’re an employee. And so now they’re out of money and they may not be able to disclose it.” 

This desperation is at odds with lockdown compliance. Almost every sex worker will have been approached, says Healy, and some will have had no choice but to leave their bubble. “I think there will definitely be people who will be seeing a few clients – compliance just can’t be a hundred percent when you’re hungry.”

A conversation between a sex worker and a client from last year’s first lockdown. Read the full story here. (Screenshots: Supplied)

According to Temple, as last year’s lockdown stretched on for weeks, that hunger forced sex workers out of the house. “A lot of my friends were being pressured by their sugar daddies to break the lockdown. They really, really did not want to, but they’re offering them all this money and they get to a point where they’re so desperate, and they’re starving, and they have mouths to feed – sometimes people unfortunately do.” 

Read more

How sex workers are keeping clients in line in a pandemic

Although there are still challenges for the industry, especially for disabled-bodied workers and unhoused workers, this year’s lockdown has also demonstrated the importance and efficacy of the gains won by sex worker advocates in New Zealand. Annah Pickering, regional coordinator for the NZSWC in Tāmaki Makaurau, says that the decriminalisation of sex work has made support available that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

“I had a 19-year-old looking for help, and it made me think ‘Wow, we used to be criminalised, and there would have been no welfare then.’” She says it shows how far Aotearoa has come in relation to sex work, but also notes that rolling lockdowns will continue to impact the industry. “Last week we had 30 sex workers that we supported in accessing WINZ, and so far this week another 20, but as the alert levels have changed and this lockdown extends it’s starting to effect sex workers who had savings to live on.”

The NZSWC is continuing to operate contactless clinics and working closely with the Ministry of Social Development to assist sex workers onto jobseeker benefits and other subsidies where possible. And some clients, far from pressuring workers to leave the house, have offered financial support to sex workers, using refunded accommodation and other windfalls to help out – often with no expectation of repayment.

“We really want people to know that help is available,” says Pickering. “Here in Auckland we’re used to these rolling lockdowns, but for people in the regions this might all be new. Anyone who needs help should reach out.”

Click here to contact Aotearoa New Zealand Sex Workers’ Collective

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