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Less Money, More Danger: How the Pandemic Changed Sex Work

Lower demand and guest restrictions at many downtown buildings have pushed outdoor sex workers into scarier situations.

Jen St. Denis 1 Feb

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

By fall, Vancouver’s street scene was almost non-existent for sex workers. But with her building not allowing guests because of COVID-19 precautions, Jasmine couldn’t work inside either. So she decided to try her luck on the street.

“I was just cold, bored, there were barely any cars, barely any girls,” she said.

“Just a lot of circle jerks — guys that drive around in circles all night, staring at girls but never picking them up.”

Working outside is more dangerous and pays as little as one-third compared to inside work. In 2017, Jasmine was beaten by a potential client she’d rejected. Another close call happened when her friend, who is diabetic, got into the car of a man who had asked her to help him find heroin.

“Twenty minutes later the car comes back, and Darcy is unconscious and the guy’s like, ‘You need to get her out of my car,’” Jasmine said. Not knowing whether Darcy was unconscious because of an overdose or because of her diabetes, Jasmine called 911 and paramedics were able to revive her friend with Narcan, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses.

“It was a really scary situation, having my unconscious friend in some random guy’s car — it was sketchy,” Jasmine said.

For safety reasons, The Tyee is referring to Jasmine and her friend by pseudonyms.

Many sex workers who work outside have had similar experiences during the pandemic, said Mebrat Beyene, the executive director of WISH, an organization that supports street-based sex workers in the Downtown Eastside.

Sex workers have seen their incomes drop, and most have been unable to access income replacement programs because their work is effectively illegal. While some sex workers were able to get the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, many are now getting letters from the Canada Revenue Agency telling them they must repay the money, Beyene said.

In the Downtown Eastside, many SRO hotels operated by housing providers have restricted guests to prevent transmission of COVID-19 in the cramped buildings. Some sex workers lost their housing because of those policies, while others — like Jasmine — have been forced to do sex work on the street.

A shelter that WISH operates for sex workers has been full since it opened in the fall, said Beyene.

“What we’ve been hearing is… the work has dried up,” Beyene said. “The work that hasn’t dried up — there’s a high likelihood that it’s more sketchy. It might be more dangerous, but workers are running into the challenge of not being able to afford to turn it down.”

The dynamic also means women are less likely to be able to negotiate a fair price for their work.

“On the street you have very little time to negotiate and to really assess, do your screening, which is trying to decide with your intuition: is this guy a creep, is he going to hurt me, is this guy a good client, does he feel OK?” Jasmine said.

“Are there any warning signs that I see, any red flags? You’ve got basically maybe two minutes to tell a guy what you’re offering, give his car a quick look, give his face a quick look — you don’t have that much time to make a good decision. So you have to really trust your gut.”

Beyene said WISH has been raising the issue of guest restriction policies with housing providers, but operators are “stuck between a rock and a hard place” because of the threat of COVID-19 spreading in the Downtown Eastside.

Many people who live in the neighbourhood have pre-existing health conditions and Downtown Eastside residents who have gotten the virus are more likely to be hospitalized.

Jasmine said she uses a number of safety precautions when she works on the street: texting a friend with her location and the licence plate of her client, then texting again when she’s done.

“I give them as much information as I possibly can, just in case I go missing and they have to call the police,” she said.

In contrast, when Jasmine advertises on the internet she can pre-screen clients, and when they come to her building they have to give their ID to the desk clerk.

“Because of that, guys don’t fuck around when they’re over at my place,” Jasmine said. “They know if they do anything, I could charge them. I have their legal name.”

But even before the pandemic Jasmine said she faced barriers to doing sex work inside her home because of the cost of advertising online.

“You basically have to create your own marketing campaign to get people to book you,” she said.

“All you have to do on the street is make yourself look presentable, go out on the corner, smile, and if the guys think you look nice, they’ll pick you up.”

Jasmine uses sex work to supplement her disability benefits, and the money she earns helps her to be able to afford higher-quality cannabis she uses to treat depression and chronic pain.

WISH has developed an employment program for sex workers, and it’s been a lifeline for Jasmine. She now works several days a week at a drop-in space.

But she doesn’t want to quit sex work. Jasmine said she likes the independence it gives her, the ability to set her own hours and turn down work. Sex work also allows her to earn more money more quickly than working full-time at a job that pays minimum wage. Most sex workers don’t need to be “saved,” she said.

“Most people are independent, they aren’t trafficked,” she said. “I see this as a job — like any other job.”

Jasmine is calling on the federal government to decriminalize sex work. In 2014, Canada’s prostitution laws were changed to criminalize the purchase of sexual services and advertising the sale of sexual services. The changes target the buyers of sexual services and “third parties” who profit from sex work, but advocates say the criminalization framework still puts sex workers in danger.

One-third of sex workers in Canada say they can’t call 911 because they fear police finding out they or their co-workers are doing sex work, according to a recent study published by the University of British Columbia and the University of Ottawa. Indigenous sex workers were twice as likely to report being unable to call 911.

Last July, human rights organizations and sex work advocates called on the federal government to stop enforcing Canada’s sex work laws because of the extra risk workers face during the pandemic.

Beyene is also calling for sex workers to be included in plans for income replacement programs being put in place by the federal and provincial governments to help people during the pandemic.

Because their work is part of the “informal economy,” Beyene said, sex workers haven’t been able to access many of those programs.

“I would absolutely argue that this is a humanitarian crisis,” Beyene said. “Why have individual communities across the country had to crowdfund cash relief for street-based sex workers? It’s just shocking.”  [Tyee]

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