December 21, 2020

Invisible: Sex Work and Mutual Aid During COVID-19

Molly Simmons

A wild assortment of boxes and bags are spread out on my living room floor. I stumble over them as I walk through to the kitchen to turn off the screaming tea kettle. After my tea is made I settle into my place among the harm reduction supplies: needles, Narcan, five types of condoms I will have to sort and bag, snacks, and glass stems. After a few hours all the boxes and bags will be packed up, crammed back into my bedroom cabinet where they will stay out of sight until next week.

This is my Friday afternoon ritual, preparing the street outreach supplies for our weekly excursions in Brooklyn, trying to do what we can for our community members who work on the streets. Occasionally I am caught by the thought that what we have to offer is so little, practically nothing at all. We are such a small group, all of us sex workers, struggling to take care of each other while trying to manage to take care of ourselves.

The headlines nowadays all read “Sex Workers in Crisis” and “COVID-19 Causes Crisis for Sex Workers.I should know, I wrote one of said articles. It’s not an incorrect statement; the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States resulted in club closures, loss of work, increased safety risks, and financial insecurity across large swathes of our community that were previously, relatively speaking, stable. This stability was frail at best, hard-won after a years-long struggle following the devastation caused by SESTA-FOSTA. As the months of this pandemic drag on, however, we’ve all had to settle into new patterns of struggle, hope and community care.

When you’re a member of a criminalized class, sometimes it can be hard to feel the distinction between an acute crisis like that caused by the coronavirus and the chronic crisis that is daily life. I consider myself lucky in many regards – the levels of stress that hum in the back of my brain at any given day are perhaps lower than many other sex workers. Because I am white, because I am cis, because I am documented, I have a level of security that many of my cohort are not afforded.

My day-to-day working life isn’t so different than it was pre-pandemic. There was an initial big slump in business, but after about six weeks the men of New York City remembered that they actually preferred to be having sex – virus be damned. Some weeks are busy, most weeks are slow, people scramble to locate their masks as they’re leaving.

My phone buzzes on the floor beside me and I read the incoming messages. Who’s on for outreach tonight? The message comes in and I respond that I’ll be there, that we still need someone to pick up the food. There are 27 unread messages in another thread – a community member in a housing crisis, a rapid-fire crowdfunding campaign, booking them an Airbnb until they can get more permanently situated.

This is the way my life has been changed due to COVID-19; our mutual aid work has increased exponentially, the numbers of hours we put in each day has nearly tripled. So many of our community members have been deeply impacted by this pandemic: loss of work, housing, financial security. Dancers are moving to street work, there violence is on the track, in-person workers are struggling to transition to online work, and new people are weighing the choice to enter the industry under threat of poverty and fewer clients than ever. I would offer statistics on loss of jobs and income but there are no numbers – no one is counting. Our SWOP chapter here in Brooklyn is doing our best to do what we can through mutual aid funds, referrals and other outreach. Though we are limited how quickly we mobilize, we are deeply grateful and humbled and ready to serve those who need us.

Everyone has the opportunity to learn from sex workers and how we take care of each other. When tragedy strikes there are few people faster than us who are ready. Unfortunately tragedy is a language we are well acquainted with. From meal trains to marches, sex workers have always been at the helm of political movements, though we have often been overlooked. We exist at the border of the hypervisibility of sex and the relative invisibility of marginalization. We are seen as queer, as trans, as women, as Black, as migrants, as disabled. We are seen as all of these things before we are seen as sex workers, as if these varying aspects of our identity could be separated.

In the wake of the coronavirus we have again adopted the roles of our own community’s first responders, meeting needs on the ground while we continue to stay on top of local and national political battles that will affect our lives in the long term. It was disheartening to find out that none of my civilian friends had even heard of the Earn It Act – a threat to digital security for everyone and the safety of almost any sex worker who works or advertises online. Somehow we must find the time, space and energy to fight all these battles that are brought to us, because every single one could mean the death and disenfranchisement of so many.

We all cram into the car together, bags of food on our laps, chatting and catching up as we head out to set up for outreach. In the lulls we talk some more, cracking jokes and making plans. I love our laughter, and our quickness, and our wit. I love how easily we move from what new shows have you been watching to I have some ideas about implementing mobile medical services.

Until we see the full decriminalization of sex work in the United States, all the work we do is limited, caged by the illegality of our own actions. There are other battles happening – the repeal of the Walking While Trans bill in New York, the continued fight against Earn It, the struggle to provide free and accessible healthcare, defending our reproductive rights. We are working to reduce the harm done to our communities on many fronts, and, as always, I have hope for the future we are building. Even when our institutions inevitably fail us we are there for each other, moving in shadows and secrecy, providing the compassion and care that no one else seems prepared to offer. Though we are often invisible, we are always taking care of each other. And chances are, we’re taking care of you too.

Molly Simmons is a full-service sex worker and sex-worker activist in Brooklyn. She is a chapter representative for SWOP Brooklyn, fighting for the decriminalization of sex work and providing mutual aid to sex workers in the New York area. 

Read of the other articles in this series or download the PDF:

Fighting for Money and Dignity: Sex Work in Berlin

Clothed Until Further Notice: Being a Stripper in the COVID-19 Era

How Germany Failed Sex Workers

Sex Work Through NYC’s Pandemics