Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse
5 min

I’m a gay sex worker and COVID-19 has affected my income. My friends say I should look for a ‘safer’ job. What should I do?

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Credit: Global P, Suradech14/iStock/Getty Images Plus; Francesca Roh/Xtra

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Dear Kai,

I’m a gay male sex worker and I’m struggling with the pandemic. I was an escort before things shut down, and my income has been hit really hard. I switched to working online but I’m not very skilled at it yet, and the money is nothing compared to what I used to make. Now that things are opening up a bit, lots of my old regulars are reaching out to ask for appointments—but I’m not sure that’s safe or responsible. I’m really hurting for money, though. My friends keep not-so-subtly hinting that I should look for other jobs, and I am, but to tell the truth, hustling is the only job that’s ever felt even remotely sustainable for me both in terms of income and mental health. What should I do? 

Struggling With Ethics & Economics in Toronto

Dear SWEET,

How I wish I had better answers for you than I currently do. Unfortunately, I know that desperate times may call for desperate measures—and these are desperate times indeed. Furthermore, we live in a capitalist system that seems intent on forcing us ever deeper into desperation; ideally, we would all have access to universal income at least until the pandemic was fully under control (which I don’t believe to be the case at the moment, the fact that Ontario has moved to “Phase 2” of economic re-opening notwithstanding).

Let’s start with the obvious, which is that your concerns are valid—at least as far as I, a non-medical professional, can see. If, as most scientific sources seem to agree, COVID-19 is spread through exposure to infected people’s “droplets” (the moisture people make when they breathe, talk, cough or sneeze), then in-person sexual contact is logically a risky situation. Multiple instances of sexual contact per week or per day would logically represent a higher risk situation, particularly if that sexual contact involves meeting new partners each time. I’d advise checking with a doctor or other health professional to verify that assessment before making any decisions based on it.

It’s also important to remember that COVID-19 is such a new disease that even medical experts still don’t know exactly how it’s spread, or what role sexual activity might play in transmission. Unfortunately, the best thing a layperson like you or I can do is to keep reading (verified!) scientific reports, stay current on public health advisories and use informed, critical thinking to make the best choices possible .

So sex, and sex work, in the time of COVID-19 are dangerous business. However, it’s also important to remember that sex and sex work have always held elements of risk: unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and awkward or bad interactions, just to name a few. Unfortunately, sex-negative cultural norms and media messaging often distort our ability to think about sex and risk in a rational way. As a result of sex-negativity, we may be prone to see sexual risk through a lens of immorality and shamefulness rather than compassion and harm reduction.

I say this, SWEET, because I want you to know that the ethical burden for making this choice does not lie solely with you, though our sex-negative, whorephobic society may try to convince you otherwise. It lies with a society that refuses to acknowledge the basic rights of the individual to health care and a safe, meaningful, sustainable occupation.

Sex work is as legitimate as any other type of work, and at the end of the day, you are only trying to do what capitalism tells us we must do in order to survive. Certainly looking for other work may be an option, but I’d like to point out that there are a great many jobs that expose workers to serious risk: Just last week, the CBC reported that the majority of new COVID-19 cases in the province are a result of unsafe working conditions for migrant workers in the agricultural industry. The impact of many provinces reopening indoor shopping centres and personal care businesses such as hair salons and massage therapy clinics remains to be seen, but I have to say, the risk seems fairly high.

So I find it very interesting that your friends are suggesting that you find other, “safer” work—a common experience for sex workers right now and always—while so few people seem to be launching campaigns to rescue and convert agricultural workers and hairdressers to other professions. Like so many people of the working class, erotic labourers are being forced back to work in unsafe conditions by governments that refuse to extend welfare or unemployment benefits. Yet sex workers are additionally being stigmatized, as they traditionally have been, as immoral carriers of disease.

Of course, trenchant political analysis is all well and good, but where does that leave you, SWEET? I guess what I’m saying is that we have to play the cards we’re dealt as best we can, without blaming ourselves for conditions that are beyond our control. If you do decide to start seeing clients in person again, what you can control—at least to some degree—are the strategies you use to reduce the risks as much as possible.

Sex work organizations such as Maggie’s Toronto and Butterfly Migrant and Asian Sex Workers’ Network have put together a document for sex workers on how to reduce COVID-19 transmission risk at work (the key word here is reduce—it’s likely impossible to eliminate risk). The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control has published a similar document.

Their suggestions include, among other things: screening clients whenever possible for symptoms of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses, as well as screening for recent travel and maintaining a high standard of hygiene by thoroughly washing yourself and all equipment (sheets, toys, furniture, etc.) used for work. They also suggest avoiding or minimizing any activities that might involve exchange or contact with bodily fluids, and using positions that minimize face-to-face contact for intercourse. Giving an erotic massage while wearing latex or nitrile gloves and a mask, for example, is probably a lower risk activity than engaging in penetrative intercourse or oral sex—and using a condom or dental dam for those activities is lower risk than not using them. Similarly, using a dental dam, condom or other barrier for rimming is probably a good idea, considering recent studies show that fecal matter might be another transmission route for COVID-19.

If these suggestions sound somewhat familiar to you, it’s probably because they map very closely the harm reduction advice that sex workers have been sharing with one another for years. Sex workers have always had to deal with questions of infection transmission, physical safety and client screening—while COVID-19 adds a new layer of urgency to this, the basic premise remains the same. I say this because I want to remind you, SWEET, that as overwhelming and disorienting as this pandemic might be, I imagine that you already have an array of skills and experiences that might help you to navigate the tough choices that lie ahead.

I would urge you as well to share the burden as much as possible, SWEET.  If your friends are interested in seeing you safe and healthy, would they consider contributing to that goal financially—maybe in the form of a personal fundraiser? And what about your regulars, who are, after all, adults with agency and responsibility in their own sexual choices? Would they consider making you a part of their “social bubble,” so that your time together can fall within public health guidelines? If they can afford it, would they consider paying you on a monthly (rather than per-date) basis, so that you can afford to keep in-person client contact to a minimum, thus protecting both your own and your clients’ health? These are conversations worth having.

These are imperfect suggestions for an impossible situation, SWEET. Alas, this column is about (these days quite literally) advice for the apocalypse, not “Ask Kai: Pointers for Paradise.” We are spiralling deeper into a global crisis, and each one of us will need to ask some critical questions about who we are and what kind of choices we need to make in order to survive. That you are already thinking so critically about safety responsibility speaks well of you. Remember as well that your survival is an ethical choice. Remember that you deserve to make a living, to be supported by your community and that you deserve to live.

Kai Cheng Thom is no longer a registered or practicing mental health professional. The opinions expressed in this column are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content in this column, including, but not limited to, all text, graphics, videos and images, is for general information purposes only. This column, its author, Xtra (including its parent and affiliated companies, as well as their directors, officers, employees, successors and assigns) and any guest authors are not responsible for the accuracy of the information contained in this column or the outcome of following any information provided directly or indirectly from it.

 

This story is filed under Sex, Sex Work, Relationships, Pandemics, Employment, Advice, Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse
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