How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected sex workers? I know this question is not on the minds of most people here in San Francisco, or anywhere else. We should all already know this, as well as in understanding the pandemic’s the effects on communities of elders, migrants, folks who are disabled, Black, Asian, trans, poor, living and working on the streets, and anyone marginalized and disadvantaged by the cis-hetero-patriarchal-capitalist system. That is to say, we need to be seeing each other and supporting each other, because we are all we got.
I am a former sex worker and current supporter of the sex worker community, as the outreach director of St. James Infirmary. We are a peer-based health clinic, community services and advocacy organization run by and for current and former sex workers, founded in 1999. We have been going out on the streets to support our communities living and working on the streets since January 2018 in our Naughty Nurse Mobile. Before the pandemic, we offered incentivized HIV/HepC/STI testing and other limited medical services and supplies, safer drug use supplies and seasonal supplies like coats, tarps, hand warmers and more. Since the first COVID-19 shutdown in San Francisco in March 2020, we had to discontinue providing medical services directly from the van, but continued providing all other services including, symptomatic medical services and testing, at our clinic location.
We quickly began trying to figure out how we could best serve the needs of our communities during this time of chaos and confusion. It became immediately apparent that many sex workers were without a job, without any backup support like state unemployment or having to face the very difficult decision to continue working to support themselves and their families and risk exposure to a possibly fatal disease. For those who were working online before FOSTA/SESTA — federal legislation passed in 2018 that affected how sex workers can work online — and who might have just begun recovering financially, work was drying up. Those who were driven to the streets after FOSTA/SESTA found them empty of johns and folks were desperate for work. For those who chose to not risk exposure due to being immunocompromised or living with someone immunocompromised — or any number of reasons — money was running out. People often had very little support and were given very confusing and conflicting information about COVID-19, and ever-changing guidelines, rules and regulations. Many people were reporting a need for basic necessities like food, hygiene items and emotional support.
Sex workers are very resourceful people. We are hustlers! And we gotta have each other’s backs. The outreach team at St. James Infirmary started delivering groceries to those quarantined at home, bringing supplies to homeless encampments as well as continuing to frequently check on our street-based community of sex workers to offer supplies, resources and support. As needs are communicated to us, we do our best to fulfill those needs in real time. We also have many other programs to offer support to sex workers and other communities: Our trans housing program, outreach to trans Latinas, syringe access services, our mental health program and our partnership with The Hope Center all allow us to help with housing, health resources and everyday needs for trans folks, migrants, BIPOC, folks living and working on the streets — especially sex workers — and all the intersections of our communities.
The relief efforts of our government both federally and locally have largely benefited the already privileged, and not the most marginalized. I’m sure the readers here already know that. So out of necessity, many local groups started mutual aid campaigns with cash grants for sex workers like Rad Mission Neighbors, Bay Area Worker Support, and the Tenderloin Cultural District, with many of these organizations offering other resources and support as well. The tragic police murders of Black people in the United States brought together masses in the streets united in mourning and in rage. The recent mass murder in Atlanta brought anti-Asian racism, in conjunction with the stigmatization and criminalization of sex workers and sex negativity, to a head, bringing more awareness to an already devastating problem. Many organizations have made statements in solidarity with Asian sex workers. Much more work needs to be done to support these communities with real reparations to bring healing. Racism continues to be a deadly epidemic. And then there were immediate traumatic, emotional parallels between COVID-19 and the AIDS epidemic. There was much confusion about what contact is safe or allowed, how people can hook up, and much judgement, sex negativity, loneliness and isolation. Much healing will continue to be needed as we move through this pandemic, forge a new future and learn better ways to be in community with each other with patience and compassion.
We here at St. James Infirmary are not perfect, but we strive to support our communities as best we can each day without judgement and with harm reduction in our hearts. We know that there is much pain and suffering, as we are our community and we gotta have each other’s backs. We fight the injustices because we love you and we love ourselves. And in the process, we find creative solutions and even joy.