The effects of COVID-19 on sex workers

SFU researcher explores the risks and stigmas of sex work during the pandemic

This is a photo of two people kissing each other through the face masks they are wearing.
PHOTO: Gustavo Fring / Pexels

By: Natalie Cooke, News Writer

Ahmed Al-Rawi, an SFU Communication professor, recently published a study outlining the effects of COVID-19 on sex workers, including their stigmatization in society and representations on social media. He said in an interview with The Peak, I believe that the stigma surrounding sex work made many people overlook its true impact during the pandemic, despite the fact that sex workers are and should be considered frontline workers, too.” 

By analyzing Twitter posts of sex workers from different gender groups, the researchers found sex workers “mostly expressed a variety of health concerns due to the lack of regulations on their work, even when there is no pandemic.” Further, “Concerns were also expressed about immunocompromised and racialized sex workers whose health has been impacted by COVID-19.”

Al-Rawi explained the challenges that were faced while conducting this research. “We had great difficulty finding sex workers on social media like Twitter.” This is because social media platforms will often restrict the activities of sex workers, which means that they must find other sites to use. He explained, “Sex work is often treated as a taboo topic that should be avoided in public discourses.”

Sex workers use social media to market themselves, just as entrepreneurs or artists do. Ramona Flour, a sex worker, told MTV, “Because of my visibility as a sex worker, companies have blatantly, without consideration for my business, removed me from their platforms.” This ultimately affected her business, income, and livelihood. Al-Rawi noted deplatforming sex workers “only increases the risks involved in this type of work.”

Al-Rawi also discussed the widespread stigma associated with sex work and how it affects them. He shared, “Sex work has existed since the beginning of time, and it is part of human civilization. Hence, it is called the oldest profession. However, many religions tried to ban or restrict sex work, though this never worked.” Despite the long history of the sex work industry, the work is still associated with guilt and negativity. 

Al-Rawi shared that in recent years, “sex work is increasingly viewed as another profession that requires regulations, something that sex workers urgently need to protect themselves from exploitation, security, and health risks.” While it is important that sex workers are being recognized, the risks they face are still prevalent. 

Human trafficking and modern slavery are risks of the industry that sex workers do not consent to, but are continuously exposed to. They often don’t get to decide who they are having sex with, and their basic human rights are often ignored by clients. 

Further, safe sex practices may not always be occurring during sex work, which can lead to poor health effects such as sexually transmitted infections, or HIV.

While there is increasing social acceptance associated with sex work, Al-Rawi emphasized the need to combat stigmas surrounding the topic. “This should start with introducing some government policies that offer clear regulations of sex work and acknowledging the stigma associated with this profession.” As well, “NGOs can play another role in spreading awareness about the importance of regulating this profession to protect everyone.”

To read Al-Rawi’s study “Sex Workers’ Lived Experiences With COVID-19 on Social Media: Content Analysis of Twitter Posts,” visit JMIR Publications

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