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Ashley Madness says that by the time the Los Angeles chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP LA) met on March 19, they had all spent weeks dealing with crises in their personal lives on top of their normal organizing work. The workers met virtually, on the day that California’s mandatory shelter-in-place order was announced. Madness says every member at the meeting agreed on the same idea right away: They needed to create a Covid-19 mutual aid fund to get emergency grants to other sex workers all over their city—and they needed to do it fast. “The second we got together, we knew we had to launch an emergency fund immediately,” says Madness.
Madness (per request, many of the workers in this article are referred to by their work names) serves as the political actions director and secretary for SWOP LA. She says that the world completely changed in the month between the group’s February and March meetings. At the February meeting, Covid-19 was a remote threat, but one that organizers continued to monitor. Sex workers are consistently and unfairly stereotyped as diseased, so even mild epidemics can hurt business. By the time of the March meeting, the SWOP LA team realized they’d be fighting something unprecedented.
In the midst of a pandemic that has completely overwhelmed institutional support structures, leaders as high-profile as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have encouraged communities to organize mutual aid projects to redistribute resources among the most vulnerable. Sex worker organizing could be a model for this sort of work: There is a deep history of mutual aid and redistribution—both formal and informal—within the sex worker community.
As it became clear that Covid-19 would hit the United States with the force of an epochal disaster, sex workers were among the first to respond with broadscale mutual aid efforts—fundraising and organizing mutual support outside of an official government response. In Las Vegas, where sex workers have been devastated by the loss of tourism, the Las Vegas Sex Worker Covid19 Emergency Relief Fund raised over $10,000 in just 15 days on GoFundMe. In Brooklyn, the Emergency Covid Relief for Sex Workers in New York has collected over $100,000 on the same platform. Similar efforts have raised thousands of dollars in Austin and Detroit, Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area, and cities across the country.
Madness says that some of organizers of SWOP LA had been inspired by another fund organized by SWOP Brooklyn; the organizers at SWOP Brooklyn pointed to the Lysistrata Emergency Fund, a nationwide effort that predates the current pandemic, as its model. And organizers in New York, Detroit, Oakland, and Los Angeles all explained that they had already been working on mutual aid efforts well before the coronavirus pandemic broke out. Because sex workers are often left out of social safety nets, organizing within the community has to make up the gaps: In pre-pandemic Detroit, organizers passed out Narcan and harm reduction kits; in the Bay Area, they distributed small emergency grants for workers short on cash. “Mutual aid has always been a part of sex worker organizing,” says Tea Antimony, a sex worker and organizer with SWOP Brooklyn.
Zee—a sex worker and organizer who helped create Detroit’s mutual aid fund—notes that two transgender historical icons, Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera, used money from their own sex work to pay rent for the shelter they started for LGBTQ teenagers in New York. “They did sex work to keep other people off the street,” they say.
Molly Simmons, another sex worker and a founder of Brooklyn SWOP who helped create its fund, says that community-support structures come naturally to marginalized communities. “The thing about mutual aid, because it’s not institutionalized, is that we have the freedom to take care of each other in really radical ways,” Simmons says. “Marginalized communities have always taken care of each other because the state explicitly excludes us.”
The current global crisis has tested the boundaries of that radical mutual aid. The pandemic has affected every worker in the country, but it has already proved particularly devastating for sex workers. Most sex workers—from strippers and porn actors to full-service workers—rely on in-person contact to do their jobs. In many places, that sort of contact now puts workers and others’ health at intolerable risk.
Of course, it’s not just the virus. The governmental response to the exploding economic crisis has, predictably, missed many sex workers, who operate outside of the formal economy.
“A lot of us have been on the margins of the economy for a very, very long time, if not our entire lives,” says Madness. “Some of us have literally not taken a payment except in cash or on a cash app. Some sex workers have never had bank accounts. Some are undocumented.”
As millions file for unemployment insurance, sex workers without pay stubs or 1099s can’t qualify. Others with a lack of recent tax returns will miss the direct cash payments that passed as part of the congressional relief package last month. At least one aid program even goes as far as to explicitly exclude sex workers: For people applying for the Small Business Administration federal aid available for those affected by the coronavirus, part of the application requires guaranteeing that the applicant does not engage in “live performances of a prurient sexual nature.”
“There’s no help coming from the government, there’s no help coming from other social institutions for so many of us,” says Madness. In addition to being excluded from stimulus legislation, many sex workers have difficulty accessing medical services. Sex workers have a high uninsured rate as self-employed workers. And when they can access care, many have to contend with mistreatment from medical professionals. In Los Angeles, SWOP LA is working on a list of sex worker–friendly service providers still operating during the pandemic, and BAWS has created a resource guide for sex workers to access both reliable information and support.
Organizers across the country describe a mad rush against time to raise emergency funds during the last week in March. The first of the month was approaching, rent was coming due and bills still needed to be paid. The stakes were high. Some people would become unhoused if they missed rent. Madness describes an emotional and intense effort to fulfill hundreds of dollars in grants in less than a week.
Simmons says that in Brooklyn, rent was often not even the most pressing concern for many. “Some people were asking for money to make their $1,500 rent,” she says. “But then someone else was asking for $50 so they could get groceries for that week and not starve.”
Organizers say while they’ve been flooded with requests, there’s only really three core needs: medication, food, rent.
Because need has often outstripped funds, organizers have had to find different ways to prioritize. Maxine Holloway is the cofounder of Bay Area Worker Support, an organization that’s been providing $50–200 emergency grants to sex workers in need. She says that they’ve already gotten over $20,000 in requests.
“It’s a complicated thing to be a gatekeeper of funding for anyone. At Bay Area Worker Support, we are very aware of those complexities and we try to hold that role with a lot of integrity,” Holloway says, adding that, ultimately, they’ve been hampered by a lack of funds.
Deciding who gets aid takes many forms. Organizers have said they take into account whether workers have the option of taking on web-based work, like cam work or porn. Sex workers explain that this sort of transition is often difficult on not just a practical level—they may have no WiFi or private space to work out of—but also on a mental health level, as the separation between work and life shrinks. They also note if people are supporting children or other dependents.
There’s also the question of identity. Organizers in Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, and the Bay Area all said that they’re all taking into account whether or not applicants are multiply marginalized—and therefore less capable of accessing other resources—when they allocate aid. “There are sex workers who can’t go and work other jobs, because they’re disabled, or because they’re undocumented, or because they’re black and trans and people treat them like shit,” says Madness, who is trans.
In general, fundraisers say they are prioritizing workers who are black and indigenous, undocumented, transgender, full-service sex workers, and/or disabled. Disabled workers in particular face serious challenges at the current moment: Applying for unemployment or other aid might require them to admit they’ve lost income, which in turn could affect their ability to continue applying for disability insurance.
Fera Lorde, a sex worker and organizer with Brooklyn SWOP, says that this sort of redistributive mindset—informed by an intersectional perspective on how oppression works—comes naturally to many sex workers.
“Sex workers specifically have really been able to name [the need for mutual aid] because a part of our marginalization is how we monetize our lives,” they say. “It’s very easy for us to see the direct benefits we get because of our identities and circumstances, compared to another friend of ours whose livelihood is under duress from racism, or fat-phobia, or their disability. So it’s a little easier to say, ‘Well, I have these resources, so I’m gonna share that wealth and redistribute this income that came as part of the privileges I have.’”
Organizers say that although their profession can sometimes be solitary or even competitive, this sort of informal mutual aid has always been part of their experience as sex workers. Madness says that even before the pandemic, she and the other sex workers she lives with relied on mutual support. It takes different forms: providing child care for worker friends, opening up a spare couch, or delivering food, or Narcan, or ibuprofen. “It’s huge and largely untraceable labor we’re always providing for each other,” Simmons, one of the Brooklyn organizers, says.
Now, the formalized disbursement of funds—often requested online in e-mails and spreadsheets—has created a challenging experience for the people reviewing the applications. As the requests come in—over a hundred already—Madness says it’s stirred emotions to recognize stage names of people she knows. It’s been stressful for organizers to see the pain, and the level of need, in their communities.
There is, of course, a problem with the web-based mutual aid: Many of the most vulnerable sex workers lack access to the aid forms, either because they don’t have Internet access or are unhoused. Organizers say they’ve been working to ensure that part of the money raised reaches those folks. Twenty percent of SWOP LA’s fundraising is reserved for street-based workers, and other fundraisers have partnered with direct aid organizations that can reach unhoused people.
While funds have been streaming in steadily during the first weeks of the national crisis, organizers know that the true struggle lies in the months ahead, when donations slow down and need explodes in the midst of seemingly imminent recession. They say they’re planning for the long term and trying to build these funds to last years.
Madness says that at the heart of sex workers’ organizing capacity is their resilience in the face of adversity and trauma. Just two years ago, federal legislation meant to target sex trafficking outlawed many of the platforms sex workers used for online advertising. It led to a Depression-level event for many workers as business dried up and became more dangerous.
“We’re totally acclimated to responding to crisis, and coming together and executing under intense pressure,” Madness says. She says she’s been inspired by seeing donations come in from sex workers who themselves are completely out of work. “I see people who have lost all of their income due to Covid donating $50 to the fund,” she says.
“It’s heartbreaking. I hate all the pain and struggle that’s going on. But I’m also inspired. I’m inspired that people are asking for help. It makes me feel like maybe we can do something about it.”