Covid-19 presents a new muddle and risks for sex workers, pandemic of poverty has affected the lives of sex workers; Desperation has kicked in for vulnerable, undocumented workers unable to access help, it has left them with distress, uncertainty, with social distancing rules getting more stringent there is a fear of losing livelihood, health issues troubling, as sex work is intimate by its very nature, and workers are at heightened risk of contracting the virus if they keep working. But without work, as strip clubs close and clients dwindle, sex workers struggle to survive. In the midst of pandemic they are working, nobody wants to work in hazardous profession due to lockdown regulation, but survival is a major issue, they have no support from other parts. The pandemic has brought an era of uncertain days for sex workers, pre-existing inequalities, has disproportionately affected them as the communities live outside societal protection mechanisms, often in financially precarious situations. The cost of Covid-19 pandemic is highly expensive on the part of sex workers, and they struggle to survive it.

The Fragile Existence of Sex Workers During the Pandemic

Paid sexual labour is a form of employment that most people generally don’t think about. From street workers to escorts to exotic masseuses, jobs in the sexual services industry have been disrupted during the coronavirus pandemic that is, if they wish to keep themselves safe. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) safeguards the right of female sex workers against discrimination but there is a lack of safety protocols for women. Street prostitution is one of the most dangerous professions in the world, already associated with high risks of abuse and sexually transmitted diseases. Now, adding to those hazards is the coronavirus. The sex workers are plunged into poverty, scarcity of customers, which leads to no remuneration, poor housing conditions and ultimate uncertainty. Being a sex worker is isolating and the social distancing have led to another form of isolation. Extending a red light closure has pushed them into perils of marginality vulnerability and stigmatisation. Desperation forces sex workers into the risk of Covid-19.They are criminalized and left without any governmental support during this era of distancing. With no income, no food, no shelter they are pushed into the brinks of hunger and violence. There is a lack of safety net for the workers. Challenges and barriers to work in these times are quite consequential.

Gendered and Racist Prostitution

Sex workers are often from groups that are already marginalized economically and socially, such as undocumented migrants, people of color, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, some of whom have been pushed out of their families due to homophobia. Sex work may, for them, be one option among bad ones. A new report by the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSWE) notes that sex workers in the continent live in the “economic margins” and often have less savings and government support to fall back on. They are also plans. The ICRSWE report also predicts that hard economic times may mean more people will turn to sex work. Brothels exist everywhere in the social distancing era, the transgender prostitutes do suffer as they don’t have any means of livelihood, due to stereotyping of transgender in our country are completely ignored in some way or the other. With client’s gone women, men and transgender suffer from destitution as their livelihood is affected. They are more afraid of hunger than the virus. In the longer term, as the ICRSWE argues, governments should carry out meaningful consultations with sex workers to establish a framework that “respects their human rights and improves their safety and working conditions.”LGBTQ sex workers do suffer from huge ostracization due to the pandemic. Color has become an ideal type of discrimination among the Trans people and they have been also questioned about the national identity. Homophobia and Transphobia are some of the significant prejudices which are experienced by the sex workers.

The Prostitute, the virus and the City

The pandemic has affected the entire industry and the workers, sex workers struggle to make ends meet as coronavirus spreads as they are at corona cross roads there is an immediate need to address their issues. Brothels are fined for staying open during the pandemic, so some have taken recourse to online mode of prostitution but that too has not been sustainable enough. The pandemic has been tough for many sex workers, and the post lock down era can brings new challenges. On anonymity a sex worker said that taking into account the corona protocols proper hygiene is taken into account. There is a need for empowering the civil society groups who can come forward to rescue them. There are many still active NGO’s which are working but still there is need of proactive steps to empower them from the crisis.

Dr.Nupur Pattanaik, Teaching Sociology, Department of Sociology, Central University of Odisha


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6 Comments

  1. Avatar zeenat khan says:

    Dr. Pattanik, Though all types of sex work is consensual, I say that I do not like to see an academician and other privileged members of a society glorify “sex work” as something professional. We should rather do everything possible to combat it. Granted, it is the world’s “oldest profession,” as Rudyard Kipling himself called it so. It goes back to 2400 BCE. But this is the 21st century, and times have changed. I cringe when people nonchalantly say that there isn’t anything wrong in doing “sex work,” and therefore, it is honorable and should be an accepted behavior. If sex workers are treated badly and decriminalized then surely there are other types of respectable work women can choose to feed themselves. If they cannot do it alone then society must help them through various social welfare projects to rehabilitate them. Their volunteers can guide them to find something more dignified and that way they do not have to keep them hidden in the dark back alleys. The way they live is not really called living. Just like you & I they are women.

    • Sorry to interfere.. But I just want to say, she has not glorified sex workers.. She just said the problems they are facing…one thing, functionalism says if something has no function, then society will automatically throw them out. But it’s existence is still there, clear and visible, that means society is accepting it behind a curtain. The depth of the article is dealing with humanity, the sex workers are human and they should be protected at any cost.. No body does this work out of interest, they are doing this because they have no other way. Because Government and so called society made them to do that…

      • Avatar zeenat khan says:

        Kajal, Please don’t be sorry for interfering. That is the whole point of having a discussion. I didn’t miss Nupur’s point. My point was: pandemic or no pandemic, a woman in a civilized society should not find her in a situation where she has to sell sex to buy a bag of rice. I am aware of the grim realities around the world. The government of India should do its utmost to get the sex workers out of this “profession”. No one should be so desperate to earn a living by selling sex as an only option. Each state government can change the social conditions so that generations of women do not have to sell sex in order to survive. Otherwise, we each become responsible for condemning our fellow sisters in a hellish life. We got only one life to live and we should help the weak and the disadvantaged to live a life of dignity.

  2. Avatar Nupur Pattanaik says:

    Thank you Zeenat for your comments. I would really agree with you, but I trying to say through my article that in this pandemic situation , their plights should also be taken into account and preventing them from poverty and their livelihood should be taken into account by certain NgOs and other organisations. Their rights too matter. They should also be protected during the apndemic.

    • Avatar zeenat khan says:

      You are welcome Nupur Pattanaik for reaffirming your position. I have immense difficulty writing or even uttering the word that starts with P….in defining sex workers. I think it is one of the most vulgar words in the English language and each dialect in the subcontinent has a “special” word to define these women. We all are God’s children. You are a brave young lady who is trying to give attention to their plight during the pandemic. It seems you have a team ready to rally behind you. Good for you! Keep going in giving voice to the voiceless.

  3. Really, mam very well written…first the sanitation worker and now this.. You are bringing all hidden issues on light..They are human and they should be protected.. They are labeled as bad, but their business was continuing before lockdown, if society considers it as bad then why their existence is still there.. Functionalism said if anything has no function in the society, then society will throw them out.. So if the sex workers are existing, that means they have certain functions. And the most important thing they are human and every human rights should be protected..