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An already stigmatized industry: Providence sex workers face unique challenges amid COVID-19

Local sex industry sees unique challenges amid critical public health conditions

As the pandemic wreaked havoc on communities across the nation and locally, Bella Robinson found herself mailing out hundreds of dollars of local funding to sex workers in the form of Stop and Shop gift cards.

Robinson has served as the executive director of Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics RI, an organization committed to fighting for the rights and safety of local sex workers, since founding the chapter in 2009. Because Robinson is at high-risk for COVID-19, she had to think of creative ways to maintain her outreach to local sex workers in spite of public health conditions. This led her to pursue funding from local charity organizations to subsidize the grocery bills of Providence sex workers.

Like most of the nation’s commercial sectors, the sex industry has faced an uphill battle since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The largely in-person nature of the industry’s services places sex workers at the crossroads of facing unemployment or putting their health at risk to make an income. Studies also suggest that increased rates of preexisting health conditions among sex workers make them predisposed to greater health risks, should they contract the virus.

After weighing the costs of returning to work, not all sex workers have been able to maintain their jobs. Widespread closure of bars, clubs and in-person events nationwide has led to an increase in unemployment in the industry, leaving sex workers to contend with the challenges of joblessness and the thorny legal territory of seeking government assistance that follows.

As an online escort with more than 30 years of industry experience, Robinson witnessed firsthand the challenges the process to obtain government aid poses for sex workers within the community.

For example, many exotic dancers are not formally employed by the clubs they work at, which makes filing for governmental assistance especially difficult, Robinson said.

“Everyone’s an employee but the dancers,” she said. Among the dancers she works with, “most of them didn’t even know what a W-9 or a 1099 was,” having little to no experience filing taxes.

Alongside helping dancers file taxes and attempt to claim unemployment benefits, COYOTE RI also plans on creating webinars to teach members of the sex industry about “how to do taxes and be financially responsible,” Robinson added.

With staggering unemployment rates across the state, unemployed sex workers also face a compounding housing crisis. To access federal rent relief assistance, renters need their landlords to sign a W-9. In the meantime, they may have to barter for extra time to pay rent.

To Robinson, this is no small task for sex workers across the city.

“When I’m not able to access the federal rent (relief), and I have my unemployment statement (and bank account statements prepared) and am a little bit more together and empowered than other people — it did make me question” the validity and accessibility of federal COVID-19 relief for sex workers, Robinson said.

Dancers at one gentlemen’s club in Providence have also had to navigate emotional turmoil during the pandemic, including “frustration, depression (and) anxiety,” according to a house mother at the club who requested anonymity for fear of personal repercussions.

In her position, the house mother serves as a manager for the club, working directly with the dancers. She recruits them, prepares them for shows and is their first contact when issues arise with their job — making her keenly aware of the challenges of the occupation.

Among the changes the gentlemen’s club has seen during the pandemic, all customers and employees have to record their temperatures and maintain social distancing while inside of the club. De-densified operations limit the number of patrons who can come in at once.

Additionally, the store is filled with plexiglass separating both individual workers and customers, which has significantly changed the dancers’ work, the house mother said.

The emotional issues dancers face are linked to financial instability within the industry, the house mother said. If they contract COVID-19, dancers and staff members alike are unable to work for at least two weeks, she said, meaning that they won’t receive any income until they can produce proof of a negative test result.

This has led to widespread fear relating to job insecurity. The dancers ask themselves, “‘Are we going to close again? Is this ever going to go away?’” fearing that, if the club closes due to health concerns, they will “fall behind (financially)” and nobody (will be) making money,” the house mother added.

Financial instability for the city’s sex industry is not exclusively tied to the pandemic, either. In February, Providence legislators lobbied for stricter licensing policies for dance clubs and the removal of all private performance areas, including “VIP rooms,” within the city — which, according to Robinson, are a major source of revenue for the state’s sex industry.

Dancers have turned to a number of different solutions in order to gain financial security. Many have created OnlyFans accounts, taking part in the rapid growth of subscription-based online sex work seen since the onset of the pandemic. Others rely on “a sugar daddy to pay their rent … (or just) for survival,” the house mother said.

Some have left Providence entirely.

Many dancers have either returned home to live with their families or moved south to states with less rigid public health restrictions, such as Texas or Florida, according to the house mother.

But the house mother emphasized that there were also glimpses of hope since the start of the pandemic. “We appreciate each other more (now),” she said, “human beings missing each other, coming together” and being “more appreciative” of one another instead of being “bitter” about the challenges posed during this time.

One issue that continues to plague local sex workers, though, is a reluctance to seek help from local aid institutions, she said.

When the club first shut down, dancers faced financial adversity, the house mother said. But they were hesitant to seek help because “trust doesn’t come easy for them, at all.”

This hesitancy arises within the context of a city that polices the sex industry. Sex work is criminalized within the Ocean State’s borders, despite studies showing that, in Rhode Island’s own history, the legalization of sex work has created economic growth, a decrease in the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases and lower rates of reported sexual violence.

For Robinson, creating a bridge for sex workers to get the help they need is a fundamental part of her activism.

All too often, police “arrest … the women” they are claiming to protect, she said, referring to the city’s policing of sex workers. Instead, through advocacy and community-focused outreach with COYOTE RI, Robinson hopes that sex workers can access important resources that they would otherwise be unable to find.

“This really comes down to federal funding,” she said, emphasizing that a lack of direct financial support for sex workers from the national government continues to leave the industry vulnerable.

“I don’t have a solution, I don’t have a magic wand, I can’t make Congress do what I want,” Robinson said. But “we (are) really proud” of what COYOTE RI continues to provide: some alleviation to the financial hardship sex workers face, during this time and beyond.



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