Sex workers and COVID-19: Resisting the pandemic and criminalization

Sex workers who work at the intersection of informality, stigmatization and criminalization have strengthened their organizing to grapple with the economic impact of the pandemic

July 24, 2021 by Taroa Zúñiga Silva

Georgina Orellano, secretary-general of the Association of Women Sex Workers of Argentina (AMMAR), says that “the pandemic has highlighted the inequality” in society and deepened the problems faced by sex workers. Sex work, which is not recognized in Argentina, has become more precarious, she says.

Although in Latin America many countries do not have legislation criminalizing sex work, the lack of a legal framework in this regard lends itself to all kinds of abuses. According to an investigation published by the Network of Women Sex Workers of Latin America and the Caribbean, “the application of laws is interpretative and discretionary,” resulting in recurrent violations of the rights of workers, including arbitrary detention; torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment; discrimination in access to health care; and unequal treatment within judicial systems.

Multilateral organizations have called for inclusive responses to cushion the impact of COVID-19. Such policies should not neglect the workers who are criminalized, such as sex workers. There is nothing inclusive about the policies that states have adopted. “If we have something to celebrate about the pandemic,” Orellano tells me, “it is that it made it clear—to ourselves—that the only way out of this type of context is to strengthen unionization.”

The Organization of Women Workers

For labor movements in most industries, there is usually a clear target for workers to organize against, such as business owners or factory managers. But in the context of a sex workers’ union, who takes the place of a boss—the client or the state?

“The historical boss of us,” Orellano tells me, “was for a long time the police.” But Orellano is aware that the police—in turn—play a role as agents of the market. It is the police who de facto work to regulate the marketplace of sex work. AMMAR was formed in the 1990s to respond to the desire to end “the naturalized logic in our collective of having to make financial arrangements with the police in order to work,” Orellano says.

“What the state does not regulate,” Orellano says, “the market regulates.” The market, for sex workers, is framed by the fact of the criminalization of sex workers. Because sex workers “lack recognition and rights, markets emerge that thrive through our precariousness,” states Orellano.

Overcoming Fear to Organize

AMMAR was born from the first marches organized in Argentina to demand the rights of sex workers. During these marches, it was common for sex workers to attend wearing wigs or oversized dark sunglasses. In interviews with the media, sex workers would ask the television producers to distort their voices, show only their hands but not their faces, or give the interview with their backs to the camera. All this, Orellano explains to me, was “so that the family would not know that the person speaking, defending the rights of sex workers, was their mother or daughter or neighbor.”

Sex workers who rally for unionization and fight for their employment rights carry the additional burden of having to overcome the stigma associated with sex work. Orellano says shame, concealment, and silencing are unfortunate byproducts of the prejudices against the industry. “Basically,” she says, sex workers can’t effectively organize when they are hamstrung by the feeling of “not being able to truly tell [people] who you are [when you march or speak to media], for fear of being ostracized by your community.”

AMMAR’s approach is to fight the self-marginalization of sex workers. The demand to emerge from the shadows opened several doors. First, it encouraged sex workers to overcome the stigma associated with their work. Second, it permitted many sex workers to move toward unionization. Third, it forced the state to ensure that sex workers have rights and that these rights are not violated—“to accept that we are an existing group,” says Orellano, and to ensure “that not only are our rights as sex workers not violated, but, basically, that our rights as citizens are not violated.”

Pandemic and Sex Work

The restrictions imposed by governments to curb the advance of COVID-19 are a direct threat to the possibility of working in the streets. Quarantines, physical distance, and time restrictions—among other measures—have narrowed the possibilities of livelihoods for sex workers. Many have turned to the virtual world, but those who have continued working on the streets—either because of their own work preferences or because of technological and/or generational gaps—have suffered from institutional violence.

Faced with this, AMMAR had to respond, to “occupy the role of the absent state,” in the words of Orellano. The organization has focused on establishing codes of self-respect for sex work in public spaces. And it has focused on building psychological and economic support networks, which are urgently needed in view of the growing number of women who do not know if they will be able to pay their rent or feed their children every month.

Even if they comply with basic sanitary measures, this is a job that involves close contact. There is a lot of fear of COVID-19 among clients. Some clients wait to receive vaccines before resuming contact; many have also lost their jobs or lost income as a result of the pandemic, and so they constantly haggle over rates. “This is a fact,” Orellano tells me, “that does not differentiate between those of us who work virtually or those who work on the street.”

Political Recognition

The fact that sex workers are the ones who have supported their peers to survive the pandemic has reinforced awareness within this labor sector of the importance of political agency and collective organizing, Orellano concludes. AMMAR is part of the Argentine Workers’ Central Union (CTA). One of the most important achievements they have had in recent years, from Orellano’s perspective, has been the recognition of sex workers within political and labor organizing spheres.

“During the pandemic, our organization has done everything it had to do as a union and much more,” states Orellano. “We have given absolutely everything so that our coworkers can subsist and go through the pandemic on equal terms with the rest of the population.” This has been possible thanks to this labor sector’s efforts to articulate with local and central governments recognition of the political agency of sex workers.

“The advance of the expansion of rights—that is, of the visibility of our claims—has generated a lot of violence from some sectors,” adds Orellano. “But also, we received a lot of solidarity from other unions, and from social, feminist and partisan organizations that stretched out their hand to [be] with the whores.”

Taroa Zúñiga Silva is a writing fellow and the Spanish media coordinator for Globetrotter. She is the co-editor with Giordana García Sojo of Venezuela, Vórtice de la Guerra del Siglo XXI (2020) and is a member of the Secretaría de Mujeres Inmigrantes en Chile. She also is a member of the Mecha Cooperativa, a project of the Ejército Comunicacional de Liberación.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.