Tea Antimony’s regulars are her “bread and butter.” She likes establishing a rapport and mutual trust with her clients. As most of her sex work has come to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic, she finds herself relying even more on these regulars for large deposits for future dates. However, in the sex work industry, asking for advance payment is unusual, said Antimony.

At a time when social distancing is the suggested norm, sex workers face dire financial circumstances. Many have lost their income completely. The shutdown of restaurants has impacted those with part-time jobs in the food and beverage industry. Others who rely on sex work as supplemental income to fund their education find it hard to stay in school. The $2 trillion emergency relief bill Congress passed last week also made a point of excluding sex workers.

“We already carry the stigma of being dirty and diseased, so people are even less likely to want to avail themselves of our services,” said Molly Simmons, a full-service sex worker and chapter representative for Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA (SWOP) in Brooklyn. “It’s been really difficult all around.”

Some sex workers have shifted to online work, making porn, offering phone sex, or doing digital dates, video chats, or sexting. But not all sex workers have the privilege or capacity to do so. Virtual sex requires a camera, laptop, lighting, and space. Another barrier is the need for anonymity, said Simmons. “Anonymity is mostly sacrificed when you’re online. People can screenshot it, record it, and post those videos somewhere else. They’re forever on the internet, and some people aren’t willing or unable to take that risk.”

Doing sex work digitally also requires a separate set of skills, such as content creation, marketing, and identifying a potential client pool that can be different from the one sex workers are trying to reach in person. Fera Lorde, a sex worker and SWOP Brooklyn organizer, believes that everything being pushed to the virtual space “has created a devaluation of labor online.” 

“It’s something that you have to really commit to in order to create a market for yourself,” Lorde said. “They might not see it pay off. It might just be a waste of however many hours they put into [it].”

Simmons estimated that, in the past month, she has lost thousands of dollars in business. She explained that January and February were already slower for the sex worker community because potential clients were spending more cautiously as they thought about paying taxes. Everyone was running on fumes, financially, and expecting things to pick back up again in March. The current pandemic is like “the rug pulled out from underneath us.”

The viral outbreak has also complicated the relationships sex workers have with their clients. This has been emotionally challenging, Lorde said. “The majority of what we do is emotional labor. It’s hard to explain that when you’re in that relationship with someone, and they’re reaching out to you for emotional support or saying that they’re concerned about you. And you’re like, That’s very nice. Can you send me money?”

Initiatives to support sex workers have sprouted up. SWOP Brooklyn has set up an emergency COVID relief fund for sex workers in New York with a fundraising goal of $100,000. So far, they have raised over $78,000. The organization has been reviewing applications and releasing cash stipends on a sliding scale of $100 to $200, depending on the need. 

“We prioritize people of color, trans workers, and immunocompromised workers, because they tend to be the most marginalized and the most at risk,” Simmons said. 

SWOP Brooklyn has also been giving out money to other organizations that focus on different sex worker populations. Some of them include Red Canary Song, which serves Asian migrant workers and massage parlor workers, and Legal Aid, which reaches street-based workers. They’ve also created a group that connects errand buddies with sex workers who have to stay inside and need help with groceries and prescription deliveries.

“What we do is illegal. Who’d want to help us?” Yanyan, a Chinese immigrant sex worker said in Mandarin, upon hearing about the relief fund. She works from home, but hasn’t had any business for weeks. “I can’t even pay rent anymore. So I’ll give it a try.”