The criminalization and stigmatization of sex work in the U.S. have always put sex workers at risk. Due to puritanical legislation such as FOSTA/SESTA and the new EARN IT Act, sex workers — many of whom are Black, Brown and/or transgender — have fallen victim to housing instability, severe poverty, lack of access to health care and violence. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these obstacles for sex workers nationwide. In an interview with Allison James, a nonbinary sex worker, Doris Hiegl, a Workers World correspondent with the Philadelphia branch, learned of the plight of sex workers in the U.S. during this pandemic and how the movement can help.
Workers World: How long have you been a sex worker?
Allison James: I’ve been doing sex work for four years. I started out doing verbal domination for people. Full-service sex work was a week after because I was like, “Well, I can just do this all the way, right?” And so I’ve bobbed back in between domming, verbal sex work and stripping for about four years in varying degrees.
WW: What is considered “full-service sex work”?
AJ: Full-service sex work is considered any work that has sexual contact. There’s a lot of openness on the phrase. If you feel like you’re doing full-service sex work, then you’re probably doing full-service sex work. If you wanted a hard definition on that, it’s engaging in anything that would cause fluid emission.
WW: What forms of sex work were you doing before the COVID-19 pandemic started?
AJ: Stripping, some low-level domination, and I had just started out with sugaring clientele, which is a format of full-service sex work.
WW: How has the pandemic specifically affected you as a sex worker?
AJ: I haven’t had any work since March 16. My work is all contact work. A pandemic with a transmittal virus means that all-contact sex work isn’t allowed, and so it’s moved completely online. If I wanted to still make money doing sex work, that would be how I would do it, which requires an insane level of resources to even start that career. On top of that, creating clientele [on] that [platform] is really difficult.
WW: The U.S. government is excluding sex workers from the small business bailout bill. How will this affect sex workers?
AJ: Most sex workers are their own business. In the same way that I joke with people about having to work on my body and everything that I put [on] and use to create my body, the way that it is, my body is my job. Sex workers are a huge part of small businesses. Most sex workers are not just — not that it’s a bad thing to just be doing sex work — but a lot of them are using it as a jumping off place for their future careers. A lot of people are using it to build businesses.
I know so many sex workers who have businesses that they are very legitimately supporting through sex work and/or are sex work-style businesses. Excluding people for their apparent sexual nature is puritanical and completely ridiculous. They’re also excluding people who sell sex toys — on the lowest level of what can be considered sexual labor. They’re doing this broad sweep based on what they think is allowed, not what the need is.
WW: What demands would you like to raise? What aid do sex workers need right now?
AJ: Oh my God. Give hookers money. Give hookers money. Find a way to put them inside. Give full-service street-level workers so much support right now. A ton of other workers: Yes, we lost our jobs. Yes, we lost our income. A lot of people are hurting, and it’s hard to pick who’s hurting the most, but it’s street-level workers. Get them help. They don’t have the ability to just take time off, and they just got hit by FOSTA/SESTA laws that shoved a lot of inside workers outside too. It changed the market. They don’t have an inside. A lot of full-service sex workers are homeless. [Many] are trans. They are very, very marginalized people who don’t have access to care and protection and to six feet of distance and nonfluid exchange. They were already hurting to begin with. We should be supporting hookers full-stop.
Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA (SWOP) is the easiest way to get in contact with sex workers in need. They’re giving cash directly to full-service sex workers right now. There’s a chapter in almost every major city, and there’s quite a few in minor cities. A lot of them also do harm reduction. They’re a good place [to give] monetary support. You can also get in contact with them and see if you can distribute supplies, or you can offer and donate supplies like food, baby wipes, shoes, clothing [and] condoms.
Lobby your senators. I’ve literally heard no non-sex workers talk about the EARN IT Act. Have you heard about that?
WW: I haven’t.
AJ: Ooo! Spicy! So, during the pandemic, the government is trying to push through a bill that would take away end-to-end encryption in text messages and emails, which means that they can read [everything]. Go sign the petition against it. (tinyurl.com/tkp7b5t) The only people I see talking about it are sex workers, because sex workers are going to get thrown in jail the second that comes into order. The rest of you are probably going to get your nudes seen by FBI Joe, but sex workers are going to die. That’s going on right now, while we’re all losing our jobs and have no way of contacting people. Lobby your senators.
Also, self-educate. There’s so much information out there. You have access to a lot of information about sex workers, and I think the only people whom I see educating and really trying with these issues are sex workers, because we’re the ones it’s going to affect. But we’re the voice that’s not being listened to anyway. They don’t [care] about us.
WW: Are there any other issues you would like to address in this interview?
AJ: I see a lot of people taking information [from] and co-opting sex work styles and stuff and language and using the voices of sex workers and the information of sex workers and the art of sex workers, and literally everything that sex workers do — because it’s a huge group of people — to profit from that pain and that misery and all that sex workers have to go through. They just put it out in these think pieces that are like, “Oh, think about the sex workers.” And it doesn’t actually happen and the only people that are getting paid are the people who wrote the piece. I see a lot of that.
I see a lot of people who tokenize sex workers. All work is part of capitalist exploitation. Sex work is no different. We’re not campaigning to be seen as better than other workers. We’re campaigning to just be seen as human and to be able to get workers’ rights, a union and some level of protection. That’s it. It’s not that huge of a difference [from other workers]. Like, if you’re going to lobby for McDonald’s workers, lobby for sex workers too. You can do both.
WW: James has also requested that funds be sent to their CashApp account ($lunchmunny) as well as to the CashApp of one of their sex worker members ($dreadedjinx). They are distributing funds sent to these CashApp accounts to sex workers in need. Anyone who sends funds to these accounts must specify in a note whether it is for distribution or for the owner of the CashApp account. Please also be respectful and do not leave any sexual notes.