Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
For 28 glorious hours this week, Solana Sparks thought she could get a COVID-19 vaccine. That's because a public health official in King County, which includes the city of Seattle, told her that Washington state would soon begin prioritizing sex workers for vaccination.
But about a day after Sparks tweeted out the good news, she said she was told the whole thing had been a “misunderstanding.”
Sex workers were not, in fact, in line to get vaccinated.
“Overwhelmingly, our clients don’t want to wear masks, and they don’t want us to wear masks,” Sparks, who’s a full-service sex worker, told VICE News. “I have clients who are older and I’m really worried about them.”
Had Washington followed through, it likely would’ve been the first state to prioritize vaccinating people in the sex work industry, which encompasses a broad range of occupations with varying degrees of in-person contact and legality. With coronavirus vaccines in such short supply, deciding who gets first dibs is a deeply complex process that invokes questions of ethics, public health, and political acceptability.
But many sex workers have been economically ravaged by the coronavirus and driven to work in-person, sometimes without adequate PPE. Public health professionals say that they should not be forgotten in the vaccine rollout.
“The public health risk is clear. I’m sure that public health officials see the risk plainly, but indeed, there is a clash with the law,” said Joanne Csete, an associate professor of population and family health at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “If we’re talking about a livelihood that inherently puts them at a health risk, at an infectious disease risk, then we should do what we can do to protect them.”
Maintaining her livelihood is exactly what Sparks is worried about.
“I really need to make it, and so does my partner. Two Latina, queer femmes is not necessarily a recipe for economic stability in American society,” Sparks said. “I think that the worst thing was that 28 hours of hope. I was bold enough to believe and that hurt. That really cracked me open pretty wide.”
A spokesperson for Seattle and King County told VICE News in an email that, after Sparks reached out about the possibility of vaccinating sex workers, the Washington State Department of Health told the agency “in good faith” that sex workers would be prioritized for vaccination. But after Sparks tweeted, the state’s health department reached out to say that was wrong.
“We followed up with the community member and shared what had happened, and the correct guidance,” the spokesperson said.
“Overwhelmingly, our clients don’t want to wear masks, and they don’t want us to wear masks.”
An official with the Washington State Health Department confirmed to VICE News that sex workers are not currently set to be prioritized for vaccination in the state. But the department’s own guidance about vaccine prioritization—put together after feedback with from thousands of people—describes sex workers as facing “increased risk” for COVID-19.
“Sex workers are at risk when seeing clients, which disproportionately impacts queer and trans Black, Indigenous, and other people of color,” the document declares.
“While that feedback has helped inform our prioritization decisions, it does not reflect who is eligible for the vaccine in any specific phase,” Franji Mayes, a spokesperson for the department, said in an email.
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic immediately torpedoed sex work, like all other industries that rely on in-person interactions. But unlike many of those industries, people in the sex trade—both in legal and less-so jobs—were largely unable to get financial help from the government.
Some sex workers who’d paid taxes as independent contractors can be eligible for unemployment, but that still leaves out wide swathes of people. The government has also largely blocked people who work on the legal side of the sex trade from applying for coronavirus relief loans from the Small Business Administration, which were a key part of last year’s COVID-19 aid package. Applicants for those loans must testify that they don’t “present live performances of a prurient sexual nature” or make too much money from “the sale of products or services, or the presentation of any depictions or displays, of a prurient sexual nature.”
Some sex workers migrated to online platforms that remain friendly to their profession, like OnlyFans. But that was exorbitant and not particularly lucrative for many, according toKate D’Adamo, a sex worker organizer with Reframe Health and Justice Consulting.
“Sex workers have been cut out of a lot of benefits and are not able to make ends meet and so are going back to sex work,” D’Adamo said. “While we’re facing these constraints, we have to be serious about the people who are high-risk and who are put at the highest risk. That includes sex workers, who do not have the option to mitigate a lot of the risks.”
In the early days of the pandemic, during the first shutdown in the spring, researchers led by the University of Illinois, Chicago surveyed 21 sex workers in their city. Nearly all said that they’d lost earnings due to the pandemic; about half said they’d continued to see clients in person.
“Well, now that COVID is here, all of my regulars have vanished, so I have been forced to see a lot of new people, potentially exposing me,” one study participant said. Another told researchers, “I am concerned that, you know, every time I go out and see a client, I don't know where they've been. I don't know what they've been doing, and they could lie to me.”
“Nobody acknowledged wearing PPE while doing sex work,” wrote the researchers, who called for the government to do more to protect sex workers’ safety and security in the pandemic. “Although largely neglected in current COVID-19 risk reduction efforts, it is well established that the health and well-being of sex workers is inextricably linked to the health and well-being of their clients and to the broader public.”
The coronavirus exploded at an already perilous time for many people in the industry. Selling sex is often called the world’s oldest profession, implying that the business can survive any crisis. But over the last few years, many U.S. sex workers’ livelihoods have taken some near-lethal blows.
In 2018, Congress passed SESTA-FOSTA, a law intended to curb illegal sex trafficking by holding digital platforms responsible if people post ads for prostitution, including for consensual sex work. Craigslist and Reddit kicked sex workers off their platforms. Around the same time, over separate criminal charges, law enforcement agencies seized Backpage and it shut down.
The deplatforming was a gut punch to sex workers, who relied on online forums to find and vet clients as well as share “bad date” lists, which warn other sex workers against dangerous clients. Globally, sex workers face a 45 to 75 percent of violence, a 2014 study found. A 2018 nationwide survey of 262 sex workers in the U.S. reported that 60 percent said they’d been forced to “take on less safe clients, to make ends meet” in the wake of Backpage’s demise and SESTA-FOSTA.
After her tweet this week, Solana said she was barraged with online harassment. She now plans to do even more “serious screening” before meeting with any new client, for fear that it may be someone who has a grudge.
But she’s not giving up on getting the government to recognize that sex workers have legitimate public health concerns and that their work should be decriminalized. On Thursday, Sparks spoke with health department officials to push for her vision.
“The systems that operate in our society have roots in white supremacy and patriarchy, and I never expect them to let me in,” she said. “I think the best that we can do, the best my ancestors could do, the best that my community of sex workers can do, is try to get the most information we can and try to keep ourselves safe.”
“We now need the backing of vaccination departments to be able to protect ourselves from COVID and gain more bargaining power in our work,” Sparks added in an email. “We have to take what we can get right now—and work maskless—because we don’t have any labor protections or public health backing.”