At PINKO, we’re conducting a series of interviews with essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic titled Essential Workers' Inquiry.
This is part of a set of interviews conducted by Elio Beale for PINKO in the United Kingdom. We invited Elio to speak with their friends and comrades about their work post-COVID because of their involvement with the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM)’s Hardship Fund. Elio has shared with us conversations about sex work and care work, about work which has not been classified as essential but has been in some cases interrupted and in others intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. This first interview in the set is with River, who shares their experience of work that cannot be done from home, mental health in the pandemic, and the importance of ad hoc funds like SWARM’s for workers whose labor is not recognized by the state or, as is often the case, is criminalized. River also invites our readers to check out Johanna Hedva’s Sick Woman Theory as some social distance reading.
Elio: Hi River! How are you? What are you doing right now?
River: I’m alright, I’m just lying in bed, where I spend most of my time.
E: Work life and personal life?
R: Exactly! (lol)
E: When was the last time you were able to do sex work?
R: The last time I saw a client in person was St Patrick’s Day. I remember it because he was around fifty and he had plans to go into Central London to celebrate that night. It was around the time my household were starting to self isolate and shit was getting real so I was kind of shocked.
E: Shocked he was going out to celebrate?
R: Yeah because at that point, it seemed like people over forty were at a greater risk so being in a big crowd seemed really risky. I had felt incredibly tense on the hour long tube journey just to see him. I try not to judge people too much but it’s just obscene seeing how careless clients can be when you’re aware of their wealth and the other people they put at risk (their wives etc)
E: That was before we had the lockdown in the UK. It was such a weird time where a lot of people I knew personally were really worried about the situation and were starting to take really careful measures, but then the general public just seemed to not give a fuck. So many sex workers were like "is it irresponsible to keep working? I don't know what to do." and clients were just like "u avail?"
R: Yes it was a weird time and the conversations on client facing Twitter or our marketing essentially really stressed me out. The main thing for me was I can’t really keep working because my work place was disappearing.
E: In what sense was your workplace disappearing?
R: I live with six other people, I can’t see clients at home. Otherwise I work in hotels and depend on staying around areas where there are a lot of offices. People come and see me on their lunch break or after work. If people are working at home then obviously this doesn't work. I was getting less and less inquiries and also unsure of how to protect myself.
E: Yeah the "work from home" advice doesn't really work for people who are reliant on going to a separate location in order to work. Often that is the people doing reproductive labour too: cleaning, sex work, looking after other people's kids.
R: For sure. I like the work/home split too because it allows me to hide how bad my living space is and how bad I am at taking care of myself. It feels like a divide that is very pronounced or I’ve become self conscious about, like who is professional and skilled enough to work from home?
E: I was thinking about this because I see you talk a lot about the work of caring for yourself/oneself and caring your your mental health - I wonder how this work is shaped by sex work for you? Both in those times when sex work is present cos you are able to work, and times like now when it is absent because of the pandemic. Tho maybe absent isn't the right word because in some ways it is even more looming now cos of what work represents in terms of survival.
R: Good question! So yeah my mental health is very debilitating but also I experience a lot of chronic pain in situations when I’ve had to work full time (being a barista, a bartender, a carer). Pre pandemic I would like siphon off the days that I work and make things as easy as possible for myself by relying on conveniences and other people’s labour a lot of the time e.g. getting a taxi to a hotel or outcall, getting pre-prepared food. When I’m doing sex work I guess I’m also engaged in a lot of gender work, working as a cis woman and trying to present differently to how I do otherwise so that also involves a kind of preparing myself in a different way.
E: Gender work!
R: I also think I compartmentalise a lot, I’ve realised how much I compartmentalise stuff at work because of how much I feel it now and how much more intense it is to deal with the extent of my dysphoria and constantly thinking about my body through someone else’s eyes. I’m incredibly lucky because I don’t have dependents and I don’t have another job. So I guess my time and head is more filled with ruminating on this stuff. Sorry this is pretty off topic with what you said about care but I guess trying to be attentive to those things. Both pre-pandemic and now I spend most of my time being bed-bound basically because of depression. So I think the mental remove has allowed for a different kind of attentiveness. Plus an attentiveness to how much effort I was also putting into my work online, branding and marketing, tweeting constantly which could become very dysphoric and emotionally draining
E: I think it is something that a lot of people don't realise is a consequence of doing sex work—how static your appearance has to be because your livelihood depends on it and how this impacts on gender expression. Obviously this is true for trans people in general in terms of going into a workplace, but there is something so blatant about it with sex work because of the specific gender performances that are often expected that I think really illuminates it.
R: Oh for sure, in a sense I feel lucky that I already look fairly ‘alternative’ (yuck) so it’s something I have wiggle room with. But have heard from so many people who want to get piercings or change their hair a little or you know maybe even gain weight and not self monitor their bodies so much but they can’t. And of course so many people put transition on hold because of it too. I haven’t continued to work online really or do camming etc but I think theres also a massive element of class drag for a lot of people in that which must be so fucking exhausting if you’re trying to create content at home.
E: Absolutely, it's kind of what you say about the work/home divide. It can be useful for having boundaries for ourselves in managing how we think about work, but also home is a place to hide. Maybe sometimes to hide ourselves because we feel shame or a place to hide ourselves because it doesn't match with a work persona. And I definitely feel like this pandemic in a lot of ways has been tearing down those boundaries we use to hide - even just with people sharing way more online, or everyone on instagram doing way more talk to camera videos of their daily lives.
R: We are all so online.
E: Yeah and forced in our work to do it by camming or creating work content, and in our personal lives to do it just to be connected to others. Everything starts to blur. Okay last question!
R: Sure :-)
E: You said the other day on twitter: "blow jobs are real jobs and i want to get back to work" - tell me the thinking behind this?
R: Omg so, ahahaha, I feel this answer will be so bad: I’m honestly just really horny and there are a lot of things I hate about sex work, there are a lot of times I hate sucking dick. But honestly, I love it sometimes. There’s just a lot of sexual energy there. I also miss holding stacks of cash. It gives me a feeling of safety that I can be self-sufficient and that I might be able to move or go anywhere. I also miss sometimes feeling like a spy getting access into the weird ridiculous lives these guys lead.
E: Sounds like you're saying miss intimacy and independence?
R: Yeah even the strange performative kind of creepy intimacy at work.
E: I feel like a lot of people can relate to that right now.