Online sex work in the age of COVID

On the endless possibilities and risks of moving sex work online during a global pandemic.

Art by Janina Osinsao.

“The money was easy, the risk seemed low and my clients were always respectful, but I would never have trusted any of them,” Sarah, a university student in Sydney, told me during a conversation about her ‘lockdown’ job. She lost her casual job in retail during the COVID-19 lockdown. Having worked less than 12 months with her employer meant she was ineligible for the Federal Government’s JobKeeper payment. She started doing online strip services as a means of generating an income during lockdown. 

“I had done some sugaring before, but I wouldn’t have met up with anyone during lockdown. It would have been too risky meeting people face to face in the midst of the virus in Sydney,” she said. 

When lockdown hit Australia this year, our workplaces changed overnight. The once bustling Sydney CBD turned into a sleepy village. Many people began blurring the boundaries between work and home life, disguising bedrooms as home offices. Others relied on the JobKeeper payments. Yet many casual workers fell through the cracks and faced the frightening task of generating their own income as a means of survival. 

For women in particular, sex and pleasure – an always precious and popular commodity – became an empowering, yet risky means of supporting themselves.

“I’ve had sugar daddies before the lockdown,” Sarah tells me. “The first man was in his early fifties. Before we met, he gave me a list of cars and asked which one I would like to be picked up in. I chose the Bentley,” she laughs. “When we went into lockdown, I wasn’t in a paid arrangement, but I knew this would be an easy way to maintain an income. I reactivated my account on Seeking.com. But COVID made the reality of sugaring hard. I wasn’t going to meet new people out so turning to online strip teasers was a safer option, in terms of complying with the lockdown restrictions.”

Like many industries facing the lockdown, the sex and pleasure industry was fraught with new challenges. Unlike other traditional industries however, sex workers were already frighteningly vulnerable. The pandemic revealed major flaws in the legal system’s ability to protect those engaging with the sex work industry – for both clients and providers. 

Although sex work is decriminalised in NSW, there remain legal grey areas as how best to protect sex workers. With a rapid increase in both the amount of sex work being performed in online spaces and the amount of people who turned to unqualified modes of providing ‘adult’ services through an online forum such as Skype and Reddit, the law continues to remain silent. 

In a physical ‘brothel’ setting, regulated by the local council, sex work services in NSW are legal. For those engaging in online services however, the law remains ambiguous. In the first instance, whether online strip teases or Skype calls can be constituted as ‘sex work’ within a legal definition remains unknown. Whether an online brothel can constitute a “setting” capable of being regulated by the local council raises questions as to the validity of sex work being performed in an online space. From here, the questions are endless; can I advertise sexual services online, despite advertising in newspapers being a (rarely prosecuted) crime? If my client is interstate or overseas, what jurisdiction is capable of prosecuting a crime or protecting my interests? If I get hurt, am I entitled to workers compensation? And what responsibilities do websites such as Seeking.com and Reddit have when it comes to protecting my interests? 

The answers remain unclear, though it would be reasonable to assume that online service providers have excluded all liability for any harm suffered by parties engaging in paid arrangements. 

I asked Sarah about her fears of taking part in online ‘pleasure’ services. “I suppose I was scared I would not receive the payment. I know there’s no one you can go to if you get hurt or if they steal from you. Unless you have a pimp,” she jokes. 

In contrasting her pre-COVID sugar daddy work with the online strip services she provided in lockdown, Sarah said the latter was far less demanding, yet not without newfound risks. “The physical element isn’t there but yeah – there is a fear of someone taking a screenshot,” she relays. “I didn’t really think about it until you mentioned it. But yeah I guess someone could run off with an image of you and there’s not a lot you could do about it.” 

The pandemic exposed both the financial benefits and work-life flexibility open to sex workers. Whether the perks of the industry outway the risks comes down to a matter of personal opinion and privilege. The shift to online services opens the door to many people, but closes it to more still. For those without devices and the internet, the industry is falling out of arm’s reach. Yet despite the change in the demographic engaging in the industry and indeed, the way in which the work operates online, it remains clear that the law fails our sex work industry on every level, leaving the most vulnerable to fend for themselves. 

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