The COVID-19 Pandemic has changed the way in which the world operates. While we are still grappling with the effects the pandemic has had on those who are sold for sex, we know the inequalities at the heart of commercial sexual exploitation have only been intensified by this public health crisis. We are publishing a series of articles aimed at providing a glimpse into how COVID-19 is impacting various areas of the commercial sex trade. We hope this series is informative and will inspire our readers to continue advocating for those who are commercially sexually exploited, especially during this trying time.
As economic vulnerabilities increase across the country, prostituted people are feeling the brunt of exacerbated circumstances that place them in even greater danger. Those in the commercial sex trade are finding themselves in increasingly perilous economic situations unlikely to improve anytime soon. Survivors often have “little to no savings to fall back on” – either as the result of their trafficking, abusers, or marginalization. With estimates that the federal unemployment rate will rise to 20%, marginalized people already struggling with financial instability will suffer more in a national recession than most. The economic impact of COVID-19 is inflaming circumstances that will both further victimize people being trafficked, and likely increase trafficking as well.
With economic hardships mounting, new vulnerabilities could allow avenues for traffickers to gain greater control over prostituted people. In times of poverty, “traffickers specifically target poor and marginalized communities to offer vulnerable individuals false opportunities to improve their circumstances.” For people who are having severe economic hardships, lack stable housing, or suffer from substance use disorder, social distancing practices can place them at greater risk of being victimized by traffickers who can entice them with these much needed resources during a global crisis. Financial issues and massive unemployment create circumstances that allow traffickers greater opportunities to victimize these marginalized groups.
Further, traffickers and sex buyers now have greater opportunities to victimize prostituted people. During the midst of a global emergency, sex buyers are “using the virus as leverage,” making claims like, “I’m already taking a risk seeing you. So why should I use a condom?” Brothels near Las Vegas have begun requesting that sex buyers wear masks, but reports state that those who sell sex are not, likely at the bequest of brothel-owners who do not want to scare off customers. There are concerns that prostituted people “will be more vulnerable to exploitation, as health hazards and exposure to COVID-19 increase.” There are also growing fears that persons still interested in buying sex, despite the serious health risks, may be dangerous as they are so willing to violate social norms. While traffickers and buyers continue to grow their “industry” for commercial sex, survivors will face the greatest risks as they become more vulnerable to this treatment while the pandemic wages on.
The global public health crisis will impact both a survivor’s personal finances and health. Victims of human trafficking are “more exposed to contracting the virus, less equipped to prevent it, and have less access to healthcare to ensure their recovery.” Marginalized populations – including prostituted persons and survivors of sex trafficking – often lack health insurance or access to safe and reliable medical treatment. Victims, whose life and finances may be controlled by their traffickers and pimps, will bear the burden of contracting coronavirus as they are “less likely to seek care for early symptoms of COVID-19, at high-risk of contracting the disease,” and could unintentionally and unwillingly facilitate its spread through whole populations. While survivors already struggle for financial stability these past few months, the current crisis in accessing reliable healthcare will exacerbate existing economic hardships.
There are numerous reasons persons may enter or be forced into the sex trade. Running through those reasons is the thread of vulnerability and marginalization. While the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting all of us, it is going to push the vulnerabilities of marginalized individuals to near breaking points. We implore the public to spread awareness about the increased dangers faced by those who are commercially sexually exploited and consider making donations to organizations assisting victims and survivors. This is no time to be complacent. If we work together, we will get through this.