Clients will often ghost if a sex worker talks about wearing a mask.
Clients will often ghost if a sex worker talks about wearing a mask. WIN-Initiative

Solana Sparks, a Seattle-area sex worker, is still working in-person during the pandemic. She's tried to implement her own COVID protocols into her work, such as taking a COVID test every other week and asking clients to sanitize or shower before she gets down to business, but those precautions amount to "stop-gap measures" when she's exchanging "saliva and other bodily fluids," she said.

Plus, most clients disappear on her when she asks about masking up, so she usually works maskless.

"I don’t know if there’s any higher-risk worker," Sparks said. "If people aren’t going to see us unless we don't wear masks we have no other choice."

Given the risk, Sparks decided she'd try to lobby Public Health Seattle & King County (PHSKC) to prioritize vaccines for sex workers.

For a moment last week, her attempt seemed to work. According to Sparks, a vaccine coordinator at PHSKC told her that sex workers would be eligible in 1B Tier 2 of vaccine distribution. Her tweet blew up. Sex workers across the country—many still working in-person and unmasked—filled the replies with questions about how they, too, could receive the vaccine.

Of course, the outrage followed soon after. Exhibit A.

A day later the news turned.

Sex workers wouldn't receive vaccine priority after all. In a statement, PHSKC spokesperson James Apa said that Sparks's tweets were "based on a misunderstanding," and that "our staff provided information that we received that was in error."

Even then, Sparks said she wasn't surprised. "For a city that passed a head tax and then recoiled," Sparks said, "This tracks."

But she was frustrated, because she saw vaccinations for sex workers as a way to "really bolster a harm reduction approach to COVID-19," she said.

Troubling COVID-19 realities are the same across the sex industry, which has only grown during the economic downturn of the pandemic. Continuing to work became a matter of survival, especially for sex workers who couldn't access stimulus checks, or strippers hung out to dry by strip clubs that the government excluded from PPE loans for puritanical reasons.

While online sex work options exist, anti-trafficking legislation passed in 2018 shut down popular internet sites, driving more people onto the street. And, while OnlyFans is super popular, the market is saturated, and successfully marketing a page takes a ton of labor, a job that's exponentially harder when Instagram and Twitter ban-hammers keep slamming down on sex workers. The people who couldn't make online sex work happen turned to in-person, full-service sex work.

The sex industry is constantly shifting and adapting thanks to these kinds of regulatory changes, and every time those changes happen "you’re not seeing a wide swath of people leaving," Kate D'Ademo, a partner with Reframe Health and Justice Consulting, said, "you're seeing a wide swath of people moving into new areas they have less familiarity with."

D'Ademo's group works to connect sex workers with information and resources, work that became critical—and way harder—during the pandemic. In-person outreach nosedived during COVID, which made it harder to connect with sex workers, especially the new people joining the industry due to dire circumstances.

"All of that is making getting safety information to people really difficult," D'Ademo said.

Public health agencies stress harm-reduction strategies such as wearing a mask, but D'Ademo said sex workers are constantly doing risk analyses like, "If I take this client, he's going to pay me double not to wear a mask, and that's better than exposing myself to two clients."

"Access to the vaccine would mean they don’t have to make those life or death calculations," she added.

Sparks was disheartened by the way her conversations with PHSKC played out, but she said she is still hopeful. "I think this is the next step for King County to put itself on the map as a leader in equity and a leader in health."

PHSKC's actions are tied to whatever the Washington Department of Health's guidelines are. Currently, the DOH considers sex workers a population "at greater risk" of contracting COVID-19, but they aren't eligible for the vaccine in a specific phase.