Tamika Spellman
Tamika Spellman Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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As coronavirus shutters restaurants and forces non-essential employees to work from home, local advocacy groups are scrambling to raise funds for another group that has been put out of work during the pandemic: the District’s sex workers. 

No Justice No Pride, HIPS, and other members of the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition launched a GoFundMe on March 18 with the goal of raising $27,000 to fund housing, hygiene supplies, transportation, and other needs. As of April 3, the fund has raised $18,000.

Organizers say that sex workers not only face increased risks of contracting the virus, but also suffering financially during social distancing practices.

“Transmission has most been documented by individuals who are traveling, sex workers often work out of motels and we are concerned about potential crossover,” the organizers wrote on the GoFundMe page. 

Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a stay-at-home order on March 30, effective from April 1 through at least April 24, directing D.C. residents to remain home except for essential activities. Late last month, Congress passed an emergency stimulus package that will give many Americans a $1,200 check in the coming weeks. 

But not everyone. 

“Sex workers aren’t on the receiving end of that,” says Emmelia Ruiz Talarico, an organizer with NJNP and an organizer of the GoFundMe. 

Tamika Spellman, a policy and advocacy associate with HIPS, echoes that sentiment. Since sex workers work in an informal economy, many won’t be eligible for the checks, she says. Others, she says, may be undocumented and will also not receive checks. Spellman was among a coalition of sex workers and their advocates who last year called for the passage of a bill to descriminalize sex work in the District; the bill ultimately failed. 

“Do you see the D.C. government offering anything to sex workers?” she asks. “Has the federal government? That’s where we come in as a community to provide the necessary experience.”

Groups like HIPS and NJNP are using the fundraiser to fill one of the most urgent needs faced by the District’s sex workers: housing. 

“We do not need to add anymore people to the homeless world,” Spellman says. 

A 2015 DC Trans Needs Assessment Survey by the DC Trans Coalition, which had over 500 trans respondents in the District, found that over 35 percent reported engaging in sex work at the time, with a majority of respondents identifying as trans women of color. Twenty percent of respondents reported experiencing homelessness.

Kimberlee Seay, who works with NJNP, knows how unstable housing can be for sex workers in D.C. She was in sex work for a decade herself, starting from the age of 20. She is now 31 and works closely with NJNP to provide insight and resources to the younger generation of trans black and brown sex workers in D.C. 

“In my situation, I was living in hotels,” she says, “really surviving from couch to couch. People need a place, a home, during a pandemic.”

Ruiz Talarico says the funding coming from the GoFundMe will help sex workers recover lost income, but also help get them into safe locations to quarantine or practice social distancing. NJNP currently operates three safe houses as part of its collective housing network for black and brown trans sex workers and former sex workers, including one where Spellman lives as a house monitor. The network was created after the passage of two 2018 federal bills: SETSA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act), which shut down websites many sex workers used to find clients and negotiate rates and pushed many to find work on the streets. 

Funding can also be used to help people get motel rooms or remain in motels they’re currently isolating in to prevent the spread of the virus. Spellman says she is encouraging women living in motels to negotiate down the rate of the rooms. “There’s a regional shelter-in-place order,” she says. “Where are they going to go?”

NJNP is directing the funding from the GoFundMe into a D.C. Mutual Aid Network. Sex workers in need of financial assistance can contact the group with a request, whether it’s for an emergency microgrants, paying for a motel room, or buying cleaning and personal hygiene supplies. According to the group, requests of up to $600 can be made, although not all requests above $250 are guaranteed. Funds will be processed within 72 hours.

The advocates say helping sex workers safely isolate and quarantine, as well as pause work, is essential in keeping the community healthy, particularly since many face certain risks. 

“Trans sex workers often face a lot of harassment,” Ruiz Talarico says, adding that some of this harassment can come from police. Meanwhile, some trans sex workers may be reluctant to visit the hospital due to hostility they and others have encountered in those facilities. 

A 2017 study published in Transgender Health found that many trans and non-binary patients in U.S. emergency departments reported negative experiences, mainly stemming from a lack of sensitivity from doctors. 

Not only that, but Ruiz Talarico notes that members of the trans community, particularly sex workers, may not always have a primary care doctor to call with questions. Others may be HIV+ — further putting them at risk of serious illness or death if they contract the virus. 

Education also plays a big role, as organizers including Spellman, Ruiz Talarico and Seay try to keep community members updated on the risks of coronavirus. 

Seay says the pandemic has been a topic of concern in every one of her recent conversations with younger trans sex workers.

“We just gotta take precaution with what we do, who we be around,” she says. “Make sure we have supplies for the girls—wipes and sprays to keep them safe.”

For Spellman, who has asthma and a heart condition, ensuring the women in the safe house she lives in are aware of the risks is paramount. “No one is really doing any sex work. They’re scared,” she says. “They’re also taking into consideration my needs as well.”

She says putting extra money in someone’s pocket can help them take a break from engaging in sex worker that may put themselves or others at risk of contracting the virus. 

Ruiz Talarico agrees, adding that some women have been able to use the funding to instead take part in local mutual aid work, including making hand sanitizers or helping with emergency coronavirus hotlines. She also says organizers are focused on what’s next: trying to help some sex workers use subscriber-faced online apps or websites to continue work, such as OnlyFans or Patreon. 

But challenges exist there as well. “It’s a whole new way of working,” Ruiz Talarico says. “In the past, you’d spend 50 percent of your time marketing. Now, you’re spending 90 percent of your time marketing.” She says organizers are recruiting volunteers to help make accounts. 

As for the speed at which funds were raised and help became available, she credits the power of D.C.’s grassroots campaigns and mutual aid network. 

“Everyone is in crisis mode,” she says. 

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