Armed with condoms and disposable thermometers, the outreach workers ventured out to streets in South Los Angeles notorious for sex trade activity.
They expected that some women would still be working on this chilly Friday night in early April. But what they saw caught them off guard.
Two weeks into the mandated stay-at-home orders deed to curb the coronavirus pandemic, not only were sex workers out in pre-quarantine s — the johns were, too. The pandemic is devastating the global economy, and it has not spared sex workers. Strippers, escorts and porn performers are experiencing financial hardships, and many have turned to webcam sites or relief funds to scrape by.
But for those selling sex on the streets, by far the most vulnerable population in the industry, there are fewer options.
Many have to work to survive during the pandemic, and they are finding that some customers are still seeking them out, apparently willing to share the risk. Many of those selling sex on the streets tell advocates they have little to no choice but to continue doing high-risk work that has only become more fraught during this health crisis. But even in those cases, many are held captive by forces including discrimination, abject poverty and the need to provide for their families. Many street sex workers lack high school diplomas, are undocumented, have extensive criminal records and are victims of abuse, according to advocates.
Housing vouchers, food stamps, Medicaid, or other forms of welfare are also hard to come by for anyone earning income from sex work. And they are often ostracized by or isolated from resources like family, church and other community organizations. With almost nowhere to turn, they face grim options: Work the streets or starve.
Work the streets or face the wrath of pimps or traffickers. The [coronavirus] is just another danger added to the pot.
Some of the johns who continue to solicit services amid the pandemic have taken advantage of the situation, demanding that they pay less money and seeking riskier services, according to advocates. One young woman got into a car with a man wearing a mask and gloves.
He insisted she sanitize her hands before touching him, said Grant.
Grant holds daily Zoom meetings with about a dozen women who work on the streets. Although demand for street prostitution may eventually decrease as more people experience job losses and reduced wages, pimps may cut prices to stimulate demand, just like an airline or restaurant might, said Siddharth Kara, an expert on human trafficking and a visiting scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health. Sex workers say they were already facing more dangerous conditions after laws were passed in that made it illegal to advertise sex work online, according to advocates.
Before, sex workers say, they could screen potential clients on sites like Back, which was shut down after being linked to the sex trafficking of underage girls. Though the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act were billed as a way to protect sex workers, the new restrictions have effectively pushed more of them onto the streets, according to some advocates.
Another concerning pattern also emerged: More workers returned to abusive or exploitative managers to survive. Advocates say that pandemic-related job losses also are driving former sex workers back to the streets.
Harmony Grillo, the executive director of Treasures, an outreach and support organization for those in the sex industry, noted that some of the women she worked with had done just that as the income they made through the gig economy and service jobs evaporated.
Advocates worry that, as economic conditions worsentraffickers will force their victims to work more hours and cajole them into riskier behavior. With the help of Treasures, women who feel particularly susceptible to the pull of sex work have created their own online ability group, checking in on a daily basis to encourage one another to stay strong in the face of mounting uncertainty.
And being confined and isolated in their homes has revived memories of the conditions they experienced while under the control of pimps.
The flashbacks have prompted nightmares and panic attacks. The department does not have specific plans to address the issue, according to Capt. Johns in San Francisco have mostly stayed away from the strolls in the Mission District and the Tenderloin, said Celestina Pearl, outreach manager at St. James Infirmary, which provides clinical and social services to sex workers in the Bay Area.
James Infirmary surveys street workers to gauge their needs at any given time.
Before the pandemic, many asked for pepper spray, Pearl said. But now they just need cash and supplies, like hygiene products and condoms. In Los Angeles, many need housing. Jazzmun Crayton, senior manager of strategic partnerships with the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team, has spent the past few weeks finding beds for unhoused sex workers.
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Times Store. Facebook Twitter Show more sharing options Share Close extra sharing options. Figueroa Street in South Los Angeles, an area where the highest of prostitution-related arrests in the city are made.
By Laura Newberry Staff Writer. Stephany Powell is the executive director of Journey Out, a local organization that helps victims of sex trafficking.
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