In the months leading up to the pandemic, an extensive study of the sex work industry was executed in New Zealand. Focusing on MYANGELS, an online marketplace for sex work, we analysed the profiles of over 500 sex workers to understand the industry and how it operates online.
The total number of sex workers in New Zealand in 2020 is estimated to be over 3,000, so our sample is a significant (though not necessarily representative) part of the industry. These findings, and subsequent follow-up work undertaken, provide some valuable insights into the shape of the sex industry in New Zealand, and some of the changes and challenges experienced by sex workers during the pandemic.
One of the key findings of the recent study was that over half of the female sex workers in our cohort were not native. The majority of these non-New Zealand workers were identified as being from Asian countries (followed by Western Europeans, but this is a much smaller proportion). Many come to New Zealand to work for a few weeks and then return to their home countries where they have families and dependants to support. Sex work is their main source of income.
We found that Asian workers in New Zealand charge 30% less than their European counterparts, even though their material is seen by more people on average. The lower fees are thought to be due to the fact that they feel less secure in their work and they need the low income to attract clients to pay for hotels, flights etc.
These workers are often the ones who provide the riskier services, such as unprotected sex or extreme BDSM (bondage, domination and submission/abuse). In many ways, they may also be the workers most challenged by the epidemic.
We have heard a lot about how the pandemic has made it very difficult for industries that bring people together, such as bars, restaurants and airlines. Sex work has also been severely challenged because in New Zealand and elsewhere, people were not allowed to physically interact outside their homes for much of the pandemic.
Unlike most other industries, many sex workers were not eligible for government support during the crisis. As many did not have taxable income records, they were unable to benefit from income support schemes for the self-employed. This is even more likely for many sex workers whose primary residence is abroad.
Factors such as clients' health issues and limited mobility reduce the demand for sex services during a pandemic. The report also notes that many sex workers have turned to providing their services online. However, this does not mean that there is no in-person sex work, as we found in the follow-up study.
Sex work is a type of work that never ceases to be in demand and in supply, both during war and famine, so it would be naive to think otherwise in the context of a pandemic. Indeed, the economic pressures caused by the pandemic have reportedly brought former sex workers back into the industry, with many newcomers joining the profession.
If business levels remain fairly stable in a market where supply is likely to increase, this means that sex work becomes more competitive during a pandemic - even more so for vulnerable workers at the 'lower' end of the market. A more competitive market may mean that workers either lower their prices or take greater risks with the services they provide, or both. My initial analysis suggests that the gap between the highest and lowest prices has increased during the pandemic.
In addition, in-person sex work is effectively illegal when meeting someone outside the home (sex work is usually legal in New Zealand, although various activities, including pimping, running brothels and soliciting in public places are illegal). This can mean that vulnerable workers have been taking greater risks while fearing legal consequences, for example, going to the police to report being assaulted by a client.
Many countries prioritise COVID vaccination based on people's age, type of work and pre-existing health conditions. In our analysis, we found that the majority of sex workers and those with the greatest need were between the ages of 18 and 36, which put them at the bottom of the vaccination queue.
This will only change when the government recognises that sex work does not stop despite the restrictions of social isolation, and takes into account the health risks that sex workers face in their daily work and the benefits of early vaccination for them and society as a whole. At a time when sex workers' usual access to medical support (such as GPs and sexual health nurses) is being undermined, this is an issue that should be of urgent concern to the government.