Relearning: Sex Work During COVID-19

by Queenie Bon-Bon

This is the year we were taught en masse to wash our hands. We needed charts and songs and sponsored ads on our phones to tell us we must wet our hands with water, apply enough soap to cover one’s hands and rub our hands together. Twenty seconds and no less! This seemed like new information to many who were re-navigating the interconnected world we exist in. Relearning the world — sharing that we are doing; relearning the interconnected nature of our environment. 

The environment has changed around us. I think of the empty brothels, that are now shells empty of meaning. I feel that the speed with which spaces have changed their form and function shows that their meaning was never really set. That a brothel is just as much a shelter as it is a site abandoned. 

I think of the brothel in its historical context: how it housed the sex workers who were so vital in the response to HIV. How the brothels were transformed into vital spaces of education. Our connection to bodies and care, cultivated by our community, which has fostered long-standing knowledge around health. We were acknowledged in that moment as the experts; as key populations that held a key to the response. We are all experts in our own lives. 

I think of the many bodies sex workers have taught about touch and taught about health. I say this not in an effort to professionalise sex work. I know many workers will say sex work is like being a therapist or health care worker, but I don’t know if I feel there is value in trying to make one thing fit another. Perhaps it’s fine for advertising, but not useful for movement building; making one thing into another feels passive. I feel the hidden tones of cryptic social and political messages embedded in these metaphors. What I am feeling more is that there is much to be learned from spending many hours being in and around other bodies.

Our connection to bodies and care, cultivated by our community, which has fostered long-standing knowledge around health. We were acknowledged in that moment as the experts; as key populations that held a key to the response. We are all experts in our own lives. 

A foundational learning is this: care is messy. So many of the COVID-19 outbreak sites have been sites of care. I did not have to learn to understand that the trace selves of others stick; they cling to us. I did not have to relearn that I should rub my hands together, using one hand to rub the back of the other hand and clean in between the fingers. Then repeat with the other hand. I have known about the microorganisms found on one’s skin. I know about the normal flora (how cute does that sound). 

These floras are usually deep-seated in the epidermis, are not readily removed and do not readily cause infections. But the transient microorganisms, those little travellers – they are the organisms that are not part of the normal flora and represent recent contamination, usually surviving for a limited period of time, and which includes most of the organisms responsible for cross infection. They are easily removed by a scrubby hand washing technique. I think of how others shed their microorganisms, as I rub my hands together, cleaning in between my fingers and bidding farewell to lube, piss, blood, spit, cum and/or other liquid that may have been a part of my activity.

I have not worked since March — this is the longest time in over a decade I have not worked, that I haven’t been around others. It is in this not-working that I feel deeply that I haven’t been held by sites of care. But it is not the sites themselves that nourish me, it is the workers. The sites are just buildings. Support is from people — rather than architecture — it is those that inhabit the buildings that power change and gift support. Our lives and environments are being reshaped. It remains the agency of people to transform space and architecture. We are always in movement. 

A foundational learning is this: care is messy. So many of the COVID-19 outbreak sites have been sites of care. I did not have to learn to understand that the trace selves of others stick; they cling to us.

I think of the trace selves that the virus can live on for seventy-two hours. I remember being told once, in a brothel I worked at, to make it look like no one was here before. I think of how our old workspaces sit empty and now they look like no one will ever be here again. I post on Instagram and am temporarily blocked for twenty-four hours; workers’ removal from online spaces is constant

Being shadowbanned, having accounts removed or having content deleted online is a continual ordeal that sex workers have to navigate. How we are able to use online spaces is a dance of adjustment and reshaping to fit with persistently inconsistent content guidelines. I think of it like a choreography — our movement affected by the space, and the space is affected by our movements. The internet was never built for nourishment and growth, even though that is how we have used it. It was created for military surveillance. And now, a monitoring in action, as we survey each other en masse. 

Time has become so bendy and inconsistent, much like the rules of who is allowed to take up space online. Isolation time has the same stickiness as grieving time — in that it is neither healing nor linear. I think of the fear of workers: like they’re a pathogen that could contaminate your space. What this has meant for our geographies. Our offices were after all always placed away from schools and churches, so often in industrial areas. We were placed far away so we could not touch the same things you do… except the bodies we embrace for money are the same bodies you touch for free. 

I have not worked since March — this is the longest time in over a decade I have not worked, that I haven’t been around others. It is in this not-working that I feel deeply that I haven’t been held by sites of care. But it is not the sites themselves that nourish me, it is the workers.

But now with our offices closed, we are close to you again and always, every single person locked within our 5k zones. Time feels blown out — yet there is a racing feeling to make this return to the way it was, the race to find a cure. It was believed there would be a cure for AIDS in 1986. 

My anxiety around what will I do and how will I work has created a mind-body disconnect. I feel the anxiety sit heavy in the front of my body. The rest of my body feels mysterious and uninhabited even though I know I must be there. This moment has given an embodiment to the economy, whose health is noted daily. Its wellness is prided more than the hopes and prayers offered to  flesh bodies who do not cease to be sites of contagion during this time.  

As sickness and bodies are relearned, I see the care work that has always sat in spaces where people have innovated and navigated through information suppression, governmental inadequacy and unpreparedness for disaster. Mutual aid has been a practice so many communities have always embodied. The masks that are now so commonplace, were previously only connected to me through naughty nurse play. Our breath allows us to be here; they also highlight humanity’s interconnected nature. And as I rub the soapy tips of my fingers on the palm of my hand, I want to remember touch. Remembering, so we do not have to relearn all over again, so we can again return to the many practices of being in our bodies and other people’s. 

Queenie Bon-Bon is a writer, performance artist and sex worker living and working in Naarm/Melbourne. Their work focuses on labour and the body. They have created four full-length shows which have toured in Australia, Europe and North America. Their work has been featured on locanto, backpage, Maximum Rock and Roll and The Lifted Brow. They are a member of Australian sex worker art collective Debby Doesn’t Do It For Free. They are the 2020 recipient of Firstdraft’s Writers Program. You can watch their last show ‘I made my bed, you lie in it’ here.

This essay was made possible through funds from the FWF community and our #PayTheWriters campaign.


Writer’s note: COVID-19 has brought about an unprecedented impact on sex workers. Restrictions remain for sex workers in some jurisdictions and sex workers have been targeted for fines and penalties. In many cases sex workers have had incomes stop completely or significantly diminish. Loss of income has directly impacted on sex workers’ ability to maintain housing, buy food and basic items, support their dependants, and access healthcare and prescriptions.

This fundraiser will provide emergency relief for sex workers in Australia who do not meet eligibility criteria for government or other financial support, or are unable to meet government requirements. Donate herehttps://chuffed.org/project/sex-worker-support

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