Part of a sex worker’s job is to get up close and personal with clients. A burning question is, what happens when it is unsafe to get close to people?
The COVID-19 pandemic saw a new wave of sex workers who embraced technology to make a living at safe distances. Cam performers and OnlyFans stars saw exponential revenues from the comfort of their own homes or closed settings. In fact, some of those who found themselves unemployed turned to socially-distanced sex work and made more money than they ever had before. The downside to this growth was it resulted in a flooded market, creating a new problem for these home-based workers: intense competition. For those who are making a lucrative income, they are working equally hard to find and maintain followers.
This was far from the first pandemic in human history, and it generated a surge of the modern intimate workforce. Technology offered a lot of people options which had been previously unavailable, but one cannot help but wonder how such groups functioned before the Internet existed. To answer this, one can examine what sex work was like during the era of Bubonic Plague and Spanish Flu.
The results are more than a little surprising.
The bubonic plague has been around for a long time and still exists today. The most famous incident of this grisly disease occurred in the 14th century when it killed roughly one-third of Europe’s population. The death toll is estimated to be between 75-200 million people. It would be another three centuries before we understood what pathogens were, so how did people deal with the seemingly terrifying reality of sex?
To cope with the grim reality of the Black Death, people turned to hedonism. Yes, you read that correctly—They drank themselves into a stupor and prostitution boomed. In fact, it was one of the few distractions people found comfort in. The irony is that another part of society felt that the plague was a divine punishment for debauchery. This didn’t stop those with the opposite opinion from having sex in graveyards to “laugh in the face of death”. (https://getmaude.medium.com/)
While fines for adultery and fornication greatly increased, so did the number of brothels. It was almost like sex work had become unionized. For one of the first times in history, the world’s oldest profession was sanctioned. Similar to the COVID pandemic, a lot of people found themselves out of work and in need of income. Brothels offered said income to the providers and the cities in need of revenue.
Unrest and civil disobedience dropped as men had an outlet for their frustration. The high death rate was countered by an uptick in births thanks to the sex work boom. Brothels even had royal guards standing outside the doors! And while this was profitable and reliable work, it was just as equally dangerous.
In those times it was thought the bubonic plague was spread by “bad air” getting into the pores. Doctors advised against sex because they believed the physical exertion was a main cause of this “bad air.” This did not stop lusty urges but rather encouraged them, as we have seen. Sex during the Black Death was comparable to Russian Roulette, since the virus is spread through the bite of infected fleas, direct contact with plague-struck tissue, or inhalation of infected droplets – also known as the “bad air.”
Cleanliness and sanitation left a lot to be desired 700 years ago, and fleas were an everyday nuisance. As for the plague spreading through tissue and respiration, sex workers had plenty of contact with each source. They knew they might contract the virus through the air or physical touch, but this didn’t stop either party, despite the fact that sex was an almost guaranteed method of contracting the illness.
It was thought that those who had a “sinful lifestyle” would be punished in the eyes of theologians and the righteous through the plague. We know today that this was not religious punishment but medical fact. A question to ponder is whether or not the sex workers would continue to perform their services had they known how the plague was really spread. Or would they have been allowed to stop performing services? Would they be seen as dispensable by those profiting off this dangerous work as so many sex workers are today?
Fast forward to 1918, when an influenza pandemic killed approximately 50 million people over the course of 2 years. 676,000 of these deaths were in the United States, but the “Spanish Flu” was a worldwide concern. Spread through infected respiratory droplets, this aggressive strain of the flu found perfect conditions for spreading on and off the battlefields of World War I. Military forces took the illness back to their home countries and to those around them.
Sex work during this time was alive and well. In fact, it was a time of big business as soldiers far from home found relief from the horrors of the Great War. France and Germany opened brothels across the Western Front, even seizing private homes and castles for these establishments. There were different tiers of sex workers, the most expensive ones tending to officers while the bulk of enlisted men had access to workers who made less money and worked longer hours.
Like the bubonic plague, the Spanish flu is spread by air. Take activities like kissing or being in very close proximity, and you have near-inevitable transmission of the illness. Kissing was already taboo, but now it was illegal, even among married couples. A husband was actually arrested for kissing his wife in public due to stringent laws meant to stop the spread of this flu.
Yet this risk did not deter sex workers who saw an opportunity to make a solid income. In fact, “covert” sex workers worked at these military brothels due to the consistent stream of clients. They were not in this line of work full time, but women from Austria, Germany, France, and Great Britain known as “amateur girls” staffed unofficial brothels that exclusively serviced WWI forces. The biggest medical concern for all parties at the time was venereal disease, not the flu.
While sex workers thrived during this time, it was the “conventional” relationships that were the hardest hit by this pandemic. Anti-kissing campaigns were everywhere, and physical distancing was encouraged. Dating and relationships were greatly complicated by the Spanish flu, but the clandestine sexual culture was alive and well. Brothels were officially shut down after WWI, but like the speakeasies of Prohibition, you didn’t need to look very hard to find one.
After all, 1918-1920 was the famous jazz age and the air was electric with newfound sexual freedom, which made a profitable time for sex workers. If things didn’t go too well at a “petting party” (kissing, touching, and everything except intercourse), there were other outlets to explore. Yet in observing this timeline, it is the same as the Spanish flu’s greatest impact. Again, sex workers put their safety on the line as profits became more important than their health.
Being a sex worker during a pandemic is a vicious cycle. This industry is still heavily stigmatized and its community seen as “dispensable” due to the nature of the services it provides. This is yet another slap in the face to those who have turned to this lifestyle for financial security. This is how they pay for basic human necessities such as food and shelter, which are anything but dispensable. While sex work deserves to be recognized as a legitimate profession, sex workers should also not have to risk health and safety in order to survive during a global health crisis. Sex workers should not have to jeopardize their health to make a living, but until this industry is decriminalized and seen as a legitimate vocation, this sad reality is likely to continue. COVID-19 has taken nearly six million lives worldwide and has changed the way we live. lt raises the question of what good is a fortune made from a pandemic if you are not around to enjoy it?
words by lyra collins
illustration by penelope dario