It's not surprising to Jeanne Li that the mutual aid fund she launched in May for Cleveland sex workers
has attracted only a couple thousand dollars in donations.
"In Cleveland, there's just not a lot of advocacy around sex work, or even knowledge of it," says Li, a community organizer, field organizer for the National Lawyers Guild and co-founder of the Cleveland Pandemic Response
community hub. "A lot of other cities have local chapters for sex work advocacy, and that doesn't exist here."
Portland and Las Vegas, just to give two examples, have fundraisers that have collected tens of thousands of dollars.
Still, she's thankful for the donations that have come in so far, and so too are the recipients who've applied for and received funds. That money has helped in small ways here and there for sex workers whose income has been interrupted or completely halted by the pandemic, and who, by and large, are not eligible for traditional sources of assistance in times of need because of the nature of that work.
And those needs have predictably shifted over the last six months since the coronavirus arrived in spring.
"There was an influx in the beginning, and mainly it was for people who needed medication, help paying bills, help feeding their kids, stuff like that," says Li. "And then there's been an influx in the last month after a bit of a lull, and this time, it's for help for people who say they are facing eviction. People are asking for rent money."
Unfortunately, the fund is just about out of money at the moment, just as the demand has kicked in again.
"Before, I was giving $150 to $200 per person," says Li, "but the last few have only been about $50."
It's a small drop in the bucket for people who are locked out of assistance measures available to many others. State and federal programs have strict guidelines that exclude those who do "adult or prurient work," and the danger associated with in-person work has led to crowded competition online, as, Li says, "everyone and their mother has an OnlyFans account."
"For full-service workers, you would need to have a very loyal clientele to move online," Li says. "In the adult video world, some people have stopped shooting completely, others don't take it seriously. For people who do street work, it's almost impossible to get the same income online, and for some of those people, they might not have internet access at home, or know how to use Twitter (which is like the LinkedIn for sex workers) or OnlyFans."
For now, with limited funds available throughout the summer, Li has been focusing on doling out help to applicants who need it the most.
"There's a questionnaire they fill out, and it asks how COVID has affected them and a little bit about themselves," she says. "I prioritize those who are trans, queer, people of color, or immuno-compromised. I try to give everyone something, but the amount depends on situations, like if you're marginalized or less able to get income from other sources."
Of course, decriminalizing sex work would go a long way toward ensuring the roadblocks encountered by workers this year don't happen in the future.
"If you decriminalize, then they could be counted as actual employs, they could be marked as self-employed, or, if we got to such a world, they'd be unionized and could have a paycheck of sorts, and they could apply for assistance like anyone else," Li says. "It would be a huge step because the people who are doing technically illegal work are the ones most devastated by the pandemic right now."
To contribute to the Cleveland Sex Worker Emergency Mutual Aid fund, click here.