Life in 2020: Making your workplace Covid-19-safe — when you’re an escort
December 29, 2020
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This is The Lost Year, a series of stories about our lived experiences in 2020, as told to Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff.

Just how are in-person sex workers continuing to do business during a pandemic? Human beings are always finding creative ways to have sex in the face of horrible circumstances, so the Covid-19 era should be no different. And according to Tareq, an escort from Los Angeles, people are still hiring.

But what’s most intriguing about Tareq’s story is the divide between two types of clients he describes. One set of clients doesn’t seem to realize there’s a pandemic going on. Tareq tends to avoid working with them. But the other set can sometimes try so hard to account for all the possible risks that come with hiring a sex worker in a pandemic that they’re almost as hard to deal with.

To some degree, Tareq says, there’s just no way to defend oneself against every single risk in an intimate scenario. He gets tested for Covid-19 every week, and he does his best to sanitize the environment in which he works, if at all possible. But to a certain degree, risk is inherent to his work, and the way he talks about balancing the very human need for connection with the behavior sometimes required to achieve that connection feels like heightened versions of decisions we’re all making in our own lives, every day, as we weigh just how many people to let into our own bubbles.

Here’s Tareq’s story, as he told it to me.

Even before the pandemic, I’ve felt that people are touch-starved. I read that a significant portion of men in America have one friend, which to me is insane. I could count low dozens of people who, if something were to happen, I could sleep on their couch, no questions asked. But friendship is something I’ve prioritized in my life. Most people don’t have that, let alone touch.

I moved here from a different country. It’s been almost 10 years that I’ve been living in California. Where I lived before, I was doing sex work as well. But I always had touch in my life, a lot more. Maybe it’s because I moved to the United States as an adult. People are a bit more walled off, more focused on nurturing existing relationships rather than being open to the possibilities of new ones.

I’ve been a sex worker since 2009. But before the pandemic, I was also working at a law firm, and was laid off. It wasn’t a huge blow for me financially, because I had this to fall back on. While I was working at the law firm, I still tried to see a client or two or three every month, for the supplemental income.

I live with roommates, and that made it challenging to set strong policies about isolating ourselves from other people at the start of the pandemic. My roommates are very social, and our household is a gathering spot for our wider social circle. Our bubble was probably a lot bigger than anyone wanted to admit. And that was just in phase one, when we were sanitizing everything, and I remember washing my hands with a vigor that I hadn’t in quite some time.

I wasn’t seeing as many clients as I needed to in order to keep up with bills. If you had asked me back in April if I was advertising on the web, I would have answered, “Yes, but I’m not getting any calls.” That motivated me to put myself out there on the web in a more direct way and start webcamming. I’d been considering it for a long time, but because of my daytime career, I was apprehensive. I didn’t want to show my face. I don’t show my face in my escorting ads.

I didn’t know if it was worth it to try webcamming, because I imagined you’d be at a huge disadvantage if you weren’t willing to show your face. But I started doing it, and it was a good way to supplement my income. People from all over the world were suddenly viewing my body, and I have been able to attract a sufficient number of visitors. I probably am at a disadvantage not showing my face, but I guess the rest of me is enticing enough.

Escorting calls started rolling in after those first few weeks of feeling things out a bit. They never rose to pre-pandemic levels, which you would expect. But there’s still some demand, and it’s split between those who don’t really care about the pandemic and those who take it very seriously. If I think someone is being careless about what’s going on, I won’t see them. I live with two other people. There’s some responsibility, if not to the broader public, then at least to the people I live with. But we have to pay our bills as well, so there’s a certain degree of risk-taking.

I’m not really a person who tells people to trust their gut. I’m usually the guy in the room talking about hard facts and things you can actually confirm. Yet in my escorting experience, it has freaked me out how much my instincts have been correct about certain things. I have rules that some people view as arbitrary that have been right not 90 percent of the time, but 100 percent of the time [in choosing which clients to see]. There’s no real explanation.

So as soon as a client starts asking me what my Covid-19 procedures are, I feel relieved that I’m talking to someone who’s at least mindful of the reality outside the environment we’re going to put ourselves in together. The people who seem careless, I don’t see them unless they want to do something that’s at least somewhat socially distanced. That may sound strange in the context of escorting, but you’d be surprised at the number of people who want to watch you masturbating or want to sit with you and have an erotically charged conversation.

So the pandemic has made me webcam more, and it’s opened my eyes to other services that I can provide as an escort. My instincts in assessing whether to see a client or not largely have to do with whether they seem conscientious or not in my interactions with them. Some may seem conscientious if asked, but they may demonstrate other red flags.

You see those red flags when you’re texting someone. What it looks like is the person is talking at you, rather than with you. They’re not outwardly rude. But they aren’t listening to what you have to say. They’re trying to obtain information from you and set something up that is convenient for them, while obviously ignoring or avoiding certain things that you want to talk about.

The inverse situation has happened a couple of times. Clients who clearly really wanted to meet and passed the first stage where they demonstrated a minimum level of conscientiousness, which made me think it was going to go well. And then they chickened out of the appointment because of Covid-19-related anxieties. I don’t fault them for that.

At times someone demonstrates from the get-go a level of concern about Covid-19 procedures that I’m concerned I’m wasting my time, because they’re more demanding of your time in terms of setting things up. Being cautious means taking your time and accounting for all the risks. So they’ll ask, “When was the last time you were tested? Can you send me those results? Will you be freshly showered? What about your clothes?” They’ll have so many questions. You could go on ad infinitum. There’s an inherent risk involved. Just try to exercise your best judgment. I’m not a dummy.

If you talk to sex workers long enough, you’ll eventually hear us talk about how there’s a good chunk of calls that we receive from people who just seem off when they’re talking to you. I’ve never experienced any sense that my safety was at risk in my time as an escort. But what I’ve dealt with is people who aren’t straight with you, who try to manipulate you into situations where you end up underpaid or unpaid. So you develop a sense of when things don’t add up, like if they keep avoiding certain questions and trying to steer the conversation in the direction they want to take it, rather than engaging with you in a fair and open way.

That applies even more so in a pandemic, because those people will put you at risk, health-wise, if they happen to be carrying something. I know a handful of other sex workers, and what I’ve noticed is that most of them seem to be taking clients. Some of them seem to be operating as if there isn’t this big thing going on. It’s kind of an awkward conversation to bring up with a client, but my reading is that it’s not so much that [the other sex workers I know] don’t think it’s important. It’s more that sex work is what they know, and there’s not much for them to fall back on at a time when the economy took a huge hit.

I don’t tell my clients I’m taking precautions that I don’t take. Will I refuse to see clients in person if it means coming in close contact with them? Not always. If I get a good sense about the person, I have no problem touching them and more. But I do have personal policies, which is I get tested every week. It’s free. It doesn’t really take that much time. It’s setting the bar low. But what I like about it is that it gives me some certainty. I haven’t contracted Covid-19 yet. I’ve been lucky, because my bubble is probably huge. But it hasn’t happened yet.

I don’t work out of my home, so I can’t really control the environment [where I do work]. If I’m feeling paranoid, I’ll bring sanitary wipes. I’ll avoid touching certain things as a general matter. I use elbows to open doors and things like that, habitually. But there’s nothing I can do that’s foolproof. The broader public discussion around the pandemic has had this highly moralizing tone about the dos and don’ts, probably because of the carelessness and thoughtlessness of the person who is running the country. Under more normal circumstances, that moralizing tone would not be present.

So many of our rules of conduct don’t account for a pandemic. Overnight, we’ve had to decide whether to change the way we behave, then decide whether those changes should have the force of a moral stance and whether people who fall short of it should be shamed, or whether any compassion or understanding should be invoked in talking to them. We’re in such a crazy time politically, where one side is actively embracing careless behavior and talking about it like it’s some kind of virtue. So the discussion has been perverted.

I’m a very progressive person and always have been. But in many ways, the way I’ve been conducting myself during this pandemic might seem more like the median person in a red state. I go out a lot, just out of boredom. Early in the pandemic, I would go to the grocery store sometimes five times a week. A very close friend of mine unsuccessfully tried to get everyone to avoid the grocery store, saying it was a cesspool of germs and the worst place to go. And that was the place I was frequenting most!

It’s a very strange time, and people feel a lot of confusion, because public officials, frankly, haven’t drawn a red line around a lot of stuff. People are confused about what they can and can’t do and what’s okay to do and what’s not okay to do. People behave according to how other people around them are behaving. That is, by far, the most powerful force ever. But there’s nothing like passing a law and then enforcing it. That’s how you change behavior overnight.

Next: A year in the life of a mail carrier. (The year is 2020.)

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