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Coronavirus pandemic creates riskier market for Seattle's sex workers

The S.H.E. Clinic, which operates every Wednesday at the Aurora Commons, has recently begun helping female-identified sex workers learn how to stay safer during the coronavirus pandemic.
The S.H.E. Clinic, which operates every Wednesday at the Aurora Commons, has recently begun helping female-identified sex workers learn how to stay safer during the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the economics of all kinds of markets. Including the market for sex on Aurora Avenue in Seattle.

Lisa Etter Carlson is the director of Health and Women’s Initiatives at the Aurora Commons, a gathering space for sex workers and other unhoused people on Aurora. She says social distancing has slowed buyer demand. But not ended it.

"There are always, always men out there," Carlson said. "The drive is always there, regardless of the risk."

Meanwhile, supply has held steady. Most of the women who sell sex on Aurora don’t have the luxury of stopping work. Many are just trying to get food, shelter, and enough drugs to avoid withdrawal. Some have pimps and are forced into the work.

All of that has skewed the market toward the men who buy — at the cost of the women who sell.

"What happens," Carlson said, "is the buyers require riskier behaviors at a lower cost."

That means more interactions, fewer condoms, and less money at the end of the day. It's a harsh reality for a vulnerable population, which has already seen outbreaks of HIV and hepatitis A in recent years.

The Aurora Commons offers a free medical clinic on Wednesdays, where sex workers can get checked for fevers, pick up condoms, and get information on safer sex during the pandemic. The Commons also offers something these women can’t get anywhere else on Aurora Avenue — a place where they’re welcome to wash their hands.

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Posey produces, reports, and edits stories for Sound Effect. Before joining the Sound Effect team, Posey worked as a producer at KUOW and WNYC. She has also worked for The Moth and StoryCorps. She holds a certificate in documentary audio production from Duke's Center for Documentary Studies and a certificate in non-fiction writing from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. She lives in Seattle with her wife, her daughter, and a fluffy dog.