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The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the nature of work for many Americans. Michigan Radio’s series “How We Work” is exploring some of those changes through the eyes of a variety of workers.

Sex work gave her agency. The pandemic had other plans.

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Jodi Westrick/Emma Winowiecki
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Michigan Radio

Many of us have stumbled through conversations around COVID and safety the past two years. From friend break ups to vitriolic school board meetings, it’s safe to say we could be doing a lot better. Addy Finch on the other hand, has had an easier go of it. As a full-service sex worker, it’s not the first time she’s had to negotiate a highly contagious disease.

“I don't want to speak for everyone, certainly, but a lot of [sex workers] have a lot of experience talking about HIV risk and herpes risk,” Finch explained.

What keeps her in sex work

Addy Finch – which is her work name – has been doing sex work for the past nine years. There wasn’t one single zero-to-sixty moment that launched her into this career. Rather, she says, it was more of a slow tortoise walk.

While she was working in a restaurant kitchen, on a whim, she started doing online sex work on the side.

“I was terrible at it,” Addy says laughingly. “I was really bad. I was like, if I’m going to get naked on the internet, it’s going to be for more than ten dollars an hour.”

But some of the people she met online wanted to meet her off of the screen. While the cyber side of sex work wasn’t for her, Finch thought she could do it in person. Plus, she needed the money.

So she put an ad on Craigslist. This was before a FOSTA-SESTA, the 2018 law that prohibited ads like this. Her first meeting was in Howell, and she remembers feeling elated afterwards. In that one night, she made as much money as she would working a full week at the restaurant.

But it was more than just the money that kept Finch in sex work.

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For one, since most of her guests live outside of the state, she gets to travel a lot. She makes a trip out of it. One summer she saw every Kehinde Wiley painting in public collection. During another tour, she visited every baseball stadium in the cities she traveled to.

Sex work also allows Finch the the flexibility to support her family. Finch’s dad had cancer for the last ten years of his life. When he needed to go to the hospital, Finch didn’t need to request time off to be there for him.

There’s also this: Finch likes the work itself. Her clients (she calls them her “guests”) are good people. She says seeing them is restorative.

Work dries up

Finch was on her way to Washington, D.C. to see some of her guests when news broke about COVID lockdowns in 2020. Her guests called her and told her to keep the money; to go home. Stay safe.

So she did. For months and months, she stayed safe.

“I was stuck in Detroit and not traveling to work, work wasn't traveling to me,” Finch reflected. “2020 was a really hard year.”

This is the point in the early pandemic when workers were applying for unemployment. The CARES Act widened the door for more people to receive benefits, but this wasn’t true for all workers.

Any business of a “prurient sexual nature” did not qualify for small business loans. These were legal businesses, like strip clubs and sex stores.

Some sex workers qualified for unemployment – but not all sex workers file taxes, and some just might not apply because they fear criminalization.

Finch did not receive unemployment, and she was burning through her savings. Finally, in the fall of 2020, Finch decided to get back to work. On a two-week tour through the Midwest, she made all of her money for that year.

Shortly after the trip, she got COVID.

In a better world

When the vaccine rolled out, Finch hoped for more work. But it was just another swing and miss.

“A lot of my guests were at home with their kids,” Finch explained. “Bless them for taking care of themselves and their families…but it meant that things for me were still slow.”

Finally, in the fall of 2021, work began picking up.

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Even with this glimmer of hope, it’s hard to not look back at the past two years and imagine how things could have been better.

Finch says she doesn’t believe in ideal worlds, but she entertained the idea of a better one.

“In a better world, there wouldn't be all these crimes of poverty,” Addy said. “We would be allowed to do our work in peace…. There's so much social antagonism levied against sex workers that it's hard to just exist in a lot of ways.”

Finch said that in this better world she imagines, there wouldn’t be laws that criminalize sex workers. Sex workers would have access to COVID relief funds. They wouldn’t be kicked off of platforms like Venmo, Instagram, and Twitter.

Addy is part of a group of sex workers pushing for this better world called Answer Detroit. They set up mutual aid funds, advocate for each other, and hold space for each other.

Addy likes her job. But she says keeping her clients safe is more important than the money.

She’s protective of them. She just thinks sex workers deserve protections, too.

Michigan Radio's mini series How We Work highlights people from different sectors of the labor force—from nurses to sex workers—and explores their changing relationships to work.

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