5 Sex Workers Talk About Working During COVID-19

Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, many sex workers have been working from home, some by choice and some by circumstance. Strip clubs and BDSM dungeons have shuttered in most states, and customers are avoiding visiting providers for in-person sessions due to health concerns. Unlike many working Americans, most sex workers are ineligible to receive government relief funds because that income is off the books and taking place within an informal economy. Sex workers operating within legal, in-person segments of the industry (like strip clubs) were misled to believe they were ineligible for aid: Applicants seeking government relief are required to check a box confirming they do not engage in “live perfomances of a prurient sexual nature” or sell services thereof.

In April 2018, the FOSTA-SESTA (the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) bill was signed into law, making it illegal for digital platforms to assist in facilitating speech that could be construed as selling sex. Because this would make websites liable for content posted by third parties, they enacted new policies restricting any kind of sexual speech. As a result, independent sex workers who had advertised their services online could no longer post ads and screen clients for their safety. This decision, viewed by people in the sex work community as censorship, forced many workers to take on clients without vetting them, work outdoors, or return to traffickers or pimps because they could no longer seek their own clientele. It also dramatically decreased the number of websites that make up the marketplace of sexual service advertising.

Now, because of the pandemic, some sex workers are back online or going digital for the first time, while others haven’t been able to make this transition. Here are five stories from people who had been doing in-person sex work before the pandemic about how they are managing their livelihoods now. These interviews were conducted with the author’s community members, coworkers, and friends. As such, the voices below are not intended to be representative of all experiences of those working in the sex trades. Several people declined interviews because of privacy and legal concerns, and others declined for mental health and capacity reasons. Therefore, the experiences of sex workers facing more precarious realities, including those working outdoors, are notably absent here.

Tox!c, queer white woman, stripper at Lucky Devil Eats in Portland, Oregon

I’ve been doing the strip club drive-thru. It’s wild. It’s not like when you’re at the club [and] you can do a set and then go sit and talk and hustle. We have a rotation, so we can sit and eat a little. It’s not the same, but it’s nice to do something that feels like normalcy.

We started out with a delivery service. When we got the stay-at-home order, within two days Shon Boulden, the owner of Lucky Devil Lounge and Devils Point, messaged me, telling me he had this idea to start a delivery service where dancers bring food to your door. He called me and was like, “Tox!c, do you want to come do this? It’s not going to be stripper money or anything, but it’s some income.” I came down for the first day, and it went viral.

The delivery experience has been 99.5% good. We have our security with us, making sure our patrons are staying socially distanced and not trying to grab or touch us. Some people are on Zoom calls because it’s their birthday or bachelorette party, but it’s hard to talk over Zoom while we have our masks on! We try to do themes, so I’ve done my narwhal costume. We’ve done nuns, cowgirls, ’80s. We really want people to feel like they’re getting an experience. You can see the joy in their eyes.

Jason and Cyrus, the two guys who run the tent [that houses the strip club drive-thru], saw on social media that we were doing this. Originally they wanted to use the tent for medical staff and hospitals, but the hospitals were already set. So these guys were thinking about how they could stay in business. So the drive-thru started.

At first it was word of mouth, but after the drive-thru started we went viral again. And now people have a lot of positive things to say about it. People are like, “I wouldn’t normally be into this kind of thing, but I love how you guys are keeping your employees working and how you’re adapting!” A lot of people said they wouldn’t go to a strip club before but are planning on traveling in to see it when things reopen. So I think it’s really helping destigmatize the work we do.

We ask that people wear masks and gloves, and they have to stay in their car. We are wearing masks and gloves too, and all of the dancers’ temperatures are taken daily and logged. We ask that people don’t come if they’re sick. When you come to Lucky Devil, you are greeted by a bouncer who cards you; you’re told the rules about social distancing, and you’re encouraged to tip. It’s a tip pool — the dancers, security, busboys. It’s a $30 drive-thru cover and then an additional $10 per passenger. You have to order food or a drink along with that. You wait in line and we have someone in the parking lot entertaining you. When people roll through, they get about a song or two, depending on how much they’re tipping, and then you pull forward and you get your food. While you’re in the tent, there’s a DJ, lights, and about four dancers on different stages, socially distanced from one another.

It’s an escape for a lot of people. They’re really enjoying not being stuck at home. We even have little grabbers so we can grab cash out of people’s cars! One person opened their sunroof and lifted their cat up like in The Lion King. I was rolling on the floor. I couldn’t handle it.

We’ve had a lot of support from our community. We have healthcare workers come in, and we want to show people that we care about them and want them to have a good time. They need a break too! When a nurse rolled through, I gave the DJ a heads-up and we played her favorite song for her. We had an engaged couple roll through — and they couldn’t have their bachelor and bachelorette parties, so they rolled through with their parties over Zoom. This is a scary situation, and it’s been a heavy burden on everyone’s shoulders. Just knowing that we are bringing some kind of joy to the community is really special.

“I’ve done my narwhal costume, we’ve done nuns, cowgirls, ’80s. We really want people to feel like they’re getting an experience.”

[Venue] capacity is going to change. It’s going to impact our industry. With the pandemic, all of my gigs were canceled. My only income that’s really helping me pay my bills is my online modeling income, and that’s not much. I feel very fortunate that I have budgeted well in the past, and my landlord is being very understanding — but that’s not the same situation for a lot of gig workers, sex workers I know. A lot of workers, if they do anything of a prurient nature, they aren’t eligible for government help. People who have paid taxes and do legal sex work aren’t getting a stimulus check. We can’t apply for certain loans. Because I make a little bit for my online income, I don’t technically qualify for unemployment. I’m not making stacks and stacks of cash. I’m able to pay my bills and buy some groceries. Some of these venues might not reopen, and when they do it’ll be at a reduced capacity. The only thing I can do is use the best of my wits and my tits.

The Goddess Malone*, 28, Black, CD/TV (cross-dresser/transvestite) dominatrix and fetish performer in New York City

I’m just a normal person and I like to torture people, that’s all. Just a normal dominant cross-dresser who likes to torture white men for money, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A lot of them need to be tortured, and a lot of them want it. Because they get everything they want from life. Their lives are easy; they say they’re not, but they are easier. You’re born some way and get this feeling of, you know, what you’re told you’re not supposed to like you secretly like. Especially for white men. They all want one thing, and it’s not McDonald’s.

A typical day for me now is: I wake up a lot later. I sleep in. My schedule is kind of all over the place. Usually I’m woken up by my NiteFlirt [a phone sex service] or guys texting me or calling me at like 8:30 in the morning — because that’s how I’m getting a lot of my money. I’ve been getting a lot of calls. It hasn’t been a whole bunch of men, but specific men who are like, Oh. I’ve found you, you’re my niche, so they keep calling. I always try to stay logged on all day and all night so people can call me whenever they want. So sometimes I log on at 9:30 in the morning but I don’t get a call until 7 p.m. It just stays on. Today, I missed two calls because I was sleeping. I check my Twitter, my Instagram, see if I got any emails, and now during the day I’m trying to create more content for my OnlyFans. So far, so good. I set [my roommate] up on NiteFlirt and OnlyFans too. We are usually in different rooms when we work.

I’m done panicking at this point. I’d like to have control over everything, but, you know, I can’t, so I’m just taking a little me time, which has been nice. I came into this with a little money saved, so I was good for a couple of weeks. My unemployment finally kicked in after two months. Then I got a surge in NiteFlirt calls out of nowhere, so my business started getting better. You know, I’m just taking it day by day. If someone wants to set up a Skype session with me, great — we can do that. Most of my work is calls. I’ve been getting calls from people wanting to talk. They want to talk about sucking my dick, being smothered, me dominating them. Mostly sucking my dick, because you know, I have an extremely large penis that men like.

“Every time I tell someone my online rate they’re like, oh, no.”

[Before the shutdown,] I was working in a boutique. I wanted to have work on paper, like a W-2 and more stability. You know, a little extra money. I got furloughed in early April. Last week my work was like, “Oh, we’re starting back up,” so I went to work, but I resigned from my job yesterday. They had me working in Soho last week, and it was infested with roaches. No one had been in the store for three months, so no one had plugged the drains — $4,000 handbags covered in dead roaches. I was there for an hour and I was like, OK, I’m leaving, bye. Now that I quit my job, I am relying on my social media and my online presence.

My in-person sessions start at $300, plus dungeon rental. Like, an hour goes by fast, so I would easily do $600 for two hours. Of course I could do it virtually; people have been reaching out to me virtually, but everyone’s like, “I’m short on money.” People don’t want to pay what they were paying. It has affected a lot of people, especially independent pro-dommes. Every time I tell someone my online rate, they’re like, “Oh no.” People are strapped! They’re watching what they do. Not everyone is mega rich. The woman who runs the dungeon I regularly rent at is not reopening, and I don’t blame her. My safety comes first. I can figure shit out.

Online [work] is tiring. I filmed some clips and took some pictures and was like, I don’t know why I’m so tired! But I had to set the camera up, get fully changed, transform myself and my whole body, set up lights, and then there’s the editing! The editing takes time. It’s a lot of work. I don’t care to do stuff online, but I do it, of course.

When I’m not working, I’m watching TV. A lot of Star Wars, old ’90s TV shows, and I finished all of Bob’s Burgers. I feed my fish. I got a fish tank, 20 gallons. I’m not ordering new fish now because of the shipping issues, but I’m keeping them alive.

Hopefully this pandemic will help open people’s fucking eyes and see what’s going on so history doesn’t repeat itself. Hopefully we will have someone better in command who will take action and not treat everything like a game, like a fucking child. Maybe people won’t take sex workers for granted. Maybe people will have a little more respect. Maybe people will be more appreciative when things open back up and they’re able to have sessions again. [Since the protests,] my interactions with white people have changed. The girls upstairs who I hate are always banging [on the floor of their apartment]. After George Floyd died and the protests started, they’ve been much nicer, quieter. On the client side, they’re still all the same. There’s a movement going on, and if they can’t correct themselves, then the problem is them.

I just want everything to be open so we can play and go to parties. I want to be out, fully dressed up, fully cinched, 24-inch corseted waist, 8-inch heels, full-on fantasy. Hopefully people will be all about it because they’ve been so deprived. There’s nothing like doing something in person, the touch and the feel of it. I’m an in-person person. I love the interaction where it’s in your face, full fantasy, full scenes. I hope when I get out of this I’ll have some new clients to meet. Some new balls to kick. I just want a line of guys and I just go, “Next! Next! Next!” Kicking balls as hard as I can, making them say “Black lives matter. That’s my hopeful vision for the future.

Lauren*, thirties, white, pro-switch in the New York City area

I was — am? — mostly a pro-switch, which is a dominatrix who also does some submissive sessions. Things were pretty grim even before the pandemic. I had retired in 2016 and started up again basically from scratch in January 2019. A lot of bad things happened to the pro-BDSM industry in the in-between years. There was the near-simultaneous passage of FOSTA-SESTA and the takedown of Backpage, the feds raiding Eros, which is the only remaining major ad platform for BDSM pros and using it now feels increasingly like a hostage situation, and a number of house dungeons started shutting down, so the ones that were left began hiring girls who might have worked elsewhere. Pre-pandemic was already a really bad time to be starting out in this segment of the business.

I have two types of days: the days when I get out of bed and the days when I don’t. It’s a result of the severe depressive episodes of bipolar II. I have been in therapy on and off since age 8. I’ve been hospitalized five times since age 13. Basically, mental illness is a chronic condition for me. Right now I won’t get out of bed, on average, two of every seven days.

The days I get out of bed, I either devote to schoolwork or sex work because I don’t like switching my mindset back and forth from “academic” to “sexy.” I’d been going elsewhere so I could have room and privacy for both kinds of work. My apartment is too small for a desk, and I have three roommates, none of whom know I’m a sex worker. The guy I was staying with was my “boyfriend” for all practical purposes, though he started as a client and remained a client for 11 months until he slowly just stopped paying me on a regular basis. Later, it was the occasional $500–$1,000. Legally it was no longer sex work but emotionally…Jesus.

On sex work days, I was doing iPhone fetish photo shoots of myself and then when he got home from work he filmed custom videos of me. He didn’t seem to mind, especially since I fucked him afterward. On academic days, I holed up in his home office, called my clients (my social work clients — I’m getting a master’s degree in social work), and attended online classes.

“I have two types of days: the days when I get out of bed and the days when I don’t.”

I started the pandemic with about $5,000 in savings (from the office job I had 2017–2018). Someone like me, who had a couple thousand saved up, is doing a helluva lot better than someone who is living day to day, and we’re both doing worse than the workers who have really significant financial assets like retirement accounts or property, and who have sizable online followings, and who had already diversified their income with online work. But even those workers are hurting. No one who made the majority of their money from in-person work is doing well right now.

I made $32,000 in 2019, and a third of that was the “boyfriend.” I was desperately trying to diversify my in-person work, always searching for new sugar relationships. I had just started taking sessions from the woman I rent space from, meaning I had become a managed worker. And I was in the process of taking on a worker to manage — not getting a cut of her earnings but advertising us as duos and doing screening and correspondence as a way to attract clients to me. Now all that’s on hold. But I made $4,200 in February (well, before expenses like ads and rent). Things had been looking up.

In the first five weeks of quarantine, I made about (haven’t calculated the exact number yet because I’m scared!) $1,900, $300 of which was in gift cards and $1,000 of which was from the “boyfriend.” There’s $500 in my Amazon account, which I don’t even want to use, because fuck Amazon. Before this I was mostly paid in cash. Once my Amazon balance hit $500 I knew I had to start selling content through a website. I chose IndieBill. It’s a 15% cut, which is LOW for this industry.

I had a hypomanic episode shortly after I ended the spring semester, so I finally decided to open a clips store and an OnlyFans. I’m in the top 27% of OnlyFans! Impressive, right? It means I’ve made a little less than $300 in a whole month of daily updates. The clips store is doing much worse at about $90. I’ve made more from selling cam shows and custom content: $1,100 in the past six weeks. That’s 30 hours per week, and I don’t want to calculate what that means I’ve made hourly. I’ve made more in gifts from friends, community members, and clients — that’s what’s allowing me to keep paying my bills. I applied for the expanded unemployment relief about six weeks ago, and it is still “pending.” I was rejected from Medicaid for not sending in documents fast enough, so I’m reapplying for that again. I’m planning on going down to the unemployment office in person later in the week because I don’t know what else to do.

“Sex work is a constant crisis.”

My “boyfriend” basically stopped giving me money and told me to just move in with him. We started arguing about the protests and Black Lives Matter. These issues had come up before, but with the amount this is saturating the news — and my life, I’ve been at the protests — it’s impossible to keep having the same discussion with him over and over. I don’t want to spend time with someone like that, let alone live with him. I don’t really know how I’m going to get through the next year, but I’m taking it one day at a time. I announced today that I’ll be seeing clients again in person in two weeks.

Sex work is a constant crisis. This is more true the less stability you have, the more marginalized you are, the poorer you are, but it’s true for the whole industry because of our legal status. Social media sites will keep shadow-banning us and outright banning us; fintech platforms will keep stealing our money and booting us; advertising sites will keep shutting down — all this just pushes us further underground, not out of the industry, and things will not get appreciably better until the laws change. Advocate for better laws instead of just telling every individual in the sex trade — who, you know, maybe can’t get out of bed reliably and is also in grad school — to just “get a real job.” As a social worker in training, I know most people do actually make the best choices they can for themselves given their limitations.

In the meantime, sex workers rely on each other. We support each other, and that includes financially. I’m trying to give to mutual aid funds, but I’m worried about how much I can afford to give when I don’t know how long I’ll be without a solid income. So if you’re still earning money, please, PLEASE give to sex worker mutual aid funds. Help us out materially.

Bella Blue, 38, queer white woman, “unicorn stripper mom” in New Orleans

I worked at Visions in New Orleans, which is considered a seedy club. I worked on Bourbon Street on and off for years and when the raids happened, I didn’t go back. I did an audition on Bourbon Street and it was like, “Don’t touch your boobs! Don’t touch your butt! Don’t spank yourself!” So many rules! This other club, it’s in a blue-collar area. Its tagline is “It’s where the locals go.” It’s smaller, it’s not as glamorous, but there were so many different types of girls, and they were like, yep, touch your body like you need to.

[The week before the shutdown,] it was normal, kind of steady. We were hearing about the coronavirus, but there wasn’t any sort of indication of it. Then all of a sudden it was here and it was happening. It was so fast. One day we had a place to go and a place to strip, and the next day we didn’t. I was doing my brunch show, and people were waiting for the mayor to say something. The place was packed, the city was packed, and the weather was beautiful, and it didn’t make any sense. That afternoon, the mayor addressed the city and said we are going into lockdown mode, and the next day it went into effect. You saw businesses boarding up like it was for a hurricane. You go down Bourbon and it’s just…quiet.

I went from having work to having no gigs, nothing. I had a minimum of five shows a week and I don’t know if that’s going to come back. It could take a year, two years? I have no clue. I filed for unemployment at the end of March. That was before they included gig workers but I was like let me just do this now so I’m in the system. Things started rolling through the next week or two. It was stressful. [My partner] AJ and I as a matter of principle have been pretty aggressive savers. We had money put to the side so we were able to not stress out too bad. It’s been nice to cook and give food to our friends, be more available to people. I’ve been sewing masks for the community, and that’s been useful for feeling productive. I go to my studio and it gives me a sense of structure.

I don’t do webcamming or anything like that, but it’s crossed my mind. I tried to do it years ago, and what I came to learn was that you had to have eight hours a day to sit there and be engaging with it. I only recently dipped my toe into making online content. I haven’t felt motivated to do it at all. I did one burlesque brunch, and the other day [I] put on makeup and costume to do one of those TikTok videos and I was like, I get why people do this, but it took me almost two months to do it.

Parenting has been weird. Our younger teenager just went back to his dad’s house. He was homeschooled before all of this started. [My ex is] a Trump-supporting cop who lives in the boonies, and when I go pick up my son there’s pictures of white Jesus and Trump signs everywhere. He’s in the camp of like, “We just need to fuckin’ get back to work, blah blah blah!” Even though he’s a cop, he’s out and about. He’s dealing with the public, and he ended up getting [the coronavirus]. So we’ve been good over here about staying distant, just going between here and the studio, only going out when we really need to.

My older son is a senior and he’s graduated already. I talked to him and he said, “I know it’s over, but it doesn’t feel over because I didn’t have a graduation.” I was like, are you sad? And he said it was the same thing, that he didn’t get closure. Maybe it’s harder for people to identify that that’s what the feeling is.

“How long are we going to stick it out for? It sounds like a lot. At this moment, I don’t know if I have a lot of energy.”

For this industry, I think it’s going to be a very slow build. Our city is mostly reliant on tourism. The difference with this versus Katrina is that when that happened, the whole world was ready to turn to us and support New Orleans and help them get out of this disaster. This is so different because it affects everyone. There are so many unknowns: Who’s going to have money to be able to travel? In the meantime, I think what we have learned is that there’s a broader audience that can’t go to shows, whether there’s a medical reason, a physical limitation, anxiety, and I think it’s opened up accessibility to people who haven’t been able to go see shows. So maybe switching to online is an opportunity to reach them, so long as there are platforms where we aren’t “violating community standards” that allow us to do what we do.

In terms of the performance industry, I feel so tired about the idea of sticking so hard to seeing how the next iteration is going to happen. How long are we going to stick it out for? It sounds like a lot. At this moment, I don’t know if I have a lot of energy.

I miss talking to people after shows. I miss performing. Until the day I die, if I’m not performing I’ll miss it, whether I have the energy to do it or not. I think we’ve learned so much going through this, and a big piece of it is not to take art for granted. In the moments when people are at their lowest, they are ingesting art or creating art. At the end of the day, art is where you go to feel human.

Janis Luna, 31-year-old biracial Latinx nonbinary femme, stripper in New York City

Monday, Thursday, and Friday, I do teletherapy. I have a caseload of about 15 clients right now as a fee for service therapyt, and I do coaching on the side. [Before the pandemic,] I was doing basically the same thing, but I also worked as a stripper two nights a week, which is where I made the bulk of my income. This is the job that made it possible for me to go to grad school and work for two years as an unpaid intern for 21 hours a week. It’s also what makes it possible for me to feel any kind of safety and security as a fee-for-service therapist. I’ve thought about taking on a larger caseload (working a standard 35-to-40-hour workweek), but doing therapy is emotionally exhausting; I have to balance the possibility of burnout against my ability to be present and effective with the clients I do see, as well as protective of my own mental and emotional health. Stripping is physically and often emotionally exhausting too, but it compensated me better for my time. I’m making about a third of what I was making before this.

[When NYC shut down,] I moved in with my partner of four months in order to make my apartment a safer place for one of my roomies, who is immunocompromised. If I could have, I would have moved back to my parents’ apartment, but for the first month and a half of the pandemic, my brother, mom, and dad, all had COVID-19. They recovered fully after a few weeks, and it’s the first time I’ve been able to see them. I’m spending some time in Bayside now because I needed a break from living with my partner. I’ve never lived with a partner before, and I certainly would never willingly have made the choice to move in with someone four months into dating them. It has been really, really challenging. My roommate also has COVID-19 symptoms now too, and while she seems pretty stable and okay, it’s unclear when I’ll be able to return to my own space.

“My main form of income for the past four years is probably going to be gone.”

I’ve never done sex work digitally. I briefly considered it at the beginning of this shit but decided not to for many reasons. 1) I’m awkward as fuck on camera, especially video. 2) A lot of my [therapy] clients are sex workers, and it felt weird as fuck to consider them finding my profile on OnlyFans or something. 3) I moved in with my boyfriend and, as accepting as he is about stripping, it just felt too uncomfortable to try to make porn or something in his apartment. Also he has two other roommates who are living in the space.

My club is likely not going to reopen, so my main form of income for the past four years is probably going to be gone. I don’t really know what I’m going to do if that’s the case as I’m a licensed master social worker, so I can’t technically have my own private practice yet [until I obtain a secondary clinical license. I got $585 of pandemic unemployment assistance and something like $180 of unemployment benefits despite being out of work at the club for two full shifts, and I didn’t receive my stimulus check until mid-May. I’m really privileged in that I have two steady forms of income that aren’t sex work, but the feeling of being forgotten or totally overlooked by supposed social safety nets because part of my work is in a “prurient” industry, knowing that I hustled my ass off to put myself through grad school to do a job I feel drawn to and passionate about, and knowing that [the National Association of Social Workers] could also give a fuck about new social workers is really fucking depressing.

If you’re working from home, salaried, and got your stimulus check, and if you truly don’t need the money (I know we all feel like we need the money because scarcity mindset is super real and a purposeful tactic used by the ruling class), please consider donating it to BIPOC sex workers, to the Navajo Nation, to bail out organizers trying to get folks out of prison (the most dangerous place to be right now), to disability organizers. There are so many incredible mutual aid initiatives circulating right now. Find the ones being led by BIPOC organizers and give your money to them. Seriously. You don’t need some useless shit off Amazon. If you are able to not use Amazon (because you don’t need to rely on it for necessities), seriously: Cancel your Prime membership and tell Amazon to go fuck itself. I promise you contributing to mutual aid funds is much better for you psychologically and emotionally than buying more crap. Stand in solidarity with people who are really struggling right now. It’s good for your mental health. ●

* pseudonyms provided for some people.

Fancy Feast is a professional burlesque performer, sex educator, and was Miss Coney Island 2016. She is currently working on her first book. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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