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Sex Work in the Age of COVID-19

In 2020, during the height of COVID lockdowns and layoffs, online sex work started to boom, with OnlyFans being the most prominent example. But as many would come to find out, online sex work has its own difficulties.

Prostitution has been around since the dawn of civilization. Stripping and exotic dancing have been around for almost as long. Online sex work, though, from cam modeling to Skype sex, is the new sex work. OnlyFans has had a dramatic influx of models during COVID. This social media platform allows NSFW material, meaning nude models and dominatrix of all kinds sign up and utilize it. There’s this joke around the world that if the economy gets hard, you can always sell feet pics. This isn’t wrong- you can. But it isn’t an easy gig.

“If you’re good at what you do, and especially if no one else does what you do, you’ll make money. But if you’re like everyone else popping up and trying to make some extra cash, you’re not going to have an easy time,” one sex worker explained. She said COVID has changed her business but not for the better.

“Unfortunately, the area of sex work I partook in (OnlyFans & Twitter) became way over saturated. It makes sense for this area to become heavily over saturated due to COVID, as it’s a decent way to make some extra cash while not being able to work. Online sex work is completely COVID friendly.”

In the end, she ended up quitting because of the oversaturation in the market. “I was putting in way more effort than I was making back in money. It’s unfortunate because I had a lot of fun playing dress-up and creating a whole new identity for myself.”

You have to learn how to advertise yourself, as she mentioned. You have to look the part. Sex work may be enticing because of the money but it takes various skills. Just like any product, it has to be marketed. You don’t make money off of a lap dance if you don’t approach a customer about a lap dance. You don’t make money selling feet pics if you don’t know where to or to whom to sell your pictures. Some sex workers might have a CPA but most do their taxes and accounting by themselves. Sex workers are independent contractors in an overwhelming majority of cases, including strippers.

Sex workers double as emotional therapists. Many VIP rooms in strip clubs are full of two adults drinking champagne and talking, laughing, enjoying each other’s company.  Similar to a coffee shop or diner, strip clubs have regular customers. Strippers that form a relationship with regulars will more than likely be found in a VIP room with them. Oftentimes, strippers will coordinate their working hours with the hours that their regulars will be in.

Sex workers of all kinds have to know how to protect themselves, too, whether that be by taking self defense classes or by using an encrypted email. Sex workers are acting in a role, whether they are men, women, non-binary, trans, intersex, tall, covered in stretch marks or scars, and so on. They put on a show, they wear tiny lingerie, they talk with a sultry voice, they play their part. Full service sex workers (FSSW) have lives outside of FSSW. They may have partners and children or prefer to be single, they may be non- monogamous or childless and so on. Sex work is a job, after all. It pays the bills. It pays for college. It pays for new vehicles. It pays for rent.

If there weren’t a demand for it then it wouldn’t be offered. That is a basis of economics; supply and demand. It’s not shameful and it has to stop being treated as such. Sex work should be decriminalized, legalized, and regulated. Online sex work is included in that, as DMCA protections for online materials are not as stringent as they should and could be. Strip clubs are included as well because, as mentioned above, strippers don’t have as many rights in the clubs as most outsiders would believe they do. Many strippers do not get paid any sort of hourly wage, they are not offered any type of medical insurance, they do not get vacation pay, and so on.

That means that for many sex workers, there was no stimulus check or unemployment pay during COVID lockdowns. Many sex workers do not have bank accounts as they make their money in cash.  It is estimated that the 1-2 billion sex workers in the United States bring in 14 billion dollars annually, and according to some research, that’s underestimated. Some sex workers say that number is probably lower this year due to the pandemic.

The idea of a stimulus check is to prevent the economy from tanking. To put it simply, it is money given to taxpaying citizens to encourage them to continue making purchases in a time of economic uncertainty. Many everyday average citizens put that money towards rent or overdue bills but sex workers couldn’t even do that. Sex workers are known for being glamorous as part of the persona. Beautiful shoes, manicures, waxes, and makeup are tools for the trade. With no stimulus check, no unemployment insurance money, and no work, sex workers weren’t putting their money into making those purchases or paying their bills. They weren’t able to stimulate the economy in any way.

“I quit as it would be dangerous for me to be seeing people,” a FSSW, who did not want to reveal her location or name, said. From asthma to diabetes to living with roommates who have cancer, sex workers are not immune from the virus anymore than anyone else. For some, though, it is a life or death situation and either way, they lose. They choose between putting food on the table or contracting a deadly disease. With no stimulus, for some, that choice has made itself.

“I quit dancing after a few shifts when lockdowns eased. I needed the money so moving my work fully online helped me maintain some sort of income. I didn’t feel comfortable knowing anyone in the club could’ve been carrying a deadly virus. I have children at home who are at- risk. I am at risk. On top of that, I just did not feel confident. It is hard to dance and talk in an intimate setting with masks on. My whole ass it out but I have to wear a mask!? I understand why, of course, but you don’t make good money when you’re not comfortable or in the zone. I couldn’t get in my zone. The upside was not having to hide my expressions because my mask was doing it for me…. and a lot of the people who were coming in were anti-mask COVID deniers so… there were lots of those expressions…” explained Aleah, a stripper from Michigan who was not eligible for unemployment benefits or the stimulus and suffers from a mild form of asthma.

The prospect of a second stimulus check brings sex workers some sort of hope. Ideally, for this round of the stimulus, requirements will be different and they will be eligible for both the stimulus and/or unemployment benefits. Sex workers deserve that and more. They are humans. They have families and homes, they go to college, some of them work “regular” jobs. An overwhelming majority are not being trafficked. Some don’t get nude, some do, some don’t allow touch, some have penetrative sex, some only cam or do phone sex, some strip, most do many at the same time. It doesn’t matter what kind of sex work it is, though, it is work and qualifies as a job worthy of dire needed protections.