Like many employees in the United States, sex workers have found their income dramatically reduced in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. With most of the country’s citizens being under stay-at-home requirements, an industry largely reliant on human contact is facing uncertain times, putting thousands of sex workers in precarious financial situations.
The Millennial Source contacted multiple people who are directly or indirectly involved in sex work to get their views on the situation. For many sex workers, the economic realities have forced them to make tough decisions, even as the demand for sex work in its varied forms remains high.
How the sex industry is adapting
Ivy, an exotic dancer in Oregon, talked with The Millennial Source about how her situation has recently changed. She said the lockdowns have affected the income of all the people she knows in her industry.
“I quit my ‘day job’ in December to dance full time,” Ivy said. “I do burlesque shows, which tend to be classier (pasties) and I work 30 hours a week under normal circumstances as a dancer at a club. Since they have shut down the bars and venues, I have been working for small amounts of money on a digital platform called OnlyFans.”
OnlyFans is one of an assortment of sites that allow exotic dancers, cam girls, models, and pornographic actors to be supported by fan subscriptions to their work.
“I post photos and videos that only subscribers can see. Fans are encouraged to tip on posts which offers extra revenue. Currently I have made about $200 through the site in two weeks. So, it hasn’t been exceptionally lucrative. I do have a regular customer who has gifted me some money when I posted a burlesque video on Facebook, which was another way I have generated a touch of income.”
Like many in her industry, Ivy said, she does not know if she’ll qualify for any kind of benefits through standard unemployment or the CARES Act, the US$2 trillion stimulus package passed in March.
“Here in Oregon, no one is getting through the phones and the website is not giving me much information. I am still waiting, much like many Oregonians, to find out if I qualify.”
As a result, sex workers in Oregon have had to adapt.
A strip club in Portland, Oregon, called the Lucky Devil Lounge, found a novel way to temporarily adapt to the lockdown. With their dancers unable to perform, the club created a food delivery service titled “Boober Eats”, which, like Uber Eats, delivers food to customers from local restaurants. The twist: the food is delivered by scantily clad dancers (all escorted by security guards).
Online sex work
The Millennial Source also heard from Molly Murphy, founder of the marketing firm, Find Day Aux, and a PR rep for the New York-based Findrow, a platform for fans to get adult content directly from performers.
Findrow allows for ethical adult-oriented content creation while providing “a platform for those people to earn revenue directly from fans.”
“Findrow has seen a big spike in both sales and applications,” Murphy said. “A lot of creators are also returning to the platform, which we assume is a result of more time at home and job losses in their normal lives.”
Michael Edwards, who founded Findrow in 2012, offered additional insight on the increase.
“As the social distancing mandates went into effect,” Edwards said, “we noticed a huge increase in both visits to the site, and applications to become a creator, which have tripled.
“One of the most interesting things I have noticed personally is that many creators who have moved on with their lives are returning to the site as a result of losing their jobs. As these people experience income loss, they have a fall back and income source they can rely on from the comforts of their own home.”
A multi-faceted struggle
Robert Thomas, a licensed sex therapist and co-founder of the men’s health site Sextopedia, explained how the pandemic represented a problem on multiple fronts for sex workers.
“Firstly, your customer pool is drying up and that’s going to make a significant dent in your wallet,” Thomas said. “Secondly, many of these sex workers aren’t covered by the unemployment fund, which means that their only option is either to start burning through their savings or get creative and move their work online.”
However, as Ivy found, with many new accounts being created online, it can be hard to build up a big enough audience to overcome the loss of income.
“Out of desperation,” Thomas told The Millennial Source, “some sex workers still choose to provide their services to customers physically, which is driven by the need of paying bills and putting food on the table. It’s irresponsible – of course – but considering that many sex workers these days are literally stuck between a rock and a hard place, it’s their only option to survive.”
Porn consumption during coronavirus lockdown
Psychology Today has reported that consumption rates for pornography have increased across popular porn sites during the lockdown. The increased rate has been attributed to people having more free time as they’re stuck at home.
While increased porn consumption may be expected, a more unusual trend is the sudden proliferation of coronavirus-themed pornographic videos. These videos involve people having sex while wearing masks, hazmat suits, or other protective gear.
Yet, according to Stirling Cooper, a self-described pornstar, “the entire porn industry went into shutdown mode in the last week of March.” Cooper, who has also released a book on male sexual enhancement, said studios halted production and agents refused to book their clients for shoots.
“Fortunately,” he added, “in this era of porn a lot of individual performers have means of making their own income from fans independently from the major studios. It means focusing on sources of income like OnlyFans, premium Snapchat, ManyVids, Clips4Sale and making custom videos for our fans.
“For those sex workers who see individual clients one-on-one there seems to have been a mixed response from what I’ve heard through the grapevine. Some are seeing only certain regular clients who don’t have much risk of exposure, others are going completely offline.”
Even though porn studios want their performers to be safe, they are still looking at ways of creating new content for the increased demand.
“A lot of the major studios have reached out to performers to get them to film content with their partners at home during quarantine,” Cooper said. “They need videos to keep their monthly subscribers coming back and they’ve turned to pornstars directly to meet the need, albeit of a lower quality than they would have normally accepted.”
Sex Workers in America
While the term “sex worker” may be associated with prostitution in many people’s minds, the term covers a range of professions, most of them legal throughout the United States. In addition to consensual sexual services offered by a prostitute, sex work includes stripping, burlesque dancing, pornographic acting and other related activities.
In the United States, prostitution is only legal in Nevada, and there only in 10 counties, though not in Clark or Washoe County, where Las Vegas and Reno are located. In most states, both prostitutes and customers face penalties if caught, but in Delaware and Minnesota, the penalties are harsher for prostitutes.
Currently, the production of porn is only explicitly legal in California and New Hampshire, meaning there are official state laws that permit the business. California’s so-called “Porn Valley” is currently the largest porn producer in the world, both in terms of output and income.
Porn is still produced all over the country, to varying degrees of output, and is rarely criminalized. Yet, for many states, the line between prostitution and pornography has been difficult to establish, as both involve payment for sexual acts, and many of those opposed to porn have argued that it is technically no different than prostitution.
In South Florida, one of the largest porn producing hotspots outside of California, there has been an effort to ban such productions.
However, opponents have so far failed to shut down production. Legal insiders think one reason states like Florida don’t actively halt porn production is because of how financially lucrative the industry is.