This article was reported for ENEMY Magazine, a new print magazine and newsletter dedicated to reporting on abuses of power in news deserts and underrepresented communities across the United States. Subscribe to ENEMY here.
Over the years, Sophia* built up a dependable set of regulars. Sex work paid “enough to survive more than comfortably” and it was work she preferred over jobs she’d had in the past, like working in restaurants or warehouses. Those jobs, she said, were “much more labor intensive for quite a lot less pay.”
But when news of the coronavirus first began to circulate in January, business started to slow. As the pandemic intensified into the summer, Sophia said she no longer made enough to cover her living expenses. “I get maybe one call every week or two compared to the two to three per day I was used to,” she told ENEMY in June.
Sophia, 30, estimated that her income decreased by nearly 80 percent since the start of the pandemic. As a consequence, she could no longer pay her rent and, by June, was in the process of being evicted—so she moved out. “I'm staying with my boyfriend and dealing with domestic violence issues,” she said.
When we spoke at the start of the summer, Sophia was trying to scrape together enough cash to get something to eat after a client canceled at the last minute. “That’s par for the course as of late,” she said. “It’s a real struggle.”
By the end of August, things hadn’t improved. “I’m okay,” she said. “Things are pretty rough financially, but I’m alive.”
On August 29, Sophia died of a probable drug overdose.
She had long considered herself a survivor, but a deadly pandemic, she told ENEMY just weeks before she passed, was pushing the limits of that identity. “It is definitely an event I never anticipated living through,” she said. “It feels much more literal than before.”
Sophia’s story isn’t unique. Exotic dancers, call girls, dominatrix, and other individuals working in the sex industry are struggling with the financial hardships and threats to their health brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Not only does sex work typically involve close physical contact, but as a consequence of the stigmatized and criminalized nature of their work, sex workers say they have a harder time accessing governmental assistance. Without an income or aid, many face an existential choice: run out of money or continue to work, in spite of the risks.
According to an article published in the July 2020 issue of The Lancet, the peer-reviewed medical journal, most direct sex work across the globe has ceased as a result of physical distancing and lockdown measures put in place to halt COVID transmission. Those sex workers able to move their work online, the researchers say, have been financially compromised, while the sex workers who have been unable to stop in-person services are risking their health. Accordingly, the researchers write, “it is imperative that sex workers are afforded access to social protection schemes as equal members of society.”
And yet sex workers have been intentionally excluded from pandemic relief funding. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that was created to help small businesses—including independent contractors and sole proprietors—as part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act shuts out businesses that provide products or performances of a "prurient sexual nature." The Small Business Administration's Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program also requires applicants to check a box confirming they don’t put on "live performances of a prurient sexual nature" or sell products or services of a "prurient sexual nature." Some sex workers are eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Insurance, but labor experts point out that many won’t apply due to the secretive nature of their profession.
Kendra Holliday, a 47-year-old from St. Louis, Missouri, has worked for over 20 years as a sex surrogate and intimacy coach, helping others overcome social and sexual issues through hands-on intimacy. Since lockdown, she says she’s been following the recommended protocols, and estimates that her income has decreased by 90 percent.
“I’m not touching people. I'm seeing people online, or sitting across the room from people wearing masks,” Holliday said. “It’s hardly worth it.”
The only government assistance she has received was the $1200 stimulus check back in March.
“I have a few patrons—men I've been seeing for years—who have donated to my mission and I live within my means,” she said, “so I have savings to live off of and not a lot of debt.” Still, Holliday continued, “I'm treading water and not saving toward my retirement.”
“It’s a nightmare,” said a 34-year-old exotic dancer and webcam worker living in Long Beach, California we will call Lily, who responded anonymously to a survey conducted over Facebook and Twitter.
Lily said her cam work business has picked up a little, but her overall income is down.
“They say in a crisis people turn to sex work, but I’ve had to take on nannying and [running] errands,” Lily said, explaining that she’s started working as a personal assistant to her brother and sister-in-law. “I love my family but would like to go back to making real money.”
For some sex workers, though, pandemic restrictions have had an upside. Domina Anne Shirley, a 34-year-old from Columbus, has been working as a professional dominatrix for over 12 years. Shirley transitioned from meeting clients in person to working completely online, and says she’s been focusing more on coaching other women into “harnessing their inner Dominatrix.”
“My income has gone up,” Shirley said, “and continues to rise.”
But stories like Shirley’s are an exception, and suggest that the current health and economic crises may be exacerbating the class and racial divides that already existed among those working in the sex trade. According to Jennifer Suchland, Associate Professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Ohio State University, resource-rich sex workers are better able to adapt by investing in their businesses and finding creative workarounds to reduce their risk of contraction, while less privileged sex workers are increasingly desperate.
“Poor people as well as Black sex workers and people of color working in sexual economies are more likely to be dealing with housing insecurity, access to healthcare, childcare issues and the like,” said Suchland.
“These challenges are exacerbated by racial profiling and surveillance,” Suchland said, noting that certain neighborhoods and individuals are targeted by police and racially profiled for solicitation.
Suchland also identified a lack of access to technology, employment discrimination, and unfair treatment of people with criminal records as vulnerabilities more commonly experienced by people of color, and by Black women in particular.
Sophia, the 30-year-old in Columbus, identified as biracial and faced many of these hurdles.
Without a regular income, Sophia said she couldn’t afford high speed internet, and so cam work—which Sophia described as her “only real viable alternative to meeting clients in person”—was “off the table.”
Sophia said she qualified for the $1200 stimulus check but “the state of Ohio took every cent for child support.” (Sophia’s daughter had been living with her grandmother since Sophia was forthcoming with her doctors about her opioid use disorder.)
She also had trouble finding work.
“None of the nine to fives I’ve applied for have called me back,” Sophia said. “I’m pretty much applying for anything hiring.”
That included the restaurant and warehouse jobs she had previously worked—though, she continued, “I’m not sure I’d want them even if they weren’t [really hard to come by],” citing concerns for her health. “So, yeah, the loss of clientele has been really rough."
“There’s an assumption that sex workers would prefer other work, and that other jobs are safer,” Suchland said, “but that isn’t necessarily the case—especially during a pandemic.”
Advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch and the ACLU promote sex work decriminalization as a necessary step towards improving sex workers’ lives—maximizing their legal protections, increasing their access to health care, and protecting them from exploitation and abuse, including at the hands of police. According to Amnesty International, actual or perceived involvement in the sex trade results in approximately 30,000 arrests annually; in 2015, nearly 40% of adults arrested for prostitution were Black.
Sex worker-led organizations including Sex Workers Outreach Project and The Black Sex Workers Collective also recommend decriminalization as a necessary step— especially in times of public health and economic crisis, so that a fear of arrest is not another barrier to sex workers’ survival.
In California, sex work advocacy group ESPLER has called for the governor to suspend arrests and prosecutions for prostitution offenses during the pandemic. “Police in jurisdictions like L.A. are wasting precious public resources to do prostitution stings— money that could be going to help sex workers stay safe in place,” said Maxine Doogan, president of ESPLER, in a statement. “We want the governor to stop all prostitution arrests and prosecutions as to allow folks to not have to risk finding themselves unsheltered in the middle of a pandemic.”
In the meantime, sex workers are organizing to help themselves and one another.
“Mutual aid has always been there but the need for it has intensified,” said Suchland. “[Sex worker] organizations are raising money for rent, PPE, and other supplies.”
But even here, the barriers between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ are stark. “A lot of this [mutual aid] is online,” Suchland said. “So people who are online can access it, whereas people without internet access and [who are] engaging in survival sex are locked out.”
Twenty-nine-year-old Riley Levines is a Black full-service sex worker in Cleveland. Riley says she’s been involved in various aspects of the sex industry since she she was a teenager, when she began exchanging sex for food or rides.
Back in June, Riley told ENEMY she thought the risks from the pandemic were overblown. When news of the coronavirus first began circulating earlier in the year, she said, “I didn’t quite have concerns because I didn’t trust it.”
“Even after I personally knew people who had contracted the virus and suffered immensely,” she said, “I refused to live in fear and operated as normal.”
From March through July, Riley says she took no precautions against the virus. “If I’m being honest,” she said then, “[I’m doing] literally nothing different.”
At that time, her income had almost doubled. “My client base has more money and less things to spend it on due to the shut downs,” she speculated, “as well as less access to sex because the women they might date casually are adhering to social distancing.”
Was she worried about the virus and her health?
“I think maybe I’m desensitized because I’m always at risk for danger in one way or another,” Riley said. Her mentality, she said, was a “kind of a reckless abandon.”
Then, some days after our June interview, Riley got sick.
“The first day, it was horrible,” Riley said during another interview in July. “I had a headache, severe stomach ache, and vomiting. My body felt heavy, like I couldn’t get out of bed.”
The next morning, Riley said she felt mostly better. But the following evening, “my roommate went to the ER because she couldn’t sleep, her sore throat was so bad and I’m like: yikes, I have a sore throat too.”
Three days after the onset of symptoms, her roommate’s condition had begun to improve but Riley still felt ill, so she went to her primary doctor. Both she and her roommate tested positive for COVID-19.
Riley says she stopped working when she started showing symptoms “because it was so bad I literally couldn’t move.” After her symptoms began subsiding, she said, “I didn’t mind [that I had it], but I was terrified of giving it to someone else.”
“I actually told a few of my regulars I had [tested positive] and they still wanted to see me,” Riley said. “I didn’t feel okay with that.”
Riley had received the stimulus check in March, but “nobody lives off of $1200, you know? Like after two months of bills including eating and other daily expenses [that money was spent],” she said.
She didn’t apply for unemployment insurance or any other pandemic relief funding because “I haven’t held a conventional job since 2015 and I quit those jobs,” she said. “If I got unemployment, it would be fraudulent.”
But some sort of assistance, Riley said, would have “definitely helped.”
It’s risky, but Riley says that selling sex—even in the midst of a pandemic—is still her preferred option.
“With sex work, I can be my own boss. I enjoy making rules for my body. It’s made me feel sexier, [and led me to] understand my power,” she said.
So when her symptoms cleared up entirely within a week of her diagnosis, Riley went back to work—“picking up guys at casinos and fancy hotels, walking streets, and hopping in cars with strangers.”
No longer sick, she said, she has “no fears or worries.”
*Sophia is not her real name. She asked ENEMY for anonymity because of the stigmatized nature of her work, and we are honoring that request.