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Source: New Yorker
ith each passing day, the strip club in downtown Manhattan grew a little emptier. Fewer customers were drinking premium liquor and eating steaks in the plush banquettes; fewer patrons were sitting at the edge of the blue-lit stage; fewer clients were throwing dollar bills at the dancers performing on poles or in their laps. “It felt weird. There was an air of desperation, almost,” Nico, a dancer at the club, told me. As the city slowly woke up to the spread of the coronavirus this spring, so, too, did the dancers at clubs across town, whose work necessitates being physically close to strangers: talking to them, consoling them, and entertaining them. By late March, most of New York’s strip clubs had shut down—clubs in much of the rest of the country did, too—and, now, like hundreds of thousands of other workers, at the very least, in the sex industry, dancers are facing not only a drop in employment but also discrimination and stigma as they search for relief. Nico, who describes stripping as her economic “safety net,” said, “This line of work has the word ‘independent’ built into the job description. The club was not going to take care of us. We were left to fend for ourselves.”
The pandemic has created a catastrophic health and economic crisis that has illuminated the fragile existence of low-wage and gig workers in the United States. The experience of sex workers, who find the most stable work as independent contractors, is no different. (Some strip clubs offer workers employee status, but they are in the minority; in Nevada, where prostitution is legal in some counties, workers at brothels are considered independent contractors.) Like undocumented workers who are barred from getting government benefits in exchange for their labor, and prison laborers who receive little consideration of their rights as workers, sex workers have few places to turn for help. Federal law bars the issuance of disaster loans and grant assistance to applicants who “present live performances of a prurient sexual nature” or who earn income “through the sale of products or services, or the presentation of any depictions or displays, of a prurient sexual nature.” Strippers, pornography performers, and owners of sex-toy and other adult-entertainment businesses are ineligible. Sex workers who make their money on the street and cannot access public assistance are also wary of trying to access social services, for fear of being arrested.
Sex is unlike any other commodity. It is, for some people, tied to emotional beliefs about morality and pleasure and power. It is, for many others, tied to those same things, but it can be transactional and unsentimental, too—a service. Despite many parts of the sex business becoming legal, its laborers still see themselves either glamorized in popular culture as high-earning hustlers or portrayed as victims of trauma and manipulation. Political and social stigmas limit the recognition of their basic rights as workers. “People don’t realize that most labor is exploitative under capitalism,” Meagan, an organizer and former escort and stripper in Washington State, told me. “Looking at sex work from a puritanical view is deeply ingrained in society.”
Maya, a sex worker and undocumented immigrant from Honduras, has worked on and off for several years in different sectors of the industry, from pornography to full-service escorting. When President Trump entered office, in 2017, and threatened to disband the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (daca) program, of which Maya is a recipient, she decided to restart sex work and go into it full time. “I wanted to insure that, if I lost my right to work, I would still be able to earn an income underground and survive,” she said. It also lets her pay her daca renewal fees. Undocumented people who are found prostituting, which is classified as a misdemeanor in the state of New York, can be arrested and deported.
Of the dozen or so sex workers whom I talked to, some qualified for unemployment if they had paid taxes as independent contractors, and they were still trying to apply for it. Others did not qualify but had savings or family to lean on. And still others were doing whatever they could to piece together a living. Most were also hoping for the generosity of past clients and mutual aid from within their communities. One young single mother, who works as an escort and performs in Internet pornography in California, told me that most women she knew in the industry were trying to provide for their families. “They grew up in poverty, and they want to make sure their kids don’t have that same life style,” she said. She added that she was trying to decide if she could safely break quarantine and see clients by letting her daughter stay with a relative; every time she posts an advertisement, she becomes anxious and takes it down. She still sees a client whom she refers to as her sugar daddy, who does not want sexual interactions.
Lily, a dancer at a strip club in Manhattan and an actress, said that she started taking classes in burlesque and decided to try stripping after she grew tired of earning little in restaurants. She enjoys the dancing and the financial freedom the work gives her, but says that other parts of it are difficult to handle. “People think that this work does not deserve dignity or respect,” she said. Tea Antimony, a sex worker and organizer with the Brooklyn chapter of Sex Workers Outreach Project, said the stigmas of sex work reflect social prejudices. “We are yet again seeing how race, class, and immigration status intersect in terms of which work is defined as valid,” she said. “Sex work, like other feminized labor, is defined as not valid.”
Dancers pay as much as hundreds of dollars in house fees to perform onstage in strip clubs, ideally earning enough in tips to make a profit. Corporate, high-end clubs discriminate against women who they decide are not thin enough, or against African-American women who wear hair styles like braids. Some clubs fail to advocate for performers against customers who violate boundaries. Protections for dancers, most of whom are women, are strikingly absent in a profession in which the business owners are often men. “I’ve been in this industry long enough to see when the boat gets rocked, you lose your job so quick,” Leilah, who works as a stripper, told me. “Everyone in the club is afraid of the power of the men who work there.” She said that she believes a club fired her for publicly criticizing the industry. “Women get scared because they don’t want to lose their jobs,” Lily said. “And who do you turn to?”
Since losing her job, Lily has tried dancing on Instagram Live and requesting donations via her Venmo account. She has also been thinking about starting a page on a Web site called OnlyFans to share photos and videos or to live stream directly with subscribers.
OnlyFans began in 2016, before sex workers began to face the aftermath of the sesta-fosta bills, legislation passed in Congress which targeted Web sites on which sex workers advertised, such as Craigslist and Backpage. The sites were penalized for hosting content that was allegedly related to sex trafficking; Backpage shut down, and Craigslist eliminated its personals section. Many online sex workers turned to posting on OnlyFans. The coronavirus lockdown has given the platform unexpected cachet, a cult appeal. Social-media influencers and minor celebrities have proudly announced to their followers that they have started explicit pages on the site. Beyoncé recently rapped about the platform: sexuality seemingly empowered and coolly monetized. The impulse to glamorize OnlyFans is, at its core, a sign of the times: capitalistic even as our economy has failed many workers, and seductive as the rituals of sex and dating have been upended. But, for most sex workers on OnlyFans, the platform not only takes twenty per cent of their income, it also requires an enormous amount of labor to attract and keep followers happy and simply make a profit. “I have to do a lot of work to establish some boundaries for what I will and will not do,” Adora, who also works as a stripper, said, of the way she handles subscribers. When she worked at a strip club, she could go into the lap-dance room with customers and decide if and how they could touch her, depending on how much they tipped. Staff at the club could help her with aggressive patrons. Now, if an online client wants a video of a sex act, she has to decide the terms of a new kind of transaction and insure that the payment matches the work. “You gotta be your own bouncer,” she said.
Sites like OnlyFans are beneficial for sex workers who already have big audiences online; for everyone else, the Web sites are so saturated that figuring how to best entertain customers may not be worth the time it takes to build a base. Promoting themselves on Instagram and Twitter is growing more difficult; sex workers say the platforms are banning their accounts. Some are experimenting with other methods. An acquaintance of Lily’s is charging clients forty dollars for a virtual lap dance. Emma, a Brazilian immigrant who works at a strip club in Brooklyn, told me she was excited to join a virtual collective strip show, where viewers must donate in order to watch and are encouraged to tip. As in other parts of the economy, the work has shifted online, but it remains taxing. “I admire the girls that keep working online, because it’s difficult to handle all this financial and emotional stress we’re going through, and then still give a lot to other people,” Emma told me. “I love the experience, but sex work is draining because you’re holding space for another person.”
Online sex work is safer, in terms of exposure to the coronavirus. Yet those who do it run a higher risk of being doxxed and harassed, and of being discriminated against by banks and payment processors. Many payment platforms who take on sex workers as customers, like CCBill, charge at least a thousand dollars a year in fees. “Regardless of how much money you’re making, because we are a criminalized population, it can all be taken away from us in an instant, and we literally have no legal recourse,” Molly Simmons, a sex worker and founder of the Brooklyn chapter of Sex Workers Outreach Project, told me. “Your PayPal will get shut down and they will seize your funds. Your bank will decide that you can’t be a customer there anymore. One police raid, and they can take your phone and your laptop and all the cash you have in your house. After that, it can be really hard to build your life back up.” The discrimination seeps into other parts of sex workers’ lives. “There was a time recently when I was looking for an apartment, and I’m, like, I can’t tell this landlord that I’m stripping,” Genevieve, a sex worker who lives in Philadelphia, told me. “They seem a little too conservative.”
As life under quarantine took hold in the United States and around the world, global consumption of Internet pornography rose. Porn Web sites reported increased traffic; sex workers with already-popular fan pages saw an increase in new subscribers. Receding into our homes, we looked for distraction and titillation and intimacy through our computers and phones. A few sex workers told me that their labor should be classified as essential—and they were only partly joking. As states reopen, the most marginal workers in the sex industry will have to endanger their health to survive. Simmons, the organizer, said that many sex workers were already used to “living in ongoing crisis all the time, where your life is a series of crises.” Sex workers will survive this pandemic, too, several told me, because they have long stopped expecting support from the government or their employers. They only have themselves and each other.