Sex Workers Struggle as COVID-19 Pandemic Continues
By Shelby Woods and Andrew Roberts
Bars, strip clubs and brothels have been shut down as non-essential businesses across the country closed for the coronavirus pandemic, leaving many sex workers out of a job.
“It has completely stopped business,” said Mistress Natalie King, a dominatrix in New York City. “There are no in-person sessions to be had.”
And unlike millions of other small business owners who can turn to federal relief programs, sex workers have been unable to rely on those to the “adult” nature of their profession.
Applications for loans from the Small Business Administration say on their front page that in order to be eligible to receive monetary relief, an applicant cannot “present live performances of a prurient sexual nature or derive directly or indirectly more than de minimis gross revenue through the sales of products or services, or the presentation of any depictions or displays, of a prurient sexual nature.”
King has been working as a professional dominatrix for more than 25 years. A dominatrix is a paid professional who engages in erotic services involving various elements of BDSM elements – an umbrella term and abbreviation that refers to a variety of erotic practices involving bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the implementation of social distancing, King has seen a drastic decrease in in-person business and like many sex workers, she has been excluded from government financial support.
“It is getting to the point where, financially, this is going to become an issue,” King said. “Unfortunately, I am not eligible for any sort of stimulus or grants, because of the adult nature of what I do.”
Isabella Sinclaire, a professional dominatrix, production company manager and clothing company owner based in Los Angeles, has also seen little governmental support.
“I have a corporation; I have a clothing company, a video production company and a rental space,” said Sinclaire, “None of them on paper say ‘adult,’ so my accountant just told me to apply for all of them. So, I applied for them and so far have received nothing.”
The $1,200 stimulus check applies to sex workers who pay taxes, though with the profession being in a legal grey area, many sex workers practice outside of the IRS view.
“I have my own studio as well… and my overhead is just a number that would make most people cry,” King said. “Having to go through almost three months of not working and still having to pay upwards of $10,000, I mean that’s a lot of money that’s going out every month for me.”
Shifting work environments
In response to growing financial uncertainty, many sex workers have transitioned to subscription based online work, including clip sales (video work), Zoom or Skype meetings, phone calls and text sessions.
Onlyfans, a platform for sex workers to create and sell content to subscribers, has had a 75% increase in new accounts since the pandemic, according to the Huffington Post.
Mitchie is a bikini barista and online sex worker in Washington State. She asked that her sex work name be used for this story instead of her real name for privacy and safety concerns. Coffee is considered an essential business, so she still works her weekly 4am shifts.
Mitchie’s bikini barista job isn’t much different than a regular barista job, except for her uniform. Mitchie is required to have her hair and makeup done for every shift, as well as some form of lingerie. She is allowed to choose her outfits, as long as she keeps her private areas covered.
Though her hours have been cut back, Mitchie still sells premium content that ranges from nude photographs to custom videos.
“I have definitely seen a spike in consistency in sales, or amount of sales per purchase,” Mitchie said. “On my website, I list not just one month, but also subscriptions for three months and six months, and I am getting a lot more six months subscriptions on sales.”
Many dominatrices have also begun moving towards virtual BDSM training and sessions, including Mistress Leah, a Houston-based dominatrix.
Mistress Leah explained that many of her friends in the BDSM community have started filming clips at home. She said that while she personally can not film clips at her home due to her family being with her, she has started using Skype for quick sessions and domination through phone calls.
Sinclaire, who pioneered online training and says she was the first dominatrix to have a livestream in 1997, has also moved back into virtual work.
“I stopped doing [online work] in 2009, and I pulled back on video production, because I didn’t like dealing with the piracy,” Sinclaire said, “I haven’t really navigated it much for a while, but now I have to… That’s helped, but with three overheads, it’s been a lot.”
Many sex workers are hoping that the pandemic and the implementation of social distancing guidelines become less severe as the summer approaches, worried that if it continues, it could mean even worse business and more debt for some.
“Hopefully we can get through this soon, because it’s an awful situation,” said Mistress Leah.
While some sex workers plan to continue creating clips if social distancing continues into the summer, some dominatrices like King are thinking of ways to have in-person sessions while still following health guidelines and safety.
“I was lucky. I think a lot of people in the BDSM industry are kind of the most prepared for this,” King said, “because we’re all well stocked with sanitizers, gloves and masks, and we are very used to wearing them.”
King explained that she isn’t comfortable seeing clients before social distancing lightens, and said that she would implement new safety measures for some time afterward. She plans on having her clients immediately wash their hands thoroughly and both wearing masks throughout the session.
Taking the good with the bad
Some sex workers have also seen social distancing as a means to step back and take a break.
“Personally, it’s been great,” Sinclaire said. “I’ve enjoyed having an excuse to step away a little bit and slow down. For the last couple of years, it was just one thing after another, building something, moving, etc. It really gave me the time to just relax for a second.”
King says finances aside, the slowdown has been easy to handle.
“I’m a very project-oriented person,” she said. “Every day I’m usually in my kitchen. I used to have a baking company, so I’m either cooking again, which I haven’t done in like a decade, or I’m going into my studio and making some videos.”
Despite being left out of major relief benefits, sex workers are trying to remain optimistic. Sinclaire said she cannot wait to go to a restaurant and have a glass of wine when it’s safe to go out again.
Dominatrices like Mistress Leah are looking forward to going back to work. She misses the connections she could form in person with her clients, the release she gets from her job, and her tools.
“I’m excited to start whipping somebody,” she said.