Culture

Three Sex Workers Explain How COVID-19 Is Affecting Their Industry

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major effect on just about every industry on earth (and our entire way of life as we know it). It’s changed literally everything. Except for the human race’s insatiable desire to f*ck. Yes, you can take our music festivals, force us to get our weed delivered curbside, make us wear masks, and make our hearts fill with abject panic every time we need to make an essential grocery run, but nothing is going to stop us from getting horny.

If you’ve spent any time on social media since the quarantine began — and you have, we all have — you’ll know that people on every social media platform are being open about just how hot and bothered being kept inside is making them. And the stats support it. According to Market Watch, dating apps like Bumble, Tinder, Hinge, and Match.com are seeing a surge in activity, with users sending about 21% more messages and average times for video and voice calls spiking. People are so thirsty right now that the state of New York had to issue guidelines telling us not to rim each other, lest we risk passing the coronavirus on.

But amidst this crazed haze, sex workers are being hit hard by the lockdowns. Many are out of work, while others have been forced to navigate the sometimes unfamiliar waters of digital content creation. In the month of March, the popular subscription-based site OnlyFans reported a 75% increase of users, with 2.5 million new signups, 60,000 of which were new creators — who either flocked to the site because the COVID-19 lockdowns have made it impossible to practice sex work IRL or because they lost their regular gigs and need a steady stream of new income to stay afloat.

Strippers, sex educators, sex shop workers, porn stars, dancers — pretty much anyone who works in the sex industry or has a sex work-adjacent job is now out of work and unable to get assistance, even from Congress’ CARES Act, the $2 trillion relief bill that was designed to help people impacted financially by the coronavirus. According to Reason, the long-standing language written into business loans prevents anyone who earns their income from “live performances of a prurient sexual nature” or anyone who “derives directly or indirectly more than the minimum gross revenue through the sale of products or services, or the presentation of any depictions or displays, of a purist sexual nature” from taking advantage of the types of loans offered in the CARES act.

This isn’t a uniquely American problem, either. All over the world sex workers are being affected, even in countries with more open and legalized sex work, like Germany, which according to the NY Daily News, has as many as 200,000 legal sex workers. Some countries, like Australia and Japan, have made the progressive decision to offer some relief to sex workers, but in order to qualify for many of these benefits, workers often need to officially register as sex workers, which can create a paper trail that can affect future job prospects, according to The Washington Post.

To get an insider’s perspective on the rapid changes in the sex work industry, we chatted with three sex workers — Devin Ladner, Erica Solitaire, and Danika Maia — about the struggles of transitioning from in-person sex work to creating digital content, the changing needs of an increasingly lonely customer base, and some of the common misconceptions that people have about sex work in general, and how that leads to them receiving little support and relief in a time of global crisis.

Daniel Grey
Devin Ladner

Prior to the social distancing measures, what was the nature of your sex work?

Devin: I was a dancer/ stripper.

Erica: A stripper.

Danika: Dancing, camming, and OnlyFans.

How has the stay at home order impacted the income you bring home?

Devin: I lost all of my income. Prior to the quarantine, I had an Only Fans that I was operating but I was not doing it seriously, it was just kind of there. It wasn’t making a crazy amount of money or anything of that sort of thing — I think it was bringing in maybe like $300 to $400 a month. Quarantine happened and everything shut down and I panicked, I was scared I didn’t have any income coming in so I went from making about eight-nine thousand a month to making essentially nothing.

Erica: Our club shut down I think March 15th, so we’ve been closed for a little over a month now and it’s been super hard. It was really unfortunate because the busy season was just about to start, things were picking up. I use to work at this venue called Cheetahs, and we were sold the week before Thanksgiving, so I literally lost two of my dance venues within two months, or within the span of three months. I was working at Cheetahs, we got sold in November, that was my main source of income. I made OnlyFans in December, found a new venue, and then COVID hit, so I went really hard into internet media, creating content online by myself. Me, and my iPhone. I also made a cam account last week.

Danika: Before I decided to cam full time, I went to the AVN awards at the end of January and I and a lot of cam girls and porn girls that were there got coronavirus at AVN, so we were all sick for all of February. Afterward, I didn’t want to go to my restaurant, I was waitressing at a restaurant since the club I was working at, Cheetahs, closed in November, and I was like “you know what this is the perfect time to commit to online sex work full time and change everything to Danika.” I was previously camming under a different name.

Have you been able to match your previous income through camming, OnlyFans, and other forms of online content creation?

Devin: Nowhere near, no. Even after completely throwing myself into online work. Online work is really hard, you have to create content every day, and you need to continually have an online presence and visibility. Lucky for me, I’m an out sex worker so that was something I was capable of doing. But if you’re not an out sex worker, and you’re more private — you’re kind of fucked. You really have to stay visible on the internet. It’s constant interaction, constant content creation, constant work, and I’m not even making $2,000 dollars a month.

Erica: It skyrocketed for a while, but comes in waves. It goes up and goes down. When it was very new and exciting for everyone at the beginning, things were good, also you had all these stay-at-home people who were still receiving income, so they’re just online and pick a couple of people to support and that’s that.

Danika: It’s two-fold. On one hand, yes, everybody is home and lonely and looking to spend money on that more intimate interaction, in terms of porn and sexual content, but there has also been a huge influx of people signing up to the sites to work because it’s such a free and consistent way of making money online, so I would say it’s stayed the same actually. While there are more users, there is also a bigger influx of workers online — because all the people doing in-person sex work have to transition to online, and people who have never worked in sex work before are like “Well fuck it, I can’t be a waitress or a bartender or a DJ, I guess I’ll do OnlyFans.”

Has COVID-19 made people more generous with tips? And compared to dancing, are the tips substantially less or more?

Devin: In my experience, camming and online work is way less money. It’s a lot of work for not a lot of money at all. Everyone has different boundaries and I don’t mind this, but it’s usually also a lot more explicit work for a lot less. When I was dancing I worked in New Orleans where its just a topless club, some touching is allowed, but it was nothing crazy and I wasn’t doing explicit acts or anything, and I was making good money and now I’m on the internet where things are always there, so no matter what I decide to do later on, these things will always exist on the internet.

Erica: That’s hard for me to answer since I’ve only had my OnlyFans since around January, so I don’t have that many months to compare it to. It also seems to depend on how much interaction I make with my subscribers and also the kind of content I’m creating too. I think because it was new for me and it was new for my subscribers, we were just trying to figure out how it all works. I wouldn’t say that anyone came because of the virus, I just think they knew that the clubs were shut down, and they came to support me.

Danika: No, and also the people who are signed up as clients are potentially losing money on their end, their jobs maybe are not essential, so I’ve seen maybe a tightening of budgets. I wouldn’t say people aren’t giving an outpouring of support because they realize that cam girls are doing fine. But I have seen a lot of people on Twitter — especially sex worker Twitter — there has been a lot of support internally in the community, like “Hey if you’re new to online sex work, we’ll promote your OnlyFans, we’ll support your content sites.” A lot of sex workers have kids and have been asking for support from other sex workers and that has become a more generous outlet because we know we are in a better position than most.

Are the emotional needs of customers stronger than before the pandemic?

Devin: Before the pandemic, I briefly did cam work for a summer. I don’t know if it’s because of the pandemic or just online work in general, but there is definitely more of a higher emotional strain. But I think that’s just because of access to the internet. I think it’s this idea that you’re accessible, so people assume you’re accessible all the time. It is definitely very emotional work. People are constantly messaging you or asking you for things, or expecting things. My good friend went into camming work, and its really hard in that way. You need to establish regulars and those regulars become entitled to your time, and your accessibility.

Erica: Probably! I’m one of the worst hustlers… I don’t cater to people, I’m very much a performer. You came to my venue, I’m not coming to your table, it’s the other way around. But everyone has their different flow, some girls are really good at catering to emotional needs, I’m not one of them, so to briefly answer — yeah. There are definitely a lot of people that are like “I just want to talk” or want my attention or want to tell me their life story, and I’m over here like, “My story is so deep that my empathy level has to stay on the surface.”

Danika: I would say that everybody is kind of keeping the same sort of level head. In the chats, we all talk about COVID, and how we’re lonely and bored, but the essence of the work is still the same. The one-on-ones are still the same, it’s not like panic loneliness where people are desperate for a connection.

Erica Solitaire
Erica Solitaire

How much longer under this current system do you think you can sustain yourself with this massive change to your income and workflow?

Devin: You know, I’m doing what I can and honestly what’s really sustaining me are old regulars from the club. I’ve gotten gifts a few times from old regulars that know that obviously we’re all struggling and want to make sure that I’m taken care of, which has been really sweet and that’s honestly the reason I’ve been okay and been able to pay some bills, but I don’t know if it’s sustainable.

I find myself staying up every night, trying to find new ways to market myself, or try different avenues — there are so many different avenues of sex work, maybe I just need to put myself in every single one of them. Going through a pandemic, it’s so difficult right now to constantly work, and it’s constant work, it doesn’t stop. I don’t know how long it’s sustainable, I know that some girls do it full time, but it’s different when you were used to living a certain way, and I’ve created my life around that way and now I have to downgrade and create a new life.

Erica: Right now we’re testing that. I will say that I’m really mad at myself that I didn’t do this sooner. Especially being out in the public eye, it’s been really helpful. Obviously girls make bank on it and I’m trying to get to that level. I could definitely manage on this, if I do it the right way. It’s still really new for me, this is a completely different type of media, so I just have to find it and work it to my advantage. Each month, as of now, there has been a 50% to 60% income earning increase for me

It’s stressful though. I’m an actor, a dancer, so it all depends on who is booking me when. It’s a different kind of ball game, it’s stressful because I have my IMDB and my OnlyFans link in the same space. I was having this conversation with my roommate last night, am I going to show my breasts on cam sites? When you’re in Europe, and you’re laying out on the beach, you can be topless, so why not?

Is the cut that OnlyFans take worse than the cut you experience as a dancer?

Devin: It’s 20%, so for making less it’s high. If I have a subscription price for $15 a month, I’ll only make $12 a month, and then they also take 20% out of the tips that you make. So it is high, but in clubs, it varies in different parts of the country.

Sometimes the cut is really small, there was a small club in Tampa that had a set fee that covered your house, your tipping, and everything, you just paid that and that was it. And it was very low. But most of the time you’re looking at a 60/40 cut, when I worked in the club I was used to making 60% and the club taking 40%.

Erica: In some scenarios, it’s the same, but it varies. Only Fans take 20% flat, clubs here can take 50%.

Some countries, Japan for instance, are providing aid to people who work in the legal sex industry. I’m sure you’re aware that protections and aid here in the states is almost nonexistent. People who work in the sex industry can’t apply for some small business loans, may not qualify for certain aid programs — did you expect a helping hand when COVID-19 hit?

Devin: I mean I guess its sad that I expected to be forgotten. When all those small business loans were happening, right in the beginning friends were saying “Here is all this financial aid, here are things to apply to” and I remember seeing the first clause, and it didn’t shock me. I didn’t expect anything. And every single one of those small business loans has one of those clauses and that’s not shocking to me. I may have had a more emotional reaction if I didn’t receive the stimulus check. I pay a fuck ton of money in taxes, a lot of sex workers pay a fuck ton of money in taxes. I think if we would’ve been forgotten in that, it would’ve been really unfair. But I don’t expect much out of the nature of our country because of the way the country as a whole treats sex workers.

Danika: Sex workers are pretty much the only group that has been explicitly excluded from receiving the COVID-19 disaster relief loans for small businesses. It specifically says any business that makes their income via lewd content or a prurient sexual nature may not apply for these funds. That includes strip clubs, adult toy stores, anything of a sexual nature. Bars that have dancers, if they’re making their income from any kind of sexual adjacent activity, are not eligible to receive that support. But online sex work has costs, just like with any business.

You have to have a good laptop, you have to have a good webcam, you have to have decent clothes and lingerie, you have to have a roof over your head and a safe space where you can cam. A lot of people are not lucky enough to live in an environment where they can do this work safely. It might require you to move to a place where you live alone, I know I’ve been kicked out of an apartment for camming because I had religious roommates who didn’t like it. Sex workers get discriminated against because of the work they do. But if we’re not given support or if we’re specifically excluded it’s going to be detrimental to a lot of single moms and regular people who are doing nudes online.

Danika Maia
Danika Maia

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about the Sex Worker Industry, and what unique challenges do you face in your line of work?

Devin: I have a lot of respect for online sex workers, think about how what they do is the most stigmatized because their content is on the internet, so you get trolls, or people who want to out you, or want to hurt you. It’s easier to out you if they know how to hack…they can find a way to tell your family or friends if you’re not completely out. It’s just always there and I had heard this through porn, a lot of porn stars have said that they love their industry but what was hard about leaving their industry was trying to find work afterward because of this thing that was attached to them now. It’s the same with online content, maybe you’re not as accessible but you’re still doing porn on the internet so your work is heavily stigmatized, and not nearly for the same amount of money that dancers are used to making.

Erica: That it’s really easy and anyone can do it, or that it’s not artistic, but it’s super artistic.

In terms of the challenges, staying different and unique, or staying true to your brand or the theme you’re going with is hard. Staying focused and staying motivated, because I have to be in my house and get motivated to get hot and stay in front of my phone and pose for an hour. When I’m performing at a venue I’ll get professional photography, it’s not really in my nature to do content creation on my own and then sell it to people!

Danika: So many! There are a million different ways to use OnlyFans, people think everyone is posting BJ videos on their timeline and that is absolutely not the case. There are so many levels of nudity, even non-nudity, some people use their OnlyFans for other kinds of content. A lot of men use OnlyFans for fitness content. That’s the model I’m trying to bring through a new platform I’ve started called Money Mama — where you can monetize your influence in a lot of different ways and provide direct value to your followers. The people who are already buying adult content are preconditioned to that model of buying content directly from providers, whereas more mainstream content consumption is via a subscription model, either Master Class or Netflix or Hulu or Amazon. It’s more “I’m paying for the subscription service” and then the creator actually doesn’t get that much out of it.

It’s weird to me that it’s become more associated with selling or whoring yourself out. I’m making content, you give me the money, and that can be applied to anything. TV, YouTube tutorials, whatever it is. If you’re taking the money and booking yourself, you’re not less of a creator than someone with an agent and a manager.

Also, there is a misconception that the only people who buy this content are total losers or perverts who can’t get free porn. Anyone can figure out how to get free porn… The people who buy adult content are more technologically advanced because they understand these different platforms, and services, and understand that the creator is getting more money than the actress that did a one-off video that is being watched endlessly on Pornhub.

These are people who understand the ideas of consent, and personal value in skill sharing.

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