Sex Workers & COVID

Issue 261

Many are finding new ways to make a living, but it's not easy.

Olivia Riggio Feb 12, 2021

“I definitely know some folks who are still seeing people and are not really being cautious. The threat of starvation is a bit more all-encompassing than the threat of COVID, for many people,” says Fera Lorde, a sex worker for 17 years.

Fera Lorde. Photo: Ashley Marinaccio.

Lorde, who uses the gender-neutral pronoun “they” and works with the Brooklyn chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP), began offering sex acts as a homeless teenager in Seattle hoping for the odd $20, but is now a full-time “full service” escort whose rates start at $1,000 for a 90-minute encounter.

The COVID-19 epidemic has seriously complicated life for sex workers, whose gigs, after all, often involve intimate in-person contact. Some have been able to work remotely, such as by “camming,” doing live performances on webcams or posting pictures and videos on subscription-based fan sites like OnlyFans.

Lorde, who does not do online work, says they lost their income at the beginning of the pandemic, but has been able to stay afloat thanks to a few loyal customers. However, sex workers who do not charge high-end prices, or who fear that demanding that clients take COVID tests and quarantine before encounters will cost them business, take more risks.

“I’m currently in a place where I’m doing OK financially, but if I wasn’t, I would lower my rates, I’d see clients with less precautions,” Lorde says. “There’s just different levels of risk.”

Mia Lee, another full-service escort and organizer with SWOP Brooklyn, came to the U.S. from China as a political refugee and grew up in foster care. She attended college and became successful in the finance world before leaving and using her business smarts to become a high-end escort. But because the majority of her clients are business travelers or rich men now unable to sneak away from their families during lockdown, much of her business has halted.

Lee said her savings have helped her stay afloat. She doesn’t require her clients to have COVID tests, but she gets tested regularly.

For Sinnamon Love, a 26-year sex-work veteran based in New York City, the risk of in-person work is not an option. Now 47, with three children and a 7-year-old grandson, she began as a survival sex worker as a teen, sleeping with people for food or a place to stay. She began working in mainstream porn — which she is best known for — in college, but also does in-person performances, full-service work, dominatrix work, and camming.

Last spring, she formed the BIPOC Adult Industry Collective (BIPOC AIC), which aims to combat racism in the adult entertainment world. The group provides education, wellness resources, and financial microgrants to sex workers of color.

Sinnamon is immunocompromised, as is her grandson, who lives with her. Although she is best known for her porn work, she says she prefers in-person work, but has given it up during the pandemic. Being at home with a family — and experiencing the death of a loved one during the pandemic — were added challenges. At first, she says, she didn’t take advantage of the support groups her own organization was holding, but eventually realized she deserved support too.

“The very work that I was creating, the space I was creat-ing for other people, became a safe space for me as well,” she says. “I think it was almost three months before I attended one of our support groups, because I didn’t want to take up space from other people who needed to access these resources. And then I realized… I also am a marginalized sex worker impacted by COVID.”

Cybersex: The Contactless Alternative?

While some sex workers are still reeling from the loss of in-person work and the pandemic’s economic effects on their clients, others have found an opportunity to enter the industry and make more money by working remotely.

Saint Devera, an online cam model living in Chicago, started his work on the online subscription-based platform FanCentro at the beginning of the pandemic. He was at first veteran cammer MelRose Michael’s personal assistant, but decided to go in front of the cameras in March, after he lost his job as a bartender.

He now has 158 followers and offers subscribers solo videos, chatting and personal pay-per-view images.

Michaels, who is based in Tennessee and has been a webcam model for a decade, said she noticed that subscribers began guarding their wallets when COVID started. She lowered prices for individual clips, but was able to keep the subscription costs for her Fan Centro content the same.

When she first entered the industry, she says, many other sex workers felt that cammers weren’t really legitimate sex workers. But when COVID hit, already established webcam models like her were more able to adapt to work under the lockdown.

“I feel like webcam models especially were kind of poised for this, because we’ve been selling our own clips, we’ve been producing our own content, we’ve always had control of our own content,” Michaels says. “We were kind of in a power position. From my perspective, a lot of the girls who were in mainstream porn kind of found themselves like, ‘Oh, now I have to learn all this stuff that everyone else was doing, and do it all myself,’ which they weren’t prepared for.”

Camming isn’t an option for everyone including immigrants who lack the resources to get started.

Most sex workers engage in multiple forms of sex work, both online and in-person, Sinnamon said. Blyre Cpanx, a travelling sex worker, burlesque performer, and professional dominatrix who has been working in the industry for about eight years, did most of her work in-person before the pandemic, but supplemented it by selling photos or videos online or having clients pay to chat with her. When the pandemic hit, all of her in-person work and performances were cancelled, so she started relying solely on her online client base. She has gained more online clients, but they haven’t necessarily been reliable.

“It’s affecting a lot of my clients — what can they afford?” she says. “I’ve had one client that has been my very loyal client for six years and during COVID, he had to cut out all forms of support and patronage.”

Still, she adds, she and her in-person clients agree about not wanting to meet right now.

A Resource Gap

Switching to online camming isn’t an option for everyone. Lorde, for example, suffers from screen-induced seizures.

It’s particularly difficult for the Chinese immigrants, many undocumented, who work in massage parlors in areas like Chinatown in Flushing, Queens. “A lot of them are immigrants who don’t have language capacities, so even if they have access to a working phone and Wi-Fi and microphones — just the plethora of things that you need to make online work feasible and profitable, there’s a language barrier,” says Esther K, the co-director of Red Canary Song, a group formed to help massage-parlor workers.

They don’t necessarily consider themselves sex workers but often perform sex acts for clients, she explains. It’s more lucrative than restaurant or nail-salon work. Many have families at home, she adds, lack the equipment and private space to film themselves, or the time to promote themselves.

That means massage parlor workers are more likely to move into street sex work, which is much riskier. Mia Lee also said she’s learned from her work with SWOP that lower-charging street workers have also been reporting more violence from clients.

“Clients would negotiate or demand for workers to get into a car immediately or wave workers from a lit area into an unlit area,” Esther explains. “They would be forced to work in these more dangerous conditions.”

Police are another danger. Raids on massage parlors are common. Red Canary Song was named in honor of Yang Song, a Flushing massage worker who died jumping out a window to avoid an arrest during a police raid in 2017.

In New York, there has been a push to decriminalize sex work, led by organizations like DecrimNY and politicians like state Senators Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos. Salazar introduced a bill to decriminalize it during the 2019–2020 legislative session, but it did not make it past committee.

Some self-styled reforms can cause problems for sex workers, however. Lorde said they moved from Seattle to New York in 2018 because Seattle’s “Nordic model” laws on prostitution created too much of a burden. The Nordic model, in theory, punishes only clients who pay for sex acts, not the workers who perform them. But in reality, Lorde says, it defines all sex workers as victims of trafficking, to the point where if sex workers work in a group, they’re considered traffickers of each other, and if they advertise online, they’re considered traffickers of themselves. This type of law also scares off clients, Lorde adds, which gives predatory and abusive clients more leverage.

New York’s 1976 ban on “loitering for the purpose of prostitution” law has been nicknamed the “walking while trans” ban because it has led to police profiling of transgender women, especially those of color. On February 2, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation repealing it.

Nationally, the 2018 Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) were packaged as anti-trafficking laws. They made online platforms responsible for sex sold on them, such as a pimp advertising the services of an underage girl. That effectively cut off outlets for online advertising, which many adult, consensual sex workers used to vet clients before meeting them. Craigslist eliminated its entire personal-ads section, where many postings were for sex work.

Some sex workers are also claiming that OnlyFans is beginning to kick adult-content creators, who generate most of its traffic, off its site as a result of FOSTA/SESTA. Legislation seems to paint victims of sex trafficking and sex workers in the industry on their own accord with the same brush.

Even when sex workers aren’t directly sharing explicit content, some sites are censoring them. In December 2020, Instagram tightened its terms of use to shut sex workers out of the app. Sex workers have also been reporting that Instagram’s algorithms censor certain body types more than others. “Thin bodies are censored or flagged far less than larger bodies,” says Cpanx, and white people on OnlyFans have their posts reported far less often than people of color.

Celebrity Controversy Amid a Flooding Market

The influx of already wealthy people to online sex work has created some resentment from those already in the life. In 2020, former Disney star Bella Thorne sparked outrage when she made an OnlyFans account, offering $200 nudes for her 50,000 subscribers. Already a multimillionaire, she said she’d donate what she made to charity. Except, the “nudes” were just pictures of her in lingerie, which led to OnlyFans having to dole out thousands of refunds and processing costs. The site now limits content creators’ charges for exclusive content to $50, and caps tips at $100. It also pays users less frequently.

“Celebrities came over and took over OnlyFans,” says Kiara is Cocky, an Atlanta-based erotic-content creator. “At this point if you don’t break through this thick wall of the most popular top-making OnlyFans creators, you’re at the bottom 94% of creators on OnlyFans…. Even before COVID, probably just one year ago, it was a little bit more spread out, with a middle class, and now it’s a lot less of a middle class.”

With sites like OnlyFans favoring celebrities and already-established porn stars with large social media followings, newcomers setting up accounts in the midst of COVID layoffs are not likely to make enough to survive. It’s not as easy as uploading a nude photo or X-rated video and watching the cash flow in. Sex workers need to market themselves to stand out among thousands.

“There’s a lot of business sense that goes along with being successful at it,” Michaels says.

She used to do her own marketing, filming, production, and social media by herself but has started hiring assistants. The on- line sex-work world has become so saturated because of the pandemic that Michaels pitched an idea to the OnlyFans competitor FanCentro to create Centro University, a free training series that offers newbies tips for joining the camming world.

Sinnamon’s BIPOC AIC also offers workshops to help sex workers improve their online traffic. Self-promotion — editing, scheduling posts, writing captions, and creating hashtags — is at least half of the job.

“What I would want new sex workers to know is that it’s not easy money at all,” she says. “What happens when you’re sick? What happens when you are not feeling well? What happens when you’re depressed, because we’re living in a pandemic? Like, you still have to be able to churn out content.”

Survival Work Versus Gig Work — Is There Room for Everyone?

Sex workers’ needs for survival are not the same. While some have entered the sex-work gig economy to make extra money during lockdowns, others are struggling to stay afloat in a swelling sea of content.

“Where the institution has failed you, and where you are fetishized and marginalized by society, you create a capital of your own labor, and your body is the means of production.”

“There’s definitely a disparity between your girl or guy that just graduated college or just turned 18 and is like, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this! Let me do this!’ and somebody that comes from generational poverty or has pretty much only known ‘the streets’ and who is driven to do it out of the need of survival,” says Devera. He says he’s privileged enough that if he couldn’t do sex work anymore, he would be able to find another job.

Sinnamon says she does not see a disconnect between career sex workers and new entrants to the industry. Michaels’ Centro University is proof that some veteran sex workers want to help novices. Others say that the “you-go-girl” attitude toward online sex work is doing nothing to help people who risk arrest and jail just to survive.

“There are people who enter sex work because it’s their passion and their drive and it’s what they want to do and they’re very excited about it,” Lorde says. “But for a lot of people, it’s a survival trade. Where the institution has failed you, and where you are fetishized and marginalized by society, you create a capital of your own labor, and your body is the means of production.”

That difference particularly affects sex workers of color. One of the reasons Sinnamon created the BIPOC AIC is the wage disparities in the porn industry that lead to pressure to perform more degrading sex acts.

“People often find themselves being co-conspirators to their degradation, because they are in financial straits. People will often do things that they may not necessarily do if they didn’t need the money,” she says.

Mia Lee says although as a full-time sex worker she feels no animosity toward newcomers just popping into the industry to make some extra money during the pandemic, she’s noticed through her work with SWOP that many sex workers in more dire situations do.

“I think that gig sex workers tend to not really be invested in the community,” she says. “And if you’re basically just a tourist in this marginalized industry, I would imagine it feels pretty unfair to a survival sex worker that, here’s the person who’s just reaping a lot of benefits of this very niche industry without putting anything into the community.”

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