The coronavirus pandemic is leaving sex workers jobless—so why can’t they file for unemployment?
Raina, 29, an exotic dancer who works in Seattle, Washington, is searching her house for loose change so she can buy food for her two kids. “I’ve been starving myself so my children can eat,” she tells HelloGiggles. “My job is completely shut down and I can’t file for unemployment. I can’t find a job that’s essential because I have no sitter, and daycare is not an option. This virus has fucked my family over.”
As of March 26, the United States has the most coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in the world and, as a result of essential social distancing and shelter-in-place initiatives aimed at mitigating the spread of the virus, at least 160 million people nationwide have been ordered to stay home and 3.3 million people have filed for unemployment—something sex workers cannot do. And while the $2 trillion economic rescue plan recently passed by the Senate allows for unemployment benefits to now be made available to gig, freelance, and other self-employed workers, the amount of aid received and the length for which a person is eligible will vary state to state, as reported by The New York Times. For sex workers, the current global pandemic has all but decimated their ability to make a living.
“I have a PayPal but all my customers haven’t helped me, as they are stuck with their own [financial] situations,” Raina says. “I do cam work but I don’t get much.”
The demand for the services that sex workers provide hasn’t decreased as a result of the coronavirus. In fact, visits to PornHub, which offers free pornographic videos and movies, saw a 13.7% increase in traffic on March 20, and an 18.5% increase in traffic after the site announced it would make its premium service free to all visitors. But the porn industry has essentially shut down as a result of the pandemic, strip clubs have closed nationwide, and social distancing has made it difficult for escorts to take clients.
“I was seeing men through my new dom, [which is] basically prostitution,” Sasha, 37, tells HelloGiggles. “I wasn’t making a ton, because I do it part-time, but it was enough to cover some bills and put away some money. Now, [I’m] helping cover my family who is all out of work, and myself, [which] is pretty much based solely on my regular job.”
Sasha also works in the service industry as a manager of a restaurant. And while she’s grateful that her restaurant has been able to offer delivery and pick-up services in order to remain open, she is afraid that she will eventually lose her main source of income, too.
“I’ve had a lot more responsibility thrown on my shoulders now that my family has been put out of work. So the loss of my supplemental income just adds to [my stress],” she says. “And like I said, I’m very part-time in this world, so I’m nervous for the other workers who rely solely on [their sex work], and I’m worried that my clients may never come back.”
Much like the restaurant industry, the sex work industry is attempting to ease the financial toll that the virus is taking and offer alternative services. A strip club in Portland, Oregon, now has dancers delivering food to clients topless—aptly named Boober Eats—and a club in Las Vegas has started offering drive-up window strip shows. For sex workers who can moonlight as cam girls and work entirely online, this unprecedented health crisis has actually increased the demand for their services.
“Everyone is home and doesn’t have much to do except watch girls on cam,” Danika Maia, 29, tells HelloGiggles. As a result, she’s actually seen an increase in demand for her cam work. “It has [also] given me time to work on another business idea called Money Mama, which is a skill-share platform for women to figure out new hustles during these times.”
Cam work was Maia’s main source of income prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, so she had an already established following and has more or less been able to maintain her finances. “I’m more interested in helping others financially since, again, my work has not been affected,” she says. “Clients have been a mixed bag: Some are saving money and some have savings [in the bank], or [have] jobs that weren’t affected and are spending normally. I’ve given some free trials of my OnlyFans account and have donated money to other sex workers and people struggling.”
And many sex workers, even with the option to take their work online, are struggling.
Isabella Beloved, a thirty-year-old tantric massage therapist and tantric dominatrix working in New York City, can no longer see clients in person as a result of the pandemic and is now relying on Skype and FaceTime sessions. “I’ve only made about $400 in the last 10 days,” she says. “I’m so grateful to have online work, and I know I’m one of the lucky few who has any income at all right now, but it’s still pretty scary.”
Beloved loves her job and is afraid that it will take months—if not longer—before she is able to see clients in person, a possibility that might make it difficult, if not impossible, for her to pay her bills. “I’m afraid online work alone won’t pay my bills on the first of the month, which is coming up very soon,” she says. “[In-person] sessions have always been my reliable bread and butter.” Still, she is busy promoting her online accounts via her social media and setting up PayPal and CashApp accounts (though, like Raina’s clients, many of Beloved’s regular clients are also facing financial instability and are unable to send her money).
Still, according to Maia, sex workers may actually be in a better financial position than bartenders or servers, since many of their services can be transferred to and offered online.
But this moment of uncertainty and fear has also outlined how all gig workers are, more often than not, left behind.
“I think that it has highlighted how we systematically fail to protect really all freelance workers and people in general,” she says. “The lack of healthcare, the lack of Social Security resources, the misinformation being spread everywhere, and the ensuing panic that comes from that [are all examples of this].”
And that failure is weighing heavily on Sasha’s mind, especially as she’s left only to hope she can continue to provide for herself and for her family.
“If we were allowed to be part of the ‘legitimate’ workforce, we wouldn’t feel like we had to hide these things,” she says. “I wouldn’t feel judged, or like I’m an outcast for simply trying to put food on the table and a roof over my head. We would be able to take advantage of things like unemployment and stimulus packages, and it wouldn’t be as difficult to provide for ourselves and our families.” And while the CARES Act created temporary Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for gig workers—including sex workers who are considered self-employed—that allows them to file for unemployment, how long that assistance will remain in place and how much will be offered to freelance, gig, and self-employed workers will depend on the state in which they reside.
This unprecedented global health crisis has brought into view a wide range of ways in which our social institutions fail the working class, whether it be making access to healthcare dependent upon full-time employment or refusing to provide mandatory paid family leave and universal childcare. And in a country that has long demonized sex workers while shamelessly investing in and profiting from their services—where, in 2018, a bill was passed that made it more difficult for sex workers to find work via the internet, under the guise of curbing sex trafficking—it is, sadly, no surprise that sex workers are offered little support, like other freelancers and self-employed people.
When the majority of Americans want to see sex work decriminalized, we can and should do more to support those who offer comfort, pleasure, entertainment, and connection—even in a time of uncertainty and isolation. If we learn nothing more from this unprecedented time in global history, let it be that when we help the working class—the grocery store clerks, restaurant servers, delivery drivers, factory workers, and sex workers—by offering universal health care, universal childcare, a living wage, and unemployment protections, we’re helping ourselves.