Denver sex workers face economic fallout in wake of COVID-19 pandemic

By Madison Lauterbach

May 24, 2020 | Features | 1 comment

//Tequila, owner of Purple Door Studios, a feminist porn collective based in Evergreen, Colo. Photo provided by Tequila.

*Editor’s note: Most sources in this story are referred to by first name only or a pseudonym to protect their identities. 

As states implemented stay-at-home orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers faced immediate financial struggles. Sex workers, in particular, have felt the crush of economic pressure.

“There tends to be this misconception that that sex work is this recession-proof business, that sex workers are always making a ton of money. That’s actually very, very untrue,” said Cora, co-founder of Rocky Mountain Sex Worker Coalition and Lysistrata Mutual Care Collective and Fund. “This is, in many ways, a luxury service that suffers during times of economic hardship. Sex workers are often the first people to start feeling that squeeze.”

Simple measures taken to curb the spread of the virus also hinder what lies at the core of in-person sex work. Personal protection equipment puts a physical barrier between client and companion, said Tequila, owner of Purple Door Studios, a feminist porn collective based in Evergreen. Calming touches and intimate kisses are covered by gloves and masks.

“Sex work is based on being close to people and feeling intimate and with personal protective gear like masks and gloves, it just kind of desensitizes that feeling of connection to people,” she said.

Sex workers are facing a catch-22 during this pandemic. 

Those who continue to see clients in-person are at a heightened risk of catching the virus due to the intimate nature of the work and increased levels of abuse at the hands of desperate clients and police. 

“I’m scared of kidnapping,” said Claire, a high-end escort in Denver. “It would just be so easy during a quarantine to not know if I was taken out of my apartment. No one would know. It could take people weeks to know I was gone.”

Cora said there are a lot of potential clients right now that know how to take advantage of a desperate situation and try to haggle prices, negotiate on wearing protection, or take advantage of relaxed screening protocols. She said if workers are out on the street and they’re not getting other clients, they’re more likely to ignore their feelings that someone is dangerous. Times of crisis bring out bad actors against the sex worker community, Cora said. 

The consequences of seeing clients right now can be life or death, said Becky, co-founder of The Chrysalis House LCA, a sex-positive holistic healing cooperative founded by queer and femme black folks. She said to think of it as guerilla warfare, where sex workers are at war with an unseen enemy.

“We have no idea the consequences of the action of seeing clients. It’s gotten to the point where everyone is on high alert. The risk is no longer worth the reward,” Becky said.

But without the work, sex workers struggle to survive. 

Dry spell

Strip clubs are closing, calls from clients have become fewer and booking agents are going out of business. Colorado sex workers are seeing a dramatic drop in their incomes across the spectrum, from escorts to porn stars to street-based workers. 

Louise, a single mom of four from Castle Rock, is a licensed massage therapist who started doing sensual massages years ago to help pay medical costs for two of her children who have disabilities. She said she’s still taking appointments, but clients have all but stopped coming to see her. A few months ago, she was seeing about three clients a day, five days a week. For five weeks at the start of the pandemic, she didn’t have a single client. Now she sees one client every three weeks, what she estimates is a 90% income loss. 

“It’s just a waste of time. It’s just awful,” she said.

Although unemployment benefits have been expanded to include independent contractors and sole proprietors, many sex workers don’t have the ability to take advantage of the increased access. Escorting, otherwise known as companionship, and stripping aren’t illegal in the U.S. and therefore workers in these categories could, in theory, apply for these benefits. However, in order to get assistance, workers have to prove where that money came from, which causes accessibility issues with receiving government aid. One major concern is that attracting attention to and outing oneself now may bring negative consequences in the future when the dust settles, Cora said. 

The experience of already visible, more privileged workers varies greatly from that of more marginalized and closeted workers. Cora said like anything else in the sex worker community, there are discrepancies in experience based on privilege, where white, high-end workers are better able to navigate the system than workers who are trans women of color. 

Aiko, a luxury companion escort based in Denver, said she was worried about putting her sex work job on the unemployment application because it could be used against her in the future. She said her family, which doesn’t know about her work, continually asks if she’s applied for benefits. 

“I can’t tell them that I’m not applying, and I can’t tell them that I can’t apply,” Aiko said. “That adds a lot of tension to our conversations as well. It’s kind of a lonely field, during the two months [I wasn’t working], it just felt really lonely and I had no one to really discuss those details with.”

Sex workers who own a business license for their work and others such as strip clubs and sex shops have also run into barriers receiving funds through federal loan programs like the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program and Paycheck Protection Program. Businesses in the adult industry, including independent contractors, that provide services or live performances of a “prurient sexual nature,” are banned from receiving SBA loans under federal regulations. 

“We can’t really talk about it, we can’t tell people we’re not getting any unemployment help. We’re not getting any sympathy,” Louise said. “We’re always on our own. We’re still very much shut out.”

Cora said the way sex workers and adult businesses are being treated during this pandemic is a product of “the ruling powers” doing anything they can to covertly destabilize marginalized communities. She said the combination of the federal government being selective about who it’s offering assistance to, rent and mortgage payments not being canceled and the dangerous nature of seeing clients right now will cause many sex workers to lose their livelihoods. 

“A lot of people are going to end up getting pushed out into the streets where they’re even more vulnerable to getting sick and less able to get medical care,” Cora said. “It’s a way of very quietly disappearing a part of the population that the powers that be don’t want to exist.”

Digital deluge 

In order to make ends meet, some sex workers who saw clients in-person have flocked to the internet. Since the pandemic swept across the country, sites like OnlyFans have become popular seemingly overnight. In May, the platform’s CEO Thomas Stokely told Buzzfeed News subscription numbers were up about 50% in April and the site has seen 200,000 new users every 24 hours after a mention in a Beyoncé song. 

“I think that COVID is the main reason OnlyFans is such a big thing right now,” said Tequila. “It was here and there before but now everybody is using it and that’s why I think it’s an easy platform to jump on because people were already on OnlyFans and they didn’t have to sign up for something new in order to see our stuff.”

Before the virus, Purple Door Studios’ models produced feminist porn that largely went against videos seen on mainstream sites like PornHub. The collective would collaborate on multiple model clips and photos, including custom orders, all shot on high-definition cameras. Now, Tequila is limited to posting what her models send her — mostly solo and phone quality content. Although her solo work is thriving right now, she said there’s a lot of competition online now, between in-person sex workers joining the online world and new models. 

“If you’re limited by COVID quarantine requirements, you’re probably jumping into a different form of work that you have no idea what you’re doing,” Tequila said. “There’s a lot of people out there jumping into the digital side of things and they’re taking huge pay cuts. There are even people who haven’t been in sex work jumping into stuff online thinking it’s going to be easy peasy, but it’s work. It’s even more work if you’re a new model in a pandemic of other new models.”

Dia, a full-time student and nanny, joined OnlyFans a few weeks ago after hearing about it on social media and in her friend circles. She was already taking nude photos on her phone and figured the site allowed her to monetize the content. 

“I kept hearing more and more people that I knew talking about having an OnlyFans account and really enjoying it,” she said. “That intrigued me because it was something that I was already doing, making content, and it allowed for an audience and for me to possibly make some money off of it.”

Justice Rivera, a partner with Reframe Health and Justice, a collective of strategists and activists that provides consulting on harm reduction and inclusion of marginalized people, said that moving to an online platform for established in-person sex workers can be a difficult switch. She said that working online takes more time, energy and money in the long run. Some people are going from making $400-500 an hour, which usually involves about three hours of prep and post-work, Rivera said. Now, with working online, workers must have the equipment to shoot their own porn and at least some sort of editing software on their phone or computer. In addition, building a subscriber base takes a significant amount of time. She said even if some people have all day in a place to shoot clips, have a good following and are doing well with in-person work, they’re still struggling with the foreign platform. 

“It takes a bunch of time to do all of that stuff and they’re getting way less money. Most of the people that I know who have done in-person work, hate online work and are now putting three, four times the amount of time into it and getting 10 times less money,” Rivera said. 

The stay-at-home orders have restricted people to working with tools they’re not comfortable using, Rivera said. Some people, like those with disabilities, might be really well-suited to online work, “but the pandemic has made it so that people whose strengths lie with in-person work really have to move into this new world.” 

Some clients are failing to transition to this new platform as well, with most in-person clients saying that porn “really isn’t their thing,” Rivera said. 

There are some serious safety concerns with using the internet as a means to make money as a sex worker as well. Although Dia acknowledged that in-person sex work can result in physical harm, she said she feels being online makes it easier for people with bad intentions to use her videos and photos against her. 

“It’s just so much easier to find that information and it’s scary. How do I protect myself? How do I keep things private? At the end of the day, it is very hard when you are online and there is a risk,” she said.

Doxing, where users will expose someone’s personal information, is a major concern with so many sex workers and new models moving online, according to activists. These anxieties are doubled in a world where the internet is increasingly hostile to them. In April 2018, The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, also known as the SESTA/FOSTA bill package, became federal law. Sites frequently used by sex workers to advertise, like Backpage and Craigslist’s adult section, were shut down as a result. 

Social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat began cracking down on adult content. Sites shadowbanned, meaning sex workers’ posts were hidden from their followers’ feeds, or de-platformed users who violated the terms of service. Despite becoming a COVID-19 pandemic sensation in part due to the demand for adult content, OnlyFans is also beginning to close accounts of suspected sex workers. 

“This issue of de-platforming that’s always existed, but has really been exacerbated by SESTA/FOSTA, is continuing to cause huge problems in our community and even in our ability to get resources to one another,” Cora said.

Relief organizations and those who try to host their own sites for adult content are met with yet another hurdle of finding a payment processor that will accept them as a user. Payment processors like PayPal and Square, that own most of the instant payment apps we now use, don’t allow sex workers on their platforms. Many banks also discriminate against “adult goods and services.”

Cora said post-SESTA/FOSTA, every part of the sex worker community was in a panic and needed resources, but as things wore on, the people who ended up getting pushed out of their homes or needed more ongoing support tended to be more marginalized workers, who often bear the brunt of the consequences of things like platform shutdowns and such policies. 

“They’re also a part of the community that’s always in crisis, so having the COVID pandemic happen while we still had so many community members who had still not really stabilized since SESTA/FOSTA means that a lot of people are in really vulnerable places when they lose all of their income like this and can’t even try to go find another job,” Cora said. 

Darker today, brighter tomorrow 

As the pandemic wears on, all sex workers are realizing how vulnerable they are to the impacts of financial fallout, said Becky of The Chrysalis House LCA, which works to support queer, trans and indigenous folks, people of color and the sex worker community in Denver. 

“Just because they’re a non-full-service sex worker within a realm of privilege, this is hitting them just as hard, if not harder, than a single mother full-service sex worker with five kids working from home,” Becky said. “Now it’s evening the playing field.”

That level playing field is ripe for community-based activism right now. Cora, co-founder of Lysistrata, said so far this year, the Brooklyn-founded mutual care collective and fund has given out $23,000 in grants and stipends to sex workers in need nationwide. Despite the major need for relief funds over the last two months, Cora said payment frequency has actually stayed “surprisingly” stable, with only a slightly higher volume of requests now than a few months ago. 

“I think part of that is because we are a longstanding fund, for a lot of members in our community, the crisis never went away. It’s always been there,” she said. “Just the fact that we’ve been around for a while, people seem to be a little bit more excited about the newer efforts.” 

Cora said she’s received only a few requests totaling less than $1,000 from sex workers in Colorado. Because the fund is based in New York, it is less visible in Colorado. 

“I’ve been getting some requests for the fund from Denver but not as many as I feel like reflects what the need probably is,” she said. 

Both Cora and Becky said they hope that the activism and community work they’re seeing now translated to lasting support. The big challenge, Cora said, is sustaining these new support networks that have been set up during the pandemic long term. Many organizations, including The Chrysalis House LCA, Rocky Mountain Sex Worker Coalition and Lysistrata, are attempting to build a national network so they can work together to provide stability and services that exist for sex workers to take care of themselves and each other. 

“Hopefully the next time a crisis happens, we don’t even need to scramble to mobilize, we’re ready,” Cora said. 

If you are a sex worker in need of financial assistance, visit the Lysistrata emergency fund page here to apply. 

1 Comment

  1. Mike Filion

    The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It by Victor Malarek


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