With each passing day, the strip club in downtown Manhattan grew a little emptier. Fewer customers were drinking premium liquor and eating steaks in the plush banquettes; fewer patrons were sitting at the edge of the blue-lit stage; fewer clients were throwing dollar bills at the dancers performing on poles or in their laps. “It felt weird. There was an air of desperation, almost,” Nico, a dancer at the club, told me. As the city slowly woke up to the spread of the coronavirus this spring, so, too, did the dancers at clubs across town, whose work necessitates being physically close to strangers: talking to them, consoling them, and entertaining them. By late March, most of New York’s strip clubs had shut down—clubs in much of the rest of the country did, too—and, now, like hundreds of thousands of other workers, at the very least, in the sex industry, dancers are facing not only a drop in employment but also discrimination and stigma as they search for relief. Nico, who describes stripping as her economic “safety net,” said, “This line of work has the word ‘independent’ built into the job description. The club was not going to take care of us. We were left to fend for ourselves.”

The pandemic has created a catastrophic health and economic crisis that has illuminated the fragile existence of low-wage and gig workers in the United States. The experience of sex workers, who find the most stable work as independent contractors, is no different. (Some strip clubs offer workers employee status, but they are in the minority; in Nevada, where prostitution is legal in some counties, workers at brothels are considered independent contractors.) Like undocumented workers who are barred from getting government benefits in exchange for their labor, and prison laborers who receive little consideration of their rights as workers, sex workers have few places to turn for help. Federal law bars the issuance of disaster loans and grant assistance to applicants who “present live performances of a prurient sexual nature” or who earn income “through the sale of products or services, or the presentation of any depictions or displays, of a prurient sexual nature.” Strippers, pornography performers, and owners of sex-toy and other adult-entertainment businesses are ineligible. Sex workers who make their money on the street and cannot access public assistance are also wary of trying to access social services, for fear of being arrested.

Sex is unlike any other commodity. It is, for some people, tied to emotional beliefs about morality and pleasure and power. It is, for many others, tied to those same things, but it can be transactional and unsentimental, too—a service. Despite many parts of the sex business becoming legal, its laborers still see themselves either glamorized in popular culture as high-earning hustlers or portrayed as victims of trauma and manipulation. Political and social stigmas limit the recognition of their basic rights as workers. “People don’t realize that most labor is exploitative under capitalism,” Meagan, an organizer and former escort and stripper in Washington State, told me. “Looking at sex work from a puritanical view is deeply ingrained in society.”

Maya, a sex worker and undocumented immigrant from Honduras, has worked on and off for several years in different sectors of the industry, from pornography to full-service escorting. When President Trump entered office, in 2017, and threatened to disband the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (daca) program, of which Maya is a recipient, she decided to restart sex work and go into it full time. “I wanted to insure that, if I lost my right to work, I would still be able to earn an income underground and survive,” she said. It also lets her pay her daca renewal fees. Undocumented people who are found prostituting, which is classified as a misdemeanor in the state of New York, can be arrested and deported.

Of the dozen or so sex workers whom I talked to, some qualified for unemployment if they had paid taxes as independent contractors, and they were still trying to apply for it. Others did not qualify but had savings or family to lean on. And still others were doing whatever they could to piece together a living. Most were also hoping for the generosity of past clients and mutual aid from within their communities. One young single mother, who works as an escort and performs in Internet pornography in California, told me that most women she knew in the industry were trying to provide for their families. “They grew up in poverty, and they want to make sure their kids don’t have that same life style,” she said. She added that she was trying to decide if she could safely break quarantine and see clients by letting her daughter stay with a relative; every time she posts an advertisement, she becomes anxious and takes it down. She still sees a client whom she refers to as her sugar daddy, who does not want sexual interactions.

Lily, a dancer at a strip club in Manhattan and an actress, said that she started taking classes in burlesque and decided to try stripping after she grew tired of earning little in restaurants. She enjoys the dancing and the financial freedom the work gives her, but says that other parts of it are difficult to handle. “People think that this work does not deserve dignity or respect,” she said. Tea Antimony, a sex worker and organizer with the Brooklyn chapter of Sex Workers Outreach Project, said the stigmas of sex work reflect social prejudices. “We are yet again seeing how race, class, and immigration status intersect in terms of which work is defined as valid,” she said. “Sex work, like other feminized labor, is defined as not valid.”

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The Fragile Existence of Sex Workers During the Pandemic by Alexis Okeowo

May 21, 2020