It’s been over seven months since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and sex is still a precarious subject. Many argue that, despite the risks, sex is essential. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agrees, acknowledging it is important for our mental, social, and physical well-being.
“People can, will, and should continue to have sex during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the British Columbia, Canada, Centre for Disease Control writes in their “COVID-19 and Sex” guide. “Messages that discourage or shame people from sexual contact can be harmful and may discourage people from seeking essential sexual health services.”
The literature indicates that you are your safest sex partner, followed by those you live with, those you are in close contact with, and “no one else.” While this seems reasonable given the circumstances, it neglects those who earn a living through sex work. Sex workers have largely been ignored since the pandemic began, given that much of their work is off the books, making them ineligible for unemployment.
Similarly, businesses of a “prurient sexual nature” (meaning “having or encouraging an excessive interest in sexual matters”) are being denied emergency loans by the Small Business Administration (SBA), all but confirming that our government regards sex as essential to our physical and emotional well-being while forbidding professions that offer these services.
As a result, sex workers have had to get innovative to make ends meet. Ted D. Bastion, 30, is an escort, adult actor, and teacher whose career is majoritively fetish-driven. Since fetishes can require time, planning, intimacy, and trust, his gigs were previously always in person, and he’d often travel the world.
Since March, Bastion has been stuck in Illinois. Forced to take his work online, he has been recording content virtually, featuring a growing collection of sizable dildos because he cannot safely film with others.
Bastion believes he’s taking precautions more seriously than most in the profession. “I ain’t fucking at all, plain and simple,” he says. “No hookups, no gigs, nothing except my toys and my roommate, who I occasionally fist on weekends.”
Despite losing two-thirds of his income, Bastion, who is recovering from a hit-and-run motorcycle accident, remains positive. “Thankfully, things are getting better, and my following is slowly growing,” he says. “I may come out of this barely breaking even, but I’ve got a roof over my head and food in my stomach, so I don’t like to complain.”
Ian Leo is a 31-year-old, part-time escort in Toronto who boasts a more lax attitude regarding these precautions. For Leo, work has never been better, which he credits to clients’ boredom and loneliness in quarantine. For this reason, he argues sex work is more important than ever. Having established a mutual trust pre-quarantine, Leo and his regulars are comfortable booking sessions together, as they figure it’s safer than hooking up with randoms on Grindr. Since the pandemic began, Leo has not taken on new clients, half of whom he says ask for a “COVID discount.”
“There was one week where one of my generous regulars booked me five days in a row,” Leo says. “It’s up to the escorts to decide what they think is safe. If it’s your main or only source of income (especially if you’ve been unable to work otherwise), you may have to decide between rent and safety.”
Sexual institutions like NSFW, an exclusive sex club and community in New York City, are trying their best to help sex workers get back on their feet. “When the virus first hit NYC, we went into full shutdown and saw many in our community struggle to survive,” NSFW founder Daniel Saynt says. “It’s been nice to be able to rehire many of the masters, instructors, and sex workers we’ve worked with in the past and give our community some semblance of normalcy in these trying times.”
NSFW reopened in June with safety policies in place. “Capacity is at 10%, meaning no more than 20 are allowed in the space at a time,” Saynt says, explaining that most members at physical events are intimate with their trusted partners. To make up for the limited capacity, the club live-streams events so members at home can get in on the action as well.
As we continue to learn more about the virus and prevention, sex workers have cautiously begun taking in-person appointments. Most ask that their clients prove their COVID status before booking an appointment, and Saynt says sex workers are tested for COVID as regularly as they are for sexually transmitted infections. “This virus is very real, and nearly every sex worker we work with is trying their best to prevent the spread of infection,” Saynt says.
NSFW has also been hit by the pandemic, losing 90% of their revenue back in March. To keep his business alive, Saynt, like many sex workers, took his business online and launched “digital play parties,” hosted by sex workers who moderate a bustling chatroom while members play (solo or with a partner) on webcam.
These parties were a massive success, instantly garnering international media attention. No longer tethered to a single physical space, NSFW memberships have doubled, and brands––like Motorbunny, XR Brands, and Future Method––want in on the action.
While some folks, like Saynt, have been able to dig themselves out of this financial rut, the majority of sex workers are still struggling, uncertain how to press forward. But despite these circumstantial hardships, there has been some positive change, at least in terms of perception. For example, since the pandemic began, there has been a 75% increase in OnlyFans memberships from individuals looking to earn additional income from home. This statistic alone lends itself to the normalization of sex work and helps reframe how audiences perceive entertainment-based labor.
“Before lockdown, there was this idea that entertainment is a frivolous thing that we don’t actually need––and if you worked in adult entertainment, you were just the lowest of the low,” Jeremy Feist, a 29-year-old sex worker, says.
Now in isolation, Feist has noticed people are beginning to understand that they have an intrinsic need to be entertained and sexually fulfilled. As such, they’re beginning to actually pay for porn.
In addition, people are becoming more comfortable booking sex workers online, as it is less intimidating than meeting somebody in person. “I figured if I got uncomfortable, I could just exit the chat and they’d still get paid,” Tom, 34, who booked his first digital session with a sex worker in July, shares.
“I think we’re going to see decriminalization continue as so many have been left without ways to meet and connect with people intimately as this virus has ravaged America,” Saynt says. “I’m hearing more stories about people booking their first sessions with a sex worker. With so many people making money through adult content, I think we’re going to see a voting shift to allow for more freedom of self and one’s body.”
With vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris expressing desire to work toward decriminalization by directing punishments toward those who exploit sex workers, there is hope that more freedoms will be explored regarding sex work. Acceptance for people who are often forgotten and marginalized in society has never seemed more possible.
“Time will tell,” Saynt says. “But I’m hopeful.”