Sex Workers Forced to Make Risky Choices during Pandemic

Like other members of the service and gig economies, sex workers have been hit hard by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Strip clubs across San Francisco have closed. Escorts’ and BDSM professionals’ clients have dried up. And those who continue operating face a smaller and more dangerous clientele, but often have no other options but to continue working.
Live online webcam modeling seems like a natural pivot for sex workers who are no longer able to see clients. VICE noted that popular cam site OnlyFans saw 60,000 new sign-ups in March, and The Chronicle recently reported on several underemployed Bay Area sex industry professionals and members of the gig economy succeeding on the site, but it isn’t always a natural transition.

A stripper from topless San Francisco institution the Condor, who we’ll call Jessica, requested anonymity to weigh in with a perspective of an erotic dancer. Jessica has explored online cam modeling, but found it just as physically taxing as dancing, for significantly less money. The $2 per minute wage advertised sounded appealing at first, but with most sessions lasting only 10 minutes, it didn’t add up to much.

Claire Alwyne, a professional dominatrix (or domme), echoes Jessica’s sentiments on it being difficult to pivot to cam work.

“What I hear from my colleagues is that everybody is trying to go online, and there’s already a well-established population of workers online,” says Alwyne. “And there’s probably far fewer online clients now, because people are home with their families. It’s kind of difficult to have a sexy chat.”

Kristen DiAngelo, executive director of the Sacramento Sex Worker Outreach Project, reiterates that going online isn’t an easy option.
“Camwork isn’t always a possibility. You’re taking a ton of industries and streaming them into one, which is geared toward a certain type of clientele. There are people who don’t photograph well, or don’t even have that technology.”

Cesar Espinoza-Perez, an SF-based escort, also found it difficult to adapt.

“A couple years ago, I was starting to do some online stuff, but I stopped, because it’s really something you have to build up to to have an audience. And it wasn’t monetizing as fast as I was used to with meeting people in person,” he says.

RELATED: The remarkable life of ‘Alice Smith,’ once San Francisco’s most famous sex worker


Like other industries affected by the coronavirus, sex professionals could use a bailout. Bay Area Workers Support is offering $50 to 200 grants for sex workers, and according to the SF office of economic and workforce development, the forthcoming $1,200 stimulus does apply to sex workers who file taxes, but the black market nature disqualifies many from unemployment benefits. Those who do run licensed businesses may be out of luck from additional assistance though, as the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program excludes businesses “of a prurient sexual nature.”

Maxine Doogan, who has done full-service sex work and served as a dominatrix in San Francisco for 30 years, takes issue with that exclusion. She founded the Erotic Service Providers Union in 2007 to advocate for this type of discrimination against sex workers.

“For a long time, we’ve advocated for a policy agenda. We think that there needs to be some specific anti-discrimination legislation for our community,” she says, stressing that prostitution is legal on the federal level. California made a big step last year with SB233, which allows sex workers to carry condoms without fear that they’d be used as evidence against them in a stop, but the act itself is still a crime. “The criminalization of prostitution leaves a bunch of people left out, without access to equal protection under the law,” she says.

Espinoza-Perez had been working on a campaign with a group of 10 other sex workers at the city level to decriminalize sex work, but in the wake of COVID-19, the project has shifted to advocating for emergency funding.

“We’re in a crisis, but this is also an opportunity to learn online organizing. A lot of people are feeling like the government isn’t really defending sex workers,” he says, and stresses that the criminalized status makes it hard for the department of public health to keep statistics and monitor the well-being of sex workers.

Another sex worker named Angel (who requested to be identified by her first name) has been doing full body massages and escorting for 15 years. Like Doogan, she’s still seeing at least one regular, who’s been a weekly client for five years and takes serious sanitary precautions. She pays taxes as an entertainer, so is eligible for the stimulus package.
“I’m one of those that can be helped, but other sex workers are the ones I’m concerned about,” she says. “We’re just like any other business, and just as important as any other business. There should be some help for sex workers.”

Like all dancers at legal strip clubs in California, Jessica from the Condor is considered an employee and not an independent contractor, a legal change mandated in 2018. The status led to a 50% decrease in earnings for Jessica to compensate for being on payroll, but now has had an unexpected benefit.

“It’s really not a very lucrative job anymore. But now, it’s a blessing in disguise, because I can apply for unemployment,” says Jessica.

Jessica’s considering returning to her previous career as a social worker, but could barely make ends meet on her former salary. Some dancers she knows immediately moved back in with their parents.
“We’re pretty much social outcasts, so people aren’t running to our rescue. People don’t really care; that’s what sets us apart from bartenders and waitresses.”

RELATED: Pup play, latex and bondage: Here’s what we saw at the 2019 Folsom Street Fair


Doogan has a small amount of savings to weather the storm, but is still seeing her regular clients — a defiance of the shelter-in-place order that she justifies as a means of survival.

“I think it’s not reasonable to expect that people who have been cut out of the social compact to comply with all of the restrictions. We’ve been left to fend for ourselves,” says Doogan. “I don’t think it’s really reasonable to think that we’re going to have to suffer without their help.”
Doogan works indoors in private environments, but she thinks even street-based workers will be forced to continue during the coronavirus crisis.
“If I had to walk the streets tonight to get some money for food, I would definitely be doing that,” she says.
Angel agrees that some women simply can’t stop working.

“A lot of women still have to work through these times. They don’t have a choice. There’s going to be a lot of women who are going to take the risk. That might spread it.”

Jessica from the Condor noted that as the public became more aware of the coronavirus risks and started staying home, the clientele turned seedier.

“Strip clubs are about as high risk as it gets. The last day I was there, it was clear we shouldn’t be open. At that point, the people showing up just clearly didn’t care at all. They didn’t bother taking precautions.”

According to Jessica, the closing of strip clubs has led to many dancers to turn to prostitution.
“I know some girls are resorting to doing full service. I happen not to be one of those people. Anyone who’s doing full-service sex work, it’s a higher risk. The customers who are still seeking out sex workers, anyone who’s not social distancing, is pretty high risk,” she says.
Alwyne echoes Jessica’s sentiments on the remaining clientele being riskier.
“The few people who are seeking to purchase services at the moment are pushing the boundaries and seeking to negotiate a special rate. They think we’re desperate, and we are desperate, it’s true. In this situation, the good clients disappear, and the downright bad clients come out of the woodwork,” says Alwyne.

All of the people who spoke to SFGATE stressed that like other out-of-work service-industry professionals, they’re relying on the support and generosity of their regulars to get through the pandemic. If there’s one thing people can do to help, it’s reach out, as many don’t feel comfortable initiating contact with customers while they’re sheltered with their families. Without that support, the outlook for many sex workers is dire.
“The streets are like a ghost town out there. Which means they’ll do one of two things,” says DiAngelo. “They’ll negotiate down all their safety protocols in order to survive. You’ll try to outbid the person next to you. Then a lot of girls will begin to join up, they’ll seek out pimps and other people who can help them.
“For me this is one of the biggest arguments for decriminalization there can be – the safety of the workers and the community,” says DiAngelo. “It doesn’t only endanger the workers, it also endangers the community. But you can’t ask somebody to starve to death so other people can be safe.
“You might survive the virus, you won’t survive not eating for two months. If you ask any rational person if they’d rather take the virus, or not eat, that’s not even a thought.”