Since Albuquerque’s three main strip clubs shut down during the pandemic following Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s order for non-essential businesses to close in March, sex workers have adjusted to continuing their livelihoods online.
Online adult entertainment, ranging from webcam or “camming” sites to more traditional pornography sites, has seen a surge in activity. Sex work online has become an increasingly popular way for people to create, own and publish their own content and support themselves financially amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
Belladonna, who — like many of the workers interviewed by the Daily Lobo, requested to be referred to by her working name to protect her identity — is a local dancer who filed for and received unemployment following the closure of Fantasy World in March.
Now working as a companion and cammer, she described the transition to online work as “very weird,” as she was left having to adjust to the disparities in pay and rate.
“You have to spend more hours camming than you had to spend in the club,” Belladonna said. “At the club, I could spend four hours a night there three nights a week and go home with my rent every single night, whereas on cam you want to spend around three to four hours online, but you want to try and do it every day or at least five times a week so you’re getting a good build up of people and you’re consistent.”
On top of camming and posting on various websites like Suicide Girls, Belladonna also began offering companionship to support herself and her family.
“I want to provide the best life for my cats and myself, and I want to spoil my niece to death. So I was just like, ‘Fuck it, I know (offering compansionship) would be the biggest bang for my buck,’” Belladonna said.
Like Belladonna, Kelsie was employed by Fantasy World as a dancer and bartender when non-essential businesses were ordered to close. Upon notice of her club’s closure, Kelsie became concerned about whether her OnlyFans account would be sufficient to keep her afloat.
“I wasn’t sure if it was going to be enough for me, because technically I consider it two jobs — working at the strip club and having an OnlyFans — so only having one job, I was like, ‘Oh crap,’” Kelsie said.
Kelsie made an OnlyFans account five months before the club she worked at closed indefinitely. She picked OnlyFans because of its simplicity, likening the subscription-based platform to “a Twitter, but you post your nudes and whatnot.”
She said that in her experience, OnlyFans provides a “better way to get out there,” referring to the exposure the internet can provide as opposed to traditional, brick-and-mortar establishments.
Kelsie, who is now also employed in the restaurant industry, continued to cultivate her OnlyFans enough to have garnered a substantial following with the aim of going to school and pursuing a less stigmatized and misunderstood career after the pandemic.
“I want to be an esthetician, so any form of sex work is helping me get there, financially,” Kelsie said.
Likewise, Jennifer Rose — a Black queer woman, astrologer and reiki master who has danced in clubs across the country — supplements her teaching by working for PEP, a locally-owned phone sex operator company whose workers are referred to as “Ladies.”
Rose had been already working for PEP and dancing at TD’s Showclub when the health and safety orders went into effect in March, mandating limited capacity in clubs before they shut down entirely.
“Seeing those posters on the door, talking about 25 girls maximum, that was when I was like, ‘Alright, thank God you started back at PEP,’” Rose said.
For Rose, PEP offered a routine better suited to her schedule as she ran her other business.
“Because I’m already running my own business as an astrologer, (OnlyFans) was too much,” Rose said. “Whereas PEP, they do a majority of the work for you: You just have to answer the phone and file the paperwork.”
Some sex workers don’t have the same opportunities to sustainably transition to working online, as Hunter — a sex educator, stripper and fellow “Lady” for PEP — explained.
“I’m a white, cis, conventionally attractive woman who has a college degree, and I have access to technology, a stable internet connection and experience going to college with video and sound editing,” Hunter said. “Those are all skills sex workers need if they’re going to be on an online format. And obviously, not everybody has access to those for lots of individual and systemic reasons.”
In 2018, President Donald Trump signed a set of bills meant to crack down on illegal sex trafficking online. The bills, known as FOSTA-SESTA, hold website publishers responsible in the case of third parties posting ads for prostitution, including consensual sex work.
FOSTA-SESTA were panned with controversy and backlash, as the bills not only created a censorship dilemma for website publishers but tore down a cornerstone of the sex worker community: backpage.com, the then-largest marketplace for sex workers.
In March, the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act, or the EARN IT Act, was proposed under the guise of combating the trafficking and sexual exploitation of children online. The bill was likewise criticized for its invasion of privacy and how it would impact sex workers who are reliant on encryption and online security.
Sex workers in the United States — a majority of whom are working as independent contractors, meaning they manage and finance themselves under an entity that doesn’t regard them as employees — are not offered the same safety nets, protections and rights as employees in other industries.
In addition, street sex workers are “often exposed to high levels of violence or other abuse or harm … usually because they are working in a criminalized environment,” according to Human Rights Watch.
When asked if she thinks sex work is becoming safer, Rose, who used to work as an escort, said, “No, I think sex work is becoming more tolerable, because we still aren’t checking on our street sex workers. And we’re not talking about them and what they’re doing, or how they’re surviving or not.”
Gabriel Biadora is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. You can contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @gabrielbiadora