(10/05/2020) EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated with contributions and input from a sex worker rights expert.
Since Albuquerque’s strip clubs shut down following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s subsequent order for non-essential businesses to close in March, some sex workers have adjusted by moving their services online.
Online adult entertainment, ranging from webcam or “camming” sites to more traditional pornography sites, has seen a surge in activity in the last 6 months. 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 — a local dancer who filed for and received unemployment following the closure of Fantasy World in March — requested to be referred to by her working name to protect her identity from the stigma, hostility and violence that is targeted at those who engage in sex work.
Belladonna now works as a companion and cammer, and she described the transition to online work as “very weird,” as she was left having to adjust to the disparities in pay and rate.
Cammers are people who pose for webcams, especially as a form of paid adult entertainment, according to Merriam Webster.
“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 “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, has continued to cultivate her OnlyFans account while she pursues other career options.
“I want to be an esthetician, so any form of sex work is helping me get there, financially,” Kelsie said.
Likewise, Jennifer Rose — an astrologer and reiki master who has danced in clubs across the country — supplements her teaching by working for PEP (People Exchanging Power), a locally-owned phone sex operator company whose workers are referred to as “Ladies.”
Rose had already been 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 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 obstructed the accessibility of the internet as a safe platform for work.
In 2018, FOSTA-SESTA tore down a cornerstone of the sex worker community: backpage.com, the then-largest marketplace for sex workers. Ultimately FOSTA-SESTA, by making the internet less accessible, necessitated sex workers to continue their services offline and in person, which presented inherent risks.
In 2019, Democratic California congressman Ro Khanna proposed the Safer Sex Worker Study Act as a response to and an examination of FOSTA-SESTA and its negative impact on sex workers. In March 2020, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham introduced the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act, or the EARN IT Act, 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 are not offered the same safety nets, protections and rights as employees in other industries.
In addition, street based 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.
Carol Leigh, a nationally acclaimed sex worker rights expert, contributed to this article as a sensitivity reader.
Gabriel Biadora is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. You can contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @gabrielbiadora