Lucy Sweetkill, a full-time dominatrix for 10 years, runs a “playspace” – a venue in Manhattan she and her business partner rent to other professional dominatrices, so they can meet clients and store equipment. COVID-19 shut it down for four months.
Sweetkill – her “work name” — sat in her apartment on the other side of the Zoom meeting wearing a black leather jacket and recalling the turmoil the pandemic caused. She had to move her business onto the internet.
“I’m lucky. I have the ability to do online work and be pretty okay. I have a supportive partner,” she said. “But not everybody has that.” Sweetkill, 35, charges $350 to $500 for services like costume play dominance and now earns 50% to 70% of what she used to make.
COVID-19 slashed the income of all sex workers in New York City, from exotic dancers in strip clubs to porn actors on online platforms. Columbia University researchers have found that the number of active online sex worker profiles dropped by a quarter during the pandemic, along with client interest.
These workers faced such economic strain, researchers said, that after a period of social distancing and self-isolation, some have returned to in-person work. They have no safety net; as workers in a criminalized trade, they are largely excluded from government support.
In July, however, the New York City Council appropriated $3.8 million to support people involved in the sex trade as part of next year’s budget. It will fund organizations that offer medical services, legal assistance, job training, housing and emergency shelter. Community outreach workers will receive $365,000 to support social services.
Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in email, called the appropriation critical. “We fight for justice for persons involved in the sex trade, and this is why the City Council funds programming to help these New Yorkers despite the current budget challenges,” he said. “Victims of human trafficking and those engaged in the sex trade need supportive services.”
Workers and outreach groups have also organized mutual aid funds. The Brooklyn chapter of Sex Workers Outreach Project, for instance, set up a GoFundMe page in March and raised $164,153 to provide individual grants to over 500 people and to fund outreach programs. “That’s not enough to provide for minimum survival,” said Kaitlyn Bailey, a spokesperson for Decriminalize New York.
Sweetkill shut down her private playspace in March, and reopened in August with limited capacity.
She requires safety measures like temperature and oximeter checks and masks. Her work, which excludes intercourse, limits bodily fluid exchange. The working dominatrices wear gloves, disinfect with alcohol and avoid seeing new clients. “A lot of us aren’t insured.” Sweetkill said. “If you get COVID, you’re just shit out of luck.”
While there is no data on how many sex workers have contracted the virus, Denton Callander, deputy director of Columbia University’s Spatial Epidemiology Lab, and his team studied 78,399 online profiles of 19,388 sex workers on an international website since September 2019.
They found that active profiles decreased by more than a quarter during COVID-19, from January to May. The number of visits per profile, representing client interest, also dropped 21.3%. The profiles include workers who offer both in-person and virtual services.
The decline occurred because people were trying to follow public health recommendations through physical distancing and social isolation, Callander said. Yet half the online profiles during the pandemic remained active because of financial need
Then newly-created sex work profiles spiked 35.6% from May to August, indicating a trend of sex workers going back on the job, but moving online.
“If they could take time off, they did,” Callander said. “But those who were living week to week in terms of income or who had to keep paying rent all for themselves, they just couldn’t do that.”.
Because sex workers cannot file tax returns for criminally-derived income, they are ineligible for unemployment benefits. “We are forgotten about.” Sweetkill said. Workers had to be self-reliant, unable to depend on the government. “It’s failed me too many times, it’s exhausting.” Sweetkill added. Many workers, some with children or a non-supportive partner, may not have enough privacy for online work, limiting their options.
Strippers reliant on tips have similarly lost income, with clubs still shuttered. They can’t benefit from their employers’ small business loan benefits because strippers are private contractors.
Kris Elle, 31, used to dance at clubs in Queens, Brooklyn and Bronx. Talking on Zoom — wearing a cropped striped shirt, silver glitter nail extensions and long hoop earrings – she recalled, “All my clients, they were like, ‘Where are you? I want to see you.’ And I’m like, ‘COVID! No!’”
Elle now dances at underground parties in people’s living rooms and basements. “They used to be the after-spot of the clubs. Now, that’s the club, unfortunately,” Elle said. Strippers who preferred clubs over parties for hygiene and safety now rely on secret parties for income.
The change presents risks. “These parties are hot and packed,” Elle said, with more than 30 men, along with five to 20 dancers, at each party and few precautions like masks and social distancing.
Though she misses the club scene, Elle has worked more since July and her income has risen from $20 to $500 a night in clubs to $1000 for one party. She retained health insurance through Medicaid and food stamps, but was ineligible for unemployment benefits.
In search of new revenue streams, Elle feels reluctant to move online, saying being on-camera makes her uncomfortable. But she will shift to YouTube and OnlyFans in case of another shutdown; meanwhile, she freelances as a makeup artist for weddings.
Online sex work isn’t simple. Since Congress passed laws in 2018 to curb sex trafficking, websites are held responsible when third parties post sex-related ads on their platforms, consensual or not. That has pushed sex work further underground, said Bailey.
The laws shut down websites, including Backpage and Craigslist Erotic Services, where workers could screen their clients. Bailey said clients who used to provide their names, addresses and two industry references are now less willing to share incriminating personal information.
With COVID-19 still leaving many sex workers desperate for income and more susceptible to predators online, “workers who were vulnerable before now take more risks for less money.” Bailey said.
Sweetkill is unsure whether she can open another playspace if COVID strikes again. “I don’t know if my business will survive,” she said. “I am working a lot more than I would like to. But I have to.”
(Featured photo credit: Raphael Korman @RaphaelKorman)