Like many other 19-year-olds, Bunny Adler, originally from Long Island, N.Y., is living at his parents’ house during the coronavirus travel restrictions. And, like many others, Adler’s work has been impacted by the effects of the pandemic. That’s because Adler, a transgender man who asked to be identified by his professional-facing name, is a sex worker. With stay-at-home orders now issued in dozens of states, he’s had to cancel his usual in-person meetings with clients.
Although his family knows about his sex work, Adler doesn’t feel comfortable doing “solo online work” with his parents around; he’s “respectful of the space,” he says. “They’re always home, and I can’t make great content trying to be silent.”
Across the country, gig economy workers have been hit especially hard by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. In many cities, Google spreadsheets to organize virtual tips for restaurant workers have become ubiquitous. The same goes for the sex industry: Dozens of mutual aid campaigns have popped up online, and Twitter threads have organized Venmo donations for sex workers.
As KQED reports, sex workers are particularly vulnerable because their work is often “illegal, in legal gray areas or not covered by unemployment laws.” What is clear is that the pandemic will change the landscape of the sex industry for the foreseeable future. As social distancing has led to more people seeking out intimacy online, sex workers say that people are flocking to platforms such as OnlyFans, which employs a subscription model, to sell and buy virtual sex.
That isn’t necessarily a viable option for sex workers who have historically relied on in-person meetings. Such is the case for a 22-year-old sex worker living in Indiana who goes by Lana Del They professionally. Lana Del They, who uses they/them pronouns, is a college student and lives in a small town; they travel to nearby cities for in-person sex work with regular clients. The money helps pay for necessities such as books. When their college was shut down, they were doing anything they could to “stabilize” their economic situation. They started webcamming, but felt at a disadvantage: The equipment to film high quality videos is expensive, which is a barrier for many.
“Without establishing your online clientele before the pandemic, it’s hard to get a foothold right now,” says Lana Del They. “So many people are creating content [now that sex work has moved mostly online], and there’s not really an established structure for it yet.”
There are some resources for people who still rely on in-person meetings for their livelihoods. As a clinical director told BuzzFeed News, people who must rely on continuing to see people in person have a few options: They can have a conversation with clients ahead of time and ask the same questions about recent travel and other risk factors that doctors are asking about. Sex work advocacy organizations have published resources for sex workers and clients. The New York City health department also issued guidelines for approaching sex during the pandemic; it suggested sex workers move their work online and that people have as few partners as possible.
These resources are evolving quickly. In a week, Andrea Werhun, a 30-year-old sex worker, writer and advocate living in Toronto, created a “quarantine survival guide” with photographer Nicole Bazuin. In part, the guide was a supplement to their book project, “Modern Whore,” which they’re currently fundraising for. But it is meant to be a resource for sex workers first and foremost, with tips about maintaining the “humanity, sanity, and vitality of sex workers.”
Werhun hopes that others “feel a little bit less alone by reading this guide, because I think we’re uniquely impacted,” she says over the phone. “As far as in-person labor is concerned, our work has been totally decimated. We don’t have any labor protections, we are not only socially isolated as a result of sex work stigma, but now we are economically extremely vulnerable, because we’ve lost our jobs.”
Unemployment has led others, who had never done sex work before, to enter the industry. Dylan Bloom, a 23-year-old living in Oregon, was laid off from her job in politics a couple of weeks ago; around that time, she created online accounts on various platforms. She says she’d always wanted to get involved in sex work, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity: Since March 21, she’s amassed nearly 400 followers across social media platforms, including Twitter, Snapchat and Chaturbate. Right now, she’s working on building her client base and advertising services.
According to sex workers, there is some tension between those who established online presences before the pandemic and after. Adler, the 19-year-old, starting selling sex “the minute” he turned 18. “Now, there are people that are at home and are 20 and are hot, who can take a couple pictures and get a few bucks,” he says. “I don’t judge that, but they’re not necessarily part of this community that we’ve built.”
So far for Bloom, everyone in the online sex work community has been “really, really nice” to her. “The spaces where people are frustrated and mad is when new people are coming in and not being respectful of them,” she says. “I understand, and I am going to respect and promote other people. I’m not just going to promote myself.”
This community aspect of the sex industry gives Werhun hope, too. “As someone who has been in this industry for a while and working with community organizations that cater to sex workers, the way that sex workers show up for other sex workers in times of need is just amazing,” she says.
For now, sex workers are trying to stay afloat like the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Werhun at least knows she still has some work coming in. A man pays her $100 a week to read a chapter from a novel, so she has a guaranteed income of at least $400 this month. She’s using her tiny chunk of savings for rent, and “not spending whatsoever,” except for necessities.
Adler says that once stay-at-home orders are lifted, he’ll probably return to in-person sex work. He sees the current moment as a good opportunity for the general public to educate themselves about “what sex work actually is”: “These are actual people, actual citizens, people who pay taxes, people who have children,” he says. “We matter too, no matter what our job description is. We’d like to be treated like how you would treat any other entertainer or worker who works for gigs.”
Editor’s Note: We regret that a previous version of this article misspelled Andrea Werhun’s name.