Social distancing and sex work in the pandemic: "You have to have access to resources"

Making adult content online "is not easy money," says Hunter, 30, whose dancing job is on hold during the pandemic

Published August 29, 2020 6:30PM (EDT)

A smart phone with a camera mounted on a tripod, with a medical face mask hanging off of it. (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster)
A smart phone with a camera mounted on a tripod, with a medical face mask hanging off of it. (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster)

This is an excerpt from the Unheard Voices of the Pandemic series from Voice of Witness. Interview and editing by Andrea Quijada. Quijada is a media literacy consultant, author, and co-editor of the Voice of Witness project "The Digital Welfare State."

Hunter, 30, was born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has lived in Albuquerque for the past 12 years. She was working four jobs prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and each job has been impacted differently as a result of the quarantine. The most immediate shift was losing her most lucrative job dancing at a strip club two nights a week. She maintains her job as an educator and seller at a sexuality resource shop although she no longer meets customers in the store or in the classroom because all sales and classes now take place online. While her third job as a phone sex operator continues, she is actively seeking to increase what had been a small fourth revenue stream from her internet adult content.

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I started noticing my own anxiety about coronavirus in January. It was occupying more and more of my brain space. I was doing a lot of, Oh, you're just overreacting—that kind of self-talk. Toward the end of February, I was like, No, you're not. That's when I started to trust my instinct a little bit more, especially because a lot of the work I do is very high contact.

Before the pandemic, I had four-ish jobs. My highest-contact jobs are that I'm a stripper and a dancer. I worked Friday and Saturday nights, which are the high-traffic nights. That typically means arriving around 8 to 10 p.m. and staying till around 3 a.m. and coming into very close physical contact with hundreds of people. And, people are feeling free and intoxicated so they're trying to put their mouths on you, which happens all the time. So, I'm hearing about the pandemic and I'd go into the club and immediately I'm thinking about all this contact with dancers and patrons — physical contact is just built into the industry of being a dancer.

I also work at a sex toy shop in Albuquerque. We are a health- and education-focused business, so we encourage people to come in and pick up the toys and touch them and use the lube sample and rub it around and smell it and taste it. We encourage people to sit and ask us questions because for so many people that's what helps them feel safe. I was in the store meeting with my coworkers and doing in-person events multiple times a week. I teach a lot of our classes with 10 to 18 people in our classroom. And, I'd go out to bars and do outreach. So, my sex shop job also had me coming into contact with lots of people.

Because of dancing I was able to work at the store. The store is an emotionally fulfilling job, but it doesn't fill my bank account. I could do the store job that I love for $13 an hour because dancing pays $25 to $50 an hour. So, my highest-contact, riskiest job was also the one paying most of my bills. That was a stark realization for me. 

I was lucky that I was doing content creation and phone sex because I'm relying much more heavily on those now. I definitely have seen an uptick in people signing up for my OnlyFans page. OnlyFans is a subscription-based fan site similar to Patreon, but it allows adult content. I do webcam modeling and custom orders for amateur adult video. I recycle the content across multiple platforms — OnlyFans, ManyVids, APClips, and a few others.

I am non-monogamous, meaning I have multiple partners, and I have a partner that I have a house with and build a life and family with. We are raising his kids part-time. It's challenging and little bit scary to do that and not feel like a liability or a risk to my partner or our family because of how people react to the fact that I do sex work. I have an Instagram and I have to make sure the kids won't find me.

Some of my other partners live in New Mexico, some outside of New Mexico. I typically tell people my job is my primary partner. I have a sweet crew of people who support me — partners who take my pictures, give me feedback on my website, and I feel lucky that I have multiple humans that help me be me on the internet in this really fun way.

I've done Instagram Live strip shows that were really fun a couple of times. I did it with some other folks, but of course Instagram is not particularly friendly to adult content, so you have to be really careful. You can put your payment service in the comments of the Instagram Live, but you're definitely not going to be making several hundred dollars in an evening like you would at a strip club doing lap dances or dancing on the stage. I think I made $20 on Instagram Live.

Online sex work is not easy money, either. You have to build up a body of work, content, and that means you have to have access to resources. This is a big barrier to entry for a lot of people. You have to have the time to do it, a nice camera phone, a tablet, or laptop, and a really good internet connection to upload videos. You need some knowledge about how to edit videos and photos. The people who make a living out of this have those things or have someone else who does it for them. Trying to record content, and edit, post, and market it — that all takes hours.

The biggest thing is that you have to have a following. I see a lot of people saying, "Oh, we'll just move online," and it's really not that simple. You don't make an OnlyFans page and immediately get 50 subscribers. Building up a following is very challenging, and you have to dedicate a lot of time, energy, and skill to it. I've been doing OnlyFans for years, but intermittently.

Making adult videos for people to buy online is legal, but there are some downsides to it. Other adult platforms have started out working with sex workers, but when they become more mainstream, they boot sex workers off their platform. Also, sex work is looked down upon, and can limit my opportunities for housing, employment, et cetera. Not all landlords want sex workers in their apartments. I do not expect privacy in this work. It's realistic to expect it, but it's not a reality right now.

I loved giving lap dances because it's a really fun way to engage in a connection. I think of the strip club as a kind of funhouse, or a ride you go on at a carnival. You pay a token, you go in, and you know what you get in there is not real life, but it's really fun to hang out where you can be flirtatious in whatever way feels good. I had one guy come in who was like, "I've never held somebody's hand before." And so I just sat on his lap and held his hand. That was a sweet moment where I got to connect with someone. I worry pretty extensively that people aren't getting their physical touch needs met. I think there are very real consequences of people not having that sort of touch.

Of course, there's a lot of things that happen in the strip clubs — themes and behaviors — that are not positive. People have tried to bring weapons, people get into fights, people over consume substances — it's a rowdy party for five to seven hours. People trying to grab me while I'm dancing on stage or giving a lap dance. It's not my job to manage the crowd; it's my job to entertain them. The bouncers manage and where I dance, I feel very supported by the bouncers. I can't say how many times a night people try to take me home. They'll say, What time are you done here? What are you doing afterwards? My favorite response is, Going the f**k to sleep. Even taking a Lyft to or from the club is very risky. The driver starts waggling eyebrows at me.

I feel very fortunate that I still have work, and that I'm able to work from home. I definitely miss being able to go out and hug people. I'm a very physical touch-oriented person when I've established that that's OK to do within certain contexts. I had a friend drop off some masks to my house the other day and I was like, "Hi, I can't hug you. I miss hugging people."

I just want people to pay attention and take the pandemic seriously. I want people to think it's a big deal. I'm finding that going out of the house is becoming more and more challenging because of the anxiety and seeing how other people are acting in the world. I see people gathering in groups and not wearing masks. I see them making fun of people who are concerned about the virus and then not adhering to social distancing. I've never done well with having things around my neck and face so wearing masks is hard. And I still do it.

By Hunter R.


By Andrea Quijada

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