Sex is danger. So much is staked on the gamble of a safe, solvent and, hopefully, healthy customer. Once delivered, all that matters is maintaining rapport, keeping interest. The advent of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) merely added a touch more of that danger to that oldest of professions. With a lexicon burgeoning with terms emphasising containment and suppression, the sex industry, along with others, has been laid waste in an effort to contain the pandemic. Bodies are being withdrawn out of circulation, as is the cash that accompanies them.
Another term that has become a matter of dispute is “essential service”. It would surely not be too taxing to the mind to realise the sheer necessity of a regulated, safe sex industry, but the puritanical do get uppity in times of crisis. In New Zealand, which entered a full phased lockdown on March 25, prostitution did not impress legislators as an essential service. This designation is surely as moral as it is medical. Sex-for-pay should be celebrated for what it is: a vent for ennui and civilisation’s discontents. There are surely fewer more essential services than that.
When businesses constrict, the options for making money, including the travel it might entail, diminish. This decline in numbers of the travelling businessman, in particular, has proven telling. This is a sore point for those in the industry who lack a secure salary, the assurance of sick days and other benefits. Risks are being taken. This means measures that are agonized over by such sex workers as Monica Forrester, an outreach manager at a sex worker action project called Maggies. Her suggestions, noted in Vice, are crude and by no means solid: use extra hand sanitizer; communicate with the client about possible flu symptoms; avoid deep kissing; limit saliva exchange.
As the lockdowns have lingered, the work has dried up. London dominatrix Goddess Cleo is not shy in talking about the devastation. “The virus is a disaster for client-facing businesses – and sex work is no different.” Most of her income is drawn from “one-on-one sessions and events” with a smaller portion earned “through online avenues.”
The New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective has insisted that workers avoid physical contact altogether, which very much brings to mind notions of an unsatisfactory meal, or at least one trimmed of its essentials. A meal without wine, the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously notes, is a day without sunshine. But days without sunshine are not necessarily the sorts of excuses that will fly for the moment, either in court or the court of public opinion.
The most obvious road, then, is paved in the virtual world. Where there are restrictions on movement and physical containment, the virtual world will thrive. The rule of thumb here is that of variety: the inventive, as they always tend to, shall survive and reap. Lady Pim, a Toronto dominatrix, is one such case, using Skype, “texting dominations, and phone call dominations” thereby taking the edge of quarantine sessions. Modern sex workers are becoming changelings of their profession, showing a heroic versatility.
Others, like dominatrix Eva de Vil, have something of a head start over others, having already made it on the online scene. She has noticed a spike of interest in role play “clips” with an isolation theme. But such work comes with time and a necessary investment in resources (appropriate broadcasting, streaming equipment, and sexual paraphernalia). An online following is never a given and live streaming platforms will, rather aptly, have their pound of flesh. The fine art of camming is proving cutthroat; sites such as US-based Chaterbate have seen an increase of signings by sex workers outpacing the growth of audience traffic.
This does lend its challenges. Even in a world of sexual fantasy, reality bites. Services delivered online – for instance, camcording – necessitate bank transactions. Transactions, in turn, can reveal the identity of the worker. NZPC spokeswoman Dame Catherine Healy makes the obvious point. “You don’t really want to have your identity revealed because of the stigma.”
Another, equally relevant point, is that generating such image-based content creates a pool of material that may be leaked or hacked. The subscription website OnlyFans had this experience in February, with 1.5 terabytes of adult content (to give a sense of proportion here: 3 million photos or the equivalent of 750 hours of HD video) leaked. The rather feeble, and altogether moot reassurance offered by the company, was that no hacking was involved.
The lot of sex workers can be a varied one. Their revenue has shrunk, their industry assailed. But in terms of brute endurance and resilience, few industries come close in comparison. The ways of earning money, varied as they are, will proliferate. The fear, as always, are for those vulnerable practitioners who find themselves abandoned, homeless, neglected, left with few choices, if any. The oldest profession will endure, but those capricious elements of danger and suffering remain perennial.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org