Sex Workers Are Reshaping Their Industry For A Post-Pandemic World
April Flores is smart, funny and all kinds of charming. It's easy to see why she has amassed more than 100,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram during her 15 years in the sex industry. But, like most of the world, her work was upended by the coronavirus. Before, she was frequently out and shooting on sets. Now, all her work happens at home. Sound familiar? Flores estimates that pre-pandemic, the money she made from online postings comprised approximately 30% of her income. Now, it makes up around 95%.
She is constantly generating content for OnlyFans, SextPanther and ManyVids, sites made for self-produced, mostly adult content shared by creators directly with consumers. Like many other people working from home, she can't escape the call. "It's hard for me to estimate how much I'm working because I just feel like I'm always working in some capacity now," Flores says. She's doing this all solo because she says COVID-19 makes in-person pornography shoots "too risky."
All that hustle comes with a lot of stress. "It's just a never-ending cycle of making content and pushing it out," Flores says.
The content creation treadmill is also a concern for Mickey Mod, a soft-spoken, Oakland-based adult film performer, who is also the creative director at Kink.com. While he appreciates the interactions with fans his heightened online presence has sparked, he is wary of the added labor. Mod, like many of the performers I spoke with, talked about the importance of setting limits when you're expected to be accessible.
"I think the other responsibilities I have in my life kind of set myself up for having to create these sorts of boundaries. Like, 'Alright, I can't do this late night cam session because I need to sleep so I can be at my best for my partner and my kid,'" Mod says.
Being present for the people in your home while working from home is a common dilemma for anyone who's lucky enough to be in that situation. When Mod and I spoke, he had just returned from the park with his child, allowing me to cut into his family time. Like Flores, he is only producing solo work, for safety reasons. That means he must create and post content across many platforms to keep the money coming in.
In addition to producing NSFW content, he says he also shoots and edits nudity or any kind of implied sexual acts out of photos he posts on sites such as Instagram. Mainstream sites typically forbid or remove adult content but they provide him with a larger platform to promote his latest offerings on OnlyFans. "It's fatiguing, and just like, there's yet another job that you have to do," he says.
Aiden Starr, a fixture in the adult film industry, had already moved away from performing to focus on directing and producing before the pandemic. She stepped in front of the lens because she needed to make money, which she does by creating solo content. Like everyone else I spoke to for this story, she posts on OnlyFans, which takes a 20% cut of her sales. It sounded like a lot until Starr pointed out that clip sites like ManyVids take a whopping 40% from their members. She offers custom videos, mostly female domination (aka femdom), for couples and singles.
Starr also enjoys the more intimate interactions with her fans. "I think people had this idea of who I was but now that they actually get to interact with the sass, they're getting a heaping tablespoon of my [expletive] attitude," Starr says.
She also appreciates the boundaries of the virtual realm. "[Fans] can get the benefit of talking to porn stars that they would never be able to interact with, and I can choose the time they have access to me, which is nice," Starr says.
After one of dominatrix Justine Cross' two dungeons closed last year, she made the switch from doing 85% of her work in-person to doing 100% of it online. She's now active on six websites and is teaching virtual classes online. She has been able to grow her personal brand during the pandemic. (Frequent "dings" of requests coming in from her NiteFlirt account punctuated our recent Zoom conversation.) For Cross, working from home means that time-intensive, one-on-one sessions have given way to more interactions -- and more money.
"When you're doing an in-person thing, there's a limit of time. That's not the case anymore. Now, I can be doing a text session with someone at like, eight o'clock in the morning, and I'm still wearing my pajamas," Cross says.
The physical distancing that expanded her business also deepened her relationships with other sex workers.
As performers were forced to learn new technologies and techniques to diversify their income streams, Cross saw the industry step up to answer questions and offer classes. "I became better friends with people who I knew peripherally online as sex workers, but now we've bonded more," she says. "They just really want to help you."
FROM STAGE TO SCREEN
The pandemic has also changed sex work for strippers. When Hollywood's wood-paneled, 1970s time capsule of a dive bar/strip joint, Jumbo's Clown Room, closed last March, it left many women without a job. By May, Megan Rippey -- who goes by "Regan" or "Janky Glamour," depending on where you see her performing -- says she and the other performers "didn't really see anyone coming to our rescue." So they jumped on Zoom and Cyber Clown Girls was born.
What started as an egalitarian effort to support the women who had worked at Jumbo's is now a twice weekly show featuring dancers of all colors, shapes and sizes from around the United States. And tips are shared equally, definitely not the way most strip clubs operate.
"We have this idea that everything can be really fair and everyone can be really nice and we all just appreciate each other," says Kayla Tange, a 15-year veteran of Jumbo's who goes by "Coco Ono," a mashup of Chanel and Yoko. "It's worth fighting for."
Malice McMunn, a striking, mohawked and tattooed dancer was working at Cheetah's in Hollywood until the pandemic shut it down. She landed at OnlyFans, where she likes the autonomy, lack of strip club strife and the boundaries.
"I don't do customs for anyone," she says, referring to clips made specifically for, and frequently at, the direction of paying fans. "I don't really cater to anybody."
Online work has also meant more money and less hassle for her. "Up until OnlyFans, I actually never had savings," she says. These days, she's working her own hours and spending more quality time with her two pups.
Beyond profit-sharing, Cyber Clown Girls has demonstrated its priorities with its charitable giving.
"We actually figured out a way to give back a little bit and then it kind of, like, became our thing, which is something we could never do at the club," Rippey explains.
Since they started performing on the virtual stage in May, they have donated at least $24,000 to more than 70 organizations, non-profits and causes. The two shows I attended donated proceeds to For The GWORLS, a charity that raises money to assist Black transgender people, and The Boys and Girls Club of America.
The Cyber Clown Girls aren't the only sex workers coming through for the community. Soma Snakeoil, a dominatrix and co-founder of The Sidewalk Project, a nonprofit that provides assistance to unhoused people living on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, has been bringing politics to her sex work for 18 years.
"We really focus a lot of our energy on people who use drugs and sex workers. We are a harm reduction organization," she says. I tagged along recently with her team of volunteers as they walked their usual route, winding back and forth on the crowded sidewalks between 5th and 6th streets, handing out everything from condoms to donated pajamas. Skid Row's residents greeted the crew with hugs and handshakes as they made their way through the packed streets.
When asked about the origins of her outreach, Snakeoil says, "Being a sex worker, being a former person who used drugs, being formerly unhoused, when I got sober, I really wanted to give back to my community. The system fails us, right? So, as people, we want to show up for people."
BACK TO THE GRIND?
Creating his own content outside the studio system also made a positive change for Mickey Mod, beyond his finances. "I feel like I'm able to live like my authentic, queer, kinky self in a way that I actively had to hide and obscure," he says. He plans to eventually return to sets but with stronger limits and a demand for racial equity.
Although she misses the energy of a crowd, McMunn plans to stick to online performing from now on. "I had thought around the age of 45, I would start to siphon it off," she explains. "I could still possibly do some little stripper shows here and there but really, I don't want to be trying to be hot too much longer."
Rippey and Tange of Cyber Clown Girls have seen the benefits of OnlyFans and neither is itching to return to Jumbo's when life returns to some semblance of normalcy. "I don't think I would, to be honest. I really like having control over what I'm doing," Tange says.
Rippey echoes those sentiments. "I don't know if I'll go back to strip club stripping. A lot has changed. What are my priorities moving forward? What do I stand for? A lot of that has shifted," she says.
Flores says that once it feels safe, she'll head back to the studio, although less frequently, because she misses her friends and the energy. Until then, she asks that people outside the adult entertainment industry show up for sex workers. "In addition to paying for your porn, support your favorite artists. If you have masturbated to them, if they have given you pleasure, give it back. It's easy to find our wishlists," she says with a laugh. "Remember, it's work. And a great way to ensure we keep creating content is to support us financially."
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