Inaccessible Aid: A Sociological Analysis of How Stigma Amplified Negative Consequences of the Covid-19 Pandemic for Sex Workers in Strip Clubs
August 15th, 2022
By Nicole Araujo
Photograph by Maddy Meredith
For workers in the U.S. who have to exist in the shadows, whose jobs aren’t considered legitimate both culturally and legislatively, large-scale disasters like the Covid-19 pandemic are even more disastrous than for workers with more stability. Because of the inability to receive aid, longer shutdowns, and general stigma from society, the Covid-19 pandemic has negatively affected sex workers in strip clubs disproportionately worse than non-sex workers. From an economic standpoint, the majority of the world became much poorer during the pandemic, while a very small minority became richer. To a larger extent, the pandemic further oppressed workers of color, women, queer workers, and especially sex worker. The extent of gender disparities of negative effects from the pandemic on labor moved researchers at The Institute for Women’s Policy to coin the pandemic, “The She-cession.” In their report “Women and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Five Charts and a Table Tracking the 2020 She-cession by Race and Gender,” they found that, “Women’s jobs on payroll have declined more than men’s because women are more likely than men to work in the sectors that have been hardest hit by the pandemic.” (IWPR Figure 2). Women have had less access to jobs that survived the pandemic, and are more likely to work in hospitality, service, entertainment, and leisure industries. If we delve deeper into this gender disparity, we discover even more nuanced inequalities.
Based on interviews with strip club entertainers Bianca and Serenity (1), along with supporting sociological literature, we can conclude that stigma against strip clubs caused sex workers to be unfairly discriminated against during the Covid-19 pandemic. While most workers in service or hospitality industries were able to receive government assistance, the historical mistreatment of sex workers, misdirection from club owners, and exclusion of independent contractors from receiving benefits led to the inability or the perception of inability to access government pandemic relief. This resulted in sex workers needing to find other ways to support themselves, which were often more dangerous, emotionally and mentally taxing, and brought in substantially less money; all effects combined to increase poverty and physical danger, and diminish their ability to survive.
Research on sex workers’ lives is often either overtly condemning or victimizing, and lacks accurate insight into the lives of sex workers. Thus, analyses on sex work like this one are important because the experiences of sex workers during the Covid-19 pandemic must be illuminated if we as a society are to have a fuller understanding of the pandemic’s effects on women, and those who are marginalized.
The intention of this essay is to explore how strip club entertainers’ jobs were negatively affected by the pandemic, and what role stigma against sex workers played in their experience. In order to depict an accurate picture of one’s labor, it is necessary to explore not just paid labor in any particular moment, but general background information as well. Thus, Bianca and Serenity’s general output of labor is explored, including unpaid labor. Their job, and its upsides and downsides, pre-pandemic, are compared with what their labor ended up looking like during the pandemic.
Both interviews were conducted virtually. Bianca chose to speak on the phone and elected not to be recorded, so her responses were typed up as she was speaking. Serenity chose to speak over zoom with her camera off and also elected not to be recorded, so her answers were typed up as she was speaking as well. Each interview was about 45 minutes long. Given the criminalized and stigmatized nature of sex work, each subject’s unwillingness to be recorded is consistent with what was expected.
It is important to note that since Serenity and Bianca are of a similar demographic as far as age, race, location, and type of sex work they do, this is not a comprehensive picture of sex workers in general. In fact, their willingness to participate speaks to their similarity in demographics; less privileged (more criminalized) full service sex workers have more justifiable fear of legal repercussions and so are less likely to share their experiences. Sex workers of color, queer sex workers, and sex workers who are active drug users also are oppressed even further so are less likely to share their experiences. Yet, what both Bianca and Serenity experienced reflects a common reality for the sex worker in general: stigma against sex work harms sex workers to a much greater extent than the work itself, a reality that was amplified during the pandemic.
Bianca and Serenity’s labor pre-pandemic
Bianca is a white, pansexual, cisgender, 30-year-old sex worker from Massachusetts who has been working in strip clubs for 13 years, at various times dancing, bartending, and managing. The unpaid labor that she performs includes cleaning and cooking meals for herself and others, and caring for her dog. She reports that her work in the strip club allows her to have a flexible schedule, and make lots of money. She sells private dances and VIP rooms, and enjoys the high-stakes sales environment, explaining, “It motivates me and I make much more than I would at [a job with] an hourly rate.” Bianca notes that she prefers the company of the women she works with to other jobs as well, saying, “I get to work with like-minded females and I like the community.” She explains that she is able to educate men on consent: “I walk them in and say, ‘These are my preferences and boundaries- what are yours?’”
Bianca reports that downsides of her job are mainly, “misconceptions that affect every facet of your life: personal relationships, how the public views you, misconceptions about what the work we actually do is, who we are as people.” She also notes that mistreatment from club management is a major downside. “Club owners take advantage of us in every way possible: financially, bodily autonomy... They’re inappropriate, they don't value our safety- we are second class employees.” Bianca reports that she was instructed by the owner of one of the clubs she worked at for several years to “not file, period” from her work at the club on her taxes, presumably so that the club could claim less on taxes and would not be implicated for tax fraud if entertainers reported the large amounts of money going through the club.
Caroline Frederickson, in her book, Under The Bus: How Working Women Are Being Run Over explains that oftentimes, “Women occupy jobs that are excluded from legal protections, making the workers very easy to exploit and underpay. Even when there are protective laws, they are easy for employers to ignore, because there is very little enforcement” (Frederickson 12). Although Bianca makes substantially more money in the strip club than she would elsewhere, illegal misdirection from club owners to not claim income contributes to difficulty in accessing basic needs like housing and transportation which require verifiable income to get approved for a loan or to rent an apartment. Bianca adds that even when she has had verifiable proof of income from sex work it has been difficult to get approved for things like housing or loans because of the stigma around the work she does.
Serenity reports many of the same advantages and disadvantages of her job as Bianca. Serenity is a white, bisexual, cisgender 31-year-old from Maine who has been dancing in strip clubs for 13 years. She is a sober drug addict who has been abstinent for six years and is a mother to a nine-year-old daughter. Serenity is very active in the recovery community and offers a lot of unpaid labor in this sense- organizing retreats, supporting other addicts, and speaking at recovery meetings. She also volunteers at animal shelters, soup kitchens and various non-profits. Serenity is a student at a university working towards her Bachelor’s degree in mental health and human services. She enjoys her work as a sex worker because of the freedom it gives her to spend time on herself, her daughter, and other family or friends. She explains, “My job gives me the ability to take care of myself on my time, as needed.” She reports that because of her flexible schedule and large amount of earnings, she has the ability to choose to work when it is most convenient for her, and is afforded more time and energy to put into her other needs and responsibilities.
Similar to Bianca, Serenity reports that the main downsides of her job are a result of stigma from the outside community. She explains, “My daughter wasn’t allowed to hang out with another girl when they found out I was a dancer.” Serenity notes that this isolation can take a major toll on her mental and emotional wellbeing, saying that it can be, “hard to find women who are capable of being your friend without judging you and secretly having some sort of resentment towards you because of your job.” Another downside that Serenity notes is sex work not being taken seriously as legitimate work, despite sex workers’ “sales experience, customer service experience, and ability to manage high stress situations.” She explains that as she is preparing to finish her Bachelor’s degree and begin searching for a job outside of sex work, she is worried that her lack of work history deemed by society to be “real work” may be a barrier to finding employment. She explains, “We don't even feel comfortable putting that on our resume, so it makes things difficult.” Other downsides Serenity notes are having to pay more in taxes as an independent contractor, working late hours which negatively affect her sleep, the unpredictability of how much money she will make, and the danger of being up and having to drive home in the middle of the night.
How their labor and lives were affected by the pandemic
When the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, strip clubs across the United States, “were the first to get shut down, and the last to open up again” as Bianca notes. Overnight, hundreds of thousands of sex workers found themselves without work. The majority of them received minimal governmental assistance, and many received none at all. Bianca reports that since she hadn’t been paying taxes, she was ineligible for unemployment. What’s more, she notes, “I didn’t apply for the stimulus check because that scared me.” She adds, “They kept saying it would be another two weeks [until businesses would be able to open up again] so I didn’t budget as I would have. If I had known it would be for the next two years I would have started planning and making online content sooner.” For Bianca, the pandemic resulted in, “a complete and utter loss of income.”
Serenity had been paying taxes as an independent contractor, but despite her contributions she also faced difficulties in receiving aid and unemployment. She explains that originally independent contractors were not eligible for unemployment. Frederickson notes that there are a variety of ways that modern day employers exploit their workers in order to save themselves money, as well as, “to escape liability for discrimination or violating health and safety laws.” But, she notes, “...perhaps the most ingenious approach taken by certain companies is saying that those who work for them aren’t actually their workers, shrugging off any liability at all. By calling certain staff members 'independent contractors’... the boss is suddenly free from many of the financial burdens but not the benefits of having employees” (Frederickson 130). This discrimination is widely exemplified in the treatment of strip club sex workers during the pandemic, who are often either paid directly from clients and instructed to claim nothing, as in Bianca’s case; or independent contractors who support the club yet receive no assistance in times of emergency, like in Serenity’s case (2). Independent contractors also must pay for their own health insurance, and they receive no family leave and less protection against unsafe working conditions- in the strip club, these could be violent customers, poorly ventilated clubs, or getting injured on the job, just to name a few. Frederickson explains, “Right under our noses, every day, these women toil without any of the basic job safety or security protections we take for granted. Independent contracting is the Wild West of the workplace. No law applies. None” (Frederickson 138).
The Cares Act, an emergency act which was passed by Congress at the start of the pandemic, made it possible for independent contractors to receive unemployment benefits. But options of eligibility were still confusing and met with suspicion from sex workers, especially for a group of people who have historically been stigmatized and criminalized. Serenity reports, “I couldn’t wait that long [to become eligible to receive unemployment]” so she found work doing Uber and Door Dash. After working for Uber and Door Dash, she reports, “I was then no longer eligible for unemployment because I had a job.” Serenity did eventually get rental assistance from a private non-profit to help her afford housing. She was unable to receive any of her stimulus checks because they went straight to a past child support balance that was owed to the father of her daughter.
Both women report being unsure of whether the male, non-sex worker-staff in their clubs (bouncers, floor hosts, DJ’s, managers) received unemployment. This lack of questioning into a blatantly unfair double standard speaks to the extent of many sex workers’ unfair mistreatment based off their jobs, resulting in the mistrust of government assistance, therefore creating an even bigger barrier in times of emergency disasters.
Bianca reports that in place of the club, she did “sugaring,” or seeing a client in a way that resembles a “girlfriend experience” in exchange for money. She notes, “Tom paid my bills in exchange for dinner dates, going on the boat and talking every fucking day. He wasn’t necessarily someone I wanted in my life that much but those were my options.” While some sex workers who are less privileged have expressed danger as a result of shifting from more regulated sex work settings to less predictable and safe settings like “working the street” or outdoor sex work (terms to describe walking outside to find clients, usually for full service sex work) Bianca reports that sugaring overall was not entirely bad, saying, “I had to consider options that I wouldn’t have considered before the pandemic. I don't know if I necessarily see that as a negative. But I hadn’t been sugaring, so that’s kind of a negative and a positive. I didn’t have any bad experiences with sugaring, but I know that’s not true for everybody.”
She also made an Only Fans account, an online website that allows users to sell pictures and videos, usually pornagraphic, straight from their cell phones, allowing sex workers to make money from porn while cutting out the middlemen of production companies. While this is a viable option to make money online, it is largely dependent upon social media exposure; yet, most major social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook/Meta have strict algorithms which pick up on phrases used by sex workers and often delete users’ accounts, contributing to the constant uphill battle of the existence of sex workers during the pandemic. Bianca reports that her income during this period “went way down.” In regards to her mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing, she reports both upsides and downsides, saying that not having to be around big crowds of people constantly like she had before at the club had a positive impact on her mental health, as well as not being up all night. This optimistic outlook speaks to the resiliency that is common in many sex workers. On the other hand, she notes, “I was in a constant state of anxiety wondering if my money was gonna run out.”
Later, when businesses began opening up again, Bianca took a job managing one of the very few clubs in her area that was able to open up. But the owner ended up physically assaulting her when Bianca stood up for herself during an altercation over how to best run the club. She reports, “When I took the managing job, I stayed because of Covid. It was my only option, it was one of the only jobs open, and the manager ended up assaulting me. I tolerated his insanity because of Covid.”
Serenity, in addition to Uber and Door Dash, also had to begin homeschooling her nine-year-old daughter. In addition to losing a major amount of her income, she reports that Uber and Door Dash put her at major risk of contracting Covid, whereas if she had been able to receive unemployment, she could have remained safely at home. Her physical and mental health took a toll as well; prior to the shutdown, Serenity had quit smoking cigarettes but began again due to stress from the pandemic. She also gained 30 pounds, having gone from a job that is very physically demanding to a job where one is mostly confined to sitting in a car as well as experiencing “constant stress and constant pressure.” To help manage these difficulties, Serenity went on antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication.
Both Serenity and Bianca’s experiences reflect the conclusions found by The Institute for Women’s Policy on how the pandemic disproportionately affected women- yet, because the report relies upon data from government unemployment claims, it excludes those who were unable to, or perceived that they were unable to, claim unemployment. Since both of my interviewees did not claim unemployment despite becoming unemployed, they are not reflected in these statistics. This speaks to the extent that sex workers are marginalized and erased. It also indicates that the ways women have been impacted by the pandemic are even worse than the IWPR study concluded.
The SSRC research study by Callander, Meunier and Grant notes, “Stigma enacted against sex workers is a pervasive social force that predates Covid-19 by millennia and can be applied to explain why individuals and societies treat sex workers differently from, for example, restaurant servers, taxi drivers, or social scientists. In simple terms, because sex work is commonly perceived and portrayed in our societies as immoral, deviant, and dangerous it marks those associated with it as worthy of derision, fear, or pity, all of which drives and is driven by laws and regulations of sex work.” Bianca observed that restaurants opened up sooner than strip clubs, despite the fact that servers must be in close contact with restaurant patrons to serve food, and that people need to remove their masks in order to eat and drink, thus posing just as large a risk of exposure if not more than an entertainer performing at a strip club, where protections such as masks and social distancing can be enforced. She says, “When restaurants could be open but not strip clubs, I felt like it was an attack on the adult industry.”
Concluding analysis of the effects of the pandemic on strip club sex workers
Stripping is a viable means of making an income, and allows workers to have more flexibility, make more money with less hours, and have positive work environments when they can connect with others in the sex work community, educate customers on consent, and enjoy an energentic sales environemnt. Despite the downsides of the job, which include poor club management and stigma from outside of the community, many entertainers like Bianca and Serenity prefer this work over any other job accessible to them. The problems that come are largely from sex work not being taken seriously as legitimate work, both legally and culturally within society. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States, these flaws in our society in our mistreatment of sex workers was exacerbated; while the rest of the world was struggling, sex workers struggled more. Even when assistance may have been available, many sex workers chose not to pursue this route due to historically being mistreated by government or state authorities. They had to take on jobs that put them in more dangerous situations, including increased exposure to Covid-19 and violence from club owners, and their mental health suffered substantially due to anxiety over their completely unpredictable and precarious financial situations.
The solution here is to allow sex workers to functionally operate within society, so that they can have access to assistance when it is needed. If sex work was valued as actual work, both culturally and legislatively, sex workers wouldn’t fall through the cracks and would be able to receive aid like the rest of the world when needed. On a legislative level, independent contractors should have more rights like receiving unemployment and the ability to report unsafe working conditions. All forms of sex work should be decriminalized. On a cultural level, if sex workers could be more visible about their identities, there would be less of a platform for duplicitous club owners to exploit their workers, and sex workers could seek out jobs in other industries if they were inclined to do so. Stigma leads to the fear of exposure and lack of the ability to seek or obtain government assistance during world-wide emergencies like the pandemic- it makes necessary aid inaccessible. If we as a society are to claim that we make decisions to benefit the greater good, sex workers should be included in how we navigate and recover from global disasters.
(1) Names have been changed to respect anonymity.
(2) Up until the 2010’s, many strip clubs paid their entertainers in the same way as waitresses: about half the amount of minimum wage in any specific area, while the rest was made in tips which were expected to exceed minimum wage. In addition, clubs charged “house fees,” which meant that entertainers would pay between $10 and sometimes up to $300 each night to work. Since charging employees to work is illegal, hundreds of strip clubs across the US began to be sued by entertainers in class-action lawsuits, with its plaintiffs often successfully winning the suit. This resulted in many clubs changing the way they classified their entertainers, usually deeming them to be independent contractors so that they could still charge house fees (as well as the many other benefits that Frederidckson discusses).
Fredrickson, Caroline. Under The Bus: How Working Women Are Getting Run Over The New Press, New York, 2016.
Hegewisch, Ariane. “Women and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Five Charts and a Table Tracking the 2020 ‘She-Cession’ by Race and Gender.” IWPR, 28 Jan. 2021, https://iwpr.org/iwpr-issues/esme/women-and-the-covid-19-pandemic-five-charts-and-a-table-tracking-the-2020-shecession-by-race-and-gender/.
Ugarte, Rodrigo. “The Covid-19 Pandemic Endangers Sex Worker Health and Safety, Underscoring Need for Structural Reforms.” Items, https://items.ssrc.org/covid-19-and-the-social-sciences/covid-19-fieldnotes/the-covid-19-pandemic-endangers-sex-worker-health-and-safety-underscoring-need-for-structural-reforms/. Accessed 14 Aug. 2022.