Sex Workers Vs The Pandemic: How strippers have navigated COVID-19
From stigma and racism to moving their services online, Emer Ní Fhoghlú speaks to three strip club dancers about the industry, and how COVID-19 has affected their jobs and their lives.
‘The problems were always there.’
Strip clubs in Ireland remain closed until August 10th at earliest. This may annoy many a
client, but for dancers, the feelings are conflicted as economic needs battle with fears of
contracting coronavirus when the clubs do open.
Clara’s on her phone when I find her in Starbucks. Scrolling through her gallery, she shows me a photo of New Years’, only her New Years’ was spent in a strip club, where she spends most nights.
She pauses on a group photo – she and a Brazilian woman are perched at the top of a pole, while eight other strippers crowd around at the bottom. She sighs, casts a dour look about the café, says she misses the ‘natural habitat’ and grins
"We played musical chairs that night, before customers turned up. People were talking about Coronavirus back then, but we thought it wouldn’t get far past China. Ha – if I could warn myself. But it’s not as if that would change anything. It’s hard to mobilise as strippers. That’s why you might not have heard much from us."
"It’s hard for a lot of reasons," Clara said, explaining how COVID-19 has highlighted pre-existing issues in the industry.
"Few can afford to have their face associated with the cause."
"On top of all that, it’s not as if the clubs want us to unionise. Before COVID, the issues we saw in clubs were mostly related to how they’re managed, what kind of atmosphere that creates among dancers," she said.
For some, their work environment is hostile.
"One club, for example, is known to be bad to work for. Their working week is long and non-negotiable, management treats the women badly, and having no means of rallying against that, they take it out on each other at a worker level."
"A lot of dancers in my club are from there – they ‘migrated’ over because they were treated poorly, and because we have an easy-going atmosphere by comparison."
When these issues occur in nine-to-five jobs, you can typically report it to HR.
"Dancers don’t have that option. We’re seeing even more harshly how little a safety net we have because of COVID. The problems were always there.”
I remark that there seems to be a lot of vitriol over strippers not paying taxes, therefore many claim they ‘don’t deserve’ COVID payments from the State. She looks tired when she says, "I think, when we try to talk about this and defend ourselves, we get a lot of resentment from the public who’ve never had to consider this line of work. Yes, we’re technically freelancers."
"No, not very many of us are registered as such. Because we pay out so much to the clubs – up to 60% of our earnings – because it’s a secondary, unpredictable source of income, because of kids, partners, shame, you name it… so many reasons and your average freelancer doesn’t have to contend with the way we have to defend our work if ‘found out’."
"You’ll have a good week, then the next week the figures could be different again. Sometimes wildly so. Good night, bad night."
When Clara was just starting out, she tells me she was earning enough to work at a club full time, she had a rough monthly average but still couldn't bet on what she would earn the following month.
"You can tell by the numbers if there’s something wrong – I remember the dread, that week before lockdown, realising people weren’t coming."
"One of the older strippers, she said to me ‘it’s because they think we’re dirty, because of what we do. Any disease goes around, they think we have it, even though we’re not kissing, we’re not doing extras, they still have suspicions about us.’”
She goes on to dish sparkling detail about the personalities in her club and their
backgrounds. From waitresses, an ex-accountant, PhD students, single mothers, artists and activists, no two dancers she describes come from the same background. Their age range, in her club at least, is between 19-40.
“Stripping is what helps a lot of people, most of them women, live comfortably," she said.
"Quarantine has us scrambling for what to do if the lockdown measures keep clubs closed."
In the UK strippers band together on an activist level, but she explained that the shame in Ireland is still so intense that they have often have to keep their activity underground.
"We’re not, say, influencers or models. We often can’t afford to reveal ourselves – the stigma’s too great."
"I know of someone who had a brick thrown through her window. A friend got kicked out of the house for telling family. So you have a lot of us getting by on COVID payments from day jobs but for others again it was their primary source of income. "
"They’re eating into savings, waiting for the clubs to reopen – needing them to. We might not be the nightclub strippers of the UK, but our clubs are a part of Ireland’s nightlife culture. No one ever acknowledges that," she said.
"If they think of us, it’s as a set dressing, not as people experiencing similar problems to everyone else – before Coronavirus and right now.”
I ask her if she’s heard from her co-workers in the Leeson Street cellar club where she
works. “We keep in touch,” she laughs. "The friends I’ve made are the type that stick through the hard times. And these are hard times."
"Some are taking up full-service work now that the lockdown’s eased a little – that’s sugaring, escorting, full-contact they wouldn’t consider if the clubs were open. Others who don’t want any face-to-face contact with clients in a pandemic have started up OnlyFans or AdmireMe. Most are losing money."
Turning to online platforms
Also in her twenties, Frankie is a stripper from another club whose focus has switched to online work over the pandemic, selling erotic photos on AdmireMe.
As more communication than ever has switched to the Internet, I ask about the differences between the two and how she has experienced the difference in markets.
"I dabbled a bit online before the pandemic. I treated my AdmireMe as savings, so I could have money ready in case I needed some. I’ve definitely felt the loss of the income from the club, but was fortunate in having a day job which enabled me to get the COVID emergency money," she said,
"I’ve developed a more consistent posting schedule, but haven’t been promoting much beyond what I was before the pandemic, so I haven’t grown much in my following."
Frankie said that while it has served her well, she misses the club environment.
"The combination of working from home and being your own boss means you have to create a clear boundary with your time and space while working, and that’s difficult," she explained.
"I find stripping suits me better as I travel in, change, work my shift and come home – the separation of work vs being off-duty is very clear."
With fears of a second wave of Coronavirus, there are a number of anxieties in returning to the club when at last they reopen: "I’m nervous about exposure but eager to return. I miss my job and the people there."
"I miss the energy and the game. I’m worried that customers won’t come back in enough numbers to keep us in business as the club was struggling pre-COVID anyway."
"I think problems with the industry have only been made more visible now."
With the sudden closure of clubs, Frankie said strippers have been left struggling and the clubs don't seem to care.
"There’s been no communication with dancers from management and no reassurance or assistance offered. Across the board, I feel there is a massive disconnect between dancers and management."
"On top of the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the racism present in stripping and all other industries."
"The ‘black girl quota’* stands out to me as a particular issue that I hadn’t considered previously which really opened my eyes and angered me.”
I ask if fears of coronavirus will impact her schedule in the club when it reopens if economic need will take priority over health concerns.
“I could use any bit of money that I can get hold of as I’m only going back to my day job now and I have limited hours there."
"I was thinking to wear a mask while I dance and take everything but that off, unless they tip generously enough!"
The pandemic she says also controls her level of involvement with the club.
"If I move back in with my mam – who is at risk – I won’t be going in more than once a week, but that will create pressure to make money on that night."
"It’s all that would make the risk of being there, of possibly being exposed to coronavirus, worth it.”
In an inversion of Frankie’s situation, there are others who began as online sex workers and are considering stripping when the clubs reopen.
Sylver Moon is an established personality on OnlyFans. The cam site is now known by reputation to most millennials; when many young women were laid off due to the pandemic, they took to OnlyFans to sell erotic photos and videos.
Sylver and many other established online sex workers have observed that they did so too hastily without regard for consequences, or the demanding schedule required to succeed in a market that is now entirely saturated.
She stirs the ice in her drink. We’re chatting in Cornucopia; neither of us care to lower our
voices, and I wonder if the middle-aged woman at the table next to us is listening in. I ask
her if she’s ever gotten recognised in public.
“Oh yeah. I hate it. Someone messaged saying they saw me in Temple Bar, still no idea who it was," she said.
"Then there are guys who catch me in the gym, tell me I look nothing like my photos, and I mean – sure, I’m in the gym; no professional lighting, no makeup, just after work, sweaty! This is why I have a personal trainer, they don’t come near me when there’s another man present. My only fear is being approached when I’m with my kids."
We talk about the day-to-day concerns in her work, and when we get on to the subject of the pandemic it's clear there’s a connection.
Censorship, 'easy money and sex workers rights
“FOSTA-SESTA, an ineffective US bill supposed to stop sex trafficking, has only impacted
consensual workers on the Internet at a global level, cutting us off even from our own
followers, our income," she explained.
"Censorship was a huge concern, and now that the market is saturated with less-experienced cam girls thinking it’s automatic, easy money, censor algorithms keep interfering with engagement in a time when engagement with followers is crucial."
"These censors are unable to distinguish between a woman sitting around near-naked, enjoying herself, and a woman being abused and coerced into it," she said.
"This hazing from social media platforms hurt us before COVID and it’s only making everything more difficult now – I imagine it doesn’t see much effect in weeding out traffickers either.”
I ask her if she thinks the new wave of online sex workers thought about how this would
“I think most assumed it was easy money and they’re quickly learning otherwise. They didn’t consider the production value that goes into our photoshoots."
"Sure, someone with a lot of social currency like an influencer could make awesome sums their first night, but if you’re someone with no network, no pre-existing market to convert to customers, you won’t be noticed, and it’s so hard to build a client base right now."
Sylver said that more and more clients are trying to negotiate prices because the market is so saturated.
"It’s very competitive, workers are lowering the cost of their photo sets and videos because they don’t want to lose customers. I’ve had my customers for a while, so I know how to set boundaries and stand by my rates."
However, she worries that less-experienced sex workers are being pressured into doing things that they may not want to do, in fear of losing clients.
"For example, if someone asks me for a fetish I’m not comfortable with, I direct them to another worker who specialises in whatever kink they have. The new workers may not have that community base, so the environment becomes exploitative."
"I don’t want to judge or gatekeep the industry, because I’m sure a lot of them need the
money, but at the same time it’s worth repeating: what’s on the Internet stays there forever."
"It doesn’t go away after the pandemic, and if you start into this line of work, you have to be prepared for backlash, because we deal with a lot of bigotry – it can be traumatising. "
"These new cam girls might consider OnlyFans a temporary job, but people can download that content, can screenshot, send it who-knows-where. Then, if they’re fine with that, there’s making that content visible, gaining traction," she said.
Most of what she does is administration such as scheduling, planning, marketing, production and budgeting.
"They don’t realise that admin is what you spend the most time doing if you’re a content creator of any kind, sex workers no exception. It’s not all selfies and nudes.”
I ask her how she, personally, has been impacted by the pandemic, and if it has changed
her relationship with the content she creates.
“I was made redundant because of COVID. Before the pandemic, I only relied on OnlyFans to provide luxuries, not for my family. It was a hobby, and now, suddenly, I’m dependent on it."
Sylver, who is the sole earner for herself, her partner her two children and her dogs, is currently looking for a new job and considering taking up stripping when clubs reopen.
"But even then, I have concerns. My partner has asthma, so I don’t want to expose a vulnerable family member to coronavirus. Plus, I don’t enjoy face-to-face work in the adult entertainment industry – I never considered it before, because it’s a boundary I set for myself. But I also need to consider it as an option given the circumstances."
“Redundancy payments can only tide us over so long and the job market doesn’t look
promising at the moment, especially with fears of another lockdown. OnlyFans is great, but it’s not going to supplement the salaried job I’ve lost. So I think I’ll be stripping, at least for a while – if there’s any space in the clubs for new dancers, that is. I’ve been in contact with one and they won’t consider an interview until they know what reopening will look like.”
We end the conversation on this note. The climate is one of uncertainty across many
industries and those reliant on multiple streams of income are assessing all options – often, in the case of strippers and sex workers, without government aid to tide them over.
Should readers find themselves inside a strip club post-August 10th , tipping your dancer is appreciated now more than ever.
Our laws surrounding sex work in Ireland are under review, and strip clubs often come under fire from abolitionists such as Ruhama for being ‘gateways to trafficking’. The pandemic has disproven this; as Clara pointed out, many have only turned to other forms of sex work because the clubs have closed
(*The black girl quota refers to a bias in the US where many clubs cap the numbers of black dancers that can be hired. Racism in Irish strip clubs remains un-investigated.)