Stella, a Rhode Island-based erotic dancer, has worked at her local club for the past five years. She started at 19, when her then-boyfriend went to jail and she found herself financially insecure. Dancing is what changed her life.
She snuck into the strip joint at noon, mimicked the performers, and by the end of the day was offered a position. In the years since she’s found the security she’s always wanted, even starting her own savings account.
“Once I started dancing, I got my first apartment in a week,” Stella said. “Then I got my car. I built a life for myself. That’s what it was for me, it was just about surviving. A big part of it is also just being more independent. Once I started stripping, I didn’t have to ask nobody for nothing.”
Rose, a rising junior at the New School, began engaging in sex for money when she was 19. It was her sophomore year when she realized that minimum-wage jobs didn’t provide her with enough pocket money to keep up with her New York City friends.
As the cost of college tuition rises, many students are turning to SeekingArrangement (a platform that connects sugar daddies with sugar babies) to help pay off their loans and to supplement their lifestyles. According to their website, over 3 million college students are currently using the platform.
“I started doing OnlyFans recently, and I’ve been doing SeekingArrangement for about a year which has been my most successful platform,” Rose said. “My parents still help me out with rent, and they also send me money for necessities.”
In light of COVID-19, inequality within the sex-work industry has become increasingly apparent. Stella’s club was one of the first to be shut down after an undercover cop caught one of the dancers in violation of social-distancing protocol. As many strip clubs and brothels close, workers are flooding online platforms like OnlyFans and AdultMemberSites. The issue that dancers like Stella are now facing is the monopolization of these platforms by a younger, wealthier demographic.
“Our site is definitely not for sex workers, and if you come to the site for those reasons, you probably wouldn’t have much success,” a spokesperson for SeekingArrangement, Kimberly De La Cruz, said. “That being said, we pulled the data from March 17th to June 30th, and the global average was an increase of 74% in member sign-ups. I think partly you can attribute it to people like that trying to meet someone who can help them through these trying times. I don’t think those people had a lot of success though. Nobody who you haven’t met and can’t meet in person is going to start paying your bills.”
Stella is less frustrated about the influx of newcomers and more so about their ability to separate themselves from the stigma attached to sex work because of their privilege. The idea is that low-income and less educated sex workers are defined by their jobs while wealthier ones are able to separate their identity from their work.
After losing her primary source of income, Stella had a hard time finding a new job. Knowing that hospitals and practices were hiring urgently, she mostly applied to positions in the medical field. Pretty soon Stella realized they weren’t looking for the kind of experience she had. Instead of listing her job as a dancer, she wrote that she wasn’t working for those years.
Eventually she found work as a chiropractor’s assistant, but she makes almost a tenth of what she made dancing. On a normal day at the club, Stella earned anywhere from $800 to $1,000. Now being paid $13 an hour, she’s had to scale her life back significantly.
“It can be demeaning,” Stella said. “Without dancing I wouldn’t be anywhere near as confident as I am today. But people don’t see that, they just see me as somebody they can buy. The world’s unfair unfortunately, and it’s even more unfair for dancers due to the stigma. Going from making four to five grand a week to around $300, I honestly can’t even put into words how drastic of a change that’s been.”
Rose, on the other hand, is currently working at an ice cream parlor. She’s on track to graduate in 2022, pursuing a double major in Media and Culture with a minor in Psychology. In her free time she writes for a New York-based porn magazine about her experiences and experiments with different make-up looks on Instagram. While her family doesn’t know about her source of income, a majority of her friends and acquaintances do.
“For the most part, people are very understanding and very supportive,” Rose said.
“Sometimes I can tell they find it a little questionable, but generally my friends all think it’s
really cool and empowering...which it is. I think there’s something to be said about owning your sexuality and taking money from these guys who are oftentimes sexist or racist and see women as objects.”
While sex workers across the board are succeptible to assault and harassment, the agency that comes with money often determines the severity of offenses. Workers like Stella who use sex work as their primary income source often find themselves in situations where they’re pressured to say yes or go further than they’d like.
“I had this one guy who tried to do something I wasn’t comfortable with, and I told him no many times,” Rose said. “Eventually he got it, and I never saw him again. I realized later that the reason why I’m able to say no is definitely in part due to my privilege. I don’t have to worry about not getting paid because I offend somebody who's crossed my boundaries… Like, I’m not dependent on the money. Obviously it’s still just as traumatizing regardless of how wealthy you are.”
Economic inequality has long persisted in the sex-work industry, and the current pandemic has only widened that gap. As stretching and vast as the internet is—from porn sites to cam girls to purchasing pictures—without in-person sex work, there may not be enough space for everyone anymore.
If the sex work industry is in fact being gentrified by glamorized websites like SeekingArrangement and OnlyFans, it raises the question of where less educated and low-income sex workers will have to go to make their next penny.