Sex still sells, maybe even more so in a pandemic 

Fulfilling Demand

click to enlarge mag.jpg

Ruta Smith

Everyone is online more, including the dancer at your local strip club.

As the economy nosedives, some people are looking to make money and other people are looking for an escape. Even with everyone at home, familiar vices for escapism continue.

"We are absolutely an outlet," says one entertainer who goes by Kit Monroe and normally works at the Silver Slipper in Charleston. "Releasing themselves is one way to relax. It's a coping mechanism and, for a lot of people, we are a coping mechanism."

Monroe says that from her previous club clientele to her growing online customers, she's looking to fulfill demand and pay the bills.

"Any time you have a recession, there is always a demand for sex work. That doesn't go away even if it's virtual or over the phone," says Katie Vann, a Greenville-based advocate for workers in the sex industry, a catchall term that can include adult performers along with illicit activities.

"There are people who will joke about taking up sex work with the economy, and there are people who are very serious about taking up sex work because they need to pay their bills," says Vann. "Some people enter it because they want to and that's fine, and other people enter it because of survival."

And the market is out there.

Sex in the pandemic

As the coronavirus loomed at the beginning of the year, some sex workers, including strip club performers, reported a decline in revenue nationwide.

January, February, and the first part of March were also slow for the Silver Slipper.

click to enlarge Chinn - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Chinn

"Girls were scared to come into work and a lot of customers were afraid about visiting a place like that," operations manager Myron Chinn said.

That's when Monroe dusted off her webcam.

"A lot of our clients, they follow my social media that I met in the club just working. They're at home, too, and they want some connection. So it's a way for me to still connect with my clients and customers and also to survive in this time," Monroe said.

Strip clubs around the nation are offering dances online, some via Instagram Live, as restrictions leave clubs shuttered for the time being. Some sex workers are selling videos on private, subscription-only website — everything from the nearly family-friendly to more explicit adult content.

In Portland, Ore., one strip club that closed started a topless delivery service, known as Boober Eats.

More sex workers predicted

Vann has organized the state's first chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a social justice group advocating for legal and illicit sex workers. Still in its infancy, she says she doesn't expect to have much financial support for this year. The group calls for decriminalization of all sex work, including prostitution.

Vann says there will be more workers entering the industry.

"We're kind of taking some of these new people under our wings virtually or locally," Vann says. "You have to navigate on how to be safe, not to be ripped off ... and, right now, you really shouldn't be seeing clients in person."

Just as access to broadband is determining access to education and telehealth in the pandemic, it is determining which workers are able to adapt online, Vann said.

click to enlarge Monroe works at a Charleston club while also selling adult content online - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Monroe works at a Charleston club while also selling adult content online

Monroe said she began "camming" six years ago, but in recent years, she focused more on photography and live performances. With a saturated market even then, Monroe says it will likely worsen.

"(But) not everyone has a following (to) go from working in a club and just go online. It takes longer to build. It's a struggle," Monroe said. "It's a learning curve and we all have to learn to adapt."

Nationwide, some cam sites are reporting a 30 percent increase to viewership but also as much as a 45 percent increase in models, according to Vox.com.

Monroe said she is working with industry colleagues in an effort to buoy social media content too.

"The more people you connect in your industry, the more you build with each other, the more you go up together," she said.

Safety concerns

But with sex, there is also the opportunity for exploitation.

"The people who enter (sex work) from a survival standpoint are the most vulnerable," Vann said, adding they could take on the wrong client. "Those are the ones we are trying to shorten that learning curve so we can keep them safe."

S.C. Human Trafficking Task Force coordinator Kathryn Moorehead said there is a known link between natural disasters and human trafficking, which includes forced or coerced sex acts.

"These are the conditions that make people the most vulnerable," she said. "It's a little early to get a full grasp on it but I do know it's just priming the situation for people to take advantage of."

But the internet could also keep some sex workers safer: Online communication create a distance from would-be predators, and there is less of a chance for interaction with law enforcement.

A new normal

The current crisis has the potential to reshape many industries, including sex.

Vann said she expects more sex workers to stay online once the pandemic subsides. But she is also hopeful that the industry will continue, as strong as it has been in the past.

"Sex workers have jumped through a lot of hoops in the past but we've navigated a lot of terrible things before and we'll get through this one," Vann said.

Chinn said he is looking at other, more stable industries surviving the crisis.

"Even when they open restaurants and bars, the adult business is going to have a particularly slower start because it requires that the girls be so close to customers," Chinn said. "The only thing that sustains this business and leaves a lot of people hopeful is that it is the oldest form of entertainment known to man, which means that business has been consistent for years and years ... (But) my thinking is that it's going to be forever changed after all this wraps up."

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