Covid-19 shut down pushes exotic dancers and strip clubs online.
Before the global pandemic, 25-year-old Leyla worked two jobs. By day she worked at a retail store and by night she worked as an exotic dancer at a strip club in Sawtelle, on the WestSide of Los Angeles, California.
The job was good, the money was better and the best part was that it felt like a party almost every night. One of the best nights she had at the club was when a former exotic dancer and newly divorced ex-wife of one of the co-creators of South Park came in for a visit. With a real name that sounded like it could be a stage name, Boogie rolled up in her custom chrome wrapped Bentley SUV and proceeded to get intoxicated and spend an exorbitant amount of cash. She spent so much money that the club had to take one dollar bills from the dancers, cash them out in bigger bills, and give the singles back to her. At one point, Leyla had a brick of one dollar bills given to her completely untouched and still wrapped in plastic as if the stack had come straight from the bank.
That same night, Leyla did a private dance with a business executive from New York. He paid for three hours, every half hour being $600, but left after the first hour and a half. By the end of the night, between the private dances and all of the money she had collected from Boogie, Leyla walked away with over $7,000.
I met Leyla while working at the club as a cocktail waitress before the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, I went to London for Spring break, but by the time I returned, the world had changed. I never went back to school or work after spring break. I was able to maintain some kind of income due to unemployment through my restaurant job. However, many of my friends who are exotic dancers did not get so lucky.
The livelihood of an exotic dancer depends on getting close to strangers, so of course strip clubs were one of the first things to be shut down at the beginning of the pandemic. Although some clubs have managed to open back up, many have not, making it nearly ten months now since these women have been able to work at a club. Women who are used to making hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars a night have had their main source of income taken away from them and are struggling to recover because of the lack of unemployment funds or Lost Wages Assistance.
“We transitioned from being independent contractors to employees maybe 4-6 weeks before the shutdown, so it was really hard to collect unemployment benefits. I struggled pretty badly between March and July. When I was finally approved I only got $4000 in back pay and that was gone almost instantly because of all the overdue bills I had to pay,” says 23-year-old Luna, another dancer at the club.
Many strippers and sex workers in general don’t exactly decide to become sex workers because they genuinely have a desire to, but are rather thrown into the profession whether it be because of circumstance or a desperate need for money.
“During my freshman year a bunch of my friends and I got in this discussion about strippers and I was like, ‘I think I’d be a good stripper’ and everyone gave me so much shit. I was at risk of having to go back and live with my dad which was against the advice of all my therapists, and that was not something I wanted for myself. So I did what I had to do to keep that from becoming my reality”, says Leyla, who reflects on how she first got into exotic dancing.
Stigma aside, sex work brings in a good amount of money on a regular basis which is why many people participate in it for so long. The reason that strippers were able to make the amount of money they did on any given night was in part due to their employment status.
In the state of California, strippers were considered to be independent contractors up until very recently. On January 1, 2020 a controversial labor law called AB-5 reclassified strippers as employees rather than independent contractors. Dancers had been protesting this decision since 2019.
This law has affected the club I used to work at in Sawtelle. Dancers at the club started to be taxed very heavily rather than being able to pay their own taxes with deductions either quarterly or yearly. However, the biggest indiscretion is that many California strippers are not getting unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic despite now being employees rather than independent contractors.
“It took four months and countless reapplications to EDD to finally get a fraction of the help other people were getting. That was my only struggle, it’s just as bad, if not worse for so many others. There are some girls who still can’t get anything,” says Luna.
Without this income from unemployment benefits, which would still be significantly less than what they would make on any given night, strippers have had to get creative when it comes to making their money. Many dancers have also had to resort to different kinds of sex work, whereas Leyla has been lucky enough to keep her second retail job and has not had to do so, but Luna was not so lucky when it came to this.
“Since the clubs shut down, I’ve definitely had to resort to other forms of sex work. I had regular customers who came to the club and that was no longer an option. I would have to meet them at their homes or at hotels. Sometimes alone, sometimes I brought friends,” says Luna.
While our strip club hasn’t opened up since March, other strip clubs have reopened in various places such as Miami, Atlanta, Nevada, and Arizona. I recently had the opportunity to visit these clubs as a patron instead of as a waitress. I visited two different clubs in Las Vegas, Nevada and Tempe, Arizona.
At the club in Tempe both patrons and dancers were required to wear masks except when drinking. They were also prohibited from sitting directly in front of the stage or from walking around aimlessly. As a result, even though the club was open, the energy was very different.
However, in the Las Vegas club, the same rules were not nearly as enforced, if at all. You essentially only had to wear a mask when walking around. In the champagne room area, masks weren’t required at all. Other than people occasionally walking around with masks, the energy in Vegas didn’t feel any different. It will be interesting to see how the clubs in Los Angeles will comply with the various rules and regulations once the clubs are able to open back up.
Since California has not reopened clubs at all, other strippers have turned to OnlyFans, a subscription-based site where individuals can post and sell content, both sexual and non-sexual.
“Since the pandemic was announced in mid-March, 29.4 million people in the U.S. have lost their jobs. In that time, over 450,000 creators have made new accounts on OnlyFAns, OsMyGirl, and other subscription sites where they can sell erotic content. OnlyFans has seen a 75% month on month increase in signups since March and April, with an average of 200,000 users signing up every day,” according to an article from Insider.com.
A worry for many dancers is the risk of posting online. Posting online content forfeits the anonymity of dancing at a club. Once it’s on the internet, it’s there for the world to see forever. While there are restrictions and safety precautions in place in attempt to ensure that content doesn’t get copied or leaked off the site, there is still the possibility that it could. With that worry in mind many dancers, like my friends Leyla and Luna, have refrained from making an OnlyFans.
Celebrities joining and selling content on sites like OnlyFans has created new obstacles for sex workers and low to middle income creators on the site. The most infamous case of this involved celebrity actress Bella Thorne, who joined the site in August of this year. She made $1 million after joining OnlyFans with the unfulfilled promise of a $200 nude photo that anyone could purchase.
Thorne ended up misleading her audience by only sending a bikini photo to which people were rightfully upset and caused hundreds of thousands of chargebacks. In response to this, OnlyFans updated their terms and conditions limiting the maximum amount that creators could be tipped and changed how quickly they can be paid. OnlyFans changed the rules in order to extend the payout time by over twenty days in various countries where fraud seemed like it was most likely to happen.
How is it that celebrities like Bella Thorne can profit off of sex, stripper culture, and sex work while not praising where the culture comes from and giving credit where credit is due?
“You can’t take back any pictures you take in send, you can’t take back any words you say, you can’t take back any bra you take off, you can’t take back interaction you have with someone. But you can be comfortable with different levels of it. In society, stripping is better than prostituting because we put such a stigma around sex in general,” says Leyla on the subject of the stigma surrounding sex work.
Regardless of the stigma surrounding exotic dancers and sex work, both dancers and patrons alike miss strip clubs as sex workers move to online platforms. While online sex work may be safer, it doesn’t bring the same amount of satisfaction for customers or the same amount of cash flow for dancers.
“From what I’ve heard from my regulars, OnlyFans is getting old quick. They want physical interaction because, let’s face it, some things just can’t be substituted,” says Luna.
While sex work is still deeply stigmatized, some believe that attitudes surrounding sex work and stripping have begun to change as online forums are more popularized and the loss of in-person strip clubs becomes more apparent.
“I feel like sex work is definitely less stigmatized now,” says Luna, on an optimistic note. “Between the national struggle we’ve had and almost every girl you went to high school with now in OnlyFans, people seem to definitely be adopting less judgmental mindsets. I feel like everyone finally understands that there’s no shame in doing what you have to do.”