Not safe for work: Calgary sex workers adapt to pandemic
When all else fails, there’s the internet.
Last November, six Calgary sex workers met in the downtown studio of Sultry Miss Em—a sexual instructor, webcam model, and a 20-year professional dominatrix. After pulling off their boots and winter coats, the women entered a room where Miss Em had laid out plates of cheese, chocolate and nuts, and a couple of bottles of malbec and pinot grigio.
Miss Em collected $120 from each participant and gave them all an eight-page handout with the heading "Passive Income." For the next three hours, Miss Em taught her guests about the business of digital sex-work: producing sexy audio files, video clips and photo sets, and how to sell them online.
“Be as creative as you can,” Miss Em encouraged. “Put your passion into your clips and people will come back! Quite literally every single thing in the world is a fetish for someone.”
Her own content catalogue is startlingly diverse. Miss Em sells videos of herself washing dishes in her underwear, for example, and blowing up balloons.
“I had no idea that applying and removing Band-Aids was such a popular fetish,” Miss Em said. “And my hiccup clips are some of my top sellers.” Miss Em’s “giantess” videos are also popular. “I will stomp all over my house, and crush the hell out of toy cars and things like that.”
I had no idea that applying and removing Band-Aids was such a popular fetish.
As her students took notes, Miss Em also suggested writing task lists for their BDSM clients to purchase, download and perform. “Have them send you photos to show proof of their completion.”
She gave marketing advice, and rated the various online platforms—like Niteflirt, ManyVids and KinkBomb—where sex workers can upload and sell their work. Miss Em also showed her guests how to set up their own websites and which payment models are the most sex-work friendly.
The challenges of sex work during COVID-19
When she first advertised her class on the Canada Adult Fun Reviews forum, Miss Em had pitched that “passive income is a great way to balance out slow seasons, and plan for the future.”
Neither her or her students could have imagined, of course, just how slow business was about to get, or how important Miss Em’s advice would soon become.
No one knew that earlier that same week, the world’s first COVID-19 case was being recorded in China’s Hubei province.
No one could guess what was coming.
Put your passion into your clips and people will come back!
Keevah Simone, one of Miss Em’s workshop participants, could tell something was wrong as early as January. So could her colleagues. “I got together with the girls and we were talking about how weird it was,” she said.
Business for sex workers usually suffers a post-Christmas lull in January “but it seemed really slow this year,” Keevah said. “Obscenely slow.”
February was no better, and once the virus started making news, Keevah’s appointments dropped by half. Nobody even remotely anxious about COVID-19 infection would risk body-on-body contact with a sex worker.
Business fell further as airlines cancelled flights and companies postponed business trips.
Keevah quit taking on new clients as the fear of the virus grew. By the third week of March she stopped her in-person appointments altogether.
The decision to quit didn’t come easy. “I still don’t know why we are so afraid of a virus with a 90% recovery rate,” Keevah said.
One of her colleagues continued full-service work during the lockdown. With so many providers not taking appointments, she was earning money “hand over fist.”
But while Keevah questions the health risks of COVID-19—and though she knows she could’ve made a good income had she kept working—she understood the risk to her professional reputation.
I am more of a poet and philosopher than a technology person.
“I just decided it would be better for me if it was clear that I didn’t work during the time of COVID,” Keevah said. She wanted her regulars to know she took the pandemic seriously, and wasn’t willing to endanger her health—and, by extension, theirs.
“I didn’t even want the smell of that around my brand.”
Fortunately, Keevah had savings in the bank. “I didn’t suddenly find myself with no money for groceries like some of the other girls I know,” Keevah said. “I was not strapped, but I was uncomfortable.”
'They missed talking to me'
Just like pandemic-bound workers in other industries, Keevah brought her business online. She arranged a couple of 90-minute virtual sessions—a service she would not normally provide—with two of her regular clients.
As it turned out, all they wanted was to chat about their own pandemic-troubled lives.
“They didn’t want me to strip or masturbate or anything. They just said it had been six weeks and they missed talking to me.”
Keevah devoted much of her isolated hours producing videos and photo sets for the online sites she learned about in Miss Em’s passive income class.
Keevah enjoys the creative process of making content, something she didn’t have much time for before the pandemic, but admits she’s struggling with the tech. “I am more of a poet and philosopher than a technology person.”
But her efforts proved profitable.
I’ve doubled the amount of money I made on OnlyFans over the course of COVID-19.
“I’ve doubled the amount of money I made on OnlyFans over the course of COVID-19,” Keevah said, referring to the image and video hosting platform popular with sex workers and online models. Her tamer photos ended up on her Twitter feed, often accompanied by lines of poetry, some composed by Keevah herself.
Still, selling photos and videos hardly pays the bills, even with the occasional Zoom session and CERB cheque from the federal government. “I haven’t really made any money for three months,” Keevah said. “Whatever cushion I had when this started is gone now.”
Keevah has a six year-old daughter to support, rent to pay, and a business to maintain. By the middle of June, she knew she needed to get back to work soon. “I am not in a position where I can indefinitely postpone seeing clients,” she said.
She resumed in-person appointments once the province announced the second phase of the economic relaunch strategy could begin. She started seeing only two or three clients a week, mostly regulars and a couple of newcomers with “excellent references” from a provider Keevah trusts.
“I am erring on the side of caution and waiting to see how the virus adapts to the reopening of the city,” Keevah said. “Limiting social exposure seems a wise choice still.”
The cancellation of the Calgary Stampede stressed the business further.
I don’t like the clients I get from the Stampede. They tend to be drunk, or high, and can be super disrespectful.
Many of Calgary’s sex workers rely on the Stampede to amplify their summer income. One of Keevah’s colleagues regularly earns $20,000 every July—twice her regular monthly average—just by working hard through the ten days of Stampede.
“Stampede has been a big money maker for me in the past too” Keevah said. Still, she won’t mourn the cancelling of this year’s event.
“I did that for one or two years, but honestly I don’t like the clients I get from the Stampede. They tend to be drunk, or high, and can be super disrespectful.”
Counterintuitively, Keevah wonders if the Stampede’s cancellation will actually boost her business. “People are going to be missing the fun and the parties and the adventure,” Keevah said.
“They might be more willing to reach out and want to host bukkake parties or little group events with just three or four couples.”
The loss of the Stampede might end up Keevah’s gain.
More than just a health decision
“Professional girlfriend” Lula Blue attended Miss Em’s passive income class too.
“I’m so thankful I had started building my online presence and services long before the shutdown hit,” Lula said.
She was already in quarantine before the shutdown.
A friend started showing COVID-like symptoms in mid-March. And Lula decided to shelter in place for a week and cancel her bookings while she waited for her friend’s test results to come back.
“She was sick with something else, but the scare totally triggered me,” Lula said. “I decided I really can’t be seeing in-person clients. I should be socially distancing like everybody else.”
This was more than simply a health decision for Lula. “I also wanted to remove myself from the market so that people who needed to keep working, in order to pay their bills and support their families, could still do that.”
Providers who continued to offer in-person service put themselves at some risk of COVID-19 infection, Lula concedes, but she’s not convinced the work is all that dangerous.
“Being a sex worker is already isolating,” Lula said.
Sex workers interact with far fewer people per day than, say, a downtown worker taking public transit to a nine-to-five office job. And the majority of clients willing to see a sex worker during a pandemic are likely isolated, too.
“They usually live by themselves. Maybe they’re retired. Probably single. And are just lonely,” Lula explained.
A sex worker and her client are “two isolated people coming together for a couple of hours to connect, then going their separate ways.”
I’ve been seeing a lot of small businesses adapting and trying to figure out how to still make money.
Lula considers her sex work a small business, and just like nearly every business in Canada, Lula’s is taking a hit. “I’ve been seeing a lot of small businesses adapting and trying to figure out how to still make money during this pandemic without just stopping altogether.”
In addition to uploading photos and videos to her OnlyFans site, Lula developed a suite of services she dubbed the Long Distance Girlfriend Experience. These include everything from “text check-ins and light flirty chats” for $25 a day, to phone sex and intimate video calls, to The Full Package which features one handwritten letter, two Polaroids and a handmade gift—usually a miniature painting or some embroidery.
These services reflect Lula’s real-life interests. She dabbles in watercolours and hand embroidery in her spare time. And she has enjoyed writing letters ever since she was a love-struck teenager in Nanaimo sending letters to her boyfriend in Lacombe.
“I feel like it is a lost way of communication that people are not using as much anymore,” Lula said. “I thought it was a nice little touch. Something physical that people could hold on to and keep special for them.”
They think that they can sit in front of a camera and show their tits and they’ll make $1,000 a night.
Creating such personal “long distance” content takes effort.
“The main thing I learned from Em’s workshop is all the behind the scenes work that goes into creating passive income,” Lula said.
Digital sex work isn’t easy—it requires a thick skin
But not everyone was willing to put in the time. In the early days of the pandemic, non-sex workers—"civilians" in the industry parlance—saw the lockdown as an opportunity to make a quick buck selling their own nude photos and sexy videos.
“The industry absolutely flooded with newbies,” Miss Em said.
She can hardly blame them for seeing the market potential. After all, men were already surfing porn at their office jobs before the pandemic. “Imagine that times ten when they are at home and in their pyjama pants,” Miss Em said.
But the newcomers didn’t last. “They think that they can sit in front of a camera and show their tits and they’ll make a thousand dollars a night,” Miss Em said. “It is not like that.”
Aside from the time, technical skills, and creative energy required to produce quality content, workers must endure the keyboard warriors and cruel internet trolls.
“When I am sitting on camera in lingerie for five hours, smiling at the camera and talking to people, I’ve got to have such a thick skin,” Miss Em said. “And that comes with time.”
Miss Em figures that between 70% and 80% of the “civilians” who started sex work in mid-March have already left.
I’m a little worried about the re-openings and what that will mean for my work and personal life.
Lula is not sure when she will start taking in-person appointments again, or how they will change.
Her approach resembles the reopening procedures of other COVID-shuttered businesses. She will add more screening questions for potential clients to make sure they’ve been socially distancing, and will make some handwashing signs to hang in her in-call space.
She will institute a gradual relaunch, just like health officials recommend.
“My strategy when I go back to work is seeing one appointment, taking a break for a couple of weeks, then having another one. It will be a slow transition back to in-person work.”
And just like many Calgarians, Lula feels anxious about emerging from the months-long lockdown.
“I’m a little worried about the re-openings and what that will mean for my work and personal life,” Lula said.
“I was just getting used to everything being closed and these changes are definitely throwing me off a bit. I was able to adapt quickly to things being shut down so I’m sure I will adjust again. I just hate leaving my comfort zone.”
Marcello Di Cintio is the author of four books, including Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Palestine in the Present Tense. His book about the secret lives of taxi drivers will be published in May 2021.
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