Imagine being laid off during the pandemic with no money to keep the lights on, and no way to put food in the fridge. That’s the reality for many sex workers in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adult content creator and visual artist Samantha Sun, 25, says the transition from in-person to online hasn’t been as glamorous or profitable for sex workers as some might think.
Before the pandemic, Sun stripped her way through her undergrad at one of the biggest nightclubs in the U.K. After spending a few years abroad, she returned to Ontario from London in September, due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the United Kingdom.
Despite her initial reluctance, she started making adult content on OnlyFans (OF), an online platform where subscribers can access exclusive content.
“A lot of us didn’t choose to go online, we did it out of necessity,” Sun said. “We’ve been working at the club. Not all those skills are transferable online.”
Sex workers have been marginalized even more during the pandemic because of strip club and massage parlour closures. The pandemic has erased the possibility of sex workers working in person, eliminating the possibility of a steady income for most. In the absence of public support, sex workers have created virtual spaces to help one another make money.
In collaboration with Maggie’s Toronto and East London Strippers Collective (ELSC), organizations that support sex workers’ rights, Sun also facilitates weekly life drawing events that showcase a different stripper each week.
“The government has continued to leave sex workers behind,” said Jenny Duffy, board chair at Maggie’s Toronto. “When the pandemic hit and emergency funds became available to the public, there was nothing done to make it accessible to sex workers.”
Sex workers taking care of each other
Due to this absence of financial assistance, Maggie’s partnered with Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Worker Support Network to create an emergency mutual aid fund for sex workers. Duffy says it became one of the largest of its kind in North America.
Maggie’s also started an emergency fund that’s exclusive to Black sex workers in recognition of the historic barriers that they’ve faced in accessing work within the industry.
“For workers who can’t get financial support, they’re relying on their agency or organizations like Maggie’s to help support them throughout the pandemic,” said Alina Smith*, a 26-year-old sex worker in Ontario.
In order to meet the needs, they also created an emergency food box program in partnership with FoodShare Toronto, where they deliver boxes of fresh food to sex workers around the city.
Maggie’s also launched a virtual club for Black and queer performers, The Strap House, in conjunction with Strapped TO, which pre-pandemic was a monthly party for queer women. The club aims to create another avenue for sex workers to make money safely during the pandemic.
“They’re able to perform in a space that is free from the anti-Black racism that’s present in so many clubs,” Duffy said.
Making a living during the pandemic
For many sex workers, shifting online out of necessity still raises alarming concerns about accessibility and privilege. To be successful on platforms like OnlyFans, creators need to have a huge fan base, and need to constantly market themselves on third-party platforms like Reddit. According to Sun, the online business for sex workers, especially full-service sex workers, isn’t as lucrative.
For her, the platform provides a bit of cash — but not enough to pay the bills.
“It’s pocket money. I think of it as, if my OnlyFans pays for my groceries every week, I’m happy,” said Sun.
“That’s not the case for a lot of people,” Sun said.
She’s been living with her parents since her return to Ontario. Sun doesn’t have to worry about living expenses, which she says puts her in a much more privileged position than some of her colleagues.
Smith, who is a psychotherapy student as well as a sex worker, estimates the restrictions and lack of support from the government throughout the pandemic has dropped her monthly income by 90 per cent.
“Before the pandemic, when people were here on business, it was so easy to get full hours and have a better income,” she said during a telephone interview. “With business travelling down and the borders being closed, that has impacted my business and income.”
Many people in the sex workers’ community say law enforcement and government officials don’t have the best track record when it comes to protecting sex workers’ rights.
Unfortunately, the uneven playing field of sex work and “whorearchy” (hierarchy amongst sex workers) transfers online, where full-service sex workers are often judged and disregarded by online adult content creators.
Sex workers who can make a living on platforms such as OF symbolize a privilege that not all sex workers acquire. Not all of them have access to technology, a space to record content or a device with which to record.
“I don’t want to say people who are making OnlyFans aren’t sex workers, because in a way that is sex work,” Smith said. “I think it adds another layer to the hierarchy of sex work that is really not representative of the realities that other sex workers have experienced and are experiencing.”
The struggle to get noticed online
With an influx of digital adult content creators and celebrities on platforms like OF, traditional sex workers have had great difficulty building clientele online. According to Sun, popular influencers will continue to make obscene amounts of money on the backs of sex workers who are constantly silenced, deplatformed, and left unseen.
“Bella Thorne really fucked us over,” she said, referring to a famous actress who joined OnlyFans.
With over 24 million followers on Instagram, actress Thorne reportedly made $1 million on OF in a single day in August, charging subscribers $20 per month for her content. With photos posed in bathing suits on her OF profile, Thorne was charging people an additional $200 to see her nudes. This left a lot of customers dissatisfied.
OF subsequently implemented strict payment restrictions. Now creators can’t get tipped more than $50, must wait two weeks before their payments and tips are processed, while the platform keeps 20 per cent of the money.
Both Sun and Smith believe that legalizing sex work in Canada would mean more support for sex workers during the pandemic. The criminalization of sex work trickles into online spaces where sex workers can’t openly advertise their work or services on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. That prohibits sex workers from making a steady income.
“The government, the police, authority bodies, place sex workers in danger and continually don’t listen to what sex workers need to survive,” Duffy said.
Financial insecurity and scarcity for sex workers during the pandemic raises a bigger question. Many sex workers believe that they’re not visible to the government. Until sex work is legalized, workers will continue to find themselves in a vicious cycle where their livelihoods aren’t protected in person or virtually.
*Alina Smith’s name has been changed to protect her identity.