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COVID-19 Business Closures Put The Squeeze On Sex Workers

(AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File)

In this Oct. 14, 2015, file photo, a sign advertises Dennis Hof's Love Ranch brothel in Crystal, Nev.

When Governor Steve Sisolak ordered all nonessential businesses to close in order to slow down the COVID-19 outbreak last month, he specifically mentioned Nevada’s brothels and strip clubs.

But those businesses aren’t eligible for disaster loans from the Small Business Administration, and the people who work there are independent contractors. 

Lynn Comella is an associate professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at UNLV. She said businesses that are considered of a "prurient sexual nature" are not eligible for federal stimulus dollars. The term applies to sex shops, pornography, online sex workers, brothels and a lot more. 

She told KNPR's State of Nevada that because of the lack of a safety net the anxiety that every worker is feeling right now is magnified in sex workers.

"I think there is a very real, legitimate concern as people struggle to figure out how to make ends meet, figure out how to cover their rent and then get food and all of those things that individuals and families are confronted with right now," she said.

With the lack of help from the government, organizations are stepping in to help. Comella said the Free Speech Coalition, which is a sex industry organization, created a fund to help people in the industry who are out of work, like pornography performers and the crews that work on the films.

In addition, websites that offer pornography clips are giving performers 100 percent of the profits instead of taking a fee. 

Comella said small sex shops are facing serious financial problems. Some have turned selling items online or curbside pickup, but like many other businesses, she is concerned that many won't be able to reopen after the shutdown order is lifted.

There might be a silver lining for the industry, Comella said.

"One thing that can come out of this, I think, is that people are talking about sex workers as workers and how they're getting through this moment in time as workers, who also need to make money and have a safety net," she said.

Nevada's sex industry is unique because it is the only state where brothels are legal.

Alice Little is a sex worker at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch near Carson City. Little is concerned that Nevada's brothels won't survive the shutdown, leaving her and her fellow workers without a legal place to ply their trade.

Little specializes in what is known as the girlfriend experience, which is more focused on the romantic and connected part of a relationship, not just sex.

She moved her operation online when the Moonlite Bunny Ranch closed.

"Rather than just being about sex, it's more about the emotional intimacy," she said, "It's the afterglow of sorts, getting to roll over in bed after a good round of fun and getting to connect with your partner, hold them, touch them, feel that safe, warm embrace. That's the spirit of what the girlfriend experience is. So as you can imagine, adapting it for an online venue is very, very different."

Little said many people don't understand that clients go to brothels for a variety of reasons and sex is not always the main reason.

"To place judgment on them and the reasons why they come to the ranch is really ill-placed, to say that it is just this adult-focused space where the only thing happening is just sex, sex, sex - is just so far from the truth," she said.

Little said she's lost about 80 percent of her income in the past few weeks and is having to dip into retirement funds to pay everyday expenses.

With so many people out of work and virtually no one hiring, Jessie Sage, a sex worker from Pittsburgh, said the online market is getting oversaturated with people who are turning to pornography or other sex work to make ends meet.

"There's tons of people who wouldn't have considered going into online sex work who are now going into online sex work because their other revenue streams or jobs aren't possible right now," she said.

There are also people like Little, who did in-person sex work, but are now going online. 

Sage said there are more people signing up for online pornography subscription services, but viewing habits have changed because families are home together - all day. So, people who view online pornography or other online sex work can't access it in the same way.

Sage does a variety of online and phone sex work. She said she hasn't seen the kind of drop in income as Little but she said the work has become more difficult.

"I think that it's harder. The work is a little bit harder right now, even if you're still making some money in the online industry and part of that, I think, is the emotional labor that goes into interacting with clients is harder now, because people are really, really stressed," she said.

Lynn Comella, associate professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies, UNLV;  Alice Little, legal sex worker, Moonlite Bunny Ranch;  Jessie Sage, sex worker and sex columnist 

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Bert is a reporter and producer based in Reno, where he covers the state legislature and stories that resonate across Nevada. He began his career in journalism after studying abroad during the summer of 2011 in Egypt, during the Arab Spring. Before he joined Nevada Public Radio and Capital Public Radio, Bert was a contributor at KQED and the Sacramento News & Review. He was also a photographer, video editor and digital producer at the East Bay Express.