Sex Industry Professionals Are Being Denied COVID-19 Relief Funds

"With one multiple-choice question, the government dismissed us as disposable."

Your tax-paying business has lost most of its income due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, like many others across the United States. You log onto the Small Business Administration (SBA)’s website to apply for a forgivable emergency loan like other business owners only to learn you are ineligible. Welcome to the reality for businesses of a “prurient sexual nature.”

In case you need a vocabulary refresher, prurient means “having or encouraging an excessive interest in sexual matters.” Sex workers are being left out in the cold by this stipulation, which lumps them in with lobbyists and casinos. The full eligibility requirement reads: “Applicant does not present live performances of a prurient sexual nature or derive directly or indirectly more than de minimis gross revenue through the sale of products or services, or the presentation of any depictions or displays, of a prurient sexual nature.” While the SBA loan fund ran out of money on April 16, any business fitting this description didn’t even get a chance to apply in the weeks before.

Queer femme dominatrix Natasha Strange owns Sub Rosa, a BDSM rental dungeon and kink education space in Portland, Oregon. Strange says she has lost 90% of her revenue due to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s March 23 order for all non-essential businesses to close as part of social distancing efforts.

Courtesy of Natasha Strange

Portland's Sub Rosa.

“The SBA loan would have helped us pay our rent and business loan instead of burning through our savings,” she tells NewNowNext. “There would have also been the piece of mind that we would have our business that we worked so hard to build at the end of this rather than the burning resentment and anger because we have worked so hard to be seen as a legitimate business, and with one multiple-choice question, the government dismissed us as disposable. We were totally surprised we weren’t even allowed to apply, especially just having finished filing taxes.”

Many sex workers aren’t businesses at all, but individuals who would not have been eligible for a small business loan anyway. However, some are hesitant even to apply for unemployment because it could put a magnifying glass onto their work. Trans and genderfluid sex worker Ashley Lynn of San Diego tells NewNowNext they feel filing would be too risky: “Claiming to be a sex worker who is severely limited in their ability to continue working due to COVID-19 is something I worry would invite scrutiny, given the current state of laws around sex work.”

The Brooklyn chapter of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) has raised over $100,000 since March 26 to help sex workers in New York City. Their GoFundMe campaign, which has already distributed most of the money raised and is seeking continued donations, notes that sex workers “do not have paid days off, and many exist without savings or social nets of any kind. The most marginalized of us are the most at risk, and have nowhere to turn when clients stop coming to see us.” Their relief fund aims to “keep our siblings housed, fed, and able to weather this storm.”

The Free Speech Coalition (FSC), the national trade association to the adult entertainment and pleasure products industry, also has an emergency fund for “adult industry [...] talent and crew.” So far, they have raised $115,000 and are in the process of distributing the first $60,000 to 200 individuals. FSC Executive Director Michelle L. LeBlanc told XBiz she is “heartened to see all the ways adult businesses and workers are coming together to make sure we all get through this.”

The SBA’s guidelines also require that applicants are “not engaged in any illegal activity (as defined by Federal guidelines).” This knocks prostitution out of contention, as well as marijuana dispensaries, even if the business is legal in its state, like a brothel in Nevada. But the sex work industry is much more than exchanging in-person sex for money. There is a legal, tax-paying sex industry in the U.S., including the multi-billion dollar porn industry.

“It's funny how the government is perfectly fine to take sex workers’ tax money, but then when it's time for that tax money to be used to bail out the population, suddenly we don't count anymore,” Stirling Cooper, a Los Angeles-based adult film star, tells NewNowNext. He says he’s lost about 85% of his income after sets shut down shooting in March when California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all Californians to stay home except for essential service providers, and that he’s grateful for California’s temporary ban on evictions.

On the SBA loans, Cooper says, “I probably would have applied. I know plenty of performers who could really benefit from it and given the chance would have definitely applied.”

Erica Smith, a queer sex educator based in Philadelphia, believes “it's completely unfair to deny folks financial assistance because their business is of a sexual nature,” and notes that “this is going to affect not only sex workers and adult performers, but sex toy and sex product retailers.”

“This policy is an example of the U.S. being seeped in purity culture,” she adds. “The fact that the stimulus package passed with this stipulation is heinous but not surprising. You'd think politicians had bigger worries right now than sexual content they don't agree with.”

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