Bonded together in crisis | Community | Chicago Reader

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Bonded together in crisis

The local sex worker community, hit hard amid the pandemic and ignored by social safety nets, is no stranger to mutual uplifting during tough times.

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Lady Sophia Chase has never been so ravenous for BDSM. The local sex worker and professional dominatrix has been clientless for more than two months and is hungry to get her hands on someone again.

"I am curious what I am going to want to do the most because BDSM is so wide—sometimes you feel like pizza, sometimes you feel like Mexican food—I don't know if I am going to be craving bondage or suddenly want to be very sadistic," Chase says.

Chase is the owner of Chicago Dungeon Rentals, an Airbnb rental space for BDSM customers and dominatrices in the sex industry. With two locations, business was booming regularly until March, when her clientele decreased to a trickle amid fears of the coronavirus. Then the state's stay-at-home order went into effect, closing both dungeons; they are not considered essential businesses. Since then, Chase has lost all income and is asking clients to donate, buy gift cards, or shop online to keep the Dungeon afloat.

Sex workers like Chase have been hit hard by the pandemic, which has cut finances drastically for many who rely on in-person work. Some have turned to online sex work to stay afloat, which can be challenging for those who don't have an online presence, tech access, or digital marketing experience. Chase had to relearn how to market herself digitally—a careful line to walk since the federal government introduced Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Senate's Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), laws that censor online sex communities in a dulled effort to combat sex trafficking and have detrimentally affected sex workers.

Chase went years without advertising herself because she is established in the industry, but in April, she started doing sex phone calls, webcamming, and selling fetish items online, though it's not as lucrative as in-person work. On March 30, she started using the content subscription site OnlyFans and is now in the top 6.6 percent of creators on the website. "And that doesn't even cover my rent. So that means [94 percent] of creators are making less than me," she says.

For other dominatrices who have built up an online brand, the transition to full-on virtual work wasn't as stark. Leila, a local domme and erotic photographer who asked that we not use their real name, says they started taking phone calls and heavily driving people to their subscription site in March when the shutdown began. Their earnings doubled compared to March; April was the best month on their site.

"Many people resort to online 'entertainment' as a coping mechanism," they say. "It's also tricky because many people are tight with money and might not be spending much on entertainment, so while [April] was good, next month might not be."

While struggling amid the uncertainty and anxiety from the new normal, the sex worker community has a reputation of being incredibly supportive, resilient, and fit to weather bad storms. It was one of the first communities to rally around mutual aid benefits as the pandemic's threats became real—local groups all over the country created relief funds for sex workers that collected thousands of dollars. These aid initiatives highlight the deep roots of organizing that run in the community, which has a history of leaning on one another financially and otherwise because sex workers are often left out of social and government safety nets.

While there isn't an official relief fund for Chicago sex workers, the community is supporting each other financially, emotionally, and mentally during the pandemic. "With some of the money I've saved up I've been helping other sex workers who need the help more than I do," Leila says.

SWOP Chicago, the local chapter of the nationwide grassroots organization Sex Workers Outreach Project (which is behind many country-wide mutual aid efforts), began a virtual Sex Worker Support Group and is helping sex workers from all over the U.S. get access to economic aid by groups such as the National Employment Law Project.

Freya Feist, an erotic content creator and cam girl, also stepped up to help local workers negatively impacted by the shutdown, donating about $500 to Chicago workers who cannot work online. "We need to be holding our community right now and be distributing wealth and what we make to full-service workers, to workers who are street-based, to workers who cannot do that right now," Feist says.

To raise funds, Feist created two quarantine-themed erotic fantasy videos that sold well and focused on fat fetish content, her industry niche. She also hosted free Camming 101 video conferencing webinars for sex workers looking to get into online content. Feist has been in the industry for about five years and says she is happy to offer her knowledge and experience on lighting, video editing, what toys to use, and how to get customers to buy content.

But while she has supported the community, she also saw a 20 percent drop in online sales for March and a 50 percent dip for April. Although she is able to still create content, the shutdown has disrupted her in-person work. Feist canceled a tour in Los Angeles that would have brought in about $2,500. And with no federal aid, sex workers know they have to hustle to make money on their own terms.

"We are our own aid. Mayor Lightfoot is not going to be knocking on my door saying, 'Here's $1,000,''' Feist laughs. "The most frustrating thing is that what [the government] is telling me is I am not a business. What you are telling me is I don't matter; what I am doing is not worthwhile or my economic impact does not matter."

The lack of government support not only makes sex workers like Feist feel personally discriminated against, but it highlights the longstanding marginalization of sex workers in the U.S. that is only heightened during the pandemic. Feist wants the public to see that sex work is not just a side hustle or something "fun"—it's a business that involves digital communication, marketing, and financial skills, just like any other career.

Emma Alamo, who makes leather bondage gear for kink pleasures and fashion, has lost about 70 percent of her income as events and expos were canceled. She is selling items online but is still losing money. She applied for every federal grant to help keep her afloat and was surprised to recently receive money from the U.S. Small Business Administration's Economic Injury Disaster Loan Emergency Advance, though she was only given $1,000 as opposed to the $10,000 originally promised to small businesses—the SBA recently changed its program rules after seeing the high demand of applicants.

Despite the small boost, Alamo isn't sure if she will survive the pandemic. She says the sex industry needs help. "Support businesses that might be defined as prurient because we are not getting the bailouts," Alamo says. "People should be paying for porn, always but now more than ever."

Sex workers say the demand for their services is there and always will be. But what that will look like after the pandemic is over, and whether businesses like the Chicago Dungeon Rentals will survive, remains a mystery. "I want to be optimistic but I also want to be realistic," Chase says. "I wish I only operated as a sex worker and could be a work machine, but I am also just like anybody else: I worry about [the virus], about my family, my health."   v

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