My First Pandemic
As I watch my last clients leave, a few hours before the shelter-in-place rules officially go into effect, I wonder: When will I see my people again? When will it be safe to breathe the same air?
During the first week, I draw vulva pictures in different styles and colors. If you draw with loving intention, you can’t draw a vulva wrong — all vulvas are good vulvas. This exercise soothes my inner beast of anxiety, awakened by the rush to prepare: the constant cleaning; the time-consuming logistics of upgrading the Wi-Fi, microphone, and film equipment; refocusing my sex work ads to be more digitally accessible. I release seven videos on Clips4Sale.com; Get in the Box and Abused Shoes: A Romantic Story sell immediately.
And then I wait. And wait. And wait. Wait — is there no stimulus check for me? I learn that due to the prurient nature of my business, I may not qualify for COVID-19 relief funds.
Having cancer at thirty-two reaffirmed that I loved sex work and I loved being an artist, and life was too short to let society weigh in on my identity. Many of my friends from the Cancer Support Art Group have been through periods of isolation due to our treatments. On a Zoom call we all agree that dying alone is one of the things we fear most. And dying alone is a possibility right now. Knowing that I may not receive government support, a woman from the group stimulates me with half of her stimulus check — a fuck-you to the government.
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The focus of week two is taking off my acrylic nails; they are breaking, causing me to weep in pain. I see on Instagram that Hustlers film consultant and Instagram-influencer-artist-stripper Jacqueline Frances, who goes by Jacq the Stripper, is doing that as well.
“The day I soaked off my acrylics was the day it all fell apart,” she writes, in her signature handwritten scrawl, bright red instead of her usual hot pink.
I have watched Frances negotiate an on-and-off Instagram ban. In response to the prohibition, she moved her social media presence to Twitter, and created a Patreon site where she can be her explicit self and generate income from art that, though copyrighted, is easily stolen. I admire how her drawings of generous, ample bodies — thick legs and overemphasized blush — go beyond the glossy exteriors we portray to our clients.
Frances has been using her art to raise money for sex worker-led groups providing mutual aid. “Send me your juiciest thirst traps, let me draw and paint you, and let’s send some money to sex workers who need it!” she posted. She isn’t the only one: adult entertainers like Siouxsie Q are sending sexy photos to fans in exchange for verified relief donation receipts, and the Bay Area Worker Support group, run for and by sex workers, set up an emergency fund for those of us in need.
Bay Area sex workers love to party, play, and organize together. We have our own medical clinic, Saint James, with street-level advocacy, as well as a large community of workers-turned-educators who create content and coursework for people entering the industry. We are even a political force; in 2008, artist and sex worker Sadie Lune won SFMOMA’s I WANT YOU contest with a performance and poster advocating for the decriminalization of sex work. These days, since we’re all sheltering, we’re down to just organizing (though, privately, many of us continue holding in-person sessions out of pure economic survival).
During the third week, one of my beloved clients contacts me for a social-distance walk. I have seen this man every Friday for twenty years; we have witnessed each other’s bodies through his hip surgery and my physical frailties. I cannot leave him to a lonely, touchless fate.
We walk in Dolores Park. He tells me he had been taking long walks by himself, as no one would get within six feet of him — not society, not the bartenders, not his roommate. I know what it’s like not to be touched because you are perceived as diseased; being medicalized has taught me that. I give him a hug and he thanks me for touching him. He slips me an envelope with sixty dollars and three joints. It all helps.
Meanwhile, creating new types of intimacy online with people who themselves are cramped for space and lacking in privacy is challenging. Some particularly technically savvy workers are teaching classes to help colleagues adjust to this online world. I start having phone sex with two new clients from my refocused ads; one is in a nursing home, and one has returned home from college due to the COVID-19 crisis. We are all negotiating new technology.
The older clients struggle with online payment systems, and with poor eyesight. Younger clients struggle to understand the social etiquette and legality of payments for sex work. It’s a tricky navigation; you can Venmo your friends money, but (legally) you can’t Venmo me. I struggle with the never-ending sequencing of numbers: on gift cards, the times when I am supposed to be on the phone, the phone numbers themselves. Not to mention all the different platforms of connection for different clients: Google Hangouts, Zoom, Skype. I can never remember which platform to respond with. There is a reason that I have been doing this work in person for twenty years: dyslexia. Plus, I miss all the flowery talk — who my clients are, who their sexual selves are — that comes with two decades of in-person hellos; after a while the twelve-minute calls about jacking off are less interesting to me. No one calls for the idea of impact play — my specialty. There’s no spanking over the phone.
My college student finishes up one session and says he’s going downstairs to have lunch with his family. We all need the privacy of a sexual self. He needs our sessions to feel in control of his life somehow — don’t we all?
My bunny and I toy with the idea of filming shelter-in-place porn. We set up in my work room, but it’s hard to find the right day (i.e., when one of us isn’t depressed or waiting in line for groceries). What my bunny and I produce for porn is just BDSM houseplay—no makeup, no hair—enthralling, but not the stuff that sells. The real money is in videos with my worker-colleagues, and we can’t breathe the same air until shelter-in-place is over. And even then, all of us will need weeks to get our hair and nails back in order.
Filming sheltering-in-place porn isn’t just hanging out at home — it’s an artform. In any BDSM scene I film, I am interested in creating a memorable visual, something the viewer wants to feel enacted on their own flesh. The iconic queer porn production company, Pink and White Productions, thinks so too: As COVID-19 has interrupted typical filming opportunities, Pink and White has ensured that new releases consist of either film shot prior to California’s new laws, or of homemade film from performers currently living together.
Pink and White, an outlier in the broader porn industry, is known for modeling ethical business, labor, and health practices. True to its reputation, the company has been quick to adapt future productions: its brand new San Francisco Porn Festival, originally scheduled for Brava Theater this August, will be livestreamed through PinkLabel.TV. Entry fees have been waived for Bay Area residents.
The oldest profession in the world has outlasted many plague years past, and we’ll outlast these ones, too. We will learn more about epidemiology than most, as our lives will depend on it. We will ask flirtatious questions about contacts and travel, meanwhile calculating risk reduction. We will post advertising that nods to extra sanitary procedures. And of course, we will continue to use art as a means for communication, expression, revolution, and survival.
I take another walk around Dolores Park with my beloved client. We start having hard conversations about who his contacts are, and what would be acceptable risk for both of us if he came to visit me in person. I go home and have the exact same discussion with my bunny. We decide that all three of us will get tested first, and then determine our next move. For now, I take a shower, and have some shelter-in-place, gluten-free cheese pizza.
Dorothy Freed feels this piece encompasses fine art, writing and activism all in one wonderful piece.
Hell yes great essay.
What a moving piece, Zoe! While exploring the tough realities of being a sex worker in a shelter-in-place world, this piece also celebrates the primal needs of our sexual selves, and the delicate negotiations and risk assessment many of us now face in one form or another as restrictions ease.
Zoe, this is writing and art as activism in such a beautiful and connected way. I love you!
Love all your revelations and wordings.
I appreciate the courage in this piece. The knowledgeable and honest perspective gives sex work the larger voice it deserves and legitimizes the role it takes for economic survival. Thank you for also including the vulva paintings and photos. It all works well together.
Thanks for this Zoe! I love your stories – now I love your essays and your artwork too!
Thanks so much for this profound story and art. It disrupted my ongoing fog. Thank you thank you!
I love this article! Thank you to the authors for such a wonderful and well rounded view into your world.