Stimulus bill exclusions for sex work further devalue our already stigmatized industry.
As the lights of the Las Vegas strip flickered off in mid-March, signaling the start of the pandemic’s economic shutdown, the ladies of Sheri’s Ranch prepared for our party to end too.
The night before we officially closed, I took my last client, then packed up my room into my storage bins. I hugged the girls goodbye, and drove home just a few hours before the sun rose, anxious to get back and stock up on supplies.
I work as a full-service sex worker at Sheri’s Ranch, a legal Nevada brothel and the state’s only full-service sex resort, located about an hour outside the city. My title is courtesan, as it says on the work card I receive from the sheriff every quarter under Nevada law. My services include a range of activities that I’ll leave up to your imagination, but they’re all physically intimate and temporarily unsafe to perform due to the possible transmission of Covid-19.
Just like the casinos and restaurants of Las Vegas, our livelihood depends on tourism. If it’s busy in Vegas, it’s busy at the ranch. Girls often coordinate their schedules with big conferences that come to town, and some take time off in the summer because extreme heat slows conventions and special events. So when casinos began announcing closures to halt the spread of Covid-19, I knew that the livelihoods of brothel workers and all Las Vegas area sex workers were in jeopardy.
I had been considering my options since mid-March, when the World Health Organization classified the virus as a pandemic. I didn’t know what to do, conflicted between staying and making what might be the last of my income for months, or leaving to lessen my risk of exposure, and to lessen the possibility of giving it to others had I been an asymptomatic carrier. Some girls had already left early and many who travel here to work from other states had canceled their March tours.
Even as the panic increased, we continued to see steady business. Sex work is legal only in certain counties in Nevada with populations under 700,000, and it’s a bit of an adventure to get to the ranch — from Vegas, you have to drive through the Spring Mountains, and we’re the last stop before the road ends and the desert begins. I think once clients make up their mind to come, little will stop them, not even the looming threat of a pandemic.
Then came the day that Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered the temporary closure of nonessential businesses in Nevada. As we watched the announcement, a bar patron insisted that, in his eyes, we were essential. But neither strip clubs nor brothels were classified as such, though some tried to stay open, like Little Darlings Strip Club, which tried offering drive-thru peep shows. I’d already been booked for a party later that evening — an oil wrestling match, no less — and afterward, I sipped champagne in a jacuzzi, my companions ate Surf ‘n’ Turf, and we tried to forget about the global public health crisis and the economic uncertainty of the very near future.
Those of us with the means and the client base have pivoted to online work like camming or offering the virtual Girlfriend Experience (GFE). Some have multiple streams of income besides the brothel that are still intact, but the reality is that many of us are without income. Most of us can’t afford to take months off from full-service work and continue to pay our bills, provide for our families, and cover an emergency. We’re also independent contractors who don’t receive benefits. I don’t have health insurance and wouldn’t be able to afford the health care costs of the virus.
We’re eligible for unemployment and the stimulus check, but the language on the application excludes brothel workers from applying for loans from the Small Business Administration, even though we run legitimate businesses. You’re ineligible if your business presents “displays of a prurient sexual nature,” barring those in the legal sex industry, including brothel workers, strippers, porn performers and crew members, and sex toy manufacturers, from relief. (Not all businesses in the industry have been denied the SBA loan. Bella’s Hacienda Ranch was approved for $70,000, but the program had run out of funding by then and they’ll have to reapply.)
Those who work outside of the legal brothel industry, like independent escorts and street-based workers, can’t rely on the government for aid or protection during this crisis. In the absence of government help, communities have come together to provide relief. The Las Vegas Sex Worker Collective has organized a COVID19 Emergency Relief Fund to provide no strings attached grants to local Vegas workers. Similar campaigns have been organized in Detroit, New York City, Portland, and other areas across the country.
These exclusions further delegitimize and stigmatize our industry. Not only is sex work legitimate work, it’s good work. I take pride in helping people live better sex lives and providing them with fun and care. In this job, I see a side of people they don’t really show anyone else, and that vulnerability has shown me that my work can truly help people.
Every day I miss my job. I miss our staff, and the locals who come to the bar to hang out. I miss my clients, how nervous they are during our negotiations because it often feels ridiculous to talk about our sexual wants earnestly, their looks of awe when our session begins and the afterglow once we’re finished. I miss the women I work with, sitting in the bar with them and drinking chardonnay and Red Bulls. I miss the idiosyncrasies of living at a brothel, like the calls for a line-up while I’m eating lunch or watching TV, or knocking on my neighbor’s door to borrow their prostate massager. The ranch is my second home.
I’m trying to stay positive and keep an open mind, though ultimately I’m uncertain. Sheri’s will reopen because we’re one of the bigger brothels, but smaller, rural brothels might not. The Vegas Strip will reopen, but it might take years for the Las Vegas economy to recover, and for the visitors that we so enjoy taking care of, to come back in the same volume as before. A craving for intimacy could have some clients running back to us, while the fear of physical touch could keep others away for months. The average client is probably relying on their stimulus check to cover a major expense like rent. Some might not get their jobs back.
Sex workers will endure because, inherently, we’re hustlers. But the industry could look very different when this is all over. In this limbo between flattening the curve, reopening, and economic recovery, my hope is that the sex work community continues to innovate and come together, and clients and providers continue to support each other and reimagine intimacy during these isolating times.
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