December 21, 2020

Sex Work Through NYC’s Pandemics


I grew up in New York City with dirty streets and garbage on the sidewalks. Coronavirus is not the first pathogen to strike our city. It’s not the first pandemic that has caused our city to do things differently. This pandemic is just wildly different from all the others.

In the days following New York Governor Cuomo putting the state on “PAUSE,” I sat glued to the television in horror. I began having flashbacks of news clips from when I was a kid and HIV was exploding in New York City. In 1986, I was six years old, and HIV was at its peak. The similarities between the early news coverage of COVID-19 and HIV were striking. The experts didn’t know where HIV came from, what it actually was, who could get it, who was immune, how it spread‑the world was in a panic.

At home in March 2020, I’m watching the news announce a pathogen called Coronavirus, which is reported to be as virulent and deadly as HIV in the 80s. I immediately think of SARS in 2003 and H1N1 in 2009.

When H1N1 struck, I was at home watching the news with my grampa. He warned me not to go outside, take the trains, hang out with folks. I was in my late twenties just a couple of years into domination work, still doing street-based work when I wasn’t in my dungeon.

I didn’t listen. I had to work.

I worked the streets of Brooklyn where the virus wasn’t talked about much. When I went home, grampa and I would watch the news together. Sure, I was aware and concerned about the virus. But again…I had to work.

I took precautions by assessing potential clients for cold- and flu-like symptoms or labored breathing. I wore a mask on the train, didn’t touch anything outside the house (elevator buttons, stair/train railings, etc.).

Fall 2010 I fell ill while working in an in-call location, which allow networked street-based workers to rent space to host clients at flexible rates and intervals. It wasn’t luxurious, but it was a nice, clean apartment frequented by folks who all worked in the sex trades.

When I first started feeling sick I didn’t stop working, thinking I only had a cold. I told clients I felt ill, gave them the option to book or not, took over-the-counter medicine to suppress my symptoms and kept working. After a few days I knew it was more than a cold. I had a high fever and could barely get out of bed. I couldn’t breathe. I brewed tea, made soup, took Theraflu to suppress symptoms and went to work. Living with an elderly man with heart and lung failure, I was scared to go home after running around Brooklyn. I commuted an hour both ways twice a week. I would spend three days in Brooklyn and four days at home in Manhattan with Grandpa. In Brooklyn I got sicker. A client provided holistic care for me for almost a week, then called my family when I couldn’t make it home.

I went to the hospital two weeks after the onset of symptoms. I was diagnosed with pneumonia, sent home for six weeks of bed rest. It devastated my work and bank account. I isolated myself in my bedroom away from Grampa as much as I could, but after a few weeks, Grandpa had also pneumonia. Luckily, we recovered together.

During H191, the MTA took steps to lower risk in the subways- masks and social distancing were a widespread voluntary thing (arms-length was the saying), and city and state leadership led the way. Now, COVID-19 is happening, and feels like all of these pandemics combined.

The shelter in place response to COVID-19, that’s different.

I’ve been working in HIV and sexually transmitted infection education and prevention and sexual health since 1992 in professional and volunteer capacities. When shelter-in-place orders were announced my thoughts raced. What about the populations I serve? My work centers around street-based workers and houseless folks. The people I serve cannot shelter in place. Many are substance users and chemically addicted. What about all my folks in the sex trades who don’t work online? Our income depends on intimate interaction, many of us hold barriers to traditional mainstream employment.

Sheltering in place myself in spring, I could only think about the folks who trade to pay for hotels to sleep in; communal living and transient sex workers; and in-call locations, parlors, dungeons…my mind was racing! What would happen to sex work!?!?!

Then I remembered: we are the oldest profession in the world. This is a cliché often used to minimize our worth, but it this case it highlights how resilient sex workers are. Personally, I have lived and worked through several smaller-scale pandemics. But would I, and other sex workers, survive this one?

Fast forward to the summer. As long-term renters sheltered in place, we couldn’t imagine that our landlord would decide to sell his home with tenants in place. He did. Due to SESTA/FOSTA, which shut down websites that facilitated sex trafficking, but also destroyed the online networks sex workers depended on, my BDSM work has slowed, and I consider myself to be semi-retired. My long-term regulars are hand-picked, and we’ve known each other for years. I hadn’t seen any of them since spring but now, I needed the cash to move and pay my bills.

During my first session during COVID-19, we were both scared of exposure. He’s a nipple torture guy. Should it be a car date? Are hotels safe? How safe is being in the car with each other? We have families. Getting COVID-19 from a session is a terrifying thought for both client and provider. 

When I sat down in his car he immediately asked, “What are the new rules? I know you have new rules?”. I hadn’t thought of new rules! Immediately I told him “If my mask is down, yours is up. Windows open in the car at all times, let’s stay here for ventilation.” It didn’t go well. We were both too nervous. We met again the following week. Same protocols, it worked. The following week I met him, hopped in and he drove to a hotel without telling me that’s where we were going.

I refused to book a room with him. I’m not ready to be in an enclosed space with a client.

I don’t know when I will be. If I were in a Dungeon, maybe. Naturally, we do a lot of decontamination before and after every session in a dungeon. For now, with COVID-19 rates rising, I’m not comfortable pulling nips in a car wearing masks with windows down, at least for now.

Jay/Jae is a semiretired Dominatrix, researcher and advocate working with marginalized populations in New York City and Atlanta, GA. She is passionate about sexual health, disease transmission prevention and criminal justice reform.

Read of the other articles in this series or download the PDF:

Fighting for Money and Dignity: Sex Work in Berlin

Clothed Until Further Notice: Being a Stripper in the COVID-19 Era

How Germany Failed Sex Workers

Invisible: Sex Work and Mutual Aid During COVID-19