This essay is a commission published partnership with the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU’s A/P/A Voices: A COVID19 Public Memory Project for “COVID19 & Its Afterlives.” Learn more about the series here.
COVID first blipped on my radar as something more serious than I had first assumed in February 2020. I was at a Japanese restaurant with a client who happened to be a doctor. This was back when we still called COVID the coronavirus – he told me he’s been seeing clients with the same symptoms since the end of 2019. During the first few months of 2020, it was his advice I took around sanitation and health protections when the news and social media were confusing spaces to navigate for information.
I was a baby sex worker in 2020. I started in November 2019 at a dungeon in Bushwick in order to pay off student loans. The primary clientele there were Hasidic Jews who, like me, experienced touch and intimacy through devices and materials that create distance. Intimacy was wearing full body latex that covered all my skin, rather than taking clothes off. One said to me the shine of latex was better than nudity because you can see the body more clearly.
At the time, I lived in the South Bronx, didn’t have a proper bed, no AC, and travelled two hours every weekend to make my shifts. I initially thought I would quit the moment my loans were paid off but the money I made, the people I met, and the growth I experienced as a dominatrix kept me in longer than expected.
Parallel to my night job was organizing with Red Canary Song. I’ve been organizing with them since mid-2019 after exiting a harmful anti-trafficking group that pushed for partial criminalization of the sex industry. When I was working at the dungeon, I was also organizing to finalize the North American Coast to Coast Chinatowns convening to include massage workers and sex workers in broader Chinatowns organizing. I took a few Zoom meetings in the dungeon itself. The convening was held in March 2020, right before the lockdown. It was clear in the convening that Asians, migrants, and Chinatowns were already feeling the effects of COVID before it arrived to the U.S. – Chinatown businesses were the first to suffer and all our cities’ respective Chinatowns were being hit by the discrimination.
Right when lockdown happened, there was mass uncertainty for sex workers like me who were primarily doing in-person work. The dungeon I was working in had attempted to create health and safety protocols prior to the lockdown, but once lockdown happened, it felt like a death sentence. For some sex workers, that was not an exaggeration. The sudden financial insecurity created shockwaves.
I did a little in person work here and there out of necessity. Gas masks, gloves, full body suits, and bondage all became ways to experience each other safely. My job morphed into figuring out how to safely eroticize fear and to provide — for the few people I saw — a sense of control when they handed their bodies over to me.
The dungeon began receiving harassing calls and emails around the end of January 2020. These callers treated the Asian dommes working there as punching bags for their own anger and fear. What used to be only worries around potential police stings now compounded with increased paranoia around our physical safety with potentially ill-intentioned clients.
For many sex workers during this time, the only option was to go digital if you had the means to buy the right tech equipment. I started with just my iPhone and fumbled for basically all of 2020 to pivot toward online work. I quickly learned the internet is basically a whole different industry. Client retention online was an ebb and flow and creating content on a consistent schedule while I still was juggling a nine to five plus organizing simply wasn’t possible. What kept me afloat was the immense amount of free information veteran online sex workers compiled, shared, and distributed in the community.
As a primarily in person worker, I did not show my face online over worries of my identity being exposed or doxxed. This slowed my ability to produce content and advertise digitally. My Instagram page got taken down a couple months into lockdown for “explicit content” even though I wore more clothing than the Kardashians. Until now, I’ve only organized around SESTA/FOSTA but never experienced it for myself. Online payment processors were also a barrier. Paypal and Venmo are known for shutting down sex worker accounts. I suddenly had to learn about cryptocurrencies and tax laws around selling videos/pictures.
Mutual aid, from sex worker giving circles to cash aid for massage workers, was huge during this time. But when the Atlanta shooting happened, I shut down. I stopped the online work and the little in person work I did for two weeks, the longest break I’ve taken since COVID happened.
As of the time I am finishing up this piece, OnlyFans’ no explicit content policy is currently suspended. Mastercard rolled out their new policy which tightened payment processor requirements and caused hundreds if not thousands of digital content creators to be deplatformed or have their content permanently removed from clip sites.
When I think about collective care during COVID, it’s the people keeping us alive, not the system. From mutual aid efforts to Chinatowns rallying together to my generous clients who took care of me.