Burlesque On Demand: Drag Culture and Sex Work During Quarantine

VH1 must be thrilled that the first episode of the latest season of RuPaul’s Drag Race aired right before the pandemic started.

As a trans, queer, polyamorous person, I make sure that the media I consume is as LGBTQ friendly as possible.  The events I attend are almost exclusively queer events.

No offense to the straight clubs out there: I’m just not that interested.

When I moved to New York, queer nightlife was a fantastical new world where everyone would understand me.  Once I had my gender and sexual identity awakening, and started doing drag.

I was a King known as Queue, and I would paint my face with a colorful beard and do splits and flips across the stage.

I liked to call myself a “drag-cro-bat.”

When the coronavirus came to New York, it hit the city and boroughs particularly hard.  All the producers, burlesque artists, drag artists, strippers, and sex workers on my Instagram slowly started canceling their upcoming shows.

Clubs were not rescheduling; they were closed for the foreseeable future.

I was sad to see that all of these artists were losing opportunities.  Knowing they wouldn’t be able to bring joy and gender euphoria to their audience brought a certain level of grief.  I wouldn’t be able to enjoy a drag show for quite some time. Queer spaces were not safe anymore.  I remember going to my friend’s house to watch Drag Race with the group of gays I call my friends for the last time, feeling like I wouldn’t see them for a long time.  I was completely right.

Another nagging worry kept popping up into the back of my head: how were all of these artists going to get paid?

Obviously, people were going to lose work.  I was hopeful when I heard that there would be relief funds for small businesses, and expansion of unemployment benefits. 

Turns out, I shouldn’t have been.

“Stock plans are eligible for funds, yet not adult entertainers. Sex workers and anyone whose professional activities involve “prurient” products or content are ineligible for COVID-19-related loans for small businesses and the self-employed.”1

“Prurient”? I resent that.

PornHub is giving free porn to everyone while countries around the world are calling for self-isolation and shelter-in-place.5 But now, all the sudden, the US government is going to pretend that Americans are turned off by sex?

The government has always persecuted sex work, and those in the queer community especially.  Jacq the Stripper on Twitter commented: “Whorephobia is literally written into this covid19 relief.  In a global pandemic, policy makers are actively making the world a worse place for sex workers and their families.”1

Pornhub also donated $25,000 to the Sex Workers Outreach Project, contributing directly to relief funds for those impacted by COVID-19.

Who says porn is “prurient”?

 VICE interviewed Andrea Werhun, a stripper from Toronto, who had this to say:

“I feel like my career as a dancer is in jeopardy as it becomes increasingly less viable to hang out in crowds, which is kind of what I do every Friday and Saturday night in order to make money… I’ve been joking about starting an Only Fans because if we’re in quarantine and I can’t leave my house it’s an effective way to make money.”2

I know plenty of people, online and in my personal life, who use OnlyFans to make extra income.  CamGirls have been producing their own content for years, and this pandemic means that more people are in need of work. OnlyFans, however, isn’t the only placer that sex workers can turn to make money online.

Drag and burlesque shows are starting to migrate to online platforms.  A drag personality that I knew in the scene, Theydy Bedbug, had this to say about it:

“Moving this medium online has its benefits— like the ability to employ forced perspective in numbers, utilize video editing to enhance the story-telling and reach wider audiences. But the energy exchange of a drag performer with a yelling, tipping audience is unparalleled. I miss connecting with community in person, and feeling an audience be impacted by what I share.”

The energy at a Theydy Bedbug show is unparalleled.  I can say that both as a performer and an audience member, there is nothing quite like an unapologetically queer space, a diverse crowd, and high energy drag.

Theydy has been mostly utilizing Instagram Live, but other performers, like Foxy Afriq (and their alter-ego Uncle Freak) have had to move their shows to other platforms like Twitch.

Sex workers all over my feed are trying to help each other out.  As always, they promote each other’s shows and try to keep their communities in good spirits online, but now they are reminding us to send tips to the hundreds of performers in the scene who are out of work. 

Through Instagram, Twitter, and even Facebook, sex workers and performance artists are sharing each other’s Venmo addresses. More than one strip club has set up a Venmo to collect money for their dancers while they are forced to close.  Mutual aid campaigns for sex workers are also multiplying.3

Sex workers are able to bring their work online through photos, videos, phone sex, and video conferencing.4  For lots of folx around the globe, the pandemic is the first reason that they even know about OnlyFans.

But this pandemic will take a toll on everyone, especially sex workers and performers who are in marginalized communities and were already struggling.

Maxine Holloway, co-founder of the advocacy organization Bay Area Workers Support (BAWS), says:

“There’s a large amount of our community that are people of color, that are trans women, that are disabled folks—folks that are not always able to access employment often turn to sex work to be able to survive and make ends meet.”4

The drag community is similar, in this way, to the sex work community. Many of its performers are POC, trans, or disabled. Already disregarded groups will feel the effects of this outbreak the most.

I stopped doing drag long before the virus hit my city, but I can’t help but think about them, and not just because they take up a large portion of my feed on every platform.

Millions of Americans are losing their jobs. Even both of my parents are out of work. I worry about the economic repercussions of the pandemic, but I find myself thinking about the people who will be forgotten about in our country. 

I hope that the Internet keeps sex workers, drag performers, strippers, dancers, and other performance artists careers going, and that their online presence helps them thrive after the quarantine ends.  I wish the government would protect every American from the consequences of their own incompetence. Supporting each other through this seems to be the only way through.

I wish my fellow performers safety in these uncertain times.

For any of those affected, please look to these resources for aid:

Resource for Sex Workers Mutual aid campaigns

Sex Workers Outreach Program

Research Sources:

  1. https://reason.com/2020/04/01/u-s-sex-workers-and-prurient-businesses-explicitly-excluded-from-covid-19-disaster-loans/
  2. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/k7ek8y/sex-workers-bracing-for-income-loss-during-coronavirus-pandemic
  3. https://www.thelily.com/sex-work-is-changing-in-the-pandemic-heres-how-it-affects-workers/
  4. https://www.kqed.org/arts/13877250/sex-workers-are-moving-online-supporting-each-other-during-coronavirus
  5. https://mashable.com/article/free-pornhub-premium-coronavirus-social-distancing/

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