'Intimacy is recession-proof': Sex workers describe the industry's transformation during the pandemic, from coronavirus fetish calls and sterilized porn sets to a rise in new talent

  • Sex work — an industry that encompasses those in the porn sector as well as those who provide phone-sex and adult-companion services and erotic content — is booming during the pandemic as more people seek intimacy and comfort from home.
  • Business Insider spoke with more than a half dozen sex workers and a sex therapist about the changing landscape.
  • They reported more competition from new talent, more business and clients, and an increased demand for services related to the pandemic, such as medical-fetish phone-sex calls, since March.
  • In-person providers of adult-companion services and porn stars have remained resilient as well, launching virtual options for their loyal customers and investing in mainstream ventures.
  • Those who've joined the ranks say the current climate has made it the perfect time to become a sex worker.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Amberly Rothfield, a wife and mother of three based in Pennsylvania, has worked for 15 years as a phone-sex operator, creator of erotic content, and marketing consultant for sex workers, the broad category of people whose jobs involve providing consensual sexual services or erotic performances.

But recently, she's noticed a shift in her clients' needs.

In June, one repeat caller began requesting "infection" sessions, a continuous role-play exercise requiring him to be "sent" into dangerous situations and risk exposure to the coronavirus. While the fantasy never resulted in his imagined death, Rothfield said, it shined a light on what he was willing to do to please her.

The caller explained that his friend had died from the coronavirus, and he hoped living out this fantasy would help him cope with his loss. In Rothfield's experience, the request wasn't uncommon. She's witnessed rising demand for medical-fetish calls, with some clients wanting to role play becoming guinea pigs for coronavirus vaccines in a heroic attempt to serve humanity. One caller spoke to Rothfield as if she herself was the disease, letting her know he wanted to serve her.

"Many clients are looking to have their evil mistress set them up to get virtual COVID," she said. "People are turning to us more as a release due to all the added stress that 2020 has piled on top of us."

An uptick in unusual sex-play requests isn't the only dramatic shift happening in an industry once seen as taboo. According to a 2020 Gallup poll on moral values in the United States, 36% of those surveyed believed pornography was morally acceptable, up from 30% in 2011 when the survey first launched. Sex workers and industry insiders told Business Insider they've seen sex work become increasingly more accepted and mainstream this year in light of the pandemic. With more than 71 million filings for unemployment since March and 42% of the US labor force now working from home, they also reported more people gravitating toward adult-entertainment providers and sex work as an alternative career.

For as long as sex work has existed, so has its stigma. "We are everyone's dirty little secret," Rothfield said. "It's a love-hate relationship." As a consultant, she's keenly aware of how many sex workers hide their careers from loved ones for fear of judgement and discrimination. Despite their work being legal, she said it's not uncommon for family and friends to distance themselves or break off relations with those in the industry.

"As more models get into the industry and tell their friends and families about it, the more people are empathetic and less judgmental, lowering the overall stigma about what it means to be a sex worker," Rothfield said.

This summer, Bella Thorne, a 23-year-old former Disney star, joined the peer-to-peer subscription app OnlyFans, offering subscribers the chance to snap up pay-per-view photos of herself she suggested would be racier than they actually were. First came interest, then came the site's record-breaking payday for a creator — $1 million within 24 hours, followed by $2 million in a week. While Thorne's participation thrust OnlyFans further into the public spotlight, it was followed by complaints from fans when the photo arrived in their inboxes only to find Thorne wasn't actually nude but instead wearing lingerie. Thorne also experienced swift backlash from sex workers criticizing her for joining the site and pulling what they viewed as a bait-and-switch, resulting in the platform changing some of their policies that negatively affected other creators.

Rothfield said she earned $258,000 last year and was on track to earn about the same in 2020. "Since the pandemic my phone has been ringing off the hook with both regular and new callers," she said. "My consulting business has nearly quadrupled, with sessions being booked weeks in advance, my book sales have nearly doubled, and my AVN Stars channel, where I teach people how to make money in the industry, has seen an increase in subscribers."

Read more: Meet the 'Tax Domme,' the sex worker who prepares other sex workers' income taxes

Jaxx Alutalica, a certified sex therapist who works at Entwine Therapy, a practice focused on issues surrounding gender identity and sexuality, said they weren't surprised that more people are "seeking ways to experience closeness."

Alutalica, who's been a sex therapist for six years, said that a quarter of their practice's clients are sex workers and that they've exhibited remarkable resiliency and creativity during the pandemic, "resulting in the types of offerings now being presented in the marketplace, ranging from text packages to virtual dinner dates to educational content catering not only to patrons but other sex workers."

"Intimacy is recession-proof," Alutalica said. "Individuals and sex workers still need and want each other and will continue to seek each other out despite what's going on in the world."

Rothfield said she could feel the loneliness and longing on the other end of the phone line, and the desperate need for her clients to connect with another human. "Sometimes we just talk about how each other's day was and what's on our mind," she said. "It's not always about sex. Sometimes it's simply about connection."

A surge in new users, and sex workers

Since the US went into lockdown, Pornhub has seen a surge in new users, citing an 82% increase in March, a 78% increase in April, and a 32% increase in May, a representative told Business Insider. The site also had a significant boost in video uploads by models — 91% in March, 123% in April, and 105% in May. (Pornhub declined to provide more recent data. Business Insider recently reported the site purged millions of unverified videos after accusations of hosting child pornography.)

The founder of the amateur porn-clip site Clips4sale, Neil, who didn't want to use his last name, said that they've seen an overall performance increase across the site in traffic, signups, content uploads, and clip sales since March. According to the most current data he was willing to provide, the site saw an 11% clip-sales increase and a 23% increase in content providers (known as studios) between February and March.

Professional phone-sex services and sex chats have also seen a steady 10% growth since March, with a 35% to 40% increase in new operators, according to Erin Martinez, a representative at phone-sex services company NiteFlirt. Martinez said the company should perhaps change its tagline to "affection without the risk of infection."

This summer, Pornhub reported that it had seen 18.5 million searches containing the term "corona," 11.8 million containing the word "quarantine," and another 1.5 million containing "covid." Some 1,250 coronavirus-themed videos have been uploaded to the site since the pandemic started, the company said, resulting in over 1 million views.

Veterans mentor up-and-comers

Amberly Rothfield recently started coaching Emmie Taylor, aka Nautibabe, who joined OnlyFans in July as a way to cover her living expenses and pay down student-loan debt. The two have been pals since middle school. 

"My boyfriend and I moved and bought a 34-foot sailboat in April, with the goal of crossing the Atlantic, doing some island hopping, and picking up odd jobs along the way," Taylor said. Now, with borders closed, the pair are stuck docked and living at the marina. "Money is draining, and I've really stepped outside my comfort zone," she said. "If it hadn't been for Amberly, I'd be lost in a sea of girls, still trying to figure it all out." 

Under Rothfield's tutelage, Taylor now sells nude photos and videos of herself. She also sells her underwear at $50 a pop on other sites. She said it hasn't been easy with the deluge of new OnlyFans creators and sites like OfferUp and Instagram cracking down on selling worn intimates, but with Rothfield's guidance she's persevering.

An "Asian provocateur and manipulatrix," who goes by the alias Mz. Kim, has also taken up mentoring the influx of new sex workers.

"I started teaching in-person workshops three years ago, so when everyone was forced to stay put, it made sense to rewrite these classes into an online format, allowing them to be downloaded and watched anytime," she said.

Kim, whose business has seen a boost since lockdown in both new clients and more time spent with existing ones, has taught seven online courses since the pandemic began, and, according to her site, added classes in response to high demand. She recently reported that her earnings were between $18,000 and $22,000 a month. 

Kim said she's sensed an emotional strain and urgency from her followers in recent months, and considered herself fortunate that she works in a field "tailor-made for this situation." 

"It's probably not a surprise sex workers work as emotional, intellectual, and sexual-health providers, but the intensity of these needs has surprised me," Kim said. "I'm more sensitive to their voices these days, and I've found that sometimes they simply need a gentle, caring, and feminine energy to carry them."

Interior designer and UCLA graduate Lex Lee had just begun the process of filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April and was looking for a way to pick up some cash when she joined OnlyFans that same month. 

"To say I was struggling would be an understatement," the 31-year-old Californian, who moved back in with her mother 18 months ago, told Business Insider.

In March, shortly after posting about her breakup on Instagram, one of Lee's followers messaged her, porn star Kendra Spade. The two shared a lot in common, including their Filipino-Irish heritage, and became fast friends. As their friendship blossomed, Lee turned to Spade for advice on how to expand her OnlyFans business.

"At times it feels like throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks, but Kendra has been able to help me gain a better understanding of the business and share tips and tricks on stuff like pricing, how often to post, and how to serve my audience in a way that doesn't take a lot away from me as a person," Lee said.

Despite the fact that Lee is in the top 2.6% of OnlyFan's creators, she said the job is not without its challenges and is far from an easy way to make money. "When I started, I had this idea I wouldn't sell images of certain parts of my body for less than $90 to $100," she said. "Meanwhile, I've sold some for a few bucks."

Since April, Lee has earned approximately $12,000, but her hope is to someday earn $800 a day on the platform to be able to move into her own place, get health insurance, and buy a new car. 

Lockdowns and distancing take in-person providers online, and into new ventures

Business has been challenging for those whose livelihood depends on in-person encounters, but that hasn't stopped some from adapting their offerings for a remote audience.

For the past two years, Amber Delice, who lives in Colorado, has provided in-person adult-companion services ranging from casual dates and accompanying clients to formal affairs to overnight stays and extended romantic getaways.

Delice's base rates begin at $1,200 and go up to $10,000. Her average booking lasts between 48 and 72 hours.

After the pandemic hit, she transformed her services into a collection of virtual offerings, such as "The Securely Attached Girlfriend Experience Text Package," which provides daily check-ins, attuned empathetic responses, and nighttime sweet nothings, and the "Dystopian Dream Date," which she refers to as "a long-distance dinner date meets immersive theater meets apocalypse camgirl."

"I've had clients request a simple platonic paid phone call just to hear my voice, or help guide them through emotional issues they were experiencing," Delice said. "I've never had that happen before the pandemic."

As for new clients who recently opted in to her text-package option, "Many of them just needed to know someone was on the other end, emotionally available to listen," she said.

Delice began taking limited in-person bookings with established clients in late May, and said she's grateful for those regular clients who've shown up for her with care and concern during this time.

Spencer Barrick, a 32-year-old adult-film entertainer known as Damon Dice, said the pandemic has shifted the balance of power "from the big tube site and production companies to the performers and independent producers."

"With production on hold for five months, us performers were put in a sink-or-swim situation, left to figure out how to keep our head above water," he said, adding that sex workers were unable to receive government assistance. 

While OnlyFans reported a 75% uptick in new model sign-ups in April alone, Barrick said it wasn't just newcomers creating content on the site. "A lot of top performers were able to build their brands and income so much through OnlyFans and other online platforms that they would rather work from home instead of being on a porn set all day, making less money," Barrick said. 

While filming unofficially started up again in July, he said it's become less saturated with performers for this reason. But he added he feels safer on a porn set than he does walking into a grocery store.

"Everyone got tested, temperatures were taken on-site, the crew wore masks, the set was sterilized, and the director was positioned behind a protective screen," he said. "What really blew my mind, though, was when a small remote-control car was sent onto the film set to deliver lubricant to us. That's one I'll have to tell the grandkids." 

Prior to the pandemic, one of the toughest parts of being a sex worker was having a healthy dating life, according to Barrick. "I've tried dating and serious relationships, but it's tough," he said. "It's always tough for them to stomach seeing photos and videos on social media of me having a good time with another woman even if it's work. Still, it leaves me feeling a little guilty," he added. 

These days, Barrick said his social life has been next to nothing. Not only is he staying home to avoid contracting COVID-19, he also doesn't want to risk putting his scene partners at risk.

Since his return to filming, Barrick said the biggest downsides have been the frequency with which he's had to test for COVID-19 and the additional paperwork required. 

"I have to test 24 to 48 hours before every shoot, which means I have to be at the testing facility by 7:30 a.m. to ensure I'm tested early enough for next-day results," Barrick said, adding that several times his results didn't come back in time, causing him to lose out on work. 

Additionally, he said, performers were already required to fill out a barrage of paperwork, including liability waivers, ID verification, and tax forms, and the amount of paperwork has doubled since the pandemic. "I'm not joking when I say the time it takes me to fill out the paperwork and do recorded liability interviews is the same amount of time it takes to film the actual sex scene," he said.

With porn stars getting more attention, some have transitioned to business ventures outside the adult industry, including Barrick. During the first quarter of 2020, he bankrolled direct-to-consumer vegan-condom business PS Condoms with his adult-film earnings and brought on several adult stars as investors.

The perfect time to become a sex worker

One sex worker who goes by the alias Curvy Mary told Business Insider that the pandemic was just the push she needed to follow her dreams of becoming a porn star.

"There are so many unprecedented opportunities in sex work and porn that weren't here before COVID, so I decided to just strike while the iron was hot," she said. "I went to business school, held a corporate job, got married, got a dog, and lived a white-picket-fence existence, and I gave it up all in an instant," she added. 

To gain her footing, Mary is exploring a variety of services, including adult film, modeling, web cam, and phone sex. She said she's already shot a year's worth of hardcore porn in just a few months.

"It's all happened so fast, and I'm just riding the wave while I can," she said. "I'm a firm believer in timing, and this is my time."

Bible Belt-born Savannah Solo, known for her funny videos and cosplay shoots, joined OnlyFans on New Year's Day and immediately began racking up monthly subscribers who pay, as she puts it, "less than the cost of a Big Mac meal." At her peak, she had 6,500 subscribers, paying between $6 and $7.50 a month.

"It really was God's timing," the 22-year old told Business Insider. "I got on the platform two months before the pandemic hit, and during that time I was able to get the lay of the land and miss the cut-off to saturation in the marketplace."

Solo shared that she'd owed thousands in residual book fees from college and maxed out her credit cards.

"I could've worked at a fast-food establishment, but when my ex said OnlyFans could be lucrative, I decided to give it a try," Solo said.

Last year, Solo didn't earn enough to pay taxes. This year, she's out of debt. She'd spent her whole life living in a trailer with her parents, but recently, thanks to her OnlyFans earnings, she was able to buy herself a four-bedroom house with a garage that cost $250,000.

"The timing of when I joined the site and when the pandemic hit has completely changed my life," Solo said. "I can hardly believe it some days."

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