MsKitty Black was planning her comeback.
It had been a while since her days as a dominatrix exerting control over submissives and slaves at the Broward County dungeon Command Performance. When it closed a few years ago, she decided to concentrate on her day job and put the domination stuff on hold.
"That was the end of an era for me," she says. "That place closing — it was really hard."
But after being laid off from her job in chronic-disease prevention management earlier this year, Black decided to get back to work as a professional dominatrix, BDSM educator, and kink coach. She found a space to host domination sessions, began lining up clients, and marketed herself online.
"It was just starting to gain a little bit of momentum," she says.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and everything she was slowly building ground to a halt.
The pandemic has devastated almost every industry, and sex work is no exception. Those who work on the street — considered among the most vulnerable in the field — might find themselves with no option but to continue selling sex and exposing themselves to further health risks.
The sex industry leans heavily on people meeting in person for sex, erotic massages, domination sessions, or coaching. Clients often travel across the state, or even the country, to meet sex workers. Now, with most travel and human interaction at a standstill, those who can get creative with phone and video services — including dominatrixes, performers, and fetish models — are trying to make it work.
Black says she's been doing phone domination, but it's been slow to start. She's also working on expanding to cam services, prerecorded clips, and live virtual domination sessions.
"The phone-sex industry is being affected too," she says. "A lot of people do this when their spouses are out, at work, on the road. That's not happening. People are being quarantined with partners."
Vikki, a self-described sexual alchemist who works with clients on healing repression and shame, says much of her work can't be done virtually.
"I'm very much an extrovert," she says. "I'm doing energy work. It's difficult to feel energy through digital. I feed on the energy of people."
Vikki doesn't offer sex or sexual contact. She says most people she sees are looking for intimacy. She'll set boundaries, cuddle, and work through whatever discomfort they might have with physical closeness.
Before Miami-Dade became a hot spot for COVID-19, she met a client looking for a "sexy experience." She told him he couldn't have her like that, but she had some other ideas.
"Our entire session was me pulling tarot for him and him crying," she says. "I held him, he held me, and we cried. He needed someone to feel safe with."
What people tend to misunderstand about this kind of work, Vikki and Black say, is that many people seek the experience just outside of sex — the safety, connection, and openness they haven't found in themselves or in their partnerships. And, sometimes, sex workers provide an avenue for people to explore their desires without shame or judgment of their bodies and sexual identities.
Elimination, a Broward-based erotic masseur and professional dominant, got his start in the sex industry about six years ago as a way to work for himself and create the bullshit-free, apolitical, and accepting environment he couldn't find in previous workplaces.
He represents the leather community. As a dominant, he'll spank and humiliate clients into a submissive headspace and help them let go of inhibitions.
As a masseur, he works his hands on anyone who wants release — men, women, and people who are gender-nonconforming or nonbinary.
"I work with men and folks in general," Elimination says. "Men who want to experience massage from another man and not worry about judgment or who they are and what they want to experience. In addition to that, I work with folks who may not like to experience a traditional spa because of body imagery. Maybe they don't fit into a men's-only or women's-only space."
He encourages clients to come to him as they are. But now that they can't come to him, he's in a bit of a pickle.
"[The pandemic] has killed everything," he says. "I'm not seeing anyone, for my safety and for their safety."
When Elimination started his massage business, he saved up some money as he built his client base. In recent weeks, he has been relying heavily on his safety net and is concentrating on making it through the public health crisis.
"I'm looking into possibly doing internet sites that sell or market sex," he says. "As of now, I'm just riding this thing out. Unfortunately, the virus will determine the basis of how this goes. People may not have disposable income to engage in this anymore."
While some providers are figuring out how to stay afloat, others who were on their way out of the sex industry have been pulled back in because of financial insecurity.
Roman Black, who lives in Fort Myers, says he stopped escorting earlier this year.
"It's not that I fell out of love with escorting," Black says, "but I wanted to create more stability in my life and have less random engagement — travel less, build a home with my partner more, all that good stuff."
Black, who's openly HIV positive, says he has received support from various nonprofits and people in his community. His exit plan involved launching a social media management and consulting company specializing in growing nonprofits. He wants to support organizations and build community among people of color, sex workers, those with mental health struggles, and people who are HIV-positive.
"I want to build my own thing and do my own thing," Black says. "I also want to build something convenient, accessible, and meaningful to communities that have opened their arms to me."
Now, though, with the financial strain he and his partner are under, he's considering returning to sex work. He started in the industry at the age of 18, when he left his mother's home and did what he thought he needed to do to make money. He eventually transitioned from physical sex work to porn, nude modeling, and, later, escorting.
He says he dreads the thought of returning to physical sex work, but he's contemplating a plan of action in the event it becomes necessary.
"The part I don't want to go back to is not knowing what kinds of clients will contact me," he says. "From the things I've experienced, being a mixed male in this industry almost feels like I have to take what I can get sometimes. I know there's a place for everybody in sex work. But from my experience, the market is very saturated. I'm competing with white boys, white twinks, and people who offer the same look as I do but from a societally better viewpoint. They're white and privileged, and I don't have that access."
Diana, a program facilitator for the Sex Worker Outreach Program (SWOP) and codirector of the Sex Worker Solidarity Network in the Tampa Bay area, says some sex workers are in dire straits because of the pandemic. The organizations offer direct support and social services to sex workers near Tampa and connect others with resources in their own cities and states.
She says many of the workers helped by SWOP and the solidarity network are already marginalized — they're trans, undocumented, disabled, or people of color.
In regular times, SWOP regularly hits the street and distributes hygiene items, snacks, and condoms to full-service sex workers. Going digital isn't a viable option for many of them, Diana says.
"I feel like to people outside of full-service sex work, making porn or doing camming sounds like maybe the less risky or sketch version of sex work," she says. "But a lot of in-person sex workers don't do digital work because of the risk of having their face out there forever. Meeting people in person reduces visibility."
And doing online work is not nearly as lucrative as people might think.
"I'm so screwed," Vikki, the sexual alchemist, says. "My sessions make so much money in person but will make a fraction of that online."
Plus, like many Miamians, sex workers don't have the kind of financial security necessary to remain unemployed for long.
Across the nation, organizations like SWOP are engaging in mutual aid to help sex workers make ends meet during the pandemic. The Tampa Bay chapter set up a hotline and an online application form for financial aid and social services. Diana says the organization has distributed about $1,500 in recent weeks.
"One of the first people we were able to help was an undocumented sex worker with a disability," Diana says. "We sent her some money to help with rent and medicine for her son."
The Tampa Bay organizations have helped unsheltered sex workers make their car payments so they have somewhere to sleep. And they have distributed groceries to those who've run out of food.
For many workers, including those in the sex industry, staying home instead of going to work is an impossible choice.
"Everyone wants to stay home, but we have bills to pay," Diana says. "Yes, people will absolutely continue to work. I wouldn't encourage anybody to do it, but anyone in a situation precarious enough will."
For help, call the Sex Worker Solidarity Network's hotline number is 813-816-2796 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For resources across the U.S. and beyond, see here.