Sex work means many things today. What started as selling sex now includes a plethora of other sexual experiences like virtual stripping and informal pornography (think: Only Fans), kink work, and bondage, domination, submission, and masochism (BDSM) work, to name a few. Bella Blue—a stripper, burlesque performer, and sex worker who sells experiences like dominating people, cuddle sessions, massages, and BDSM play—says the industry has changed a lot since she first entered it over 15 years ago. In the early 2000s, “It was still really novelty and underground.” Blue had people to guide her from burlesque to stripping. Then, she dove further into sex work with BDSM, saying, “I started to figure out I had a penchant for being bossy. I was like, Let me see if this is something I could maybe turn into bringing in some extra income.”
Blue, the mother of two young children, had difficulty getting clients and promoting her business when she started. “I had to keep my cards close to my chest,” she said. “There was a lot of fear about being found out. I couldn’t do a lot of the typical avenues that other dom[inatrixes] and sex workers use: the internet. I still could do Craigslist, and there was BackPage.” Blue built a clientele through in-person referrals, and her business was going well. Then, the pandemic hit.
Working in the strip club, doing burlesque performances, and having in-person sessions with her clients were no longer possible. So she transitioned into online strip clubs and virtual sex work. She described the shift to online work as abrupt. “I didn’t know how to engage, and I didn’t love cam work. I decided, oh well, I guess I’m going to go full force into this.”
With time, Blue began to enjoy online work, and the free time it gave her. She learned how to skirt the FOSTA-SESTA laws (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act). She still includes an element of online sex work as a part of her job. She mentions that it was absolutely a “saving grace” once in-person work halted.
The transition to online wasn’t the only change for sex workers during the pandemic. Sex workers were excluded from the Small Business Association loans for Americans with COVID-19 federal relief. That’s where mutual aid comes in, which Blue has long advocated for. Blue defines it as “the underground network of ensuring a community has what it needs.” It can look like anything from the barter system to sharing crops to donating. It’s what happens in New Orleans after hurricanes and what strippers and sex workers do when someone is in crisis. The government is not reliable for Blue and her community, so they rely on each other.
The government also deprives sex workers of critical social support by denying health insurance to many. While Blue has insurance through Medicaid expansion, not all sex workers do. Like many other burlesque dancers and strippers, she has worked as an independent contractor for most of her sex industry jobs. She notes that “healthcare is a human right. And in my line of work where you need to be having your testing, you need to be able to access services.” Sex workers are citizens contributing to the country like everyone else. “I file taxes, “ Blue says. “Part of the stigma is that sex workers don’t pay taxes, but I pay my taxes every year.”
She explained that stigma includes people thinking sex workers are dirty. “What do we associate with dirty? We think of bodies, drugs, and disease. When you look at the history of oppression, that’s the first thing we label groups as: diseased and filthy. Less than worthy.”
When discussing the relationship between worth and filth, Blue explains that people assume sex workers don’t care about their bodies or their health because of the way they make a living. Blue points out, “You’ll find it’s quite the opposite. [Sex workers] are the most invested in their health because it’s not easy work to do, and your body has to be up to the challenge.”
Sex work means many things today; Bella Blue describes her work as a form of healing. “Healing is pleasure,” she said. “Look for the healing in the pleasure moments. Don’t define pleasure just by orgasms. Pleasure is all over the place.”
Note: This is a part of a series this month examining how the criminalization and stigma of sex work affects workers in various sectors of the sex industry.