Penny is an escort and lawyer based in Toronto, and like so many other professional citizens, she encountered a devastating disruption to her daily vocational duties at the beginning of March. Sex work — unlike other industries — is broadly illegal, which means that she was left to her own devices to decide if she could do her job, and what her work could encompass, in the middle of a pandemic. By the end of March, she decided to see clients with or without masks, so long as they understood the risk factors of close contact.
This challenge faces so many sex workers like Penny, who’ve each had to develop their own rules and regulations on the fly. Should they see any clients at all? How ethical is it to see one above the age of 60? How deep should your background check be to make sure a client has been social distancing? Should you demand to see a negative COVID test? How weird would it be to wear a mask during a session?
There is no one answer to any of these questions, which has made the knotty business of sex work during corona even more complicated. Escorts are concerned about how lockdown measures might disproportionately affect them, others are being asked to drop their rates and there’s now a slew of grassroots fundraisers aiming to help those in the industry who are either out of work, or fearful of taking on new clients. Penny has been in the thick of it all. As such, below, she recounts the different revenue streams escorts are embracing, the necessity of bringing thermometers to bookings and what it’s like to see an older client in the middle of a global pandemic that’s disproportionately killing them.
The world got weird in March. In Toronto, schools, bars, restaurants and stores all closed up shop, and unsurprisingly, the shutdown affected our local sex industry as well. One of the sites I frequently advertise on took down their escort section entirely, so that people could no longer post their listings even if they wanted to. Another website, The Toronto Escort Review Board, opened up a section where you could advertise virtual services, so immediately after the pandemic started, a lot of escorts started OnlyFans. That was the biggest shift — escorts offering texting services, video calls and whatever else you could think of. I mean, one girl was offering glory-hole sessions.
But outside a handful of video appointments, I didn’t do any of that stuff. It seemed like too much work to build up an OnlyFans and have to talk to fans all the time. I mean, you have to invest in a ring light and all these other tools if you’re going to do it properly. To me, in-person escorting always seemed easier. There’s less time commitment. Plus, I think I make a better impression on people in person than I do over the internet.
Still, back in spring, it wasn’t clear what the future of my escorting business would even look like. The internet was full of men who were ruminating on what coronavirus meant for the sex industry as a whole. When I’d go to the forums, I’d see clients agonizing if they could ever see an escort again. What if they booked a session, contracted coronavirus and passed it onto their wife and kids? Others were like, “I’m making a list of all the girls who are seeing clients right now, and I’m going to make sure that I’m never going to see them.” A few joked about paying us in toilet paper when all the craziness was going on at the grocery stores.
Of course, plenty of people pushed back on that. Sex workers did their best to explain to those clients that plenty of escorts don’t have other jobs, don’t qualify for unemployment and were in a difficult predicament. It was a chaotic time to be in the industry.
So for the first couple weeks of March, I decided to take a break to feel things out. One escort started a Telegram outreach group thread so we could have a support system while our workflows were disrupted. We boosted each other up, and there were funds available for people that needed money to get through the rough patch. I signed up for CERB — the Canada Emergency Response Benefit — which pays Canadians who are out of work $2,000 a month, so I wasn’t too worried with that safety net.
But early on, it did dawn on me that coronavirus wasn’t going to go away for a long time, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to sacrifice every normal routine in my life. My division of labor tends to oscillate back and forth. Sometimes I’m doing a ton of legal work in a week and hardly any escorting. Other weeks I may not have anything going on in law, so I see a lot of clients. In general, this year, the split has been about 70 percent sex work, 30 percent legal duties, but it can change pretty quickly.
Toward the end of March, I did see a regular again. He was the first one I took in after the pandemic, and I remember we talked about it for a long time before the session. It was over text. A lot of, “Should we see each other? Should we not see each other?” I didn’t push back too much. Eventually, we just kinda went for it.
He’s a younger client, but most of my regulars are older. So throughout this pandemic I know that I’m at less risk than the average person who is going to see me. I try to let them make the call as much as I can. I’m always like, “This is your choice, and I don’t want to be responsible if you catch anything from me, because I don’t know if I have it.” After all, I’ve still been going out. I get groceries, I see some friends outdoors every once in a while. I didn’t totally isolate myself. It’s not my style to tell people what to do with their lives, and if they think having a good time with an escort is worth the risk for them, that’s up to their discretion. I don’t try to pressure them either way. I take my own precautions. I haven’t been traveling, I haven’t been to any concerts or anything, and I’m upfront with where I’ve been before a session. There’s no hard feelings.
Those conversations are always surreal. One client told me he had asthma and was worried about what might happen if he contracted COVID from an escort. Another client I first saw in 2011 — I’ve known him for almost 10 years — and he’s developed more and more health problems as the years go on. He messaged me during the pandemic about a booking, but we didn’t end up following through. Others ask me if I’ve seen any other clients during quarantine, essentially asking me to hold back from other bookings so I could save myself for them or something. It’s one of those things that’s been building up over time. At first, everyone was able to sit tight, but as the months pile on, I think people are more willing to do the things they’re used to.
In general, I haven’t seen as many clients as I did when quarantine started, and I didn’t change my rate either. Maybe I should’ve added on some hazard pay. There’s clearly a ton of demand and not much supply right now. At the start, back in March and April, I actually took a thermometer with me to read my clients’ temperatures before we settled in. But who knows how effective that is. People are asymptomatic, and the disease can be dormant for as long as two weeks. What other options do you have if you’re an escort that’s still working?
I recently took a new client who’s been stranded in Toronto for months. He was here visiting a friend, and then couldn’t get a flight back to India due to all the airfare shutterings. He told me he was going to wear a mask throughout the entire session, which was a first for me. I asked if he wanted me to wear a mask too, but he declined. It almost felt like a kinky thing — as if the mask was a specific BDSM request, if we weren’t living in a pandemic. So he showed up in a hospital mask, and he kept it on the whole time until the very end when he needed to catch his breath. Obviously we didn’t kiss, and when I gave him a blow job, he asked to wear a condom. That’s not very common, and I suspect that was a COVID precaution too. Overall though, it wasn’t that bad. Masked sex is a lot less awkward than you might think.
That’s the thing with sex workers. Obviously none of us were prepared for coronavirus, but we’ve also been obsessing over our personal health for our whole careers. We’re constantly asking clients about what they do and where they’ve been, so it’s not a stretch to add in a new question about if they’ve been traveling, or if they’ve had a fever. Once you’re in a habit of asking someone those personal questions, it comes pretty naturally. Just one extra step before a session.
Like I said, the pandemic isn’t going to let up anytime soon, and it remains unclear how that will impact the sex industry going forward. Maybe temperature checks before every booking will become industry standard, who knows? But ultimately, that’s the reality that sex workers have to reckon with. We can mitigate the risk, but it’s always going to be there.