12 Play is packing his doctors’ scrubs, mask and gloves, and hopping on a $57 flight from Atlanta to Chicago this weekend. But he’s not going to the Windy City to practice medicine. He’s performing at a bachelorette party for a lesbian wedding, where he’ll strip to everything but the mask and gloves. The women in attendance will be wearing masks too. One of the brides asked him to wear a hazmat suit instead, but he declined. He doesn’t own one.
The Chicago gig is one of the only bookings the 6-foot, 215-pound male stripper has gotten since the COVID-19 crisis. He estimates that he’s lost $6,000 in the past two weeks thanks to cancelled bookings, leaving him struggling to pay the bills. He plans on filing for government assistance. He’s one of dozens of male strippers and escorts around the world VICE spoke to who have been affected by coronavirus, men for whom social distancing is impossible while performing their jobs. Social intimacy is the point.
Chippendales in Las Vegas has shuttered its doors. Most of Hunk-o-Mania’s male dancers are idle. Male escorts have stopped seeing clients, stopped getting requests, or both. Like many other service industries, sex work has been devastated by coronavirus, sex workers in Australia, Canada, England, and the U.S say. As male escort George Cicisbeo—who, like everyone I spoke to, asked to be identified by his working name—told me, “Male SW is less popular than female, so COVID, in my opinion, has put it to sleep.”
Because most sex workers are independent contractors, they survive from gig to gig, and during a pandemic they don’t get paid. While some COVID-19 relief funds do exist for sex workers, they are very limited.
Sex workers in countries where the work is illegal may be unable to file for unemployment, leaving them with tough choices: quit working and risk poverty and homelessness; continue working and risk catching COVID-19; switch to online sex work (which sometimes pays much less); or find other work, which is extremely challenging for anyone in any industry right now.
Christopher Moore, the CEO of MC Entertainment, an Atlanta-based stripper company that books around 500 male and 1,000 female dancers nationwide, says that about 80 percent of his dancers want to continue working. While most club-based dancers (like Chippendales) can’t work because most U.S. strip clubs have shut down, MC Entertainment strippers are able to work because they are mobile strippers who travel to people’s homes. “We're still booking parties, we just have to enforce the fact that all parties have to either [have] 10 or less [people],” Moore said. Stripping is not without risk, but his dancers are taking precautions, such as using hand sanitizer “before, after, and during” the show.
But COVID-19 regulations and best practices are ever changing—in Illinois, where 12 Play will be working, for instance, residents are currently required to stay home unless travel is essential—making it difficult for sex workers to know both what the best practices are and determine whether working is worth the risk. They are on their own, with little guidance about the right decisions to make.
Like some strippers, some male escorts have chosen to continue to work, but are taking calculated risks. “I've made the decision to only see clients on a case by case basis—so regulars who I know and trust, specifically those I trust to be self-isolating in all the appropriate ways,” said male escort Cameron Hart, who is based in Brisbane, Australia. “It's not an easy decision to make. My partner (woman) is also a sex worker and she's made the tough decision to cease working altogether.”
Mitch Sterling, a straight male escort who works in Melbourne, Australia, is seeing the occasional client, including one for a cuddle session next week. Before agreeing to see him, the client wanted to know if he had recently traveled and whether he was self-isolating.
Although he has the occasional client, Sterling said, “COVID has killed my business.” He works another full-time job, but estimates that he’s lost about 30 to 40 percent of his total income. “I've shifted to plans to build up my Only Fans following [custom porn website] in the interim,” said Hart. “But given payout restrictions, that won't be able to pay the bills consistently.”
And as the performers suffer, the club owners do as well. While Moore said MC Entertainment is “getting 10 times more views and traffic than we've ever gotten… we are only getting 10 percent of the work.” Although bookings are down, MC Entertainment booking manager Kris Lewallen said that currently “male strippers have been getting booked more than the women.” However, Moore has had to cut expenses, including the hours of administrative assistants.
“It's an economic catastrophe to us,” said Armand Peri, the owner of Hunk-o-Mania, one of the largest male strip companies in the United States, which operates both brick-and-mortar clubs and stripper delivery services nationwide. “I think we got hit more than restaurants…because restaurants are still doing takeout.” Peri said he hasn’t seen business this slow in his over two decades of operating the company; calls have dropped from around 250 calls a day to two. Peri has laid off 10 behind-the-scenes employees—including three full-time web designers. The hundreds of strippers who work for him, who are independent contractors, aren’t dancing. “It's me and my wife doing everything right now,” Peri said. He’s answering phones and she’s managing the website. He plans to keep the business running throughout the pandemic, but he’s depending on savings to do so.
Unlike strippers, male escorts aren’t affected by club closures, but many are choosing not to work. “It’s just not worth the risk,” said George Cicisbeo, who is based in southwest England.
“I am choosing to self isolate, but all of my bookings have also cancelled in the last week. It's not at all surprising and frankly it's the right thing to do,” said John Oh, who is a full-time straight male escort and works in Sydney, Australia, where sex work is legal.
Kevin Tee, who is based in Vancouver, Canada, is also choosing not to see clients, although he doesn’t really have a choice. “As a straight provider, I was also relying on duos with my female partners who are also providers for work. With COVID they aren't working so I'm not working,” he said. “I've thought about camming but that's not something I'm interested in. I have a career outside of sex work and I'm still employed there so I'm good for now financially.”
Other escorts want to work, but the demand has dried up. Darian Rye, a straight male escort based in Canberra, Australia, says that “enquiries have dropped off and all my bookings have cancelled in the past two weeks,” and he has lost about $2,000. However, he does have other sources of income. “I'm a qualified tradesman, so I supplement my escort income with carpentry work.”
Some clients have stopped hiring male escorts out of COVID-19 fears. “I can’t [hire male escorts during the pandemic] as I work in health care. I think it’s unsafe right now for both of us,” said a client who preferred to remain anonymous. But she wants to continue to financially support sex workers through following them on Only Fans. “There’s so many [sex workers] in need right now…I’d prefer to build a relationship and goodwill with those who I’d like to see after this, and they in turn can pay it forward if they’re not [in] desperate need.”
Some male sex workers are already trying to do just that. Damien Walter, an escort based in Toronto, has moved to Kitchener, Ontario, as he takes a break from escorting and works a day job in sanitation. Walter has also been baking bread and making chili for families in his community (he is cleaning his kitchen with disinfectant supplied by a local cleaning company). “I’m very thankful that I’m young, healthy and able-bodied, so I feel compelled to help those that can’t help themselves,” he said.
For those who can’t find other work, the future is grim. Some sex work can shift online, but for escorts and strippers, the in-person experience can’t be replicated through the screen, and until the pandemic is over, they will struggle. Yet some workers and clients are trying to recreate the strip club experience virtually. Recently a group of women in Miami purchased 12 Play’s stripper videos from his website, and organized a quarantine girls’ night, where they watched him disrobe while throwing dollars at the TV screen. They picked up the money after it fell to the floor. 12 Play, of course, got none of it.
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