- From stripping to webcam modeling, sex workers are feeling the pain of a precarious economy.
- Research shows the sex industry craters in recessions as customers pull back from spending.
- Workers say they feel burned out as clients are paying less while looking for a compassionate ear.
From stripping to webcam modeling, workers in the industry say it’s harder to come by business as inflation remains high. It’s taking an emotional — in addition to financial — toll, since sex workers are often expected to lend their clients a compassionate ear.
“In the last number of months, people’s own stress and anxiety is palpable,” said Trip Richards, a 32-year-old sex worker who asked to go by his stage name for safety reasons, though Insider verified his identity.
Richards makes most of his income through subscriptions-based content on OnlyFans, and he said people often confided their financial struggles to him to explain why they’re unable to subscribe to his work. In addition to having to work harder to keep his income, he’s finding work with clients to be more emotionally taxing.
“Unfortunately, as sex workers, we do take the brunt of people’s own stress of whatever is going on in our own lives,” he added.
Though the US sex economy is largely unrecorded in official statistics, fractures in the industry are starting to show through. The Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA, or SWOP, told Insider it had seen a 15% to 20% increase in sex workers seeking financial support like grocery money, laundry money, or simply free supplies such as condoms, over the past year.
Legal arenas of sex work are also showing signs of struggle as customers pull back from one of the world’s oldest industries. The total value of America’s strip-club market, for instance, is expected to post a 1.9% decline in 2023 compared with five years ago, with wages in the industry set to decline 0.7% over that same period, according to data from IBISWorld.
That’s another blow after America’s strip-club market cratered 17% in the first year of the pandemic-induced recession, IBISWorld estimates, while wages across the industry dropped 12%. For the most part, those figures haven’t recovered.
“It’s very depressing, honestly,” Phoenix Callida, a SWOP representative, told Insider, adding that the number of workers turning up for help had only grown in recent years. “It’s hit people who were barely surviving before.”
Sex workers say a downturn means more work for less money
Lillian Jungleib, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, told Insider the sex industry could be one of the first indicators of a recession, since consumers pull back their discretionary spending during times of hardship.
A stripper in Portland, Oregon, with the stage name Elle Stanger who dabbles in a variety of sex work says the current economic climate is the most challenging she’s seen in her 14-year career. She couldn’t provide specific numbers but estimates she’s making about 40% less than she did prior to 2018 — a pay cut she considers to be quite generous, considering that others she’s talked to have described losing 90% of their clientele over the past few years. Insider also verified Stanger’s identity.
Meanwhile, Richards estimates his income has stayed roughly the same, though his work hours have doubled. Lately, he says his clients have skewed away from “big-ticket purchases,” including more-intimate experiences like private sessions or custom videos, and more toward lower-budget items, like simply subscribing to his OnlyFans profile for a few dollars.
“It feels like there’s the same number of transactions over the last number of months, but it tends to be more small-tier transactions as opposed to somebody dropping a bunch of money,” Richards said.
That’s in line with what other research shows about sex work during economic downturns. An analysis from The Economist found that the price of sex work plunged in the years after the 2008 recession, from $340 an hour with a female prostitute in 2006 to just $260 an hour in 2014 across 12 countries.
Another study from Tourism and Hospitality Research found that before the Great Recession, exotic dancers surveyed in Las Vegas reported earning salaries ranging from $3,000 to $12,000 a month, with 63% of respondents banking over $5,000 a month. But in 2012, salaries were still significantly dented from the recession: Reported salaries dropped to a range of $1,000 to $5,600 a month, with nearly 100% of workers earning less than $5,000.
A pay cut of that magnitude forces sex workers to become jacks of all trades, dabbling in all sorts of gigs rather than a single trade like stripping. Sex work saw a particular diaspora during the pandemic recession, Jungleib said, which saw a huge influx of people interested in online sex work.
But because the market is now saturated, profits are reserved mostly for the top sex workers, and a recession hits newer, small-name workers the hardest.
“The workers who earn less are the workers who weren’t earning quite as much to begin with, and the top earners are still going to earn a fair amount,” Jungleib said. “So you see a sort of increased stratification of income.”
A recession could also lead to more-dangerous situations for sex workers, Jungleib added, as workers may forgo screening and safety procedures when they’re in a financial crunch and feel more pressure to take on work. Stanger, for instance, said she had grown to tolerate “less polite” behavior when in greater need of clients. Richards says industry conditions have led him to get back into doing webcam shows, though he feels less comfortable with it than other forms of sex work.
“It is one of those things where it’s like, OK, I’ve got to make money one way or another,” he said. “I would consider myself privileged in the sense that I don’t have to do anything especially risky, though I do think I take a little bit more chances than I would otherwise.”
Emotional support becomes part of the job
Stanger says her mental health has taken a hit — not only from the increased pressure to pay her bills, but from secondhand stress from her clients.
She recalled, for instance, giving lap dances to a man who told her he had recently lost his house in a fire.
“A lot of clients are looking to relax, unload emotionally, you know, feel better,” Stanger said, adding that if customers had just lost a job or were having relationship issues, then she’s “literally dealing with more stress for less money.”
That could be because sex work is inherently about providing intimacy and an emotional connection, but it’s also sociological, Jungleib said, as sex workers inherently have less power than their clients during recessions. That power dynamic can be reflected in their interactions with clients as well, with workers carrying the emotional burden of the interaction.
Jungleib said that during economic downturns, “clients have increasingly more power and sex workers have increasingly less just based on supply and demand.”
Stanger says the current environment reminds her of 2009, when she first started stripping in the midst of the Great Recession. Back then, she said, industry veterans told her the sex business was the “worst it had ever been.”
But in her opinion, the recent years have been more difficult, as she and her colleagues are making less despite hustling even harder.
“I feel like it gets harder every year,” Stanger said, “even though I am more effective and good at what I do.”