On March 27, Congress passed The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a $2 trillion economic relief package intended to help workers, families, and small businesses with the economic impacts of COVID-19. But federal regulation dating back to the '70s bars anyone whose work is of a “prurient sexual nature" from receiving relief funds and loans from the Small Business Administration (SBA). In other words, strip clubs, sex shops, and sex workers can be excluded from receiving government assistance during the pandemic.
While these restrictions continue to negatively impact those in the sex economy, business owners, performers, and sex worker advocates say anti-sex work or whorephobic policy is nothing new.
"The government has intentionally added clauses that prevent tax-paying sex workers from gaining access to federal funding," Rev. Rucifer, founder of Reiki Bondage, tells Bustle. "It's created a stigma that sex work is illegitimate or something that should not be valued in the same light as other work."
When Rucifer grew concerned that Coronavirus relief funds would be difficult for her to access, she quickly shifted her classes, workshops, and sessions online. But while performers and independent contractors, like Rucifer, can shift some of their work onto digital platforms, brick-and-mortar businesses and venues, like strip clubs, sex toy shops, and sex education organizations, are struggling to stay afloat.
After the state of Wisconsin issued a "Safer At Home" order, mandating the closure of all non- essential business and banning public gatherings, Wisconsin strip clubs, like The Vegas Gentlemen’s Club and Silk Exotic Gentlemen’s Clubs, immediately lost all sources of revenue, making it nearly impossible to pay their staff, rent, and utilities.
Alongside The Vegas Club and Silk Exotic, strip club owners across the United States have begun to sue the SBA and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin for loan discrimination.
On April 8, Bradley Schafer, attorney for Little Darlings, a strip club in Flint, Michigan, filed a class action against the SBA for "improperly and unconstitutionally limiting benefits to businesses and workers" that were "unquestionably" protected by the First Amendment.
The SBA's COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program application states that applicants cannot “present live performances of a prurient sexual nature” or profit from “the sale of products or services, or the presentation of any depictions or displays, of a prurient sexual nature.”
If you have no idea what "prurient" means, you're not the only one. According to Jeffrey Douglas, criminal defense attorney and Chair of the Board of the Free Speech Coalition (the trade association of the adult industry), the term is intentionally difficult to define.
"The problem goes back to a completely unworkable definition for obscenity that the supreme court articulated in 1973," Douglass tells Bustle. "In the '80s, they finally defined what 'prurient' meant, which was 'a morbid or unhealthy interest in sex as defined by the local contemporary community standard."
Per Douglas, because the "local contemporary community standard" (what a given city or state feels about something) is so hard to determine, it's nearly impossible for the legal system to decide what type of content, performance, or establishment constitutes as "prurient."
"No one understands what it means, and if you do understand what it means, you know you can't determine that community standard," Douglas says. "But, assuming there is a method to determine it, no employee of the SBA is possibly capable of making that determination."
Douglas adds that the vagueness and confusion of these restrictions serve to keep business owners from accessing funds they are legally entitled to.
"The presence of that language in the SBA rules makes people self-censor," Douglass says. "It screens out people who are especially deserving of SBA support."
Nenna Joiner, founder of Feelmore Adult Gallery, a sex shop in Oakland and Berkeley, CA, echoes Douglas' sentiment, describing the SBA's restrictions as "predatory language" that have historically excluded people in the sex economy from receiving government funding.
"Even though you’re talking about COVID-19 money now, we’re talking about what businesses in the adult industry have always had to deal with," Joiner tells Bustle.
While these restrictive policies continue to make it difficult for businesses and workers in the sex economy to receive loans or funding, Joiner says that individuals filing for aid can change their language to work the system to their advantage.
"If a person re-envisions who they are, they become that person," Joiner says. “If Ruth's Chris says it's a small business, I’m no longer a sex worker — I'm a personal care provider."
Danielle Blunt, professional Dominatrix, sex worker rights activist, and co-founder of Hacking//Hustling, agrees that while the current policies are undoubtedly exclusionary, sex workers and "sexual" businesses should still try to apply for government aid.
"I think the biggest misconception is that sex workers are excluded from government aid right now," Blunt tells Bustle. "That’s not to say that the government doesn’t make it hard to get aid, but I encourage all sex workers who need to apply!"
Blunt says applying for government assistance as a sex worker or someone in the sex economy can be exhausting and overwhelming, but can still be worth a try. "This system wasn’t made to serve you, but we can support each other in getting the things we need and deserve," Blunt says.
Kate D'Adamo, a sex worker rights advocate and partner at Reframe Health and Justice Consulting, tells Bustle that sex workers and those in the adult industry should look at state-based assistance programs, which may be especially helpful for those who didn't file federal taxes in 2019 or 2018 or work under the table. While the process is daunting, D'Adamo says there aren't explicit bans on sex working people to receive benefits, nor do you have to disclose your work to apply.
"Find out how the folks around you think about sex work," D'Adamo tells Bustle. "And make sure the people who are accountable to you know what sex workers' rights mean to you."
Since sex workers have historically been excluded or deterred from government assistance and funding, Red S, an organizer with the Support Ho(s)e Collective, tells Bustle that the community is used to creating its own support systems.
"Sex workers historically have been a part of establishing powerful networks of care," Red S. tells Bustle. "Sex workers have always created their own systems of support and protection outside of the cops, criminal legal processes, and societally accepted channels."
While this community-oriented mindset undoubtedly helps sex workers and allies support each other, Jacq the Stripper says these social networks developed as a survival tactic, as sex workers have long been accustomed to fending for themselves.
"We've always taken care of each other," she tells Bustle. "We watch out for each other. And we're continuing to that do now."
Rev. Rucifer (she/her), founder of Reiki Bondage
Jeffrey Douglas (he/him) criminal defense attorney and Chair of the Board of the Free Speech Coalition
Jacq the Stripper (she/her) stripper, artist, comedian and author