What It’s Like to Be an Undocumented Sex Worker During the COVID-19 Pandemic

"While digital sex work is a job I can do right now being undocumented, I don’t want to be that visible. I’m applying for my green card soon."

[Photo: An interior shot of an empty night club.]
Without documentation for employment, sex work is often the highest paid job available, and some clubs allow dancers to work without it. Shutterstock

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The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down strip clubs around the country, leaving workers without employment.

Many strippers have migrated to online sex work, but this type of visibility puts undocumented and migrant sex workers at a higher risk of being deported, getting their green card application denied, or being refused entry into the United States.

Without documentation for employment, sex work is often the highest paid job available, and some clubs allow dancers to work without it. Stripping has provided Ruby, who chose to use a pseudonym to protect her identity, with a comfortable lifestyle in South Florida, something she would not have been able to accomplish working the other jobs, such as dishwashing, available to undocumented people in her town.

Since her club shuttered as a result of the pandemic, Ruby said she considered camming but is afraid that online sex work could hurt her chances of obtaining a green card. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 states that selling sex and related activity can prevent noncitizens from entering the country or prompt deportation.

“I’m applying for my green card soon, and I’m afraid that a record of me working in sex work could affect my application,” Ruby said. “Dancing is anonymous work. When you work online, your videos and photos can be copied and linger forever. You have less control.”

Rewire.News spoke with Ruby about her choice not to enter digital sex work and what her options for work look like now. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Name: Ruby
Location: South Florida
Occupation: Stripper

What did your job look like before the COVID-19 outbreak

I usually work four nights a week. Sometimes I work the day shifts, but more often I work at night. I ride my bike to and from work. Occasionally I even walk because it’s close and safe.

Stripping in Florida allows me to enjoy a slower pace of life. I’ve worked in Philadelphia and London before, but I hated the hustle and bustle. It’s much more comfortable here. I have structure. I’m able to pay for rent, cover my expenses, and put away a little bit of money.

Besides that, I get to interact with people from all over the world. It’s never boring. Right before everything shut down, it was high season—and the clubs were packed with spring breakers. The pandemic hit during a really busy time.

When did your club shut down? 

The clubs shut down on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17). It hit me then how serious it was. Before then, the managers at the club were very chill. They kept saying, “We have no intention of closing.” I was a little freaked out because I interact with tourists from all over the world, and I was concerned about spreading it.

I started cutting down my hours a week before it all shut down, but I was the only one at work that was worried at the time.

What kind of support has the club provided?

No support. No money. Nothing like that. They just said we’re closing—that’s it. A bar down the street from the club gave its workers $200. But since dancers are independent contractors, the managers are less invested in our well-being.

Can you share your current financial situation?

I have $150 in my account right now. I’m getting a bit of pocket money running errands for my neighbor, and my landlord hasn’t demanded rent yet—she’s thankfully been very understanding. I thought about trying out OnlyFans or camming, but online sex work is a different ballgame.

While digital sex work is a job I can do right now being undocumented, I don’t want to be that visible. I’m applying for my green card soon, and I’m afraid any record of me working in the sex industry could hurt my application.

A lot of other dancers are making money online right now, but I’ve never been comfortable taking photos or working in front of a screen. I also really don’t like that your videos or photos are there forever, that anyone can make a copy of it. You can’t control it. And that’s a scary thought.

Is there any other work you can do to get by right now? 

There are odd jobs I can do here and there, perhaps admin work for someone under the table. Or some other cash-in-hand jobs, like grocery shopping for people or dog sitting. I’m lucky that I have a partner, and he’s looking at construction jobs right now—that way we’ll have money for food, and I won’t have to worry so much.

What are your biggest concerns about being undocumented right now? 

I am afraid of getting sick. I don’t have insurance, and I’m not sure I’d get treatment without it.

I’m married to a U.S. citizen now, which has relieved a lot of my anxiety about being undocumented. I still have no right to be in the country because I haven’t applied for the paperwork yet, but I feel more secure than I did before our wedding.

What do you think the adult entertainment industry will look like after all of this?

I worry that it’s gonna make the job a lot harder. I fear people will have less money and will be more hesitant to spend in the clubs. But then I remember that sex sells—customers will always come back. I also think people miss the way our lives used to be; they miss having fun. And hopefully, this will make people more spontaneous and open to living their lives in the moment.

But really, I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I fear that a lot of clubs will close down [permanently] around the country, and then the remaining ones will be oversaturated with dancers, which will make it harder to make money and less likely that undocumented dancers can work.

Dancing has made me more adaptable as a person. I’ve never had a 9-to-5 structure. I’ve always been self-employed, and thus I’m used to ups and downs. There have been weeks where I didn’t make any money. So in a way, I feel prepared for this. It doesn’t feel like a complete shock to myself.

What is your biggest hope?

My fantasy is that the golden years of stripping will come back. I’d love for the clubs to return to how they were years ago when it was a lot easier to make money because customers were more generous. I’m not entirely convinced that will happen. But I am hopeful that we’ll all come out of quarantine with a lot more compassion and understanding for people’s individual plights.