Meet the Sex Workers on the Front Lines of the Fight Against Monkeypox
On Fourth of July weekend, adult performer Silver Steele made the rounds at a few bars to celebrate the holiday with some friends. He went out dancing, where he and his friends “were all rubbing up on [one] another and hugging and kissing,” he says. The following weekend, he flew from Houston to Austin, where he went out on the lake and lounged on a boat in the Texas sun.
A few days later, Steele noticed some white bumps on his upper lip that he’d never seen before. They looked to be whiteheads, but he noticed it was difficult to pop them. “I was like, oh, is that razor burn?” he says. When the whiteheads got bigger and started blistering, “in the back of my head I was thinking monkeypox, monkeypox, monkeypox.” When Steele started experiencing the telltale flu-like symptoms — tender lymph nodes, fever, chills, and sore throat — he went to the doctor to test. He tested on a Friday, and received his positive result the following Monday.
On July 24, Steele posted a photo of his lesions to show his 39,000 followers the reality of contracting monkeypox, urging them to get vaccinated. The photos were shocking, and many responded with disgust, but Steele said that was precisely his intention in posting them. “I want people to retweet it. I want my face and lesions to have visibility so people know how serious it is,” he says. He received an onslaught of backlash, mostly from trolls or people who wanted him to just keep posting porn. But he also received countless messages from people in his industry, thanking him for coming forward.
Sex workers and adult entertainment industry workers, particularly those who identify as LGBTQ+, have often been forced to act as a vanguard, demanding resources and creating safety protocols to combat diseases that can be transmitted through sexual contact. Safer sex practices among sex workers and the LGBTQ+ community were born out of “necessity,” says Domina Yuki, a San Francisco-based dominatirix. “Historically, our government has failed the LGBTQ+ and sex work community and as a result, we end up having to bear the responsibility of taking care of ourselves and our community.”
Over the past few months, monkeypox has spiked in an outbreak of cases among communities of men who have sex with men (MSM), though anyone can become infected regardless of gender or sexual orientation. The United States has now reported more than 3,500 cases. Sex workers and adult entertainers who engage in close physical and sexual contact with other individuals, or have multiple partners, are now searching for ways to protect themselves and their communities, and are being confronted with contradictory information from health care providers, social stigma, a massive vaccine shortage, and exclusion from vaccine eligibility.
Many sex workers and sex-work advocacy organizations are speaking out in the fight against monkeypox, organizing vaccine drives, releasing updated guidelines for film shoots and client interactions, and turning to social media, as Steele has, as a tool to share their experiences and information. In doing so, they must navigate a complex labyrinth of anti-sex work and anti-LGBTQ+ stigma related to the virus, which far-right pundits have been all too happy to promote.
Safer sex when sex is your job
As of now, the primary recommendation from international health organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) have been for people in designated high-risk categories to get vaccinated, and reduce their number of current or new partners. While most public health efforts have focused on making the vaccine more available to MSM, some cities such as Washington, D.C., have classified sex workers as a high-risk group for monkeypox as well, and are encouraging them to get vaccinated
In the adult-film industry, some studios and regulatory agencies are taking steps to reduce transmission. Though there has yet to be a documented case of on-set transmission, the adult industry testing agency Performer Availability Screening Services (PASS) released new guidelines earlier this week aimed at reducing the risk of transmission and encouraging performers to be vaccinated. “We are a community that has historically taken our health, and public health, very seriously,” Ian O’Brien, the executive director of PASS, previously told Rolling Stone. On Friday, PASS launched a vaccine drive in Los Angeles.
FabScout Entertainment, a production company in Florida, announced on Thursday it had administered 30 doses to models as part of an initiative in collaboration with the Broward County Public Health Department.
Domina Yuki and Mistress Ophelia Margaux, two San Francisco-based dominatrices, have created a “Monkeypox Info Sheet” for sex workers that includes information about the virus and transmission, reccommendations on how to screen potential clients, and suggested protocols for sanitizing their workspace or “dungeon” between clients. The document looks beyond recommendations from health organizations to offer concrete steps those in the sex work industry can take to reduce their risk of transmission, like screening questions for clients and suggestions for dungeon protocol. “I saw my friends in the gay/queer community speaking out and pushing for our federal, state, and local governments to provide more vaccines, testing, and messaging for monkeypox,” says Ophelia. “It felt important to not leave them to do the heavy lifting on their own.”
Ophelia says she and Yuki wanted to “create awareness amongst sex workers and clients around the fact that anyone is capable of contracting the virus, not just MSM.” And after searching through multiple state and medical sources, found little information geared toward aiding sex workers navigate the monkeypox outbreak.
Yuki hopes the info sheet “gets people thinking about all of this, and how they might want to implement some of the suggestions and practices we highlighted in there.”
Access to care is a concern for Yuki. “Privilege always comes into play” in these situations, she says. Whether it be gay men, sex workers, or performers and industry workers, communities still face many barries to medical care, and are affected by considerations like having access to the internet and social media in order to keep track of coveted vaccine availability, finding transportation, and taking valuable time off of work to line up outside clinics or pop ups.
While they’re grateful that their home city of San Francisco has opened up vaccine availability to sex workers, Ophelia is still worried about access in other cities. “What is true is the dire need for sex workers, regardless of their city, to receive the protection necessary to earn their living as safely as possible,” she says. Ophelia worries that individuals who do not meet strict criteria despite facing risks “will have to claim another qualifier,” such as sexual orientation, “whether it’s true or not.”
“These are the people that need to be pushed ahead of people because they’re selling sex,” says Howard Andrew, President of FabScout Entertainment, highlighting the need to provide resources to sex workers given that the risk of transmission between clients and workers could cause spillover of the infection into other communities.
Sex workers are also feeling financial stress caused by anxiety around monkeypox, especially because most sex workers are independent contractors and do not have health care benefits, paid time off, or insurance to cover costs if they get sick. Concerns about the effects of contracting monkeypox have “significantly contributed to stress and anxiety around working with in-person clients and assisting my partner in running a dungeon,” Ophelia says. “Covid is already a lot to navigate and monkeypox heightens that stress. It’s important to me to keep myself safe, my clients safe, and to keep the other renters of the dungeon safe as well.”
“I haven’t been able to see clients, so it’s hitting my pocketbook,” says Sparky Baxter, an OnlyFans creator who contracted the virus a few weeks ago while shooting a scene, and has actively documented its trajectory on social media. “I can’t shoot, I can’t escort.” He has started a GoFundMe to make sure he can pay his rent for the next month, and has largely relied on editing and posting pre-existing content to his OnlyFans to make ends meet.
“Finger-pointing is not helpful”
Because monkeypox has, up to this point, spread primarily among MSMs, there has been heightened sensitivity among public health experts and the LGBTQ+ community regarding media messaging surrounding the virus. To make matters worse, right-wing pundits like Marjorie Taylor Greene have been instrumental in spreading the misconception that monkeypox is an STI exclusively spread by gay men, incorrectly asserting on her podcast that the virus is spread via “gay sex orgies.” On his primetime Fox News show, Tucker Carlson dubbed monkeypox “Schlong Covid.”
The landmine of stigma is stemming from the misinfomed beleif that monkeypox is exclusively transmitted through sexual contact, and the quickdraw impulse to condemn the social dynamics of those being primarily affected. While monkeypox can be transmitted in a variety of ways, sex is an extremely “efficient” mode of transmission, says Dr. Anne Rimoin, an epidemiologist at UCLA, who has been studying monkeypox outbreaks in central Africa for more than 20 years. “Sex by definition is close contact,” she says. “And so of course the more close contact you have the more likely you are to become infected.”
In light of this, Rimoin is concerned about the shame being attached to a disease that, while transmitted in a variety of fashions, is primarily spreading through sexual contact in the current outbreak. “We need to be humble about what we know and what we don’t know about this virus,” she says. “Finger-pointing is not going to be helpful.”
Yuki believes health organizations like the WHO and CDC need to be cautious about how they frame information released to the public, balancing the need to provide immediate aid to the most affected communities with the responsibility of not misleading people into believing that “if you aren’t a gay, bi or trans man having sex with men you don’t have to worry about MPX.”
By speaking up about his own experience, performers like Steele have faced backlash from members of his own community. “I hear, what are you doing to us? Everyone thinks it’s a gay disease,’” he says. “But the people who think it’s a gay disease will still think it is. The truth of the matter is, more gay men have this. We just got this first. It is what it is. But [the virus is] not looking for gay guys, it’s looking for humans.”
“Any infections or viruses you can get from sexual activity aren’t in any way ‘dirtier’ than other infections or viruses,” Yuki says. “But internalized shame keeps them from being able to have honest, constructive conversations that are crucial when calculating risk and mitigating spread.” She hopes that her work helps normalize “having more body awareness” and “talking to sexual partners about your safety needs, and discussing/implementing harm-reduction practices together so all parties feel comfortable.” These include open discussions about medical histories, agreeing to what measures partners put into place to reduce the risk of transmission, and removing judgement from discussions of sexual health.
Though sex workers are increasingly speaking up about their experiences with the virus and what their industry can do to protect themselves, Steele is unsure it’s enough. Though the recently adopted PASS guidelines suggest performers answer a series of screening questions before showing up to set, Steele believes performers should be required to test and that industry leaders should be more vocal about encouraging people to get vaccinated. “The entire industry is centered around sex,” he says. “And sex is one way monkeypox can be transmitted. I do wish the mainstream gay porn systems would be more vocal and try to advocate.”
“I didn’t want sex work stigmatized. Studios and content creators do have a responsibility to make sure they are staying safe right now,” Steele adds. “I know a lot of top tier gay porn stars dealing with this saying, ‘thank you for being a voice, because I can’t be a voice right now.’”
But with many cities falling woefully short of having enough vaccines to satisfy demand, and with often-confusing public health and media messaging surrounding the virus inundating the public, Steele is hopeful that by sharing his story, he can do his own small part: “People see porn star, gross disease on the face, great, now there will be stigma attached. But ignorant people will be ignorant regardless. All I can do is educate the best I can.”