The coronavirus pandemic has exposed and magnified American inequality: The rich are getting richer — the Dow is up, can you feel it? — while people in the most vulnerable demographics are suffering the worst. So it’s unsurprising that sex workers all over the country are barely eking by in our new socially distanced economy, while shut out from receiving (the already measly) government support for lost wages because their profession is criminalized. Sex workers in Nevada, the only state in the union where prostitution is legal, are also suffering immensely. They haven’t been able to work since March, and while the state government let other close-contact businesses like massage parlors and hair salons reopen in May — perhaps foolishly considering Nevada now has a 21.8 percent positive test rate — brothels remain closed, and sex workers have no idea when they will be allowed to work again.
Alice Little, who self-identifies as the “highest-earning sex worker in the U.S.,” is now suing the state of Nevada and its governor, Steve Sisolak, over lost wages and discrimination. “We have rights as workers that are being grossly violated,” she told me over the phone. “You figure, if you can go to a piercing shop and get piercings put in your face and a tattoo put in your arm and get a facial and have your teeth cleaned, why can’t two adults meet at a legal brothel? It’s safer than random hookups.” She argued that sex workers are well-suited to work during the pandemic because the industry is already subject to intense regulation. Sex workers in Nevada are required to undergo regular STI testing, so it would be “easy” to add COVID testing into the mix, Little explained.
What Little’s lawsuit ultimately reveals, however, is how broken the Nevada brothel system is to begin with. Sex workers are considered independent contractors, but they are not allowed to do work outside of brothels, meaning the house always takes 50 percent and sex workers have to pay their own taxes and business expenses and they don’t get any benefits. “The current system is set up in such a way that a sex worker could not own a brothel, even if they wanted to, simply because of the fact that there are not licenses readily available,” she said, explaining that there are a set number of brothel licenses within the state that would cost millions of dollars to purchase, never mind the fact that the owners of such licenses aren’t particularly interested in selling them.
In her lawsuit, Little argues that sex workers should be allowed to work from home. “It would be interesting to give sex workers individual escort licenses,” she said. After all, “[we] are the ones who have to do all the work of keeping in touch with the clients and guests and set up the appointments.”
Even though sex workers in Nevada are struggling, brothel owners seem to be doing A-OK. “Many of the brothel owners applied for PPP and SBA loans,” Little said. “I know several brothels qualified for hundreds of thousands of dollars of aid, which sex workers themselves were not able to qualify for even a dime of.”