Like nearly 22 million Americans, many people in the sex industry are unemployed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Allissa, 31, is one of them. For the past 10 years, she’s been working at Sheri’s Ranch, a brothel in Pahrump, Nevada. Pahrump is located in Nye County, one of a handful of counties in America where sex work is both heavily regulated and legal.
As a result of the brothel’s closure, Allissa has had to figure out how to shift her services online, but for many sex workers, this is easier said than done; like many of her newly out-of-work peers in her industry, she’s been forced to compete with a flood of sex workers joining camming platforms, and trying to market themselves on the few social media platforms that aren’t outwardly hostile to sex workers.
The single mom of a 12-year-old daughter, Alissa worked at the ranch about once a week per month; though per ranch policy she can’t discuss her income or her rates per “party” (the brothel vernacular for sessions with clients), she estimates she made a little less than $25,000 over the past few months, before the brothel shut down as a result of Nevada’s stay-at-home order on March 18th.
Allissa also specializes in GFEs, or girlfriend experiences; while that term can mean a range of different things, it typically applies to sessions that provide more intimacy than the average encounter, usually involving kissing, cuddling, and extensive conversation. To that end, she’s transitioned to offering virtual “dates” on Skype and FaceTime. She says her approach differs from that of many other sex workers because she is not camming, selling custom clips, or offering much by way of sexual services; mostly, clients are just interested in talking, watching Netflix, and sharing their concerns about the pandemic. More than anything else, they’re looking for some semblance of connection and intimacy while they’re in quarantine.
Rolling Stone spoke with Allissa about her Skype dates, GFEs, and the uncertainty of legal sex workers transitioning online in the age of COVID-19.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
I specialize in girlfriend experiences. What that means is different for everyone, but for me it means being able to share on a more intimate level our feelings and our connection after sex and before and all the stuff in between. Normally, during my overnight parties, we take our time; we sit by the fire and have drinks together. We share dinner, watch a movie. There’s more foreplay. With the regular parties, it’s more straight-to-the-point sex.
The people interested in GFEs, for me at least, are usually widowers, virgins, older gentlemen. They don’t want a real relationship after they’ve had their wife pass away, but they still want a real connection and something deep.
I remember first hearing about coronavirus when it was in China in February. A few of us were worried since we do get a lot of travelers from different countries and stuff, but we usually use a lot of precaution anyway — we use a lot of bleaching supplies, and obviously condoms — so we weren’t overly concerned. Then Nevada closed non-essential businesses on March 18th, and that’s when we shut down.
After the brothel shut down, my first thought was to try to do some virtual dating, like video dates. I [chat on video] with my own therapist, and my thought was, since we’re sex therapists ourselves, why not do that ourselves with our customers? So within the last two weeks I’ve started doing that on Skype and FaceTime. It’s just talking and cooking and casual interaction. I have had customers ask me about doing sex kind of stuff and I have declined. I could make more money if I did, but that’s always been my niche at work too, is the girl next door. Seductively sexy, not so much pushy and stuff. I think there’s a lot of girls that are good at portraying themselves as that and it’s just not my forte. I’m also worried about them recording it and I don’t feel comfortable putting that stuff on the internet, ’cause people can steal videos and stuff like that. For my daughter’s sake I don’t want her seeing me doing sexual acts on camera. I don’t have a problem talking about it and showing there’s a legal side to doing that, but I don’t want anyone to see me doing it.
I don’t have a set rate [for the dates]. They can send tips and donations through CashApp or different types of payment methods like Venmo, or they can purchase stuff off my wishlist. Before COVID it had more clothes and shoes and stuff to wear at the ranch, but now it’s air filters, cleaning supplies, sometimes gift cards for Kohl’s or the grocery store nearby. The essentials. I’ve made a four-figure number off one of them, which is for an agreement we made for the month including texting, but that’s the most I’ve made off them.
Like anything else, there’s a flood of the market — there’s a lot of sex workers out of work right now so it’s tough to differentiate yourself and trying to find a new way to connect because you can’t use touch. I have to use conversation to try to figure out how to help people and what they want to hear. Usually we have a drink or a glass of wine or something and we just chat or talk. If they’re eating I ask what they made. If they wanna send food or Postmate we can order the same thing, so it feels like we’re having dinner together.
A few times [the clients and I have] talked about COVID. It’s like the elephant in the room. But at the same time I’m trying to help them not think about it so if they bring it up, I try to change the subject real quick. I try and fill their mind with more positive thoughts and how they can stay occupied and healthy and take their vitamins. They talk about how hard they’re working, the hours they’re not getting paid extra. I do have one client who’s scared about it and he’s an essential worker in New York. I try to comfort him and tell him he’s gonna be OK and focus on his work and not so much focus on the fear.
I’ve lost a lot of my income from COVID, so I’m just trying to focus on planning out the months and spending money wisely. I think eventually we can file for the CARES act for the self-employed. They excluded us from the small business program but as far as I know we can apply for unemployment insurance. As a legal sex worker, I pay a lot of taxes and have paid a lot of taxes in 10 years so I definitely think we should earn something.
I haven’t had a job outside the ranch in 10 years, so it would be hard for me to go somewhere else without experience. I hope people would be open-minded to hiring us, but I’m not so sure. I’ve been debating going out and getting a part-time job at a grocery store or something, though I am scared to go out and get infected and come back to my kid. Plus then I’d have to leave my daughter at home, which I’m not comfortable with, and I can’t afford a babysitter with the grocery store income. So I’m kind of in a wait-and-see period.