Big companies like Ruth Chris, Potbelly and Shake Shack that are receiving large coronavirus-related Small Business Administration loans have caused an uproar. But far less attention has been paid to whom the SBA excluded from relief: people who work in the sex industry.
While those who are self-employed or independent contractors have the option to apply for SBA small business loans, legal businesses that provide “live or recorded performances” or “receive more than 5 percent of [their] gross revenue” from the sale of products with any depictions of a “prurient nature” are ineligible for help. Owners of clubs and other small businesses may file lawsuits over their exclusion, but it is the women carrying the industry who will suffer. Though strippers, porn actors, sex therapists and erotic novelists can still file for aid through unemployment and possibly receive the $1,200 stimulus checks given to millions of Americans, they are ineligible for these far larger loans and are therefore much more economically vulnerable.
The SBA decision highlights how perceptions of morality and access to living wages have long been yoked for employees of businesses related to sex. When the government excludes the sex industry from economic help, it is because it considers this work immoral, a judgment that devalues women’s labor and sex work more broadly. Treating the sex industry as illicit reinforces flawed moral judgments and makes workers in this industry, especially women, particularly vulnerable.