The Sex Industry in the Time of Covid-19

By David Rosen

I’ve been reporting on the business of sex for more than a decade and now, as coronavirus spreads throughout the country, I want to draw readers attention to how the pandemic is effective the sex industry.

Sex saturates personal and social life, mediated through the sexual industry. The media — including movies, TV/online programs, print publications and advertising — are the most powerful forces cultivating personal sexual identity. Fashion and cosmetics reinforce the media message, fostering a sexual culture in which nearly all people, but especially women and young girls, see themselves as sexualized objects.

The sex industry includes a host of distinct market segments. Five key sectors are: (1) “sex-wellness” products, (2) pornography, (3) sex work, (4) sex-enhancement medical procedures and (5) sex-enhancement drugs. In addition, a host of other sex-related activities help lubricate the industry, including: (1) online “dating” sites facilitating non-commercial hookups, (2) commercial settings, (e.g., strip bars), (3) sex tourism, (4) public gatherings (e.g., Folsom Street Fair) and (5) miscellaneous activists stimulating sexuality (e.g., removing of a woman’s pubic hair).

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For decades, sex shoppers were mostly men, often dubbed the “raincoat crowd,” who slinked into XXX-rated shops in a down-market part of town to purchase a sex-related product, whether a vibrator, risqué magazine, porn flick, a special costume or hook-up with a hooker. Those days are over.

The sex industry serves consenting adults and age-appropriate youth. Today, Americans have easy, unprecedented access to products and services that purport to fulfill their every sexual fantasy — and they are taking full advantage of these opportunities. Armed with the relative anonymity of a credit card, a PC or smartphone, the Internet and home delivery, sex has been mainstreamed.

Sex toys have been rebranded “sex-wellness” products and targeted to women and couples. While still offered by specialty outlets like New York’s Pleasure Chest, San Francisco’s Good Vibration and Seattle’s Babeland, such products are now carried major retailers, ranging from high-end specialty chains like Nordstrom and Brookstone, to mass-market outlets like Walgreens and Target, and to even crusty down-market Wal-Mart. But the big player is Amazon, the nation’s largest purveyor offering an estimated 60,000 products for those with a certain yen. Such products generate an estimated $15 billion in annual revenues.

As Covid-19 forced millions of Americans to shelter in place, the porn market exploded. Pornhub claims to be the world’s leading free porn site and as the coronavirus spread, viewership of porn skyrocketed. Ever opportunist, it took advantage of the worsening plague by offering a limited fee “premium” that led to a spike in U.S. viewership of nearly 18 percent.

However, many porn production studios closed due to the virus, but some performers are taking advantage of the downturn to create new opportunities. One performer, Maitland Ward, says, “I’m stuck at home, too, so I’m doing a lot more content just to fill time as well.” She reports, “actually, I’ve seen upticks in some of my income because people are home and they want entertainment and they want to get away from all the corona stuff.” She and others offer their performances through Skype and other streaming platforms.

While there has been an upswing in porn viewing, the fate of consensual sex workers is more precarious. Maxine Doogan, head of the Erotic Service Providers Legal Education and Research Project, decries the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on sex work: “There’s just no business. … It’s not happening.” Amidst today’s crises, Doogan reflects, “I have older customers that I’m concerned about their health.” “I’m keeping connections with people — email, and text, and calling,” she adds. “It’s what we had to do when we lost our websites. We called each other, we called our customers, we kept connected.”

Medical sex-enhancement procedures have suffered. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reports that Americans spent $16.5 billion in 2018 on cosmetic plastic surgeries — $18.1 million cosmetic and minimally-invasive procedures — and $5.9 million on reconstructive procedures. A goodly proportion for sex-enhancement procedures involve breast lifts, buttocks lifts, liposuctions, “tummy tucks” and penis enlargements. However, while the pandemic raged, there was a significant decline in the number of such procedures.

Sexual dysfunction is common among both females and males. According to one estimate, 43 percent of women and 31 percent of men report some degree of sexual difficulty. Between 18 and 30 million American men suffer erectile dysfunction (ED) or an inability to sustain an erection. ED and/or impotence is a complex phenomenon involving physiological and/or psychological factors.

Broadly speaking, sex-enhancement drugs are designed to address erotic dysfunction and fall into three categories legally prescribed, legal over-the-counter purchases and illegal products. The introduction of Sildenafil — commercially branded Viagra — in 1998 transformed the sex-enhancement drug industry. Since its introduction, billions of little blue bills — and knock-offs — have been sold.

There are an almost endless variety of males and female legal, over-the-counter sex-enhancement drugs. For men, they include Zytenz, Vigorexin and Vydexafil; for women, they include estrogen skin creams as well as “female libido” enhancements like Provestra, Femlgo and LibodoForWomen. Still other sex-enhancement products include ginseng and ginkgo biloba. According to one survey, the worldwide market for sex-enhancement supplements was valued at $160 million in 2018 and is project to reach $324 billion by 2025.

Illegal products that purport to enhance sexual experience include marijuana and cocaine. As of April 2020, 32 states, Washington D.C., and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana; as of 2019, 11 states and Washington, DC, have legalized recreational marijuana for people over 21 years old. In 2018, marijuana was estimated to be a $10 billion industry — $3.8 billion for medical and $6.2 billion in recreational marijuana sales.

Until Covid-9 struck, sex tourism was reported to be a large and growing business involving both domestic and international tourist destinations. While American sex tourists appeared to be overwhelmingly male, often seeking sex with underage girls, reports of women engaging in the tourist trade were increasing. There appears to be no estimate of the U.S. domestic sex tourism market. However, faced with travel restrictions due to Covid, this sector is surely suffering.

The sex industry is facilitated through public gatherings like gay-pride parades, anti-AIDS marches and local sex-wellness festivals. On Saturday, September 25, 2019, an estimated 400,000 sexual fetishists, their admirers and voyeurs jammed San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMa) area to attend the Folsom Street Fair. Before Covid set in, such gathers were taking place throughout the country; now, it’s a different story with large public gatherings — excluding Pres. Trump campaign rallies — mostly prohibited.

Finally, the sex industry includes a host of miscellaneous practices, including the removal of a women’s pubic hair. It was first made popular among porn stars; today, it’s an All-American female indulgence. The Brazilian method uses wax heated to 140° F poured onto a woman’s labia, kept in place for about 30 seconds and then the hardened wax is swiftly peeled away, pulling pubic hair from its follicles.

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The U.S. is a crazy country, gun ownership is a constitutional-guaranteed right; the Supreme Court ruled sports gambling legal; and a growing number of states have decriminalized the medical use of marijuana as well as legalized its recreational use. While a woman’s right to an abortion remains formally the law of the land, it has come under increasing attack and commercial sex work among consenting adults remains a crime in most states.

Americans have never been comfortable with sex. The notion of sex as a sin, something forbidden, has been an aspect of American social life since the country’s founding four centuries ago. The Puritan minister, Samuel Willard (1640–1707), once observed, “… in nothing doth the raging power of original sin more discover itself … than in the ungoverned exorbitancy of fleshly lust.” In the last two centuries, the nation witnessed four “culture wars” — in the 1840s, accompanying the Second Awakening; in the 1910s, culminating in Prohibition; in the 1950s, reflecting Cold War anti-subversion; and in the 1970s, a rejection of 1960s counterculture.

Today’s multi-billion-dollar sex industry is facilitated by laws protecting individual adult privacy and a retail environment facilitated by a credit card, the Internet and packaged home delivery. What if either or both of these preconditions for the commercial sex industry were restricted? As sex was mainstreamed, people felt less ashamed of their desires, however once identified as unacceptable, immoral or perverse. In postmodern, 21st century U.S., the business of sex has become ever more all-American.

Writer and media-tech executive who has published four nonfiction books, academic articles and numerous popular pieces. Check out www.DavidRosenWrites.