In This Episode
Amid a pandemic that’s touched every aspect of our lives—from the emotional to the financial—what has COVID-19 done to our sexual appetites? In this episode, Alex talks to three professionals with particular insight into the country’s deepest and (mostly) unspoken desires. First, we hear from Alison Boden, CEO of the porn site kink.com about how the nationwide lockdown has affected an industry not known for social distancing. Then, she’s joined by J. Leigh, a BDSM dominatrix who has been forced to move out of the dungeon and online (literally). And finally, she speaks with Lotus Lain, an adult film actress who explains the ways in which porn actors have been better prepared for a global pandemic… than basically everyone else.
Alison Bowdon: I think that if there was ever a good time for this sort of thing to happen, or at least a less terrible time, it’s now.
Alex Wagner: This is Allison Bowdon, CEO of the porn website Kink dot com.
Alison Bowdon: Because a lot of performers have already kind of made the move to these fan sites, like OnlyFans, Many Vids, things like that. So they’re pretty used to kind of making their own content and kind of managing a fan base individually. So they were kind of prepared. They had something ready. So what we’ve actually done is ask performers to shoot from home for us, which is what’s happening in a lot of the big studios right now.
Alex Wagner: How does that work, though? Like I mean, it sounds like the guidelines are shoot only at home and only with partners who live at home with you. I mean, how common is it that you have basically the cast of what would be a porn film living at home with you?
Alison Bowdon: It’s not tremendously common, but I think in the porn industry, especially when you’re talking about couples, I think it’s a lot more common for people to date within the industry just because it’s so hard to find a civilian who sort of OK with your lifestyle. And a lot of companies are OK with people doing solo content by themselves. There’s no question that it’s much, much harder to shoot at home. I mean, we’re already talking to performers who are saying, like, I’m actually just really tired of, actually just getting tired of screwing themselves. Like, it’s really, it’s hard, it’s hard work to do. And they’re getting a decent amount of work.
Alex Wagner: Huh. People getting tired of screwing themselves. I mean, that’s probably a universal feeling across the country in some respects.
Alex Wagner, narrating: Hi, welcome to Six Feet Apart. I’m Alex Wagner. The COVID-19 pandemic is messing with our minds and our wallets and our souls. So what’s it doing to our sexual appetites? More specifically, what’s it doing to the people and industries who cater to those sexual appetites? How do sex workers operate when everyone has to stay six feet apart from everyone else? How exactly does the porn industry make porn in a season of social distancing? It seems tricky. Now that we’re spending all this time at home, is sex the first thing on our minds or is it the last? And what kind of fantasies do people have in the middle of a dystopian nightmare? I have a lot of questions, so that is what we’re talking about today. Sex. And just a warning to all of our listeners out there, it is going to get graphic. If you have kids around, put the headphones on. First, we’re going to speak with J. Leigh, a non-binary BDSM dominatrix. They are also an advocate for sex workers and they do this work through the Sharmus Outlaw Advocacy Rights Institute or the SOAR Institute. And then we’re going to speak with Lotus Lain, an adult film star who also does work with the Free Speech Coalition. That’s the trade association of the adult entertainment industry. First, here is J. Leigh.
Alex Wagner: There are a lot of people who don’t know anything about BDSM and sort of how it works. Maybe you can just kind of walk me through, you know, what your day or your night was like or, you know, whenever you saw more of your clients, just to give us a sense of just kind of how the process works and the kind of experience people are looking for in terms of BDSM.
J. Leigh: BDSM is a very interesting form of play. It could be a lot of different things depending upon the people who are actually doing the playing, but overwhelmingly people will come to me to experience sensations, psychological stimulation, intimacy, connection, depending upon the types of services I offer. My specialty is with certain implements or role play scenarios. So I’d like to explain it like this. You would come to an escort to get your desires fulfilled. You come to me to get them creatively denied.
Alex Wagner: So, J. Leigh, tell me about your work as a dominatrix before the pandemic began.
J. Leigh: Before the pandemic began? Well, I’m an in-person provider, so I do sex work overwhelmingly in person and that’s been historically my flavor of sex work. So for me, it’s been overwhelmingly devastating, moving from working full time, you know, as a dominatrix and a fetish wrestler to nothing. I mean, it’s been obliterated for me.
Alex Wagner: If I, if I think of BDSM and I think, you know, laymen and laywomen such as myself think of it as very touch-based sexual practice, if you will. And it’s interesting that you see the online space as a natural area for BDSM to happen. But I would assume that people would want to be very much in person for that exchange.
J. Leigh: Well, that’s a common kind of assumption that it is touch-based. Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not. It really depends on the type of fetishes that are being explored by the two people that are engaging in it. Overwhelmingly, BDSM happens between your ears first. Right? So we’re psychologically based, which is why it’s so easy to translate these things online. You know, a lot of the dominant-submissive relationship is predicated on this idea of giving directives. So that’s very easy to translate over the phone. right? But a lot of us like myself, you know, who value a person being able to see, feel the vibe of a person in the room, obviously something like 90% of communication is nonverbal. I can look at their body, I can see the way that they’re reacting. But, you know, a lot of it is touch-based if we’re using implements, right?
Alex Wagner: Yeah.
J. Leigh: But a lot of folks can use those implements on themselves. They have access to them. You know, as my friend says, everything is a dildo, if you’re brave enough.
Alex Wagner: That’s something my friends don’t usually say, but we travel in different circles.
J. Leigh: People get very creative, particularly when they are in these kind of situations that we find ourselves in now where, you know, they’re looking around and seeing their limited access to things outside. I mean, a lot of BDSM is sensation-based. So we’re removing one sensation or one sense to heighten the others. That’s why you would remove someone’s ability to see, is that they would also have their sense of hearing be increased and their sense of touch, if you desire to do that. But, yeah, it can very easily translate to online work. I mean, there are times when I, I don’t actually physically touch a person, but I am in the room with them. And so for me that’s what’s been difficult, not being able to observe their bodily responses, their breath, their physical responses, and being able to, you know, to move from there because it’s very much a dance, you know? And I have to be able to observe those things.
Alex Wagner: Let’s talk a little bit about your work, specifically in terms of the pandemic. So when the news started breaking about this virus, at what point did you make the decision not to see clients in person anymore? Do you remember when that was?
J. Leigh: Well my dungeon shut down. OK, so I rent spaces, right? So I rent physical spaces that are, you know, thematic in nature. It’s the reason why people come to dungeons, is they want to be immersed in that experience. You know, they want to physically be in a room that looks like a dungeon. The dungeon that I work with shut down so . . .
Alex Wagner: Was there a discussion among other people who worked in the dungeon and the purveyors, like was there I mean, I guess within your network, was there a discussion of like, OK, we’re all going to have to go online? How much sort of crosstalk was there about what this meant for the industry on whole?
J. Leigh: I think some people saw the writing on the wall, I think a few of us had, you know, have been moving in that direction to try to prepare. But I think that there’s also, you know, denial aint just a river in Egypt, right? It’s easy to be able to to look at something and say it’s not that bad. You know, we’re doing the best that we can. And I think people, you know, in my space were trying to do damage control and not contribute to panic because that panic obviously could translate into how they also talk to their, to to all of our clients, right? You know, we’re a very kind of like old well-established dungeon. It’s not, it’s not seedy. You know, a lot of the clients hang out with, you know, managers. We joke around. So there were conversations of like, what is this going to look like? Are you all going to be closed down? You know, and I think that for a while we tried to stave it off. But, yeah, it came, it came very suddenly, you know, like most people.
Alex Wagner: You had, there’s like an open line of communication between clients and professionals in all of this, because, I guess my second question was kind of to what degree were clients bringing it up? You know, how much exchange of, you know, concern was there between clients and the BDSM community? It sounds like that was a pretty free-flowing conversation, at least at your dungeon.
J. Leigh: Yeah, it was. I mean, I think, you know, that the great thing about sex workers is that we’ve been practicing harm reduction for a lot longer than the general population, right? Harm reduction principles are what we’re doing right now. Six feet, the name of your podcast. You know, having latex gloves—Lord have mercy, I mean, I had a stockpile before this thing came through. This is HIV harm reduction 101, right? So STI, HIV, these kinds of things, sex workers have been practicing for a hell of a lot longer than the general public. I mean, we are experts in harm reduction. We’re experts in consent, because we do it for our living.
Alex Wagner: You have of kind of a specific career path. Like what, what are the options if you have been a sex worker, you’ve been making a fair a decent living or enough to, you know, like survive on in a city like New York City. What do you do?
J. Leigh: Online, actually?
Alex Wagner: Is it as lucrative, online?
J. Leigh: No, definitely not. Not if you’re on the lower echelons. I mean, you know, you have some people that are bragging about like all the money that they make online, but they’ve amassed a following. It’s the, akin to someone on Instagram, you know, being an influencer. They just happen to be doing it through sex work. But the rest of us are you know, we’re eking out livings on the lower end of things. And remember that when more people go into a market, it does destigmatize the market, but it also over-saturates the market. So for people who were being able to make their full-time living doing online work, they’re now competing with folks that are going to be doing it at a lower rate. So because we create our own market, there is no standardized market of sex work because it’s so broad, that is also largely tied into the market itself. And if the market is demanding different aspects, then, you know, you lower your rates accordingly. So, yeah, I mean, people are hustling. They’re doing whatever they can. But yeah, it’s not better than in-person work. Certainly not. And you also have less control over your content. Remember, when it’s on the Internet, it’s there forever. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t do it online is because I like to have more control over my sessions. You can’t control if somebody is taking a screenshot. And it used to be that we could monetize those pictures. Now you’re go on Instagram and people give them away for free, which is great. Fine. Wonderful. Sex positive. Do you. But that’s stuff that we used to make money off of that we can’t make money off of now because they can get so much of it for free.
Alex Wagner: I feel like sex workers have a particular insight into the psychology of the nation, right, and this pandemic’s taking such an emotional, psychological toll on us as Americans. Have you seen the pandemic affecting clients and what they want?
J. Leigh: Yes, definitely. I mean, starting from the clients that I used to see in person that reached out to me to do stuff online, the requests have changed dramatically. The requests are much more sexual in nature. They’re more direct, which for some people is fine. But for me, when someone’s asking me to do things that are a higher sexual risk, potentially in terms of like, you know, they could record it, whatever case, but they’re also offering me the same amount that I used to get for not doing those things—yeah, that’s a market shift. Right? And so, again, it’s like getting more for paying less.
Alex Wagner: How do you read that the the increased appetite for more explicitly sexual content? What do you, what do you think that reflects in terms of your client’s emotional state of mind?
J. Leigh: Accessibility. I think stress is another one. I think when people are stressed out, they have less patience. Our world is predicated on patience. The BDSM world is predicated on tension and inaccessibility to the thing that you want. That is the tension. That’s the, that’s part of the sexual gratification for many people who engage in BDSM, is the journey itself, the fact that they can’t have those things, right? And some people would call that foreplay. So, you know, I think a lot of people right now, you know, when they’re living in front of their screens 24/7, they can have access to the things that they want all the time, right? And they are at home to be able to do so in a private way, to some degree. Right? So, again, people also have families and stuff. But, yeah, I think there’s, the accessibility is the biggest thing. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that more people are doing sex work and more people are hungry for sexuality. I think that’s great, you know, but it does come with problems for some of us and, you know, answers for others.
Alex Wagner: I guess I wonder, you know, about BDSM’s suitability to this this moment, because the moment itself, yes, there’s more accessibility in terms of screens, but so much of this moment, you know, irrespective of whether you’re looking for BDSM or not, is about denial and repression and it just seems like, you know, does that dampen the market for sex workers who are offering that tension around denial? You know? I guess I wonder if it’s—
J. Leigh: It’s a great question. You know, I’m on my path towards research, so I think that’s actually a great research question there, Alex! You know, is this, is having a kickback effect wherein we’re saturated with so much denial and so much, that it’s actually going to be problematic. I mean, that’s a really great question. I don’t know that I have the answer for that. I think it’s too new to tell. I think, you know, I can definitely say that for those of us who are masked fetishists, we finally feel a little justified in the world. [laughs] You know, we are definitely creating new and innovative ways to find people and things erotic, right? Because we’re all walking around as mask fetishists in New York City.
Alex Wagner: Yeah, everywhere.
J. Leigh: Yup.
Alex Wagner: You are someone I mean, I think I probably more than most, you’re dealing with the psychology of people in a really hands-on way, you know, whether or not it’s actually hands on, but you’re very much dealing with people in an incredibly intimate space.
J. Leigh: Yes.
Alex Wagner: And I would assume that your own psychology is affected by experiences you have in the dungeon and elsewhere. How have you dealt with this moment, this extraordinary, strange moment of isolation?
J. Leigh: You know, that is actually an amazing question. I wasn’t expecting you to ask it, but I’m glad that you did, because it’s been a journey of self-discovery for me the last two months. I’m a person who lives with chronic pain and so for me, I didn’t realize that part of the appeal for me to be doing in-person sex work was actually pain management. And that’s been a big breakthrough for me. And I do have clients that are mobility-impaired. I’m really passionate about sex work and the intersection with disability, but I also didn’t realize how much those sessions were really helping me deal with my physical pain because obviously dopamine, endorphins, these are really good happy hormones and chemicals that are shooting through our body when we’re engaging in BDSM, in sexuality. So even as a practitioner, the hardest thing for me during this isolation time was finding new ways to manage my pain and to really feel connected because I adore my clients. I really do. I’ve worked very hard to curate clients that I adore and that are great and respectful and there’s honor there. And so it’s not just one way. I mean, people think about sex workers in a one dimensional way. They don’t think about the gratification that some of us get from our clients as well. And for me, that pain management, that joy, those happy chemicals rushing through my body all the time, I’ve missed that. My mother is a psychotherapist, or was when I was younger, and I remember when I told her that I was a professional dominatrix, a sex worker, her response was, OK, honey, watch your serotonin levels. [laughs] So that was kind of my introduction to sex work, was, you know, understanding how much that it does, it can affect your mood, right, and your overall mental health and physical health. And certainly those things have to be managed like anything else, that you don’t use it as a, you know, an addictive way or in a problematic way. But for me, I just have really and, you know, miss that. Missed having all those, like, hyped-up great feelings after a bad-ass session, and so I’ve translated that into a naked private dance parties.
Alex Wagner: Yeah, well, we’re all doing what we can. You’re dealing with it in a much more interesting way that I think a lot of us. [laughs] J. Leigh, thank you so much for sharing your story and your insights, and I mean, maybe naked dance parties, really, that’s the secret. That the secret for all of us, until this lockdown, until this pandemic recedes. May your serotonin levels and your dopamine levels be where they need to be for the foreseeable future. Thank you for your time.
J. Leigh: And yours as well, Alex. Thank you for having me.
Alex Wagner, narrating: Before we get to Lotus Lain, it is time for a quick word from our sponsors.
Alex Wagner, narrating: And now here’s adult film star Lotus Lain.
Alex Wagner: Lotus, if you could tell me about your work before the pandemic became our national reality,
Lotus Lain: Well, before everything suddenly changed, my work at Free Speech Coalition was focused on the community, the adult industry community at large, and enhancing everybody’s information and knowledge and resources and mental health. I do a lot of fetish BDSM kink work. So that was something that was scheduled for me. I was going to do a bisexual male threesome, so I was really excited for that.
Alex Wagner: Were people starting to talk about the virus? Do you remember when it first got on your radar?
Lotus Lain: Yeah, I do, because I also do production assisting. I was doing PA for a Playboy shoot and one of the models on the shoot with me was asking me, she was like, what—because she knows I work at Free Speech Coalition, which we are the organization that, you know, helps identify, inform the industry about everything—she was asking me, she was like, well, what should I do? You know, I have these three shoots lined up. Should I cancel them? I feel nervous. I don’t know what I should do. I don’t want my agent mad at me. And I was just telling her I was like, you know, I don’t think your agent will be mad at you for looking out for your health. And if you are, and if they are, they’re not a good agent. So I was kind of advising her. I was like, yes, if this is the way you personally feel, I would personally, you know, cancel my shoots. But if you feel fine, you know, nothing’s been said then, because this was still early March, before March 15th.
Alex Wagner: And at what point I mean, did you start thinking about it in terms of your own vulnerability? Because you’re on photo shoots, you’re in film shoots, I mean, you guys are you’re intimately up close with one another. Did you think that the shoots might go on with protective equipment? I mean, because that is actually sort of part of the porn industry is testing and protective equipment.
Lotus Lain: True, right.
Alex Wagner: Do you think because of that you guys sort of thought about this virus differently than maybe other workers?
Lotus Lain: Um, possibly because one of the things that people, you know, we realize as well is that we already are taking risk with our work, you know. With before coronavirus, we know that we’re in a job that has risks. You know, even though we’re testing, you know, there’s always variables. But for the most part, and I could say my experience, I’ve never contracted anything on-set, so I know that our testing system does work. As far as myself, when I started being concerned because I had a shoot booked on March 25th, it started kind of going in my head when I had this other girl on the Playboy set giving me her worries and doubts, and I was like, Hmm, and I was like, fuck, I’m going to have to take a plane to this, and that was my main, my main concern was the airplane. Because that’s the thing is we know how to mitigate risk. We know how to—
Alex Wagner: You’re like in the porn world, we’re all good. It’s the airplane passengers we have to look for.
Lotus Lain: Yeah, we know how to mitigate fluids and transfer of fluids and particles and, we deal with it. When this all went down, on this other set that I PA’d on, all of my current masks that I have and hand gloves all came from that set.
Alex Wagner: Wow. What do you mean masks? Why do you need masks?
Lotus Lain: They just had them on set. There’s a lot of fluids and stuff flying around, you know? Not—
Alex Wagner: Wait, wait. People wear masks on set just to protect themselves from the fluids that are flying around, as a normal course of business?
Lotus Lain: They’re available for people that may want them. Not everyone does. But if maybe like if, you know, you’re shooting a squirt scene and you don’t want someone squirt on you because you’re just a behind the scenes person?
Alex Wagner: Right.
Lotus Lain: We have that available on hand. We’re not barbarians like people would like to assume the industry is. We do protect ourselves. We do look out for ourselves. There’s a reason we are alive and healthy as we are, because otherwise, if it was the way people assume, you’d be hearing about people dying left and right in the industry from disease and infections and whatnot, but that’s not the case.
Alex Wagner: I want to ask you about how you think this pandemic is affecting sort of American sexual appetite. You know, as someone, who’s—
Lotus Lain: Wow. It is, it’s making us horny.
Alex Wagner: What’s that?
Lotus Lain: Making us horny.
Alex Wagner: Or is it making us depressed?
Lotus Lain: That, and maybe, you know, sex is an outlet for the depression. You know, it could go both ways. But I know that for, for instance, my subscription sites, my numbers jumped in March and April. I looked and I made the most I’ve ever made, even more than I thought that was the most that I ever made.
Alex Wagner: When you, when you talk about your subscription sites, give us a sense of what you, what you mean.
Lotus Lain: It’s like kind of like a social media feed, similar to like an Instagram or Twitter, but they pay to subscribe and follow you.
Alex Wagner: What is your pandemic schedule? What is your day?
Lotus Lain: I wake up, I’ll smoke some week, I’ll eat some breakfast. I’ll probably go online and, like, edit some pictures. I’ll, definitely the first thing I’ll do is upload some pictures to OnlyFans or a video that I might have already had stored the previous days before. Or if I don’t, I’ll just take some really quick, like, you know, fresh out of bed boob selfies or butt selfies or a quick video masturbating. And then I start going on with my day doing my updates to my regular social media, whether it’s Instagram or Twitter. And then from there I answer like emails and correspondence, messages on the subscription sites. And then from there I can fuck around and do whatever I want.
Alex Wagner: Wow. I’m, you’re so connected. You’re turning out a lot of content. You’re very, you’re just very on top of your game in the middle of a pandemic.
Lotus Lain: Well, thank you. I’m trying to be. I’m a one-woman show. You know, many people are lucky to have partners built into their household so they can be a cameraman or stunt cock or whatever they call it. And I don’t have that. So I definitely have to be creative.
Alex Wagner: You know, you’re someone that is on shoots. You were going to shoot a threesome. So you’re obviously used to shooting with partners.
Lotus Lain: Oh, yeah.
Alex Wagner: You know, as an actor, as a performer, is it, does it get, does it get old always having to deal with yourself?
Lotus Lain: Oh yeah. I always say that’s hard. Is, the hardest part is just fucking myself. Because like the reality of how people masturbate is not the way people want to see people masturbate. So I’m just going to leave it that. [laughs]
Alex Wagner: But I would assume you are constantly having to sort of reinvent the wheel every time, right, like that just seems like that it—no? Oh.
Lotus Lain: Yeah. I mean, in ways. But it’s funny because fans—God bless the, men especially—they can make a story out of a pinky toe, so all I have to do is like look at something that maybe a fan has said or random—I’m like, OK, cool, I’ll just do that. They can make a fantasy out of anything, out of so many things. So they’re even when I feel burned out like there’s nothing left I can create or do, someone will say something, you know, barbershop POV JOI fantasy. And I’m like, OK, well, I could do that.
Alex Wagner: That’s so specific.
Lotus Lain: Yeah, that’s what I mean! And I’m like, I would have never thought about that. But of course this dude getting his hair cut by some hot girl would imagine her, you know, giving him jerk off instruction in his ear. Of course!
Alex Wagner: JOI: Jerk Off Instruction. The stuff you learn when you do a podcast like this.
Lotus Lain: Yes.
Alex Wagner: So you’re in California and it seems like we are entering a new stage of this pandemic where things are beginning to start opening up a little bit. Do you foresee a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of being able to go back to set anytime soon?
Lotus Lain: Oh, yeah, I see a light at the end of the tunnel. We are already, you know, convening a COIVD-19 task force within the FSC of how we’re going to reopen the industry and what the protocols are going to look like now. And we’re asking performers, crew members, producers and agents that are going to be liable if something were to occur, you know, because everyone has different stakes in this. So we need to hear from the different stakeholders. And that’s the next step in the process here. So, yeah, I definitely see a light at the end of the tunnel. We’re getting there.
Alex Wagner: I think a lot of the impression that people have, whether rightly or wrongly, is that the porn industry operates sort of on the fringes, that they’re bigger risk takers than most. Are you confident that the protocols that they put in place will be sufficient to keep people safe and healthy? Or do you think there’s going to be some pushback because some people are going to be want to be more aggressive than others?
Lotus Lain: Well, I definitely think that there’s going to be people that are ready to work right now and feel like we’re ready to work right now with what we have going on, whatever protocols we can put in place now. And there’s definitely going to be people that are like, we want to wait for an antibody test or a vaccine and we can’t do anything until then. As far as what outsiders think of the industry and our our general risk-taking, well, yeah, we are risk takers, but so are bungee jumpers, so are skydivers. They don’t just jump the fuck out of the plane without parachutes and protocols and safety in place. They know what they’re doing, just like we know what we’re doing. We’re not just diving in a pussy without, like, testing and making sure people have wipes and, you know, alcohol and cleanliness on set. Yeah, that, it’s that basic. People think the most ridiculous things about—
Alex Wagner: Not just diving into pussy without gloves. There you go, I mean, that’s basically it right there.
Lotus Lain: Yeah.
Alex Wagner: What about in terms of performances, is there anything you’re really looking forward to getting back to, any aspect of film that you’re particularly missing?
Lotus Lain: Yeah, I really, I really wish I would have taken advantage and done more orgies. I want to do more just full-on orgies.
Alex Wagner: I mean, I bet there are a lot of Americans thinking the same thing and they’re not even in the industry.
Lotus Lain: Yeah, I just, I just want more of the hot, like, damn, I slept on some opportunities. I was stupid. I’m sorry, porn gods. I repent. I will do my best to fulfill every orgy desire you place in front of me.
Alex Wagner: Well Lotus we hope that there are many, many orgies in your future. Thank you for, for telling us about, you know, an industry a lot of us don’t know nearly enough about, even though there is a lot of consumption of the products of your industry. Thank you for your time and thoughts.
Lotus Lain: Yeah. Thank you too for your time.
Alex Wagner: That’s all for this episode of Six Feet Apart. Our show is produced by Alysa Gutierrez and Lyra Smith. Lyra Smith is our story editor. Our executive producer is Sarah Geismer. Special thanks to Alison Falzetta, Stephen Hoffman and Sidney Rapp. Special thanks this week to Melissa Brodo and Gina Nemirovsky. Thanks for listening and stay safe.