Strippers have been cut out of stimulus checks, while clubs are ineligible for small business loans. At Sanctuary, dancers are making bank while doing whatever the fuck they want

It’s a Thursday night at the Sanctuary strip club, and the dancers throw and gyrate and thrust themselves into their sets to much encouragement from the crowd. A stripper named Mighty humps the floor and then drapes themself in a Pride flag and little else. Cinnamon Maxine sports gigantic glasses as they first undulate to and then loudly heckle their own Spice Girls backing track; “Boys and boys and girls and girls go good together, so fuck that shit!” Club founder Andre Shakti does a polished, athletic pole dance routine while an adorable and very startled Chihuahua gazes up at her. When she accidentally bops it off the stage, it topples over, regains its feet, and skitters back up to be nearer the action.

Usually, and unfortunately, dancers don’t get to bring their dogs with them into clubs. Sanctuary is different though. It’s an online venue which embraces queer dancers, fat dancers, and (at least on the night I attended) homey foster pets. For a $5 cover, clientele of all genders can log on twice a week to watch performers of all genders dance, to buy them drinks, to tip them, and to pay for private nude or semi-nude dances. It’s a disarmingly friendly hybrid cam-club experience.

It’s also, not coincidentally, completely COVID-safe. “Because of the very real risks associated with interpersonal contact, the sex industry was one of the industries most disastrously impacted by COVID-19,” Shakti says by phone. “I myself experienced about an 85% loss of income by the second week of March.” Worse, puritanical lawmakers specifically denied small business loans and other aid to legal sex workers like strippers. Shakti watched peers teeter on the brink of homelessness and destitution as politicians rushed to demonize them. She herself almost wasn’t able to pay for groceries. For two weeks, she said, “I spent a lot of time in a really deep depression.”

Sanctuary was originally as much a form of therapy as it was a way to pay the bills. “At first we’d have maybe five to eight people come in. We weren’t making a lot of money, but we loved that it was mostly queer people, and mostly people who wanted to make us feel good and have a lot of fun.” But the numbers quickly escalated; Shakti says they now have 25 to 40 people at every shift, and she’s making close to what she earned at her live stripping gig.

Shakti’s also been overwhelmed with applications from dancers who want to work in the club. This is partly because many sex workers have major concerns about returning to work in live venues. Shakti says her old club owners called her about returning to work, but they had no plan for masking, or for restricting attendance to allow for social distancing. They didn’t even know if they were going to resume offering private dances or not. “Dancers are really afraid,” Shakti says. “They live with older adults, they work in hospital or medical settings, they’re caregivers for people who are immunocompromised, they have kids—they themselves are immunocompromised. And they’re like, ‘Yeah, the industry is opening up, but we don’t want to go back to it.’”

Even when the coronavirus recedes, Shakti plans to keep Sanctuary going. For the dancers, the convenience of working from home is a huge draw. They don’t have to drive to work, or pay a substantial portion of their take to club owners.

More, strip clubs, like many other mainstream venues and institutions, are often hostile to people who aren’t white, thin, straight, heterosexual, cis, and able-bodied. “I wanted to do this because I wanted a club for folks that you don’t stereotypically see in a strip club,” Shakti says. Even when queer people are in a club, they have to conform to an acceptable hyper-feminine aesthetic. “You’re not seeing them dancing to the music they would choose to dance to, you’re not seeing them go on without makeup, or doing whatever the fuck they want with their hair, or wearing whatever the fuck they want that feels empowering to them while they’re dancing. And so that’s one reason Sanctuary is special.”

Sanctuary isn’t just for dancers who don’t fit the standard club aesthetic, but for patrons who don’t either. “As someone who has worked in sex work for 12 years,” Shakti says, “I can tell you right now that if you have a body, somebody out there is eroticizing that body and wanting that body.” Sanctuary, Shakti says, is a place where “fat butch dykes and Black non-binary queers and people who identify as asexual can come in and turn their cameras on and feel like they’re safe.”

As devastating as the coronavirus has been for sex workers, then, it’s also created opportunities to create new, more inclusive, and less exploitive institutions. “That’s the thing I love about the sex industry,” Shakti says. “We take hit after hit after hit, and we mourn the change. And then we will create something entirely new. Because all of us are hustlers. We’re all survivors. We all are used to things being ripped away from us and having to come up with our own strategies of providing for ourselves and protecting ourselves.” Sex workers have always had to build their own sanctuaries. Shakti’s is a particularly welcoming one.