The following is an edited transcript of a brief talk I gave as part of the Women of Sex Tech Virtual Conference given on May 2, 2020.
I’m an online sex worker; I’ve been doing this work for the last five years. If you’re unfamiliar with sex work— and in particular if you’re unfamiliar with online sex work— it is an umbrella terms that covers any erotic performances or interactions that are sold and mediated online. This includes sexting, selling nudes, porn, phone sex, amateur clip making, sexual Skype sessions, and more.
As digitally mediated erotic labor, online sex work sits at the intersection of tech, intimacy, and business: it’s quite literally the commodification of virtual intimacy and sexual gratification. It’s the business of pleasure.
As such, it’s not surprising that during COVID-19, when shelter-in-place orders and social distancing have pushed most of our social and professional interactions online, clip stores, sexting apps, porn platforms, and phone sex sites are seeing an uptick in sign-ups from both new customers and new performers.
Forbes has reported that adult chat and video sites have seen increases in traffic sales and sign up with some of the biggest sites seeing more than a 75% increase. Subscription site Onlyfans, for example, has seen more than a 75% increases in new signups, amounting to 15,000 new users every 24 hours. Manyvids, a clip site, has seen a 22% increase in models launching live webcam sessions. Additionally, Rolling Stone has reported that IsMyGirl has seen a 300% increase in new sign ups, and the CEO is quoted as saying that he believes that most of the people who are signing up are recently laid off from vanilla jobs.
The conditions of COVID-19, in other words, have led many non-sex workers (folks that we call “civilians”) into wanting to get into online sex work. As someone who has been working in the industry for some time, I have seen an influx and messages from civilians who’ve lost their jobs and are looking for a “quick and easy way” to make ends meet sheltering-in-place. I understand their logic: Online sex work seems like a good way to make money while at home.
My kneejerk response to these requests for advice on how to get into the industry, though, is to tell them not to do it. Or, rather, my more nuanced position is to not do it if you believe that online sex work is a low risk path to quick and easy money. Online sex work is neither low risk, nor is it quick and easy money. And I’m going to lay out the reasons for this.
As a personal aside, I want to say that when I first started doing online sex work, a friend who had been camming for years told me that the risks aren’t worth it unless you’re willing to put in the significant time that it takes in order to really get an online sex work business off the ground. Dabbling, in other words, doesn’t get you very far. She also said that you must be willing to accept the whore stigma that comes with being naked on the internet.
At the time, I wasn’t actually ready to hear this, I wanted to think that it was possible to dip my toes in the sex industry and exit whenever I wanted. However, her voice rings in my ears every time I see a civilians in my DM’s, asking me how to break into online sex work during this pandemic.
It may be worth it to do online sex work, but you can’t actually know this if you’re only given partial truth that highlight the most successful models and gloss over the risks. In my experience, dabbling in sex work has long term consequences that newbies should be aware of. The image of online sex work as quick and easy money obscures the labor that actually goes into sex work and offers an incomplete picture of what it is that our lives look like.
Where do people get these impressions? Sex workers themselves projects success, and they should. What we’ve learned from being in this industry is that clients will pay a premium if they believe that we’re popular and that our time is limited. But, also, journalists, who are really hungry for sex work stories right now, typically only have access to sex workers who are highly visible and who have large platforms. I say this as somebody who feels implicated: I am a visible sex worker who has a large platform who quite often gives press interviews.
The reality is different than what our own marketing and media stories depict, though. Making online sex work lucrative is not something that just happens overnight. You don’t just start selling nudes on OnlyFans and have a windfall of money. I so wish that was true, but it’s just not.
Of interest to this conference, there are tech reasons for this. Platforms themselves algorithmically favor the already successful, making it really difficult for newcomers to break in. Any success that one has on a platform depends on what kind of traffic that person can drive, and in order to be able to drive traffic, you need to already have a large social media platform.
Importantly, the number of followers that you need to have in order to make this work, to make it profitable, also opens you up to scrutiny and whore stigma. The tech itself becomes a weapon that harms online sex workers. Piracy, for example, is so rampant that we don’t have control over our own images. The biggest porn sites on the internet—PornHub being a notable example—were built on a business model of piracy. And this isn’t true just for pre-recorded content. Even cam shows and other live performances are routinely recorded and distributed without our permission or even our knowledge. And many of the sites that host this pirated content have offshore servers so they simply do not respond to our DCMA takedown requests. I know this because my family members, including my mother, found a lot of my porn on PornHub, a site where I have never uploaded my content.
Also, importantly, facial recognition software is making it increasingly likely that your images in non- sex work contexts are being easily linked up to adult entertainment sites and to your sex work persona. We’re already seeing this with companies like Marinus Analytic, who are ostensibly creating facial recognition software to locate trafficking victims, but, in the practice, identify the images of sex workers and link them up with their non-sex work social media presences. [This software is sold exclusively to law enforcement.]
Moreover, Facebook’s “people you may know” algorithms notoriously out sex workers to their families and doxs them to their clients. This is why I’ve given up on having any social media at all that isn’t my sex work persona, and this is true of a lot of sex workers.
In other words, regardless of whether it’s criminalized (so much of online sex work isn’t), sex work is heavily stigmatized. And, the stigmatization itself leads to problems with employment, custody, border crossing, banking, etc.
So, getting into online sex work during a global pandemic means taking on these risks while at the same time stepping into an already oversaturated market. This market’s oversaturated by current online sex workers who’ve been at this hustle for a long time; in-person sex workers who’ve pivoted their businesses to online during this pandemic; newcomers like the people whose messages I keep getting; and also just exhibitionists who are creating some of the same content for free on exhibitionist community forums.
There’s no shortage, in other words, of naked people online.
While there’s an increase in people, in customers or in clients who are signing up for these sites, individual clients aren’t necessarily spending more money. In fact, in my experience and in the experience of a lot of my friends and colleagues, they’re spending less. There are handful of reasons for this.
First, clients are dealing with their own economic insecurities and in some cases, layoffs. Another reason is that they’re quarantining with their family, with their wives and their kids, or with roommates. This leaves little privacy for spending time with online sex workers.
Moreover, there’s a plethora of options for sexual gratification online, many of which are free.
But, also, I want to point out that the work itself during the pandemic is a little bit different; it’s more emotionally intense. As sex workers we’re spending a lot of time (metaphorically) holding people’s hands through these really difficult times.
All that being said, I’m not suggesting that no one should go into online sex work during the pandemic. Sex work has always been a really important fallback for people in crisis. It’s relatively good money with low barriers to entry and it’s more flexible than many other forms of work.
It’s irresponsible, however, for journalists and other figures to continue to promote the idea that it’s quick and risk-free way of making money. Doing online sex work is neither easy money nor is it risk free. And I think that anyone who gets into it needs to have a picture of what our lives look like, and how theirs will change when they enter into this industry.
Jessie Sage (@sapiotextual) is a sex worker and freelance writer. She is also the co-host of the Peepshow Podcast.