Pornography is the most common form of sexual experience available online — so common, perhaps, that a market for rarer intimacies has emerged.
Bottles of influencer bath water sell for $30 a jar. Some cam models have scaled back on erotic performance because they can earn more money selling homemade cookies and hair clippings. You can even pay a stranger to gorge himself on snacks from Trader Joe’s, if that’s your thing.
For some people, such work is a full-time job; others see it as a side hustle — one where the hourly pay can be considerably higher than the going rate for, say, dog walking or bartending. Plus, it doesn’t require leaving your dorm room or apartment.
“You’d have to babysit a lot of hours to make $250, which I can do in a few hours of online sex work, said Ella, 19, a sophomore at Parsons School of Design who asked to be identified by her first name as a safety precaution. “I know because I babysat for a long time. I hated it.”
Ella says that in her first semester at Parsons, she made around $800 a week from a few different sex-work-based revenue streams, including selling photos of her feet. She set up an OnlyFans account after her campus closed in the spring and she moved back home, but she hasn’t been active there yet. “It was a little hard to with a house full of family,” she said. For the most part clients contact her through more PG sites like Tinder and Instagram.
“Many sex workers now perform part or all of their labor in an online environment,” Angela Jones, a sociologist, noted in a 2016 academic paper, “I Get Paid to Have Orgasms,” published by the University of Chicago’s Signs Journal of Women in Culture and Society. In other words, sex work has been a largely virtual occupation for years.
The pandemic has only accelerated the trend; in March and April, for instance, OnlyFans had a 75 percent increase in new users and creators, the company said.
It’s perhaps old news by now that selling oneself — your body, your content, your nude photos, your appetite, your phone line — is no longer taboo or seen as degrading. Many people, especially those who grew up with social media, are perfectly comfortable exposing every detail of their lives online. And it’s become conventional wisdom in the business world that anyone and anything can be monetized as a brand.
“I mean, I’m probably really biased because I’m an art student living in New York City, so my friends and I think online sex work is really normal,” Ella said. “We talk about ‘checking our privilege,’ in the sense we are sex workers and we don’t have to be.” (For the vast majority of sex workers, there are fewer choices.)
Still, what’s the appeal, one may ask, of having someone pay you to count your stretch marks, or selling pictures of your phalanges to strangers?
To start, there are low barriers to entry. A good smartphone camera is the only overhead, at least initially. And for a generation saddled by student loan debt (Ella’s tuition is about $47,000 a year, leaving her with a tab of $35,000 after financial aid and scholarship money), along with the rising cost of living and growing inequality, the paycheck for online sex work can be appealing.
While lifestyle is certainly one part of it, the economics are the driving force. The Atlantic noted earlier this year that the United States, where two in five adults would struggle to come up with $400 in an emergency, is experiencing an “affordability crisis” and families have been “bled dry by landlords, hospital administrators, university bursars, and child-care centers.”
And that was before the coronavirus crisis, which experts predict will be particularly punishing to young people’s economic and employment prospects.
So whatever the legitimate moral, ethical and safety concerns about online sex work may be, for this new cohort of performers and content creators — many are tech-savvy freelancers working outside the adult entertainment industry and don’t identify as porn stars — it is undeniable that this is one pathway to some semblance of financial stability.
The $850 Socks
A number of the entry points into this line of work now come from mainstream social media, both widening the playing field and lessening the stigma. “I operate primarily through Twitter, Snapchat and OnlyFans,” said a 29-year-old online sex worker in Seattle who asked to be identified by her alias, Eevie Lain, for safety reasons.
“I feel like those sites have really opened so many doors to a lot of people online who don’t label themselves as ‘sex workers’ but are selling things like underwear because there is such demand for it,” said Ms. Lain, who sells her lingerie for $50 to $400. She has also sold hair clippings, bras, gym socks, stockings and homemade holiday cookies that go for $200 a batch. (No, they are not shaped like genitalia.)
“People just want things from you when you start interacting with them online, even if there is no physical contact,” she said. “I don’t cam anymore, but I am still selling my belongings.” (When she first started camming in 2012, Ms. Lain said she earned $10,000 a month, allowing her to quit her job selling coffee and to move into a better apartment. Since the coronavirus outbreak, she said demand for her services and belongings have decreased.)
Mz. Kim, a college graduate in her 30s who used to work in the technology industry and who now works full time as on online dominatrix, said she earns $18,000 to $22,000 a month. She has sold a pair of socks for $850 and pantyhose for $1,500 (more than once). “I know it really does seem so ridiculous when you think about it,” she said. “The way that this really works is that the person has some sort of attachment to you. They have a sort of love for your persona, your look and your brand.”
And even now, as most of other industries are struggling because of Covid-19, Mz. Kim said her online business is booming. “Many of my clients are home and need guidance, understanding and a reassuring, strong voice,” she wrote in an email, adding that “another reason for business being up may be that the subset of men who are now forced to stay home simply have more opportunities to play.”
Many others just dabble in the work. “I had a number of students who disclosed to me that they were performing sex online, primarily webcamming, and the significant majority of them were doing it primarily part time,” said Ms. Jones, the author of “Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Work Industry.” One of them, she recalled, said they had made $10,000 in one month on a webcam site. “I immediately stopped and said, ‘Well, clearly I have the wrong job,’” Ms. Jones said.
Robert, a student at Parsons who wanted to be identified only by his first name, was propositioned on Grommr, a fetish website for men that encourages weight gain, to eat $150 worth of food on a live webcam for $100. Would he do it again? “I’d want way more money,” he said.
Since she started 2012, Ms. Lain estimates she has brought 20 friends into the industry. Most of them, she said, work on a part-time basis. “They saw my lifestyle and income and wanted in,” she said. “I think that as a generation we are a little more comfortable exposing ourselves.”
While the seemingly wild sums of money can be appealing, Ms. Joness research of nearly 500 online sex workers indicates that those making the megabucks — think $50,000 a month — are working full time. “Moving in and out of the industry can be problematic and not as lucrative,” she said. The median monthly earnings for an online sex worker, Ms. Jones found, was about a $1,000 a month, with cisgender women averaging $1,250, trans women $1,000, and cisgender men $350.
If that sounds paltry for posting sexual content that may still be online for your grandchildren to see, not to mention the multitude of other potential physical and professional risks, Ms. Jones said to think of that sum in a global context. “$1,000 a month can pay for someone’s full-time child care in some places,” she said.
Alec Hardy, 34, a software engineer in Budapest who asked to be identified by his alias to avoid any professional repercussions, used to work two day jobs and earned $1,500 a month in his senior management positions. His third paycheck came from camming for sites like Flirt4Free and Chaturbate, which he said more than doubled his monthly salary.
“The base salaries are really low in Hungary, so the supplemental income allows me to have a competitive global income,” Mr. Hardy said in a phone interview.
In the spring Mr. Hardy quit his day job to work full time in online chat rooms. While his clients are currently spending the same amount, many, he said, have warned him that they may have to cut back in the future. “I also have a number of clients who are usually watching from the office, and now they can’t because they are stuck in the house with their wife and kids,” he said.
These days, he said, he is making more income from recorded videos, like sex toy reviews, and affiliate commissions — enough that he’s almost entirely given up camming. “Most people just want to get paid for showing their feet, but I think it’s important to not put all your eggs in one basket,” he said.
Becoming a successful online sex worker isn’t easy. To gain a following, freelancers have to be savvy marketers, be highly proficient in search engine optimization, know how to budget, maintain a blog, and have pretty advanced video editing and producing skills.
Mz. Kim has created courses to help people build that skill set, including “Monetizing Your Appeal Online: Content Strategies for Models”; before the pandemic, she held classes across the country. Part of her gospel is: “It’s not about starting a profile on Twitter. You have to provide something more than selfies. You have to think about: What is your core appeal?” (Next week a new class, “Investing for Sex Workers,” will go live.)
Attendees of the four-hour class in Las Vegas included a retired military officer in her 50s, an out-of-work photographer and a casino worker in her 40s exploring new career options. They all sat in the bright upstairs space of the Studios, a club that bills its clientele as gender-fluid, diligently taking notes on start-up costs and publicity tactics. (One insider tip that Mz. Kim shares is using the platform SextPanther, which monetizes texting and online content.)
Mz. Kim levels with her students, telling them that while online sex work can be quite lucrative, it’s far from a workplace utopia. Her disclaimers are: You will lose friends. Your family may not be supportive. Anything you post online will likely be there forever, potentially jeopardizing future job opportunities. You’ll have to take many measures to protect your privacy. (This is why the vast majority of online sex workers use an alias.)
Then there’s always the fear of being booted off the platforms and programs that are critical for online sex workers to connect with their followers, like Instagram, Twitter and MailChimp. Payment processors, including PayPal and Venmo, do not accept payments for legal sex work, Mz. Kim said, forcing many sex workers to turn to third parties which typically take 30 to 80 percent of the profits.
One of the most valuable commodities online sex workers can offer is something women have typically given away for free: emotional labor or “the girlfriend experience.”
“Women will put out a menu of digital services: for access to my texts it’s this amount. FaceTime is this amount. Snapchat is this,” said Sean Dunne, the director of the documentary “Cam Girlz.” “A lot of these guys just want to feel like they have something going, like they have a girlfriend and that someone is paying attention. Women have monetized that aspect.”
Buying “the girlfriend experience” often doesn’t involve trading money for sex. Mr. Dunne has observed that “a lot of what happens online is actually very vanilla boyfriend-girlfriend behaviors.” For instance, Ella, the art student at Parsons, charges $160 to $200 for a 45-minute Skype session, many of which are not sexual in nature. “I’m just sitting in my bed talking to this person,” she said.
“More and more, I’m selling my time,” Ms. Lain said. “I do a lot of one-on-one video calls, just like you’d FaceTime a normal friend, but I’m getting paid $5 per minute. I’m building social connections with people.” Currently, she says, 70 percent of her work is not related to performing any kinds of live or recorded sexual acts.
But did our mothers and grandmothers really burn their bras so the next generation could sell their underwear?
Kavita Ilona Nayar, a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst whose research focuses on digital cultures of sexual commerce, has written that “in an economic and cultural environment that encourages an ethos of individualism and entrepreneurialism, selling sex and intimacy makes sense. So, why the continued stigma?”
One reason is the long and well-established intersection between paid sex work and exploitation of women. But with so much sex work now being done from behind a screen or through mail order of items, the dynamics of exploitation are being rethought.
“Personally, I think the person who is driving an hour every day for a low-wage job for something they don’t care about is way more exploited than someone doing online sex work,” said Cass Greener, the producer of “Cam Girlz.”
She added, “These are women who are working for themselves and the for the amount of energy and effort they put into this they see a direct return, which isn’t the case with most jobs.”