Sex work, part of the online gig economy, is a lifeline for marginalized workers
More people are getting involved in more types of sex work, especially with the help of the internet, despite criminalization of their occupations and activist opposition, some of which threatens people's lives. My research interviewing a wide range of sex workers finds that more people are involved in the industry, including marginalized people who are finding it a literal lifeline in tough economic times.
The internet has diversified forms of sex work, aided in the industry's growth and interconnected previously unconnected types of sex work. Demand for amateur, non-studio-based porn has grown, expanding online pornographic industries like camming, in which performers interact with viewers. Online sex workers post content on specialized hosting sites. Other websites connect phone sex workers with new customers.
Some sites facilitate sugaring relationships, in which one person gives another money over time in exchange for a relationship lasting beyond a one-time encounter. On other sites, people can even sell used panties.
Especially during a global pandemic with more people out of work and searching for job opportunities, the modern sex industry is incorporating many new providers, customers and job possibilities.
Who works in modern sex industries?
Sex work has become more appealing to more laborers across social classes. In particular, online sex work has become more popular because it offers physical safety to those working fully online and minimizes risk to those laboring offline, has minimal requirements for employment and offers the potential for decent wages and autonomy.
These conditions create better work experiences. Sex worker Trip Richards said, "as a transgender man, … sharing my work on online platforms has offered me financial freedom and personal happiness I never thought possible and has allowed me to stay safe while pursuing my own goals as an artist, educator and activist."
Online sex work is a better option than the poorly remunerated work available to some people. Many sex workers, especially those from marginalized groups, have told me they found it difficult or impossible to get or keep jobs in other industries, making sex work their only option to earn a living. People with disabilities and chronic illnesses who participated in my research on the camming industry highlighted online sex work as flexible labor.
In my field, researchers assign first-name aliases to those we interview. One woman whom I call Kim remarked that camming is "easier to work with bipolar disorder." Amelia explained, "I have Crohn's and was unable to hold down a regular job. … My parents had no money, and I felt guilty asking them for help."
The sexual gig economy can be a refuge from the discrimination some people face in the nonsexual labor market. Natalie told me: "It's hard to find full-time work even at a fast food place as a full-time trans female who is pre-op and not on hormone replacement therapy."
Not all sex workers come from marginalized social positions. As more people have been struggling before and during the pandemic to make ends meet, more people are becoming open to working in sex industries.
What do sex workers earn?
In my study of the global camming industry, surveying and interviewing workers worldwide, full-time performers could earn US$10,000 a month. But those uncommonly high wages went almost exclusively to young, white, thin cisgender women. "Cisgender" is an adjective derived from the Latin prefix meaning "on the same side as" and refers to people who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth. In general, trans men are men who were assigned female at birth; trans women are women who were assigned male at birth.
Most of the top earners are from the U.S., and spent years building a brand. But most cam models work part-time, and median earnings were $1,000 a month overall, with trans women right at that average, but cisgender women $1,250 and cisgender men $350.
Online phone sex workers might charge $2 per minute, earning them $120 per hour, before the platform takes 30%. A model posting content on a subscription site might charge as much as $15 per month, though these sites generally take between 20%-30%.
Escorts, who provide companionship offline, often charge the highest rates of sex workers online. But their rates don't necessarily reflect their earnings. How much an escort might make depends on consumer demand and the number of clients they see each month.
Their schedules vary and they often do multiple types of sex work simultaneously. For example, Lenny told me, "I created an online persona, a profile for the purpose to offering escort services, selling homemade porn video clips, and an additional feature is webcamming, which I utilize by creating live sex shows to replicate what customers could experience during escort meetings face-to-face."
What are the benefits of online sex work?
Like other gig workers, sex workers do not receive benefits such as employer-provided health care, vacation or retirement packages in many countries. And they have to do a lot of administrative work: marketing, messaging with clients, planning shoots or shows, preparing legal forms and dealing with constantly changing legal requirements and stringent websites' terms of service. However, sex workers describe other benefits.
Among workers in my camming study, 56.2% said they were not motivated to cam by money only. Carl told me, "The benefits of cam work are much the same as most independent jobs. You work at home on your own schedule and avoid the 9-to-5 daily grind." Workers like Halona said that being an independent entrepreneur provides autonomy and allows for creativity, describing online sex work as "the job I feel least exploited for my labor."
For some performers, this labor has allowed them to explore their sexuality, and as several said, they have "orgasms for a living." Others told me the work had helped boost their self-esteem, was affirming and brought them pleasure. As Whitney explained, "I have a physical disability [spinal muscular atrophy] … and had recently moved … I wasn't working, and, honestly, I spent a lot of time at home bored and lonely. I started posting nudes on a social site and fell in love. I can remember being younger, watching porn, and thinking no one would want to see me doing that. With the support of my husband, I started camming. People did want to see me, and I really did love it."
How has the internet changed working conditions?
The internet has helped improve sex workers' lives, including by keeping them safer. For those with internet access, escorts can screen clients online, making clients verify identity and provide references. Escorts develop and rely on online client review systems and community web forums, making them less dependent on exploitative third parties.
However, sex workers laboring offline and on the street remain at high risk. Continued criminalization of in-person sex work in the U.S. and other countries and governmental attempts at regulating sexual commerce online, limit consensual sex workers' opportunities.
In 2018, a federal law made internet platforms legally responsible if they hosted user-generated content related to sex work, which led free advertising platforms like Craigslist to shut down their personals sections. Other online review forums shut down. Those changes reduced the ability of internet services to keep sex workers safe—even in countries where consensual sex work is decriminalized.