Another form of gig work: the 2020s sex-work boom

By Janisse Miles

Three years ago, people in the U.S. were notified that they had to celebrate Women’s History Month in their own homes, as thousands of organizations were shutting down for what was hoped would be two weeks but proved to be longer. The lockdown that started in mid-March would push on well into the summer months, and in that time 25 million workers would lose their jobs, due to companies being unable or unwilling to adapt to such unique circumstances.

Credit: Wellesley Centers for Women

This, however, didn’t stop the bills from coming in, leaving many with the dilemma of needing a source of income that also adhered to safety procedures that the lockdown required. And like any period of nationwide financial uncertainty, this led many, primarily women and gender-oppressed people, to pursue sex work.

What made this period unique, however, was specifically the boom in virtual sex work. By the end of 2020, 85 million users joined the website “OnlyFans,” known for its sexual content provided by independent creators. In March 2021, the number had risen to 120 million users, a substantial upswing in both consumers and creators. Not only that, but several “camming” websites, specializing in sexual livestreams, saw a 75% increase in sign-ups, with established models increasing their work hours by 22%.

With strip clubs being closed and hotels often being used as COVID-19 centers, consumers looking for a sexual outlet were directed online, making it a lot more lucrative for the providers. What made virtual sex work so attractive was the lack of physical contact between the professional and the clientele, which was thought to be less dangerous but came with its own struggles.

Doxxing = stalking

The stalking that all sex workers are at an increased chance of experiencing took place in the form of doxxing. This is when identifying information such as a full name, address, SSN, etc. is obtained by public records searches, personal accounts and/or IP addresses and leaked to the internet with malicious intent.

Sex work has historically been a women-dominated field catering to primarily male clientele. The combination of misogyny, lust and entitlement leads many men to the conclusion that, even though women are taught to believe that their worth is in their beauty and that they will be sexualized regardless, they should not be allowed to benefit economically from that sexualization.

Since virtual sex work is in front of a camera, it’s considered pornography, instead of prostitution, and therefore protected under law. So in an effort to punish sex workers in the new age, thousands of people doxxed their favorite/most hated sex workers and reported them to the IRS, hoping to get them in trouble for tax fraud. This movement was spearheaded by the so-called “Men’s Rights Activists,” who believed they needed to hold sex workers accountable for “manipulating” men into giving them money via their sexuality.

Pornographic websites across the internet were flooded with stolen content of sex workers in paid sessions, essentially converting it to public content and violating the sex workers’ consent. And although there was an increase in male sex work as well, those getting punished for it were overwhelmingly women.

Another way sex workers tend to be discriminated against is by money-sharing sites such as cashapp, PayPal, etc. that require personal information to be shared with the sending party, specifically to lead sex workers away from the platform — although the money-sharing companies were the ones popularizing these apps in the first place. A sex worker can also be flagged by PayPal under suspicion of performing sex work and can be investigated because of it.

The year is 2023, several years after the lockdown when over 1 million people in the richest country in the world were left for dead and many more have become too disabled to be considered useful for the capitalist machine. Although inflation persists, wages don’t keep up — meaning that the economy has only worsened for the working class, and sex work is still on the rise, only this time outside of a screen too.

Escorting in the Western world has faced a notable increase, with many stating that the ever increasing cost of living has pushed them into survival sex work, leaving them at the mercy of dangerous clients emboldened by the lack of legal protection escorts have.

On Tik Tok, the romanticization of being a “sugar baby” and escaping the financial ruin of student loans is preached to a generation that graduated on Zoom, leaving them at the mercy of older men hoping to take advantage of their lack of life experience and general naivety.

Sex work is becoming another notch on the gig-economy belt. With the increased danger of being a sex worker, the decriminalization of sex work needs to be a key demand. Providers must be able to find and build support, without the looming threat of being arrested for prostitution or having it used against them when seeking protection.

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