- The sex work industry has been affected by public health orders restricting in-person work during the pandemic.
- Some sex workers are trying to earn an income from online sex work, but are finding the transition can be hard to navigate.
- Fears about privacy, the loss of institutional support and the demands of a different type of work are barriers to entry that sex workers are struggling to overcome while moving to online work.
- Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.
Soon after the coronavirus pandemic hit, sex workers were faced with a difficult decision: find an alternative to in-person work, or lose their primary source of income for the foreseeable future.
With COVID-19 restrictions placing restrictions on in-person work, many in the industry are now trying to make the transition to working online
Since the start of the pandemic, online streaming platforms – including those catering to adult content – saw big jumps in the number of people using their services, both as creators and audiences.
Between March and June this year, Business Insider reported “over 450,000 creators have made new accounts on OnlyFans, IsMyGirl, and other subscription sites”.
But many sex workers are finding that challenges of the different style of work and global competition means it hasn’t been an easy transition.
Gala Vanting is a sex worker and spokesperson for the Scarlett Alliance, Australia’s peak body for sex workers. She said she’s seen many in the industry try to move online.
“It’s an adaptation for sex workers to move to online work, if they’re able to do so. And I think there’s a lot of barriers to consider,” she said.
The impact that COVID-19 has had on Australian sex workers. pic.twitter.com/QFiF1NlFhn
— Scarlet Alliance (@scarletalliance) July 28, 2020
Vanting stresses that the skills and knowledge needed to undertake online work are very different to traditional, in-person work.
To assist in the transition, the Scarlet Alliance has published a resource to help workers move to online work. The guides includes lists of types of online work — everything from pornography to private shows to virtual girlfriend experiences — as well as equipment needed, payment and performance platforms, and tips for marketing and privacy.
Jenna Love is a sex worker trying to move to primarily online work. The Blue Mountains resident has nearly a decade of experience working as an independent sex worker.
But, after undergoing medical procedures earlier this year, Love couldn’t do sex work in person. She hoped to temporarily supplement her income by producing online adult content.
She’d produced porn on the side for three years, but more as a side hustle than a serious attempt at earning an income.
After Love had spent a few months doing online work and recovering, the coronavirus pandemic hit. Suddenly, Love’s hopes to return to in-person sex work were dashed, as COVID-19 restrictions prohibited any in-person sex work.
Love has found the work to be very different, saying that the transition is “not as simple as turning on a computer.”
Even for someone who already had spent years building an online presence (she has more than 66,000 Twitter followers) and gaining experience on the side, Love still found the transition to online work difficult and draining at times.
She said she works every day, and significantly beyond standard working hours, to do her job.
Outside of the demands of performing online sex work — ”you’ve got to dressed, ready, and then actually film it” — Love said the production, marketing and administration all take up a big part of her day.
“With online work, you’ve got an audience from all over the globe. There’s been plenty of times I’ve woken up at 1 a.m. and begun responding to emails,” she said. “I was telling my husband, ‘this probably isn’t good for me, is it?’”
And then there’s the capital investment required to get into online sex work. A mature, competitive market means the technical requirements of online sex work continue to become more demanding, including things like high quality video and livestreaming.
“You can film it with a phone. But if someone’s paying for something, they want it in 4K,” Love said.
"Just letting someone speak their truth can sometimes be the biggest gift you can give them, to just hold the space for them." — Amanda Palmer
I have to say I think sex workers excel at giving this particular gift! pic.twitter.com/Of5JwqtKma
— Jenna Love (@jennahasredhair) July 14, 2020
For sex workers working with brothels or agencies, the transition to online work has been particularly jarring, as they lose the support and knowledge that comes from working in a bigger business.
Online sex work, by comparison, is mostly structured around individual workers as sole traders or small businesses.
“Many workers who work in establishments do so because they’re not interested in setting up the infrastructure in order to do sex work,” Vanting said.
Not every sex worker will go online. Vanting herself has done online work in the past but now only does in-person work.
She said these barriers to entry may prevent someone from making the jump at all, which can leave someone without work.
In particular, Vanting notes that online sex requires a worker to be ‘face out’, meaning their face needs to be visible. This, she said, makes it more difficult for a worker to keep their work private and avoid the stigma that’s still associated with sex work.
“Some sex workers are reluctant to show their face on advertising, let alone in pictures or videos where they can be screen-grabbed,” she said.
“People with particular concerns are those with certain religious or cultural backgrounds, parents, those with civilian jobs.”
Many stories about online sex workers and adult content creators focus on the top personalities who have built large numbers of paying subscribers.
Perth-based influencer Jem Wolfie told BuzzFeed News in March that her OnlyFans subscriber count had grown by 25% to more than 25,000 in a short amount of time, with each paying a base amount of US$9.99 a month for access.
But, Love said, these stories are the exception and not standard. She said prior to the pandemic in-person work made up more than 80% of her income (which she described as “normally above average”).
When coronavirus restrictions were put in place, this income evaporated. Since she devoted herself to it fully, she’s been able to bring her online sex work income to half of her pre-pandemic income — but she said it required a lot of work, and her established online presence meant she had a head start.
The ability to earn from audiences around the world, she said, comes with global competition.
“There’s potential for decent money out here. I’m sure there are people who are making a decent, full-time income from online sex work,” she said.
Vanting said she’s heard workers are spending 10-12 hours a day doing online sex work to earn the same amount they would have earned in a brothel shift.
“[Online sex platforms] can democratise the space a bit, but it’s also true that your ability to earn is proportionate to the ways you fit into the standard categories of desirable. Classism, racism, transphobia all play a role,” Vanting said.
When restrictions are lifted, Love intends to go back to in-person sex work while doing some online sex work on the side “as a risk mitigation strategy”.
“Let’s just say I haven’t said, ‘Sweet, online’s the way to go now, I’ll just sit at my computer all day.’ The work’s not as lucrative and it’s a killer on the eyes,” she said.
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