As the coronavirus pandemic began to affect the economy in so-called Australia, sex workers were hit hard. With brothels, parlours and strip clubs forced to close, once in-person and full-service workers shifted their hustle to focus on online service delivery. They offered non-contact products and ‘virtual girlfriend’ experiences, competing with the existing community of online sex workers – as well bored civilians and celebrities who flocked to join sites like OnlyFans.
As someone with a part-time brothel-based hustle alongside a ‘civilian’ job, my monthly income dropped by thousands, and I used the subscription-based site OnlyFans to begin my online journey. But while physical contact reduced, becoming more reliant on technology brought new risks and hardships: difficulty earning income in an over-saturated market, poor access to financial support, the threat of being outed, stolen content, oppressive censorship, clients pushing boundaries, and cyber bullying.
Before I continue, I want to get something straight: I don’t need you to feel sorry for me, for my sex work persona Kiah*, or for us. Sex workers are not an ‘at risk’ group in our own right. We are not vulnerable by just existing.
Misogyny is violent. Racism is violent. Transphobia is violent. Whorephobia is violent. Not being able to just do our work: that’s what makes us ‘vulnerable’.
Lack of government support
Most sex workers, even those who could move their work online, have lost income due to the pandemic. Some have had to continue in-person services. It’s hard to locate official statistics online but a worker whose primary income is based in the sex industry could have lost up to thousands of dollars of weekly income.
I was lucky to receive government support through my civilian job, but many sex workers cannot access Jobseeker or Jobkeeper because they’re not ‘out’ or registered. Stigma and criminalisation – embedded in whorephobia – means that many are reluctant to out themselves to the government in order to get financial aid.
Instead, sex workers organised as a community, just as we have in response to anti-sex work legislation in the past. Sex worker association Scarlet Alliance has raised over $28,000 through its COVID-19 relief fundraiser – but that’s a small amount compared to the income that workers have lost since March. And while other businesses such as restaurants, gyms and retailers have been supported as they move their businesses online, sex workers doing the same are overly policed.
The global impact of FOSTA-SESTA
The passing of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act in the US in April 2018 resulted in changes to web infrastructure that were felt by sex workers worldwide.
Known as FOSTA-SESTA, this package of bills conflated sex work with trafficking without differentiating between consensual and non-consensual work. The sweeping language meant that third-party websites like Backpage and Craigslist – which sex workers used to advertise their services – could be held liable for ‘prostitution’.
The sudden disappearance of these US-based sites disrupted the businesses of sex workers around the world as we lost centralised places to advertise and to vet clients. Screening procedures that had been developed over years dissipated, resulting in an increase in acts of violence towards sex workers.
Violence online and offline
Violence against sex workers remains largely hidden and overlooked in agendas to prevent violence. And while we can imagine the rates of physical violence may have gone down during the pandemic, sex worker safety is still at risk.
Sure, with brothels closed, there’s no need for the receptionist to be on standby while we’re in the room with a client. There’s less need for your standby friend who has your location drop-pin and an agreed code word while you’re at a private booking. Instead, it’s turning off your phone’s location services, using a VPN, and making sure your business and personal accounts are detached. For many sex workers, there’s a greater risk of being ‘outed’ because our faces are online when maybe they weren’t before.
There’s also the issue of increased competition and risk of theft. In online peer-support groups, I have heard several accounts of sex workers having close to 100 gigabytes of their content stolen from their subscription-based sites. So, you take precautions by watermarking your content to prevent greedy opportunists profiting from your videos and images. For a monthly fee, sex workers can subscribe for a piracy and brand protection host.
The effects of censorship due to FOSTA-SESTA can be felt more. With no centralised platform to advertise, sex workers must use whorephobic platforms like Instagram where our accounts – integral to our businesses – are under constant threat of deletion. We have to censor our posts, sometimes still to no avail, to meet ‘Community Guidelines’. Many of us have backup accounts and backups of backup accounts because our profiles are targeted: a photo of your chest in a bikini with a bit of under-tit is flagged and your account monitored, while images of thin, white, oiled-up influencers in thongs, staring at the camera in the prohibited ‘sexually provocative’ manner, are allowed to stay.
Online work can often include navigating unwanted attention and unpaid time through DM conversations: cyberflashing, men bartering down prices, being pressed to film content that we’re not comfortable with. Sex workers are subject to cyberbullying and discriminatory and whorephobic rants when asserting boundaries.
In UK-based research, 80 percent of workers from different online working backgrounds (camming, escort, subscription-based sites, for example) had experienced violence. In this group, internet-facilitated crime included harassment or people using sex workers’ information without their consent. The report found that two-thirds of those asked had been a victim of harassment in the past five years, while nearly half said they feared having their privacy breached and being ‘outed’ to their family and friends.
We are working so hard that we are constantly attached to our phones and laptops while our friends with ‘normal’ jobs receive $1500 fortnightly in deserved COVID-19 relief. Where prior to the pandemic we often had more agency, now we face the truths about hustling in a pandemic with minimal support, sometimes compromising our health and safety by continuing ‘illegal’ face-to-face work.
And while many sex workers have limited options, people who’ve never worked in the sex industry before glamorise it and are opportunistically starting, saturating the market.
Camming and subscription-based sites have reported a spike in revenue this year, coinciding with pandemic lockdowns around the world. An OnlyFans spokesperson said the platform saw up to 10,000 creators join every day.
I fumbled my way through setting up a sex work Twitter, Instagram, backup Instagram and OnlyFans account through a business email that I created for Kiah. In a flooded industry, there’s a lot of internet noise about civilians not having anything to do so ‘oh well, I may as well make an OnlyFans.’ In August, misconduct by celebrity content creators on OnlyFans triggered the platform changing its tip maximum and payout structures. Jaime*, a friend and fellow sex worker, said ‘it minimises the long-term work that sex workers put in to navigate oppressive censoring and policing online.’ Fetishising sex work and OnlyFans trivialises our efforts and delegitimises sex work as real work.
After two months online, I’d already applied four weeks of sale prices to Kiah’s subscription fees. Each time felt more demoralising than the time before.
Navigating online boundaries
I have conflicting urges: to build my business, Kiah needs to be visible, but for my own safety – and to avoid violating Instagram’s whorephobic guidelines – I can’t be too visible.
Kiah has as much online anonymity as I can possibly provide her: a different name, wigs, and no connection between her account and mine. Like other members of the online sex work community, I code my captions and hashtags with numbers and dollar signs to avoid our accounts, our businesses, being restricted and barred: $W, 0nlyFan$, $3x werk.
Despite cautionary measures, people from my personal life find Kiah. I tight-rope between querying how they found me and not letting on that I am hiding anything. This happens frequently enough that I now have a template message to send when a non-sex worker from my personal life finds her Instagram account. I imagine them sitting on the couch during Stage 4 restrictions, passing their phone to their housemate: my face with Kiah’s blonde bob and my censored tits are on their screen. ‘I found their account today, look…,’ they say. Using a sex worker’s information without their consent, including ‘outing’ them, is violent.
Within the first week of Kiah’s Instagram being live, though I had few followers, someone that I know was watching my stories. More recently, I discovered a person with whom I have an uncomfortable relationship had been subscribed to my OnlyFans under a pseudonym and had been heavily interacting with me online for months. If this occurred in a brothel, I’d have the opportunity to vet and screen him, turning down a booking. Online, to advocate for myself I expressed that my boundaries has been crossed and I blocked him. This cost me his subscription fee and left me no certainty about my confidentiality or safety.
Over the ensuing months, I develop a perception for the pesty ones who try to get their way because I am brown, because to them I am a ‘newbie’, because ‘there are others’, because I am a sex worker. I enforce my communication boundaries on Instagram to avoid people wasting my time. I block men who asked for free uncensored content or who incessantly slide into my DMs, ignoring my ‘I don’t DM here’ request. On OnlyFans, I ask them to tip if they want to dirty talk or send me dick pics.
I do what I can to prevent jeopardising the platforms that I use to advertise Kiah’s business and to be paid for my time. But even with heavily censored images and coded captions, my account has been temporarily deleted and several of my posts have been removed with threats of my account being barred. It’s trying to find the balance between ‘I’m trying to build my fan base’ in a saturated market and ‘GTFO of my face; I didn’t ask for this. Pay me.’
Fetishisation has occurred in many shapes and forms in my life. As a ‘woman’, as a brown ‘woman’, as a brown queer ‘woman’. As a brown queer person. As a brown queer non-binary person. As a brown sex-working ‘woman’. The whorephobia and fetishising of sex work online has a slightly different flavour to in-person work; it feels insidious and indirect, but I knew its effects could be permanent and damaging.
Navigating this whorephobic violence has been tiring. Those of us who previously worked face-to-face with clients are eager to return to work. Victorian brothels have lost millions but under the state government’s COVID-19 roadmap announced in August, venues will not open until November 23 at the earliest. Even then, it is likely that venues will be restricted. In June, when other businesses working in close contact with clients were permitted to temporarily reopen – such as beauty salons, tattoo studios and remedial massage – brothels and strip clubs were specifically identified as being excluded. Even sensual massage remained illegal.
If this is not whorephobia and violence against sex workers, then what is it? I stick my middle finger up at my phone screen, at the long list of unapproved and unopened DM requests in Kiah’s Instagram account. My nail is long, tipped and SNS-ed: manicured by the close-contact service providers at my local nail salon that was allowed to reopen, temporarily, in June. This week I will deftly block 20 more people from Kiah’s social media accounts, send several of my templated ‘hey just wanna touch base, I’m only face-out….’ messages and stretch my hands regularly to prevent RSI. And I will not receive a single tip over $101.
*Names changed to protect privacy.