With COVID-19 not going away any time soon, sex workers have had to utilize technology like never before to satisfy a now isolated clientele. Trans members of this industry face unique challenges in adapting, and the general shift to online sex work has harshly contrasted socioeconomic disparity within the community, and sex work industry at large.
The oldest profession in the world is constantly getting repackaged and reformatted to meet societies steady demand for stimulation. However, our current methods of accessing pornography and sex have changed dramatically over the last two decades. Shortly after the advent of the internet (and personal computers), pornography became readily available from the comfort of home. Magazines, DVD’s, and pay-per-view services became niche commodities as streaming took hold in the early 2010’s, with Pornhub boasting 33.5 billion visitors by the end of 2018. The internet has had a similar impact on the provision and purchase of sex, online ads and dating apps replacing brothels and street-walking.
With sex workers and clients able to screen each other (via sites like Rentboy, Backpage, and Craigslist) came safer transactions. Byproducts of this included better opportunities to sell sex, more people selling sex, and higher wages than ever before. Online anonymity benefited LGBT clients and workers alike, by making encounters more discreet and offering broader options than one would find at their local bar or cruising spot. These new sex markets ran smoothly until they didn’t, with arguably the most popular sites being shut down by the federal government before 2019.
The 2015 DHS shutdown of Rentboy.com, a site where people could hire escorts, signaled the end of an era for many gay and trans sex workers/clients. For many, this felt like the antigay raids of the ‘50s and ‘60s, which targeted bath houses and gay bars. It honestly gets worse. Many clients, typically older men, solely used Rentmen to source sex at a rate established by the worker. With the site gone (and servers seized by DHS), many clients didn’t know where to look for sex, and sellers lost the ability to promote to a site that drew in over 500,000 users per day.
Now, forced to advertise on less reputable sites and forego better vetting measures, the users of Rentmen by-and-large decreased their rates to compete at a local level on sites like Craigslist and Backpage. Social media, specifically Tumblr and Twitter, allowed for former Rentboy users to recreate the personality driven profiles they once had, which worked very well on the Backpage platform. Sex workers adapted quickly to new methods of advertisement in the wake of Rentboy’s demise, but soon after Backpage would fall in kind.
When asked about the income of trans escorts at the height of Backpage, Jane Rosengarden, a trans porn Actress based in L.A, said “I knew multiple girls who regularly made 10k a week. SESTA and FOSTA left us barely making 1K.” SESTA and FOSTA, bills that held platforms responsible for the content they moderate, effectively shut down Backpage and Craigslist personals in April of 2018. Again, gay and trans escorts lost a valuable market and the security it offered. To contextualize this setback, It’s important to note that the majority of gay trans sex workers participate in what is categorized as survival sex work. This type of sex work is done to make ends meet and provide basic necessities like food and shelter – often barely. In cities like New York, where 40% of the homeless youth population is LGBT (5), sex work is often the only option available to better one’s situation. Other sites, based in other countries, host escort profiles, but membership is often price restrictive and clients aren’t guaranteed. “It costs $400 to advertise in L.A, not every girl has that”, Jane explained, “Backpage getting shut down really fucked up everyone’s shit”. The “everyone” she’s speaking on includes clients who (after 2 government sweeps) have yet to reappear en-masse on a single site. Fast forward 2 years and Covid-19 has made many patrons of physical sex workers few and far between. However, digital mediums continue to offer safe and profitable options for sex work.
Rosengarden, a 26 year old trans woman, has been a part of the sex industry in L.A for a little over three years. Peachy skinned, with blonde hair and blue eyes, Jane cuts a striking figure on photos posted to her Onlyfans. Making the majority of her income from escorting, COVID-19 presented potential financial ruin. “I was really worried about my health so I decided to take this (Onlyfans) on full time”, she explained. She also began shooting porn for major studios, which have strict Covid-19/STD testing regulations. Jane made it clear that digital sex work is a lot more complicated than one would think, “I probably spend about 60hrs a week on shooting and promoting myself on social media…”, she said, “… When you go to a client and get a bag (of money), that’s where the job ends. With this (Onlyfans) I can’t just upload and be done”. Her hard work is evidenced on social media, where in the past six months she’s grown her audience from a few thousand to almost 40K followers. She’s also boosted her monthly Onlyfans income from $500 to 5-figures. Jane’s success on the platform, while heartening, isn’t scalable to everyone in her community. “A lot of girls still have to work through this (pandemic), they don’t have a choice”, she said, citing lack of technology, social media presence, and discipline. “High quality content means you need a good phone, my iPhone is already running out of storage from all this, imagine an android”, she explained, later going into how much of her success on the platform is a privilege. In 2009 The National Transgender Discrimination Survey reported that 54% of trans sex workers were homeless, a number that has assumedly risen during the pandemic, making access to safer sex work alternatives technologically restrictive.
Advances in technology, specifically in portable electronics and data storage/hosting, have diversified the field tremendously in the past five years. Cam sites began to take over the internet in the early 2010’s, allowing clients and workers to visually interact without physically touching. This business model closely resembles stripping, where many patrons tip small amounts, essentially crowdfunding the performance. By the mid 2010’s, with demand for niche content increasing alongside pornography’s availability, sites such as Manyvids, Onlyfans, and Niteflirt began appearing. They filled holes in the viewer experience (pun intended) that Tube sites overlooked by offering the intimacy of real life encounters. These platforms also made sex work more rewarding, as workers could now maximize their profits from each recorded sexual experience. In fact, 2018 saw amateur videos (made outside of porn studios) become the longest viewed on Pornhub, signaling a power shift to individual sex workers over porn stars (7). Evidenced clearest over the past decade, technology and sex evolve for/with each other. However, without access to the newest tech, sex workers earning potential is limited to what can be generated from seeing clients in real life. This disenfranchises the most vulnerable, survival sex workers (specifically the homeless/trans), leaving them vulnerable to Covid-19 and riskier sex in a buyer’s market. “We all need to help every girl. Don’t keep your success to yourself”, Jane says, a call to action for successful Onlyfans migrants to help the less equipped.
As city reopening’s are marred by a second wave of COVID-19 infections, and death tolls begin to rise, digital sex work continues to grow and grow. There’s no telling how traditional escorting will fare under a possible second isolation, and survival sex work is likely to become bleaker for those without reliable housing and technology. Regardless, online or IRL, sex sales show no signs of wavering. With newer technology on the horizon (virtual reality is a big one) we’re likely to see major advances in sex-tech and sex work well before the pandemic ends. Time will tell how well clients and workers adjust to new mediums, and the impacts they’ll have on sex work in a post COVID-19 world.