Sex Workers in the Digital Era

Mar 22nd, 2021

By Caroline Cooney, Program Intern

In December 2020, a New York Times article revealed an alarming finding that Pornhub, the epicenter of online pornography, was hosting and monetizing videos of sexual assault, trafficking victims, and exploited youth (Kristof, 2020). At the time, anyone was allowed to upload personal content to the platform. The site’s faulty and insufficient approval process allowed these videos to be uploaded to the site (Daily Mail, 2021)

In response to these reports, the company deleted almost 9 million videos from their website and restricted unverified users from uploading content (Cole, 2020). However, these videos still exist on the Internet and can be easily reuploaded onto other platforms. For instance, in 2020 Facebook removed 17.8 million posts involving the sexual exploitation of children while Twitter deleted 438,809 accounts distributing similar content (Facebook, 2021; Twitter, 2021). These statistics are extremely concerning and highlight the role the Internet plays in distributing nonconsensual images and videos.

While any form of child sexual abuse and human trafficking is illegal and should be penalized, this raises concerns for those individuals who do consent to online sex work. These individuals have the right to consent and be protected against sexual exploitation. They are exposed to unique forms of abuse including the nonconsensual distribution of their content, doxxing, when personal information is publicly shared without the individual’s consent, and being coerced into performing sexual acts to keep their customers happy.

The digital era has made it extremely easy to distribute content without one’s consent. A production company called GirlsDoPorn was recently sued by 22 women for false advertising and coercing them into sex (Hargrove et al., 2019). This company recruited women fromn Craig’s List for a modeling job; however, once the individuals reached out to the company, they were told the shoot had changed and now involved a 30-minute sex performance on camera. Those women who still agreed to follow through with the shoot were reassured the videos would only be sent to private buyers or sold in independent stores in Australia. Both agreements were not met -- the video shoots lasted for hours and the videos were uploaded to the GirlsDoPorn website and Pornhub (Hargrove et al., 2019). Although this work involved an in-person component that isn’t usually associated with online sex work, it highlights a risk these individuals are faced with in the modern era.

Platforms dedicated specifically to online sex work, such as OnlyFans, have also struggled with protecting the privacy of their workers. Last year, reports surfaced claiming that an estimated 1.4 to 4 terabytes of data was stolen from the subscription based adult platform (Harris, 2020). Videos and photos that were only available to those who paid the creator’s subscription fee were uploaded to the Internet as well as their names. This is a severe violation of privacy and undermines the work put into creating the content. OnlyFans claims on its Help Page they will help its creators remove any stolen content that is published on third party websites (e.g., PornHub); however, it cannot fully control what happens to this electronic content, and these other sources can profit off the stolen content instead of the creator.  

Poor security can also increase the risk of doxxing, which is when someone reveals personal information about someone else in a malicious way. When doxxed, sex workers are often shamed and made to feel guilty about the work they are doing. Unfortunately, there have been several stories throughout the past year about sex workers experiencing doxxing. The most notorious example of this is from the New York Post who publicly shamed a paramedic in New York for joining OnlyFans to make ends meet (Balsamini & Edelman, 2020). After the article was published, the woman released a statement on Facebook saying she did not want the story or her name to be published, yet the news outlet planned on running it with or without her consent.

While the platform does make it difficult to directly search for creators’ names and allows creators to restrict people in their area from accessing their content, it does not prevent people from screenshotting or screen recording the content only accessible with the subscription. By failing to protect against this form of content sharing, this makes it extremely easy to out these individuals and share content without their consent. This can be detrimental to their life outside of their work as people in their personal lives discover this private information. Some creators on OnlyFans have been fired from their jobs, had their children kicked out of private schools, or judged by their family and friends (Zitser, 2020; Khalil, 2021).

Lastly, online sex workers can also be coerced into performing sexual acts they are not comfortable with. Since both OnlyFans and webcamming services allow you to purchase personalized content and tip the creators, it is not uncommon for the viewers to feel like the creator owes them. While Onlyfans is pre-recorded content, webcamming services are almost always live and focused on developing a relationship with the viewers to increase your tips. This can put the performer in an uncomfortable position as they may be requested to do certain things on camera to satisfy their fans. They may also fear that if they do not meet the fans’ needs, then they will not earn enough income.

Despite the stigma associated with sex work we have seen a tremendous increase in online sex work during the pandemic. People have been searching for alternative ways to safely make money during an economically challenging time and are attracted to the control they have over their work. In fact, OnlyFans reported that the number of creators on the platform jumped from 60,000 in 2019 to over 1 million in December 2020 (Influencer Marketing Hub, 2021). Although these individuals should feel empowered to exert their autonomy and enter this business if they desire, it is imperative that we acknowledge the potential risks and benefits associated with it so they can make informed and educated decisions. More importantly, we must ensure that these individuals are not taken advantage of and understand that they have the power to consent to the content they create.

Works Cited

Balsamini, D., & Edelman, S. (2020, December 12). NYC medic helped 'make ends meet' with racy OnlyFans side gig. New York Post.

Cole, S. (2020, December 14). Pornhub just purged all unverified content from the platform. VICE.

Facebook (2021, February) Community Standards Enforcement Report.

DailyMail Reporter. (2021, January 15). Ex-PornHub moderators reveal life inside explicit video site being sued for $80m. Daily Mail Online.

Hargrove, D., Payton , M., & Jones, T. (2019, February 8). Uncovering a San Diego porn scheme: Deception, humiliation follow online ads. NBC 7 San Diego.

Harris, M. (2020, March 2). Terabytes of stolen porn from 'OnlyFans' were leaked online, and creators say it represents a larger problem that could put them in danger. Insider.

Influencer Marketing Hub (2021, January 29). OnlyFans statistics – users, revenue and usage stats.

Khalil, S. (2021, February 22). Mum shamed for selling raunchy images online.

Kristof, N. (2020, December 4). The children of Pornhub.

Twitter (2021, January 11) Rules Enforcement.

Zitser, J. (2020, December 24). What it's like to risk everything just for posting on OnlyFans. Indy100.

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