Highly educated, middle-class women have been turning online to social media to earn money in exchange for explicit photos and videos of themselves. Oftentimes, they cite being saddled with enormous debts from student loans and not enough income from “normal jobs” as the impetus behind jumping on a quick way to get out from under the mountain of debt. There is an element of glamorizing it too, with lures of being able to afford luxury goods. But this also ignores a long line of risks—from threats to personal safety, to the need to buy those luxury goods to maintain a facade that ultimately keeps them in debt. Even more troubling, their participation in the systems that push them into accepting this risk exacerbates risk for women who were already marginalized, thus perpetuating the problem.
Let’s delve into more detail.
On College No Longer Functioning as the Guarantee of Financial Stability
It used to be that a college education was the pathway to stability: a secure job, health insurance, sturdy pensions, and an affordable home. It just isn’t the case anymore and hasn’t been for a long while. College graduates are saddled with incredible debts that rival the cost of an actual home, while housing prices skyrocket, insurance and pensions become less reliable, and incomes no longer match living costs. Middle-class sex workers cited these reasons for turning to sex work even before moving online; social media’s ease and ubiquity has made it only more accessible. It also made having and maintaining a web presence critical.
(The move online has also been super-charged by the pandemic, when so many lost their jobs or couldn’t risk working in person due to their or family members’ health vulnerabilities.)
Educated women can leverage their skills from backgrounds in business, marketing, communication, therapy and more to cultivate an online following and earn money on the side, with the income ranging from a little extra pocket money to serious monthly earnings. Some women argue that this is a viable opportunity to help themselves pay off debt, afford rent, and become more financially stable, and for some it even earns them stunning amounts of money–though median earnings suggest this is only true for the top 1% of earners. Most content creators earn less than $145/month.
Meanwhile, There are Risks
Many content creators argue that this is safer than in-person sex work, and that they feel empowered, setting their own hours, and not being subject to anyone else as manager. However, that ignores a lot of risks involved. Namely, they are subject to the whims of the tech industry’s decisions on what kind of content to promote, and it can require a stunning amount of work to keep generating the amount and kind of content that will keep them most visible. They are subject to the demands of their audience for more and cheaper content, and pressured into fulfilling odd requests. They also run the risk of getting outed in a way that costs access to corporate jobs, having their content leaked on porn sites, as well as harassment, stalking, revenge porn and a myriad of other ways women online, especially sex workers, might be targeted.
It Gets Even More Problematic
The social media influencers who are able to attract the largest following tend to match cultural biases for white, conventionally pretty, wealthy women. This makes it even harder for women who don’t fit that mold, including marginalized populations who were already in this space before it got gentrified. Also it prioritizes the illusion of wealth, and if any cracks in that facade appear, it can leave women more prone to abuse. Celebrities like Bella Thorne hopping on the bandwagon already have massive followings, and this earns them even more, while making it harder for others to maintain, thereby harming women who were already on it trying to carve out a way to survive.
Meanwhile, women who are “top influencers” on social media and aren’t sex workers are also getting propositioned with stunning amounts of money pressuring them into sex work. This goes to show the voracious appetite that can’t even be appeased by what is already available.
This is Relevant to the Fight Against Sex Trafficking and Online Child Exploitation Too
Besides the obvious part where even minors and teen girls who are influencers on social media are getting propositioned, there’s a larger dynamic in play here.
We’re still talking about structures of economic insecurity and instability where even middle-class women feel pushed into avenues they wouldn’t normally otherwise choose. Economic insecurity is expanding rather than getting better. They’re taking on their own risks in doing this, and yet costs also continue to fall disproportionately on more marginalized people who were already vulnerable. The extreme inequality in the online space threatens their livelihood even more, and it was already at risk.
Some try to argue that the gentrification of this space makes it more legitimate for sex workers who’ve long been stigmatized. This claim is dubious. It appears rather to create a double standard where people, like celebrities, who are doing it at their leisure can get away with it, but those who are doing it for survival cannot. And the gap between them widens.
Concern about women getting propositioned online or feeling pressured to sell themselves online is way too far downstream of the source of the problem.
As one Vox article puts it,
“It’s no wonder that TikTok stars and other influencers have had to hunt out new ways to monetize their followings: They’re not built for existing industries, and so they’re embracing apps that let fans “control their every move” or selling their content as NFTs.…This, of course, is a failure of institutions rather than individuals: A country where people must cobble together multiple hustles in order to live a comfortable life is not one that properly cares for its citizens.”
Rather than being a way out of economic insecurity, it becomes yet another manifestation of a broken system where people are left scrambling for survival.