The Rise of 'Sexfluencers'
Living in the "influencer" age means people are using social media as a marketing tool and turning themselves into brands. This trend includes a profession as old as time: sex work. Though the internet has been a place for porn-seekers since inception, social media has brought it further into the mainstream while allowing sex workers to take control of their online presence and use it to their advantage.
If you surf the web long enough, you're likely to come across the profiles of public figures with massive social followings who post sexy content far more explicit than your typical thirst trap. These creators have developed a hybrid model that combines the reach of an influencer with the explicit content of a sex worker. In other words: sexfluencers.
Many of these people never actually interact with their clients in real life. Rather, they sell content online to their adoring followers from the safety of their homes, enabling them to choose how and when they want to work.
"Digital social platforms have changed sex work for the better, mostly, in my opinion," said April Showers, a sex worker from New England who uses OnlyFans, Twitter, Reddit, FetLife, Pornhub, Exxxotica and SextPanther. They said working with these platforms—albeit to differing degrees—offers a level of agency absent in sex work involving pornography studios or other types of middlemen. As a disabled person, Showers said working through digital platforms has made it possible for them to have a thriving career in which they get to choose their hours, pay, clients and content—plus, it helped them gain confidence in their body, mind and ability to work despite their disabilities.
Kasey Kei, a transgender sex worker from Los Angeles, also works primarily using social media and digital platforms, some of which include OnlyFans, Pornhub, XVideos and ManyVids, as well as Twitter, Reddit and Instagram for marketing purposes. Kei has about 150,000 followers on Twitter, demonstrating how wide a successful sexfluencer's reach can be.
"In the past, sex workers relied on making money primarily through studios paying a flat fee or having to work through a middleman," Kei said. "In the digital age, sex workers have near autonomy and control over their business. Digital social platforms have allowed me to be my own boss and thrive in the ecosystem that is sex work."
Kei explained that sex workers are making more money than ever by selling content directly to customers, and mainstream studios have improved their treatment of performers as a result of the industry shift.
The impact of censorship
Being a sexfluencer isn't always all that it's cracked up to be, especially when the platforms hosting your success are constantly "shadowbanning" you and deleting your profile. A platform shadowbans an account by hiding or restricting a user's content without their knowledge.
"Some platforms are notoriously anti-sex work," Kei said. "Sites like Instagram and TikTok constantly flag sexually suggestive content and whole profiles are oftentimes taken down. Even working within their guidelines, sex workers report having their pages suspended."
Josy Black, who lives in Switzerland, has been building up her social platforms for roughly a decade, with hundreds of thousands of followers from all over the world tuning in to stream, consume and buy her content on platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Telegram, Twitch, Sex.com, OnlyFans and its German equivalent Favyd, and her own website, josyblack.tv. Though having 108,000 Instagram followers seems impressive, Black said she had to restart from zero at least five times after the platform deleted her profile.
Instagram's community guidelines state it does not allow nudity, which "includes photos, videos, and some digitally created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals and close-ups of fully nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples." Twitter allows what it calls "adult content" to exist on its platform, though it requires accounts that post this kind of content to label themselves as "sensitive."
People impersonating sex workers by creating fake accounts and stealing their content is another serious obstacle sex workers face online, according to Black. She said rather than shadowbanning and deleting the profiles of sex workers who are trying to make a living, platforms should focus on identifying stolen content and taking down the inauthentic profiles.
Sex work is real work
Mainstream social media platforms may not always be sex-worker-friendly, but Kei, Showers and Black all said the benefits outweigh the downsides.
The business is so lucrative, in fact, that many influencers who already have large online followings are crossing over into the sex work industry to capitalize on the demand from their followers. Writer Rebecca Jennings wrote about this very phenomenon in a Vox piece about how platforms such as OnlyFans are blurring the lines between influencers and sex workers, and she concluded that while this may create more competition for full-time sex workers, it might also serve to destigmatize and legitimize a form of work that has long been considered taboo despite the fact that it is, objectively, just as legitimate as any other kind of labor.
"Perhaps this is the beginning of a mutually beneficial ecosystem, one where concepts such as sex work have more fluid meanings and fewer taboo connotations," Jennings wrote.
Ultimately, Kei, Showers and Black said the rise of sexfluencers contributes to the normalization of sex work and the understanding that safe, ethical and consensual porn isn't inherently bad, especially when the performers have agency and control over what they're doing and how they're being portrayed.
"Sex work is no longer the taboo secret that you kept from everybody," Kei said. "I feel like these days almost everyone knows somebody who does some form of sex work. With the popularity of sex work, we can shake the stigma of 'selling our bodies' and change the perception to the fact that sex work is just simply work."