This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Freak Jawn, a 27-year-old sex worker, was thrilled when she landed a job at a strip club in Fort Myers, Florida in early March. After months struggling through depression, substance abuse, and homelessness, she was just starting to get back on her feet. Then, Florida cities began issuing shelter-in-place orders to slow the spread of coronavirus. The club closed on March 16, and, after only a week and a half, Freak Jawn was out of a job.
Like many sex workers who made a living from stripping, escorting, or dominatrix work before the pandemic, Freak Jawn launched an OnlyFans page where she sells nude photos and videos to paying subscribers, but the transition hasn’t been easy. She now lives with her family in Minnesota, where it’s been a struggle to create new content for her fans with her mom and teenage brother around. (Though her mom supports her work and doesn’t mind her taking photos and videos around the house, Freak Jawn doesn’t think it’s appropriate for her brother to know about her job.) She shoots her photos and videos on an iPhone 6 and uses her mom’s desktop computer to edit them. “I've been here filming content literally in the bathroom, [or] in my mom's room when she's at work,” said Freak Jawn, who’s using her stage name here for privacy reasons.
Freak Jawn worries that her lack of resources is affecting the quality of her content, but she doesn’t have much money to spend on extras like props, ring lights, or a new phone. Still, she feels pressured to keep up with her paying subscribers’ constant requests for new content. “I've had to get new lingerie. I've had to buy more makeup. I'm going to have to buy a new wig. I had to buy a new toy,” she said. “I'm easily dropping $40 to $70 each time [I buy something].” Last month, she made over $300 in sales on OnlyFans. “At the strip club, I’d make $300 daily.” Unlike relying on the captive audience of the strip club, where Freak Jawn could cycle through her wig wardrobe and lingerie for different customers every night, maintaining an OnlyFans following requires Freak Jawn to make frequent, regular, differentiated updates to keep her followers interested.
Transitioning to an online-only business can require startup capital that many sex workers don’t have, and investing in a laptop or a new phone can be a huge risk for those who’ve recently lost their jobs. Amberly Rothfield is a Pittsburgh-based clip creator and webcam model who offers professional consultations to sex workers hoping to build a career online or increase their earnings. “For those entering the market, it’s absolutely more of a cost sink than many are prepared for,” Rothfield said. “Most have a cheaper camera phone and older computer. They may not know much about lighting, and those Snapchat filters can only really get you so far.”
According to Rothfield, phones and cameras can start at $250 and run up to $1000, ring lights—specialized lights used for beauty shots—can cost between $10 and $250, and backdrop frames generally cost about $100. Memory cards, which Rothfield said are essential for storing pictures and videos, can run between $20 and $50, plus an internet plan (some start at $70) and cloud storage, sometimes totalling over $100 per year, to send, store, and post content. “For toys and lingerie, I would say [online sex workers should] budget about $250 for both categories,” Rothfield said. “You can make what you have work to a certain extent, but OnlyFans requires a lot of updates, which means lots of outfit changes.”
For those who do have the funds, this investment is paying off. “I’ve spent a lot more money on sex toys than I ever had, and also lighting equipment. I also recently spent $300 on a dancer pole to up my game!” said Emberleigh Hart, a Toronto-based sex worker. Hart worked as an escort before the COVID pandemic became widespread. Now, she sells adult content on OnlyFans, and spends almost twice the amount she used to on supplies. “I'd say [I've spent] $500 on all-new stuff for OnlyFans,” Hart said. “It’s very expensive, but worth it for the quality of content you produce.”
Selene Kitt said her transition to online-only sex work has been relatively seamless. When coronavirus shutdowns forced her to postpone her future bookings indefinitely, she already had a backlog of beautifully crafted, high-production photo sets ready, the latest iPhone, an apartment where she stages photoshoots, and a large collection of lingerie. “I had many things that were already in place for me,” she said. “I can easily see myself doubling my income.”
Danielle Blunt, a dominatrix in New York City, said she already managed a portion of her business online before the coronavirus pandemic. “As a chronically ill sex worker, having a portion of my income come from online revenue streams is important to my ability to rest,” she said. “Two years ago, I was bedridden for three months, and unable to do my work as an in-person professional dominatrix. When my flare"—a period of worsening symptoms—"stopped, the first thing I did was invest some time, energy, and money into building out a dominatrix clip store and brainstorm other ways of making a passive income that I could rely on to get by when I was in flare.”
As Blunt pointed out, though, the ability to transition to online sex work is a privilege not everyone can afford. For Blunt, online work is also not as lucrative, or enjoyable, as interacting with clients face-to-face. “The amount of labor that goes into online work has a fraction of the return of in-person work, and that can make you feel like you have to always be on, in a persona, and omni-accessible,” Blunt said. “I have the privilege of a solid fan base, but still, the amount of time I spend at a computer has nearly quadrupled, and my income has not reflected that increase in labor.” Navigating the boundary between time off and time on the job can also be a struggle, especially for those facing financial instability. “If you need money, there is pressure to always be available, always take that call, always answer that text,” Blunt said.
Still, Rothfield believes that any adult content creator is capable of financial success regardless of budget or production value, as long as they focus on what makes them unique—whether it’s their physical attributes, performance style, or personality. But with so many people moving their work online, many of her clients feel pressured to keep up in a growing market. “We are having to do more to stand out,” she said.
According to Ashley Lake, a sex worker peer organizer and administrator of LiarasList.org, a community sourced resource on platform discrimination, much of this pressure comes from fans and viewers. “Clients could learn a little bit about how to ask for things. Like, ‘Hey, you want me to shoot better video? Send me a camera,’” said Lake, who uses they/them pronouns. “[Otherwise,] the [financial] pressure's on us to do what you want.”
Lake offers free consultations with sex workers transitioning to online work and said she’s working on creating a low-cost equipment guide for those who can’t afford to create an in-home content studio. “I’m more concerned with people who don’t already have that access. That’s who we need to proactively look out for the most,” they said. Right now, Lake explained, most sex workers are having to make do with what they already have. “The average sex worker is tightening their belt as much as they possibly can,” said Lake. Basically, if they're already online and already on Twitter, they probably at least have a phone camera, or something that they've already been using.”
Mercy West, a sex worker who’s also transitioning to online-only work and uses they/them pronouns, is getting by with the outfits and equipment they already have on hand. “I’ve been collecting clothing for sex work for years so I definitely have the camgirl wardrobe still, but again it’s like getting back on a horse after I was thrown off. It doesn’t necessarily come natural to me,” said West. “Maybe I can find a better way for me to connect with online sex work this time, and not get burnt out like I have in the past. But I have a feeling it’s going to be hard since it’s the only option I have for work going forward in a post-pandemic world.”
Aesthetics, production value, and technology help, but there’s no guarantee sex workers will bring in more cash online—and cash is what counts. Freak Jawn hasn’t been able to pay her phone bill, she said, because she needs the money to keep her OnlyFans running—and her paying subscribers interested. “We're spending a lot of money to entertain people,” she said. “I came online to make money,” said Freak Jawn, “Not to spend the little money I have left.”
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