Today, young women with big followings online are earning big money. If they happen to be visible enough on social media, someone somewhere is willing to pay them cash money, lots of it. These so-called ‘influencers’ make in a day what an average, hard-working, nine to five-person makes in a month.
But that comes at a price…
In return, they have to perform certain sexual acts online. This is becoming increasingly known as virtual sex work — an industry that is on the rise, especially among those who have the right looks and the willingness to act obscene on camera.
In some cases, it’s not all about sex. Some men just like to be noticed by pretty young women. So, they send them small $50 payments over CashApp to contribute to their online careers, as artists, writers, or singers, on online platforms like GoFundMe, Patreon, and Substack.
But most of the time, it is all about sex.
I’ve been told by many young women with large followings online, whom I interviewed via direct messaging, that they often get direct online requests from men asking to show them their breasts and even their feet. One influencer on Twitter, who just turned 18, told me that a man had repeatedly sent her messages to send him photos of her feet in return for cash.
For some young- and good-looking female influencers, such requests have resulted in meaningful streams of monthly revenues that could add up to thousands of dollars. As a result, many of them have turned to online sex as a side hustle.
“Why the hell not?” a young influencer told my channel in a direct message response. “As long as there are lonely men out there willing to pay for online intimacy, I’m willing to sell them anything they want,” she added.
But what those young influencers offering online sex don’t realize is that the concept of an e-girlfriend, who’s willing to offer online sex to many of her followers, is a sign of a forthcoming ecosystem where sex work online will have fewer negative connotations. It will be a consensual exchange of digital sexual services where no one knows where the line begins and where it ends. It’s an online sex service system that is creating an ever-widening gap between young influencers making a lucrative living online offering sexual favors to faceless technocrats, and those barely making anything at all.
By doing a simple search online, I came across an online account of a young influencer offering photos of her butt for a monthly subscription fee of $19.99. When I messaged her, posing as a potential customer, she told me that she sometimes makes as much as a thousand dollars a day. She called this her “online dream” as compared to the “American dream”.
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The rise of the digital ‘sexfluencer’
In the old days, cam sites like Babes4u offered the opportunity to view women stripping for $5.99 per session and a monthly income of about $60,000. Nowadays, an influencer with large numbers of followers can make that same amount of money in a month showing less nudity and spending no more than a couple of hours a day online.
And with evolving technology and the phenomenal growth of social media, the 1990s concept of a porn star has now been replaced by the perception of the digital sexfluencer. According to research, the emergence of the sexfluencer industry forced websites like Pornhub, Brazzers, RedTube, and YouPorn, all of which are owned by Canadian company MindGeek, to cut costs drastically. As a result, the wages of porn stars have fallen to around $40,000 a year from about $100,000.
From what it seems, social media has finally succeeded in teaching young female influencers how to offer themselves up for digital consumption. And the trend is not going to end anytime soon. As long as social media is bridging the gap between fantasy and reality, the porn industry is slowly dying and is gradually being replaced by the online digital sex industry.
A recent survey has shown that the word “amateur” topped Pornhub’s list of most-searched terms. Explicit content is slowly but gradually being replaced by influencer bikini pictures who make money just being themselves. For them, emailing a few pictures to a follower who’s willing to send them back cash in return doesn’t count as sex work. Yet, knowingly or unknowingly, they have contributed to the rise of the digital world of sexfluencers, a world that anyone can follow through a link to their Instagram or YouTube profiles.
It may be a rewarding and occasionally safe world as long as it remains confined to Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and Telegram. But now that it is being increasingly controlled and manipulated by online sites like UK-based OnlyFans, it has definitely become a dark and frightening world, a world where no teenage girl should be letting her nude photos float around within its cyberspace.
The New World of Digital Intimacy
No wonder the new digital sexfluencers industry is thriving.
According to research, the rise of social media has amplified the crisis of loneliness. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 22 percent of US adults said they often or always felt lonely or socially isolated. The average household size in the US has also declined, leading to a 10 percent increase in people living alone, eating alone, and spending all day hunched over a desk, especially since most of them are still working from home right now.
As a result, more people are looking for connections online. The conventional forms of romance and intimacy are now on the decline, and they are increasingly being replaced by digital or networked intimacy.
Unlike the used-to-be glamorous world of porn stars with expensive movie sets, lavish costumes and sexy underwear, the digital world of sexfluencers is quite simple — all it requires is a smartphone, a small tripod, and a sexy outfit from an inexpensive online fashion brand like Shein, Zaful, boohoo, Ally Fashion or Glassons.
It’s super casual, it’s not polished, and it’s the fantasy of a girl who just took this picture for a customer online and quickly sent it to him to satisfy his sick imagination and dark illusion.
How did the “sexfluencer” industry all start?
This digital online sex industry didn’t originate out of thin air.
At the start of the pandemic, a record 22 million Americans were laid off, mostly women. And by April 2020 unemployment peaked at around 15 percent. In March 2020, 52 percent of gig workers worldwide had lost their jobs, while another 26 percent had their hours decreased. A Pew Research Center study conducted in January 2021 found that two-thirds of unemployed adults had “seriously considered” changing their careers to something potentially better-paying or more stable.
This is when the so-called creator economy, which is made up of a growing number of people monetizing their own digital content, emerged with the promise of a male audience eagerly and impatiently waiting to watch them be themselves by themselves, and more importantly, pay them lots of money for it.
This is when new stars were instantly born.
They became known as “influencers” and later as “sexfluencers”. The online industry landed them a cult following, dropping them regular direct messages, buying them virtual drinks, and for a few dollars catering to their tastes — fantasies being extra.
All of a sudden, thousands of people subscribed to their channels and followed their social media accounts. They became overnight superstars in an insane world that looked fake at the beginning before it became clearer to them how to beat the algorithms and be rewarded by them while exploiting their users’ biases.
They instantly created their own personal brands across many online platforms, building their reputation on the attractiveness of their bodies and the sexiness of their looks. Their followers loved their intuitiveness and cared for their plainness and ordinariness more than they would have ever enjoyed any woman in a porn video thumbnail.
To ordinary men, this was something totally newborn out of nothingness to deal with their loneliness and to fill the void created around them by the isolation of the long and boring pandemic days, and most nights.
A star is born
Just like the 2018 movie “A Star is Born”, in which seasoned musician Jackson Maine discovers, and falls in love with-struggling artist Ally. She has just about given up on her dream to make it big as a singer until Jackson coaxes her into the spotlight. But even as Ally’s career takes off, the personal side of their relationship is breaking down, as Jackson fights an ongoing battle with his own internal demons.
Like Ally in the movie, those struggling online newbies had to start somewhere. To them, Instagram and Twitter were the perfect venues to jumpstart their online careers, before they learned how to use commonly searched-for terms to boost their personal profiles on Google. This is when they started converting their male followers and die-hard fans into paying subscribers.
As the creator economy skyrocketed, those newbies discovered the secrets of how to make algorithms that exploit existing biases toward white, thin, and young women work to their advantage. They knew that if they fit the criteria set by those algorithms, they would stand to profit from their bodies.
Those who began by earning around a couple of hundred dollars a month started netting anywhere between $5,000 and $9,000 per month, not including tips and one-off payments for extra photos. As one of them revealed to me, a single photo of her feet earned her anywhere between $5 and $100 a pop.
The pay gap between white and Black sexfluencers also existed online, just like in the real world. Young black females are discriminated against by social media algorithms that often reward white and light-skinned young women.
“IT’S WAY HARDER TO SELL PICTURES OF YOUR BOOBS WHEN PEOPLE CAN GOOGLE ‘BOOBS.’ YOU HAVE TO FIGURE OUT WHAT MAKES YOUR BOOBS SPECIAL.” — Sex worker
But for everyone to succeed, regardless of their skin color or ethnicity, they had to be really, really sexy. In the beginning, they started marketing themselves the way they’d seen other women do it, with lingerie and an aura of seriousness. But as every influencer story goes, they only hit the jackpot when they learned to lean into what made them different. This is when they started posting goofy TikTok-style videos on Twitter, centering their content around walking around the house naked, selling their titties for a week, and their bottoms for another. They realized that it’s way harder to sell pictures of their boobs when people can Google ‘boobs.’ So, they had to figure out what made their boobs special.
This is when the hard reality hit them.
With revenge porn, leaked nudes, blackmail, harassment, and stalking posing a real threat for people with an extreme online presence, especially young women, and specifically sexfluencers, they knew there were risks they had to face. Many of them lost their day jobs, while others were shamed by their friends and family, who no longer wanted to be associated with them.
Now more than ever, they realized that as they made it big on social media, they could be at risk of being booted from it. This is when they started worrying all the time about their accounts getting closed down, their Instagram deleted and their persona becoming more stigmatized.
In the beginning, they started as online “influencers” only to become labeled, a short while later, as “whores” who make more than $10,000 a month.
“ONCE YOUR NAKED PHOTOS ARE ON SOCIAL MEDIA YOU ARE IMMEDIATELY FOR SALE.” — Sex worker
With the stubborn taboo idea that intimacy and capital can be combined, the online sexfluencer industry continued to grow. Just like Twitter made everyone an opinion columnist, Instagram continued to make every beautiful young woman a sex star.
If the American dream is getting paid for doing what you love, and what you love is to present an idealized version of yourself on the internet and amassing an audience of people who love looking at you in return, the difference between “influencing” and “sexfluencing” becomes a matter of spectrum.
And if your livelihood depended on pleasing your audience, then that audience wants to see you naked — and it’s up to you whether to give them that or not. Either way, once your naked photos are already on social media, you are immediately for sale. Your face, your body, your text messages are already out there, and the internet companies with all their privacy policies won’t protect you or them.
Once you’ve been transferred money to pose nude online, you’ve already been bought and sold. And the transaction takes place down an endless, invisible assembly line, repackaging human bodies just like any other commodity. This is when the business of being an “influencer” or “sexfluencer” stops being pretty or glamorous, and rather becomes a matter of pure survival.
“NO ONE REALLY WINS IN THIS GAME. JUST LIKE LIFE ITSELF, IF YOU’VE GOT A LOT OF SENSE OF HUMOR AND GREAT BOOBS, IT’S A HELL OF A LOT EASIER.”
The Silhouette Challenge
Every time I see those young girls posing nude on Instagram, a question comes to mind:
What makes them sexualize themselves?
Social media provides an illusion of autonomy. Once a choice has been made it exists online permanently. Autonomy is then stolen, as the pictures no longer belong to the poster, they belong to the internet.
Not so long ago, female influencers dominated trends such as “The Silhouette Challenge” on TikTok. Posters would get naked or in underwear and pose in a dimly lit room so that you could only see their silhouettes.
The challenge proved to be especially dangerous because viewers could remove the filter, revealing nude images of the original creators. Tutorials on how to remove the red filter from The Silhouette Challenge became almost as popular as the original content.
So, why aren’t young females aware of this? And why would they choose to portray themselves in a way that will never entirely disappear or die out completely no matter what? This is where the BBC’s recent investigation comes in.
BBC’s alarming investigation
When the BBC conducted its own investigation in May 2021, it found that underage users are selling and appearing in explicit videos. It revealed that under-18s are using fake identification to set up accounts and that a 14-year-old used her grandmother’s passport.
Children are being “exploited” too, and this is where the dangers lie, warned the BBC.
Although some sexfluencers made millions selling their nude photos online, others have used their online social accounts as a lifeline or to earn a second income during the pandemic. But when under-18s start selling explicit videos on the internet, this becomes totally dangerous. It changes the rules of the game.
As part of the BBC investigation, it found that one 17-year-old from a suburb in the south-east of England had sold videos of herself masturbating and playing with sex toys, while an under-18 participated in graphic videos hosted on an adult site in Nevada, US.
The BBC was able to set up an account for an underage creator on an online British site called OnlyFans by using a 26-year-old’s identification, showing how the site’s age-verification process could be cheated.
The BBC said a girl had accessed the site when she was just 13. Another 16-year-old boasted about the amount of money she made on the site and showed off her “exuberant” spending on Instagram. She said she originally intended to only post pictures of her feet after making money selling them on Snapchat. But this soon escalated to explicit videos of her masturbating and playing with sex toys. She used most of the money to buy presents for her boyfriend, including more than £1,000 on designer clothes. They have since broken up.
In a statement, OnlyFans labeled her access to their site an “oversight”. Although she stopped posting on OnlyFans, her account remained active on the site four months later, with more than 50 archived pictures and videos.
The BBC also heard of other cases of underage children gaining access to OnlyFans. Hertfordshire Police told them that a 14-year-old girl had managed to use her grandmother’s passport and bank details to sell explicit images. They say she then redirected money from that account to her own.
The site requires applicants to pose next to an ID card and then submit a photograph holding it up to their face. But the age verification system failed to distinguish between them at any stage of the process, despite the age gap. After setting up an account, creators must provide bank details to receive payment through OnlyFans. However, this does not prevent them from posting images and videos.
The BBC also found that creators can share content and then arrange payments through alternative providers. One of the most popular is Cash App, which allows users to transfer money by mobile phone. They found scores of accounts advertising this.
The BBC then discovered that under-18s are also appearing in explicit videos on accounts run by adults. One of them was 17 when he started making videos on the site with his girlfriend in Nevada. He “got sucked into” appearing in explicit videos posted by his girlfriend, who was a year older than him. He soon started bragging about the amount of money he was making. The content included sex filmed in one of their bedrooms. They shared $5,000 between them from a single video. He is now 18 and has broken up with his girlfriend. He plans to begin his own OnlyFans account.
A girl, who started posting on the site when she was 13, told the BBC that “some of the girls have thousands of followers on Instagram and they must be raking it in.”
“I wanna be just like them,” she said.
No one knows why OnlyFans is still up despite all the controversy around it. This remains a mystery to this very day. OnlyFans faced issues regarding censorship in August this year when it placed a ban on “sexually explicit content” — a decision that was met with so much backlash that it was reversed just days after it was announced.
Not only that, but CNN reported on October 17, 2021, that Vienna museums have launched an OnlyFans account to display ‘explicit’ artworks. The city of Vienna said it is taking an offbeat approach to the censorship of art and has turned to use the adults-only online platform OnlyFans to put its most “explicit” artworks on full display.
The tourism board for the Austrian capital is now presenting art from four of Vienna’s most revered museums on the adults-only platform in response to the blocking of some artistic content containing nudity on social media. Any subscribers to the account will receive either a free Vienna city card or a free ticket to any of the featured museums where the city’s tourism board has said: “uncensored works of art in question can be seen in the flesh.”
Despite its toxic content, stories about OnlyFans have become a fixture in the press. Tabloids are fascinated by the fortunes made on the site, and the intrigue of nurses and teachers signing up. Elsewhere, broadsheets have marveled at the platform’s business model and impact on the digital landscape.
The Financial Times called it “the hottest social media platform in the world”. The newspaper reported that OnlyFans’ revenue grew by 553% in the year to November 2020, and users spent £1.7bn on the site. Men’s lifestyle magazine GQ said, “innovations like OnlyFans have undoubtedly changed Internet culture and, by extension, social behavior forever”.
The pandemic may have transformed many people’s online lives in ways they might never have imagined. But what I don’t understand is why kids can’t be left alone. Undoubtedly, the consequences of children sharing explicit images will haunt them for a long time to come.
“HOW DIFFERENT WOULD OUR SOCIETY BE IF WE JUST HAD TEXT AND VIDEO CHAT, WHERE WE WERE THE CUSTOMER AND NOT THE PRODUCT?”
It’s not surprising that online communities can be bad.
When you put a bunch of strangers in the same place, the most extreme voices will be the loudest, floating to the top of the conversation. The companies that own these online social media platforms should undoubtedly be the ones to fix the problems — but doesn’t seem like they’re even trying.
Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, resembled social media to cars — some people will get hurt and that’s just the name of the game. That’s the stupidest argument I’ve ever heard. True, cars can kill people, but cars don’t get them depressed, anxious, and even suicidal.
Everything we do online can be toxic if we let it. And the problem is that no one, not even governments, is doing anything about it.
Today, with the rise of social media, young people are not only facing bullying on playgrounds, but they are also facing it on their cell phones too. What’s worse, everyone’s like sheep on social media. When one person starts making noise, everyone’s like, ‘Hey, yeah!’ and the reason why the future is in photos for social media is that more and more people have stopped reading, and that’s why almost everyone attaches a photo to their Tweets.
For some young people, social media is awesome because they can somewhat paint themselves the way they want people to see them. They desperately want to be a celebrity, which is why they don’t want to be private; instead, they want to be seen. And I don’t blame them for that. Social media is a platform for advertising the idea of themselves they want to portray to others: the image of themselves they want to project — a self-glorification kind of thing.
No wonder social media is linked to depression and loneliness. We live in a time when many people spend countless hours a day online strolling through the timeline of others with envy, regret, and little appreciation for their own life. And in the process, they become unhappy and sad because they believe their life is much worse off than somebody else’s projected image on social media.
But what they seem to forget is that the majority of those people who pretend they’re happy on social media are unhappy in real life.