The platformisation of sex work: affordances, challenges, precarities

Laurel Rogers

February 14th 2024


Mainstreaming the Sex Industry


At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, adult camming and digital patronage platforms reported record highs in the rate of new model sign-ups, largely spurred by the crisis of mass (formal) unemployment. CamSoda reported a 37% increase in new model sign-ups; ManyVids reported a 69% increase; Patreons reported 50,000 new creators; and OnlyFans reported a 75% increase in early April 2020. In particular, the sudden growth in the popularity of OnlyFans generated a great deal of media attention and cultural intrigue as stories circulated online about creators making thousands of dollars in their first week. During the initial months of the lockdown, OnlyFans was variously referred to as ushering in “the future of porn”, as a tool of economic empowerment, and as a significant step toward destigmatising sex work.

The recent wave of discourse related to the ascendancy of OnlyFans—enthusiasm and pearl clutching alike—is a continuation of a process of the sex industry’s “mainstreaming” that has been underway since at least the 1970s and the “golden age of porn”. Following the advent of the internet, a great deal of ink was spilled on the topic of how pornography has grown increasingly visible and influential in mainstream and popular culture, with polarised views regarding the socio-cultural impacts of these developments.

In their influential study, Barbara Brents and Teela Sanders defined the sex industry’s mainstreaming in terms of an expansion in the size of the industry across the globe, its spread into businesses that do not directly supply sex, as well as an increase in its role in fuelling internet commerce in general. In the decade since Brents and Sanders’s study, the mainstreaming process has only intensified as the “platformisation” of sex work and the proliferation of “netporn” has transformed traditional forms of commercial sex and pornography in terms of both work organisation and the conditions in which workers perform their affective and relational labour.

Platformisation


Sex work’s platformisation describes the economic and cultural ascendancy of digital platforms within the sex industry. While there are many different types of digital platforms that now dominate the industry—including subscription content or digital patronage platforms (e.g., OnlyFans, FanCentro, ManyVids), “tube sites” or video aggregator platforms (e.g., PornHub, xHamster, XVideos), adult camming platforms (e.g., Chaturbate, CamSoda), and adult service websites (e.g., AdultWork)—they all share certain characteristics that define digital platforms more broadly.

Thomas Poell et al. define platforms as “(re-)programmable digital infrastructures that facilitate and shape personalised interactions among end-users and complementors, organised through the systematic collection, algorithmic processing, monetisation, and circulation of data.” At the same time that platformisation is a technological, economic and political process which affects “the production, distribution, and circulation” of data and content, it is also a socio-cultural process, whereby culture is shaped by platforms and vice versa.

Although the economic dominance of digital platforms has impacted disparate forms of work in all sectors, it has been most acutely felt in the media and cultural industries, of which commercial sex is increasingly a part. Platforms such as OnlyFans have made especially visible the ways in which online sex work has become part of the broader influencer and content creation industry. Sex work’s platformisation thus entails the emergence of an entire ecosystem of platforms that work in tandem with mainstream social media. For instance, in the last 20 years the porn industry has been severely undercut by piracy and amateur content on tube sites. As a result, it is no longer viable for porn workers to earn a living through filmed porn scenes alone. Instead, porn workers sustain themselves by making use of diverse income streams online, using filmed porn scenes as “marketing tools”. As Zoë Glatt asserts of influencers and content creators more broadly, diversifying one’s labour and income stream across many platforms helps “to mitigate risk in a rapidly changing and unstable [industry]”. While the porn industry is more decentralised in certain respects, mainstream social media still function as central nodes within this network and major platforms like PornHub still dominate the market.

Affordances and challenges


Sex work’s platformisation had yielded mixed results for the workers themselves. At its best, platform sex work may be experienced as well-paid, creatively fulfilling, and socially rewarding. But like most other work, it is generally characterised by a combination of costs and benefits. Similar to workers in most “straight jobs”, many platform sex workers are driven into their line of work out of economic necessity. As is also the case with other forms of gig and freelance work, platform sex work affords workers a certain degree of agency over their schedule, place of work, and creative output. This kind of spatial and temporal flexibility is often essential for workers with disabilities or for those with caretaker responsibilities. Moreover, many find sex work preferable to other forms of work due to the simple fact that it pays substantially better—it is, after all, one of the few industries where women are paid better than men. Though platforms will typically take anywhere from 20–30% cut of workers’ earnings, this rate tends to be significantly lower than most brothels. For instance, brothels in the US state of Nevada typically take 50% of workers’ income (although some workers have found this higher rate to be a preferable trade-off for all the administrative and marketing responsibilities required of individual platform workers).

The affordances and challenges of platform sex work are distributed in highly uneven and inequitable ways, where the experiences of workers differ considerably depending on their race, nationality, class, gender, and sexuality. For instance, Angela Jones’s study of webcam modelling found that although there is evidence of a pluralised market catering to a diverse range of bodies and tastes, racialised bodies in the female-for-male market consistently earned lower “cam scores” and thus lower wages. Class is also a significant factor in determining the overall success of an online sex worker, epitomised in the controversy surrounding the celebrity Bella Thorne as she allegedly earned over £1.5 million in her first week on OnlyFans. Thorne’s disproportionately high earnings on OnlyFans demonstrate the extent to which creators with greater start-up capital—including a combination of economic capital, social capital, and cultural capital—will achieve greater success on the platform.

The affordances and challenges of platform sex work are distributed in highly uneven and inequitable ways, where the experiences of workers differ considerably depending on their race, nationality, class, gender, and sexuality.

Further compounding the asymmetry in the experience of platform sex workers is the fact that social media accounts deemed to be soliciting sexual services are liable to be deplatformed or shadowbanned at any time without warning or explanation. The effects of this are especially devastating for content creators who rely on mainstream social media to build a following and direct traffic toward their exclusive paywalled content and services. Meanwhile, the sexualised content shared by celebrities on social media is rarely subjected to such censorship tactics.

Algorithmic bias, algorithmic precarity


Among the greatest challenges faced by platform workers is the precarity and discrimination brought about by algorithmic governance—perhaps the most significant feature of platformisation and the main differentiator between more “traditional” forms of sex work and platform-mediated sex work. As algorithmic curation determines the visibility of content on platforms, it also supplants more traditional production and consumption processes.

Given that the primary objective of all platforms is to increase user engagement, it is therefore in the interest of platforms to use algorithms that prioritise and promote content that will reliably achieve this outcome. Algorithms are trained to recommend content to users predicated on pre-existing metrics for consumer preferences and socio-culturally embedded norms, values, and biases. Platforms like PornHub, for instance, have been shown to distribute and recommend content that reinforces heteronormative configurations of sexual desire, sexuality, and gender identity. Similarly, the adult camming platform Chaturbate and escort directory platform AdultWork use algorithmic ranking to determine which cam models and escorts feature on their homepages. Even though these algorithmic processes are opaque, the profiles that these platforms consistently feature on their homepage are overwhelmingly white, slender, youthful, and able-bodied. If workers cannot compete within these mainstream markets, then they might be compelled to invest in surgeries or other body modifications. Otherwise, they will pursue a market niche corresponding to their aesthetic and physical abilities.

This inadvertent reification of racist heteropatriarchal biases are, of course, not unique to platform sex work, but a feature of algorithms and the influencer industry more broadly. Furthermore, while inequalities pertaining to race, class, and various other physical and embodied characteristics have long been an unfortunate reality of work in the sex industry, studies suggest that various forms of discrimination are being amplified as algorithmic biases are built into the very architecture of platforms.

As platforms have lowered the barriers to entry and mitigated certain risks associated with doing sex work, the market for platform sex work has become bloated and highly competitive, resulting in the adverse effects of normalising riskier practices and driving down the price of content and services.

As platforms have lowered the barriers to entry and mitigated certain risks associated with doing sex work, the market for platform sex work has become bloated and highly competitive, resulting in the adverse effects of normalising riskier practices and driving down the price of content and services. In addition to the visual comparability and visible oversupply of sex workers on platforms, algorithms also play a significant role in heightening competition between workers. On Chaturbate, for instance, the opaque algorithmic ranking process generates a form of “manufactured uncertainty” that fuels competition and innovation amongst models. The secrecy and apparent arbitrariness of these ranking algorithms combined with the fact that they are regularly altered without notice or explanation creates highly volatile and precarious working conditions for content creators and models who depend on their visibility and searchability on these platforms. To use another example, sex workers’ visibility on AdultWork directly corresponds to the frequency with which they upload new content, driving workers to produce more content more often.

The fight continues for Sex Workers’ rights


Despite the fact that platformisation has further contributed to the mainstreaming and growing visibility of sex work, this has not necessarily been met with a reduction in stigmatisation and criminalisation, and in fact may be contributing to greater legal and cultural hostility against the sex industry. Even as there has been a notable shift in the social classes historically associated with the sex industry, thereby contributing to a perceived respectability and even fashionability for forms of sex work and porn work, this has also been met by a popular backlash, perhaps best captured by the 2018 FOSTA-SESTA bill in the United States and the impending Online Safety Bill in the United Kingdom. Influenced by the FOSTA-SESTA bill, the UK’s Online Safety Bill includes proposed legislation that would hold online platforms liable for “inciting or controlling prostitution for gain”. With the passing of this bill, digital platforms will be incentivised to censor content and ban users they perceive as soliciting or promoting commercial sex. The policy changes enacted under FOSTA-SESTA have accomplished very little in the way of mitigating online sex trafficking and have instead overwhelmingly compromised the safety, working conditions, and wages of sex and porn workers who rely upon social media not only for marketing purposes but in order to screen clients, circulate resources, and organise their labour.

Further compounding the difficulties of criminalisation, censorship, and stigma is the fact that sex workers continue to be excluded from the mainstream labour movement. This is especially surprising given the fact that all industries are being transformed by the ascendency of platform capitalism, where the gig economy and the culture industries in particular resemble the conditions of precarity that sex workers have long laboured under. Historically, the online sex industry has been particularly adept at navigating the changing media landscape, often initiating the widespread adoption of various technological and cultural shifts. As platformisation continues to transform work across all sectors and class strata, increasingly driving workforce casualization, it is incumbent upon trade unions to extend their membership to sex workers as well as other informal workers, and for union members to commit themselves to the fight for decriminalisation and destigmatization. No doubt there is a great deal that the labour movement can learn from the struggles and organising efforts of sex workers, both online and offline.


Bibliography (as cited)

  • Gabrielle Drolet, “The Year Sex Work Came Home.” The New York Times. April 10, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/10/style/camsoda-onlyfans-streaming-sex-coronavirus.html 
  • Patreon HQ, “COVID-19 and the creative economy: takeaways from Patreon’s data science team.” Patreon News. March 25, 2020. https://news.patreon.com/articles/covid-19-and-the-creative-economy-takeaways-from-patreon-s-data-science-team 
  • Jacob Bernstien, “How OnlyFans Changed Sex Work Forever.” The New York Times. February 9, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/09/style/onlyfans-porn-stars.html 
  • Ralph Blumenthal, “‘Hard-core’ grows fashionable—and very profitable.” The New York Times. January 21, 1973. https://www.nytimes.com/1973/01/21/archives/pornochic-hardcore-grows-fashionableand-very-profitable.html 
  • Ariel Levy. 2005. Female Chauvinist Pigs : Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free Press
  • Brian McNair. 2002. Striptease Culture : Sex Media and the Democratization of Desire. London: Routledge.
  • Barbara Brents and Teela Sanders. 2010. “Mainstreaming the Sex Industry: Economic Inclusion and Social Ambivalence.” Journal of Law and Society, 37(1): 42–43.
  • Thomas Poell, David Nieborg, and José van Dijck. 2019. “Platformisation.” Internet Policy Review, 8(4).
  • Susanna Paasonen. 2010. “Labors of Love: Netporn, Web 2.0, and the Meanings of Amateurism.” New Media & Society, 12(4): 1297–1312.
  • David B. Nieborg and Thomas Poell. 2018. “The platformization of cultural production: Theorizing the contingent cultural commodity.” new media & society, 20(11): 4275–4292.
  • Gwyn Easterbrook-Smith. 2023. “OnlyFans as gig-economy work: a nexus of precarity and stigma.” Porn Studies, 10(3): 252–267.
  • Heather Berg. 2016. ‘“A Scene is Just a Marketing Tool”: Alternative Income Streams in Porn’s Gig Economy.’ Porn Studies, 3(2): 160–174.
  • Zoë Glatt. 2022. ‘‘We’re all told not to put our eggs in one basket”: Uncertainty, precarity and cross-platform labor in the online video influencer industry’. International Journal of Communication, Special Issue on Media and Uncertainty.
  • Heather Berg. 2021. Porn Work: Sex, Labor and Late Capitalism. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
  • Kate Hardy and Camille Barbagallo. 2021. “Hustling the Platform: Capitalist Experiments and Resistance in the Digital Sex Industry.” The South Atlantic Quarterly, 120(3): 541.
  • Angela Jones. 2015. “For black models scroll down: webcam modeling and the racialization of erotic labor.” Sexuality & Culture, 19(4): 776–799.
  • Danielle Blunt and Zahra Stardust. 2021. “Automating whorephobia: sex, technology and the violence of deplatforming.” Porn Studies, 8(4): 350–366
  • Carolina Are and Susanna Paasonen. 2021. “Sex in the shadows of celebrity.” Porn Studies, 8(4).
  • Ilir Rama, Lucia Bainotti, Alessandro Gandini, Giulia Giorgi, Silvia Semenzin, Claudio Agosti, Giulia Corona & Salvatore Romano. 2023. “The platformization of gender and sexual identities: an algorithmic analysis of Pornhub,” Porn Studies, 10(2): 154-173.
  • Hardy and Barbagallo, 2021; Helen M. Rand and Hanne M. Stegeman. 2023. “Navigating and resisting platform affordances: Online sex work as digital labor.” Gender, Work & Organization 30: 2120–2118
  • Niels van Doorn and Olav Velthuis. 2018. “A Good Hustle: The Moral Economy of Market Competition in Adult Webcam Modeling.” Journal of Cultural Economy, 11(3): 177–192
  • Jones, 2015; Eduardo E. B. Martins. 2019. “I’m the Operator With My Pocket Vibrator: Collective Intimate Relations on Chaturbate,” Social Media + Society, 5(4).
  • Zoë Glatt. 2022. “Precarity, discrimination and (in)visibility: An ethnography of ‘The Algorithm’ in the YouTube influencer industry,” p. 11, in Costa, E., Lange, P., Haynes, N. and Sinanan, J. (eds.) The Routledge Companion to Media Anthropology. New York, USA: Routledge. pp. 546-559.
  • Christian Katzenbach and Lena Ulbricht. 2019. “Algorithmic governance.” Internet Policy Review, 8(4): 1–18
  • Safiya Umoja Noble. 2018. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press
  • De Stefano, Valerio. 2018. ‘“Negotiating the Algorithm’: Automation, Artificial Intelligence and Labour Protection.” Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, 41(1).
  • Elizabeth Bernstein. 2007. Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Online Safety Bill press release. “Online Safety law to be strengthened to stamp out illegal content.” February 4, 2022. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/online-safety-law-to-be-strengthened-to-stamp-out-illegal-content 
  • Frederick S. Lane. 2000. Obscene Profits : The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age. New York: Routledge.

Laurel Rogers is a PhD student in the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies department at Goldsmiths University. Her research on OnlyFans explores the impacts of platformisation on labour, identity, and culture, with particular attention to the role of sexual capital and assetisation in content creation under platform capitalism.