Sex Work and Dollar Signs

“Hustler, that’s really what all sex work is. It’s everybody trying to hustle for what they got and try to make money off of what men have been making money from us for so long.”

Sex work has rapidly adapted to meet an innovative world. Traditional outlets for sex work have now turned into a multitude of ways to sell sex, safely. This has allowed for thousands of sex workers to have a reliable income and financial independence.

Sex Work Defined 

There is no clear definition for what is included in sex work. Online, in-person, legal, illegal, survival-based and side hustles are all ways people participate in erotic labor. Sex work can be online services like private chats and calls or selling pictures and videos. It can be in person, like stripping, or prostitution. It can be physical labor like performing sexual acts on someone or for someone. The work is wide and varied. However, the selling of sexual services can be exploitative of those offering them. 

I want to disregard any non-consensual sex work from the conversation surrounding the business behind sex work. This falls into exploitative systems like human trafficking. Instead, I want to focus on those who fully chose to pursue the career of sex work. For now, let’s go with the the definition given by Caty Simons, co-editor of Tits and Sass, a blog run by and for sex workers. She says in an interview with Hopes&Fears that sex work is “For the most part, with few exceptions, what we’re talking about is someone who trades sex or sexualized services to a client of some sort.”

The Innovative World of Online Sex Work 

It’s undeniable – sex sells, and with the help of the internet, it’s easier than ever. The monetization of adult content on social media and other outlets has given more freedom for content creators than ever before.

OnlyFans is one of these outlets. This website says that it allows creators to “to monetize their content while developing authentic relationships with their fanbase,” and while there is more to OnlyFans than adult content, this is what primarily makes up the site. No official numbers exist about the exact amount, but over half of all amateur porn creators use OnlyFans. Sex workers can now ensure that they are paid for their work, and consumers can trust where they put their money. Creators post content that can only be accessed through paywalls that can range from subscriptions that are $4.99 to $49.99. 

Chicago OnlyFans content creator Lucy Lee sits at the top 1% of creators by income. Only creators can see their percentage and is up to their discretion to share it with consumers. This is no easy feat. Lee, also known by her tag @mankoprinc3ss on her other socials, prides herself on her work and considers this her career.

“This is my business, and I run it pretty well,” said Lee.

Lucy Lee poses for a selfie in her studio. Lee is a sex worker on OnlyFans who sits at the top 1% of creators. Photo by Hailey Bosek, 14 East

Lee garners about $10,000 a month. However, it wasn’t always just profits. Lee had started sex work at 18 years, after being out of her parents’ house. She explained that the start of her career wasn’t even on OnlyFans. 

“I’m 21 now, but I’ve been on my own since I was 15. I was 18 on Facebook, where sex work wasn’t really popping,” said Lee. 

Lee said that Facebook made it really difficult to make an income off of her content, and she didn’t find success in sex work on Facebook. She almost gave up but decided to give OnlyFans a try. Despite the complications that come along, OnlyFans has made selling her content much safer and easier to create and monetize. 

“It wasn’t good back then, but OnlyFans have really made it easier to sell,” said Lee. 

She sat down with me and helped me understand what it takes to be a top earner on OnlyFans. Lee believes firmly in establishing a personality and niche for your audience. In her apartment lies a studio where she creates her content. The room reveals an explosion of pink. Her walls are lined with pastel posters and neon lights. Her pink gaming chair overlooks a pink desk and gaming setup. Pastel pink shelves line the walls with heart-shaped knick-knacks. Her pink couch is lined with Hello Kitty pillows. Her birds chirped happily as the lights on her mirror flickered on. Outside the apartment lies a bright pink 2003 Miata. 

Lee decorates her apartment to match her princess theme. “I have to keep up the princess energy,” she said. Photo by Hailey Bosek, 14 East

“My brand is pink, and my whole apartment is pink and a lot of people like to see that. My name is MankoPrincess, I have to keep up the princess energy. It’s also buying a lot of little accessories,” said Lee. “If you can somehow show that you’re a real person, they stick with you longer. Especially being online, I see how people promote, it’s kind of almost like they’re a sexbot.”  

Lucy has put a lot back into her business. In creating content, the money she makes isn’t purely profit. She explained that 20% of her income goes straight to OnlyFans. She said in total with furniture, clothing, sex toys and other expenses, she has spent close to $30,000. Her closet in the studio, filled with pastel garments and self-thrusting sex toys, proves just that. 

Lee decorates her apartment to match her princess theme. “I have to keep up the princess energy,” she said. Photo by Hailey Bosek, 14 East

Lee explained that a huge part of her time in online sex work goes into advertising her content.

Her Twitter, which has amassed a total of 57,600 followers, includes previews of videos and reposted content from her OnlyFans. Twitter’s help center says that Pornography and other forms of consensually produced adult content are allowed on Twitter, “ and she supports other sex workers by retweeting others and spends the rest of her time online connecting with her followers and monitoring new trends. 

“It’s important to get your name out there. Nobody wants to buy something without knowing what your body looks like first,” Lee said when discussing the importance of previews. She might not profit off of the pictures she posts for free on Twitter, but it leads more people to buy her content.  

Lee works at her desk where she manages her OnlyFans content. Photo by Hailey Bosek, 14 East

It’s Called a Side Hustle 

While Lee was able to find a stable career in online sex work, not everyone pursues it as their only income. For some, it is a way to ensure financial stability while pursuing other career or academic goals. In the interest of anonymity and safety, DePaul sex worker Anne will be using a pseudonym for this story.  

Anne, a biology student at DePaul, calls her work a side hustle. An active member in her high school, Anne organized a community protest, was the school mascot and best friends with her principal. It was also at this time when she started sex work by starting a private Snapchat.  

“I made a private story on my Snapchat that you had to pay to be on or whatever. And then I made some advertisements for that,” said Anne. “So I would just send those out to guys that I knew that had bought before or just put it on my Snapchat story.” 

Anne, a sex worker and DePaul student, applies lipstick while checking her OnlyFans stats. She is learning to balance sex work with school work. Photo by Hailey Bosek, 14 East

Anne considers herself a cam girl. While she uses Snapchat and even OnlyFans sparingly, the bulk of her income comes from Chaturbate. This is a live webcam website that allows for viewers to view and tip content creators on live streams. Anne explains that while the “tokens” sent in from viewers do add up, the profit doesn’t come from the free live preview shows.

“The camming is really where you … it’s like its own form of advertising kinda because you get a bunch of viewers and stuff. But then where the real money comes from is if you do a private show. If someone requests a private show, they automatically have to pay you $5 a minute,” Anne said. “But I’d say after like 30 minutes of [public] camming I usually make like a good 50 bucks.” 

She said her goal is to get recurring clients for private shows. She has been able to earn $500 from a single private session. 

The combination of OnlyFans, private Snapchat stories, and Chaturbate gives Anne extra spending cash each month. Anne has the unique struggle of finding time to create content between shifts at her on-campus job, her class schedule and labs, and her shifts at the local sports bar. The amount she earns depends on any given month.

“It’s kind of tough to say because sometimes it varies … because I am a student. It really depends on how much time. A good month, I would say, is probably somewhere between like $500 and $1,000,” said Anne.

Anne is still trying new things out. She is testing out different approaches to OnlyFans and what ends up making more money. 

“I also started taking more advantage of specials and discounts on OnlyFans, I’ve made $258 in May so far. Now I’ve gone up to the top 36% of all OnlyFans creators,” Anne said. 

Anne’s income is definitely wide-ranging. By experimenting with different tactics like discounts, promotions and previews, she was able to make half of her monthly income in a day. 

Similar to Lee, Anne has made investments back into her side hustle. While the two women definitely operate on different scales, Anne has made impressive investments back into camming. 

“I’ve put at least $500 worth of clothes, props and other stuff. To measure is expensive,” Anne disclosed.

Anne advertises her services with posters like this one on social media. Photo courtesy of Anne

The struggles of maintaining certain anonymity on campus makes advertising content hard for Anne. She does her best to get others to buy her content, while also remaining conscious of how much she puts herself out there. 

“It’s mostly word of mouth,” Anne said regarding how she advertises. 

 In-Person and on the Pole – a Dancer’s Perspective of Sex Work

The pandemic certainly skyrocketed online porn consumption. Pornhubs daily traffic increased all around the world in March 2020. However, this doesn’t mean that in-person sex work has come to a halt. Illinois places third in the country for most strip clubs, with 2,773 businesses throughout the state. In the U.S, 34,395 strippers are employed in clubs scattered across the country. While online sex work like cam girls and OnlyFans have stormed the market, traditional outlets are alive and well.  

“A dancer, pole dancer and actor, all of those things you can kinda call a stripper,” said Niya Noir, who started dancing at Chicago’s Admiral Theatre under the stage name “Egypt” in September 2021. 

A self-taught dancer, she had never been to a strip club or danced on a pole when she auditioned for the theater at 18 years old. She originally only went to be moral support for her friend but decided to try out when her friend got too scared to audition. She explained the money-making and the misconceptions of strip dancing. 

“Most people think pole dancing is an important part of being a stripper. But it’s really not. Because most of it circulates around like rooms and personal dances,” said Noir. 

“Performing is basically like the preview to other customers.” She says that while dancing, she reads the room to get a better sense of possible clients who would buy a dance.  

“You’re not going to be a good stripper if you don’t have at least a few regulars coming to you,” said Noir. “It doesn’t even matter how pretty you are, or anything like that. It just matters how you talk to people, and how you present yourself. There is a kind of business thinking to it.” 

She says that advertising yourself on Instagram and posting when you were going to work was a good way to get yourself out there. It was these regulars that ensured a steady income for sex workers like Noir. She explained that the pay for a dancer varies from the time of night, the club, and the day of the week. 

“I’m considered a baby stripper still,” said Noir. “But there’s been nights where I’ve made more than other girls just because I had customers that I knew come in, to see me specifically. So it really just depends on the customer. I say a good night is probably $600 to $1,000.”  

Niya Noir poses in her outfit at work at Chicago’s Admiral Theatre. She started when she was 18 and uses the stage name “Egypt.” Photo courtesy of Niya Noir

While it seems like sex work in all its form relies on loyal customers and regulars, investment back into sex work looks very different offline. Noir explained that most of the money that she invested back into stripping went into her appearance. 

“A few hundred I put back into my work. Since it’s mostly just outfits, shoes, hair, makeup and nails,” said Noir. 

“It just really matters what kind of shoes you get.”

She explained how ensuring good shoes can save you from the torment that is the blisters and bruises that come along with cheap stripper heels. 

However, dancers have countless fees and tips they have to pay before the night is through. The house fee is paid often before dancers even get paid. A house fee is a payment that most dancers pay to be allowed to dance that night. Noir explained that this fee can be anywhere from $70 to $100. She then tips the bartenders, bouncers, bottle girls, managers and the DJ. 

Noir believes that she has a clear term for those in the business of sex work. 

“Hustler, that’s really what all sex work is. It’s everybody trying to hustle for what they got and try to make money off of what men have been making money from us for so long.” 

Noir shows off her boots during a dance at Chicago’s Admiral Theatre. She explained that good shoes can save you from the blisters and bruises that come along with cheap stripper heels. Photo courtesy of Niya Noir

The Emotional Cost 

There is more to sex work than the money made and followers gained. Whatever form sex work may take, the girls I spoke with explained it can be an emotionally taxing experience. 

There are several sacrifices you make when deciding to do sex work. All three workers stated that the stigma surrounding those who participate in sex work can be a heavy burden to tackle. The constant struggle of seeing yourself outside the lens of a culture that shames women for expressing any sort of sexuality, especially women that choose to profit off of their sexuality, can be a near-impossible task.  

Lee explained that life behind a camera can leave you feeling vulnerable to the eyes of a demanding audience. Lee experiences harassment through comments on social media on a daily basis. She began to believe the comments that slut shamed her and tormented her on how she looked.  

“I had to repeat to myself, ‘You’re a person, you’re a person,’” Lee said. 

She expressed that she had to make sacrifices to live comfortably. Lee grew up in the city of Chicago, often moving around because of foreclosures. She never knew financial security.  

“You can work at McDonald’s and try to pull yourself out of poverty that way. But I would say that that’s why a lot of people don’t like the idea of sex work because it seems like a bunch of scraggly, scrappy young women trying to make their way to the top. But you know, girls like me, we’re gonna fight, f–k and run our way to a comfortable life,” Lee said.

These doubts can creep into a person and make them believe the lies that fill up comment sections and locker rooms. The mental health of sex workers is constantly strained when they rely on their audience to find them attractive. This attraction is so surface level, that it can end up making a lot of sex workers dehumanized. 

“If you’re not completely secure with yourself, it’s gonna ruin you. No money is worth feeling like you’re nothing but sex,” Lee stated. 

Anne, who has to deal with similar comments and sentiments about online sex work, often feels the pressure of the stigma surrounding sex work.

“I haven’t been in a relationship and like, I don’t go on dates or anything,” said Anne. “I don’t remember what it feels like for somebody to appreciate me in that way. So sometimes it is. I do have days where I wake up and I’m like, “Okay, do people always think I’m attractive because of my body? Is that the only reason people are paying attention to me?” 

Anne shared that she feels that the stigma surrounding sex work gives way to the idea that sex workers are one-dimensional. 

“I’m a whole person, people forget that,” Anne said.

Sex work can also isolate people. Noir expressed that she didn’t have regrets about becoming a sex worker. However, it does strain some of her relationships. In being a sex worker, Noir had to hide parts of herself. 

“As a stripper, we always have to hide that we’re not straight,” Noir said. “That’s a part of strip club law.” 

She hides her queer identity from the strip club, but she also must hide the strip club from others that she loves.  

“I still haven’t told my dad … I’m a little scared to tell him because he still calls me princess,” Noir said.   

Anne has also felt isolated, but not from her family. However, she feels like her work gets in the way of her connecting with DePaul as a community. 

“I do struggle making friends with someone feeling involved in the DePaul community, it does get frustrating when the only people contacting you are the people who want to buy content. 

The business makes it really easy to feel like that’s the only thing you’re good for,” Anne said. 

Lee said that she has felt isolated completely from the world. She felt that the new income of money and staying home making content distorted her idea of real life. She thinks that the interaction with her audience and the doubts that she is only good for sex have changed who she used to be. 

“I am not the same person I was before OnlyFans, I might be a little out of touch from reality but I‘d rather be comfortable than the person who struggled before.”   

We live in a world where 130 million people visit Pornhub every day. While millions consume porn every day, there are few outlets where sex work is completely safe to create. The industry creates millions of dollars of revenue. The site OnlyFans created $390 million in revenue in 2022 alone. There is a lack of resources for sex workers compared to the number of consumers and profit behind it. The future of sex work is still unclear. 

Lucy told me her insights as a sex worker for the future.

“People are coming to the light, and it’s bright for sex workers. … We’re not trashy, we’re not dirty. We’re just people who love sex. Like, don’t you love sex?” Lee laughed.

 

 

 

Header by Helen Wargo