The sex industry and social media.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized I had a TikTok celebrity frequenting my gym. He’s the guy I see daily walking past my treadmill on the way to the weights. Sometimes the guy is making faces at his iphone camera, and more often than not he’s groping his girlfriend while he does it. I’m not one of those nosy types, but it’s hard not to notice the two kissing at the camera when they’re ten feet away. But whatever, I’m drenched in sweat and probably look like I got locked in a boiler room for an hour. Please, don’t include me in the background of your pics.
Up until recently my awareness of the couple was limited to those annoying look-everywhere-but-over-there moments as the couple smooched on the stretching mat near me. But when I noticed the couple at a restaurant nearby I had to mention it to my friends. Seeing someone outside of the gym is like seeing a clown without his face paint on. In my mind, it ought not to happen. I compartmentalize the world into factions and these people exist solely in that context and then fall back into oblivion when I leave.
“Oh yea, I heard that guy’s gotten pretty big on social media,” my friend casually mentioned. So like anyone normal I looked up his profile and meandered over to Instagram and Twitter. After scrolling around his media pages for a moment something caught my eye and made me do a double take. It was the same random gym guy masturbating in front of the camera with a lot of comments and likes along with it. Woah. My heart jolted, feeling that I’d seen something shocking that I wasn’t supposed to see. And yet, there it was on social media, along with an OnlyFans link.
What’s OnlyFans? I wondered.
In some ways maybe I’m more naive than I realized. I’d never heard of OnlyFans before and upon a brief and uncomfortable investigation, I wished I could go back to that state of ignorance. I maintain a level of boundaries from the world around me. Any invasion of privacy seems like, well, an invasion. And while I may not blink an eye at nudity in films, the OnlyFans phenomenon certainly made me blink plenty.
Founded in 2016, OnlyFans is a social media platform in which users may request and sell content for a set fee. Of course, an innocent use of the platform might mean that this is the place to request that a musician perform a song for $100. Or here is the place to virtually send a custom workout routine for a price. However, the site has developed a questionable reputation at best, finding that its primary use is to request and share sexually explicit content. The site has over 150 million users and a month-over-month growth rate of 70% since the beginning of the pandemic. It generated over $2 billion in sales in 2020. On OnlyFans, a follower may request that someone share nude photographs and sexual videos of a specific kind and then a price is set. Once the fee is paid, the photographs are delivered by the OnlyFans “model.” One OnlyFans star, Lucy Banks has described some of her strangest requests such as being “asked to oil herself up and slide across the kitchen bench on her tummy.” For this 15 second video, she was paid $300. Banks is a top grossing OnlyFans creator and makes approximately $2,500 per day.
The obvious objection to this behavior is that it seems dangerously close to prostitution. And while the sex acts are virtual, it brings into question how far will this go?
According to a BBC documentary #Nudes4Sale, “as many as a third of Twitter users who advertised explicit images were under 18.” Twitter is a media platform that prohibits sexual content and it is staggering that underage content is being shared on a so-called respectable platform. While an estimate on underage OnlyFans users is not yet established, an almost exclusively sexual platform will yield even greater numbers of child pornography. Though the site does not allow underage users, it is certainly not difficult to fabricate an adult profile under a fake name. If these children have access to a credit card, they will be able to receive and share sexual content. In addition, sexual predators will now have another means to exploit the children they have access to. An estimated 1.2 million children are sex trafficked annually. If sex work becomes so widely accepted, will that number increase as opportunities arise?
Finding the right hashtags is key to accessing online sex workers. Simply search a hashtag like “#304” on Instagram and a network of pimps and sex workers appears along with teaser pictures. 304, by the way, looks like the word “HOE” when flipped upside down. A lot of sex workers are coerced through manipulation techniques, preying on vulnerabilities and insecurities such as age, poverty, and low self esteem. Traffickers offer a level of provision and protection and many of them find their victims through online resources.
“It’s about choice. They see the flash. They see the gold. They see the money. They see the cars. Every time you turn on the radio, what do you hear? It’s some kind of rapper dude talking about how he’s got some working bitches. So what do they want? They want that rapper dude,“ an anonymous pimp shares. He reflects that a pimp is the next best thing, paralleling the flash and power that a rapper projects. “ A pimp—he can get you whatever you want.”
The industry of illicit sex nets about $5.7 billion a year. That includes street prostitution, online escorts, and residential visitation.
It was in the 1970s that Nevada legalized prostitution in most of its counties. 10 out of 16 Nevada counties permit prostitution within the confines of a licensed brothel. Nevada also has the second highest rate of sex trafficking of any American state. A 2022 report found that there were 5.99 sex trafficking victims per every 100,000 residents. It is speculated that the surge of sex trafficking is due to the high demand of sex workers but the limited supply of them. Sex workers may only work within a brothel, leaving countless men and women looking for work and resorting to illegal sex activity when they are not hired by a brothel. Interestingly the poorest American state, Mississippi, claims the largest sex trafficking rates at 6.31 per 100,000. The low income of these residents makes for easy prey to those offering quick money. California has seen the highest incidents of sex trafficking with 1,334 in 2022. Like Nevada, the state is privy to some of the greatest amounts of tourism. With an influx of tourists looking for a “good time,” sex work is a powerful industry in cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Traveling the 95 blocks along Figueroa Street in Los Angeles, one will see hundreds of sex workers clad in glittering platform heels, thongs, and see-through tops. It is known as “The Track.” Along with these sex workers are pimps hovering on street corners and menacingly hiding behind the shaded glass of parked cars. It is a notorious hot spot for prostitution and Los Angeles residents outcry for protection as crime rates soar. A six-year-old walking to school on this street will witness violence, drug trading, and nudity on a regular basis. Despite the high crime rate, authorities have failed to address the issue.
“Who doesn’t fantasize about being a stripper?” A working prostitute says in a National Geographic interview.
It’s possible that a sense of personal empowerment is what justifies much of the sex industry. For some women, prostitution offers a sense of wealth and attention they would not otherwise have. And for the pimps, it is a sense of power over the women they possess. For the clients, prostitution offers the power to obtain anything they desire. Yet, for the trafficked victims held against their will, the sex industry is nothing more than a cage.
“Sexual assault and rape are just occupational daily hazards,” offers the anonymous pimp.
A pimp will provide a level of protection from dangerous customers but his services come at a high price. While they might not disclose their percentage cut, it’s suggested they take a significant majority of prostitute earnings. And even though many of their working prostitutes come of their own accord, pimps make it known that leaving the industry will result in violence and even death. It is estimated that pimps make anywhere between $5,000 to $30,000 a week simply for leasing out their women.
While OnlyFans may make pimps a thing of the past, the result of this line of work can lead to a similar level of violence.
In April of 2022, OnlyFans star Courtney Clenney stabbed her boyfriend in the chest during a fight that ended in his gruesome death. Clenney boasted a following of over 2 million Instagram users and her OnlyFans account yielded a net worth of $2.5 million annually. The couple was widely known for their rampaging fights. Despite Clenney’s claim that her actions were in self defense, she has been arrested and held without bond. It leaves me wondering if tensions run high in a lifestyle such as Clenney’s.
This August, OnlyFans star Anna Paul was debuting popular clothing line STAX when chaos broke out. The model has a following of 5 million and when a much larger crowd came than anticipated, queue jumping and stampeding resulted in injury. The event was canceled and Paul was rushed from the premises.
When Kitty Lixo was banned from Instagram, the OnlyFans star claims to have undergone sexual acts with employees in order to reverse the ban. Lixo featured bikini and lingerie shots on her Instagram page, linking it to her OnlyFans account. Her Instagram profile was taken down three or four times. In order to reinstate her profile, she claims to have used ‘nepotism’ as her tactic. “I hooked up with a few people in various departments, who opened multiple review cases for me, which led to the eventual unbanning of my account.”
Many OnlyFans stars claim that they started out broke when they first began this online venture. It was a way to make money and provide for themselves, their children, to buy a house, or to claim a status they wouldn’t otherwise have. In some ways, the motivation seems similar to how sex trafficking victims and prostitutes are extorted. Money, desperation, and personal empowerment are some of the greatest incentives. And in some ways, I sympathize with them, especially when the stars pull themselves out of desperate situations and land major branding contracts to earn millions annually. However, to incentivize through sex seems to be a ruthless game without dignity or self-respect.
The pornography industry is one of the highest grossing industries in the United States. It is nearly impossible to estimate the industry’s worth. A modest estimate of the industry, $15 billion, would suggest the industry makes more than the NFL. In fact, Pornhub alone boasted a 28.5 billion viewership in 2017. Though platforms like Twitter and Youtube prohibit pornography, users find ways to sneak the content onto their pages. In many ways, the use of pornography is considered common ground. A 2022 report found that 57% of men ages 30-49 had watched porn within the alleged month. And one study found that 99% of men have watched it at some point. Interestingly, the study found that “men who report having watched pornography recently—that is, in the past 24 hours—report the highest rates of loneliness.”
Unsurprisingly, the internet has made pornography more accessible than ever before. And with social media at the center of modern life, it seems inevitable that hookup culture would leak onto these outlets. Sexual solicitation through social media messaging is more prevalent than ever. In fact, 76% of adolescent girls have received unsolicited sexual images. 70% have also been asked to send nude images. Among American women the number of unsolicited images rises to 91%.
The rise of social media leaves me wondering about the high level of anxiety and depression among Millennial adults. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are considered highly addictive outlets. It’s estimated that overall there are 4.75 billion items shared daily by Facebook users. And there are 10 billion Facebook messages sent everyday. The majority of social media posts, of course, include pictures from daily life and personal narrative. In other words, it’s all too likely that a Facebook user on a regular basis will share everything from the food they’ve eaten that day, to their interest in films, their children, their personal mantras and more. I wonder, as well, if this over sharing also spills out through these 10 billion daily Facebook messages and what private images are being shared.
It is in many ways a colossal worldwide scrapbook. The social media environment creates a standard of sociability, and the norm has become that of over sharing. Businesses share up to 10 posts daily in order to reach this casual marketplace. And even major studios like Warner Brothers will adjust their film agenda according to the constant commentary online.
The internet has made it possible for every global citizen to express their creativity and opinions in an amplified manner. Even music apps such as Spotify encourage this social agenda with their “follow” feature. The online etiquette is now “like for like” and “follow for follow.” It is a quid pro quo environment that constantly expands. And the most important question is, how many followers do you have? Although perhaps a more underlying question lingers, how important are you?
It might seem in many ways that this digital funhouse is a popularity contest without standards or boundaries. Due to the accessibility of a camera, it is common practice to post a continuous stream of daily life and maybe that’s why online users feel so comfortable pushing the boundaries of sexuality. In addition, much of the popular app TikTok is a compilation of dance and lip-syncing videos done casually in a home, with furniture and everyday life lingering in the background. Ironically, the “creative destruction” of the internet is that this creative world has destroyed many creative jobs such as photography and small film studios. Now, casual is king and professionalism and formality have taken a back seat. The teenager with a pranking video will likely yield greater media presence than a Julliard grad. And lip-syncing sensations on TikTok will be summoned by the White House to make political statements.
Among young adults ADHD and anxiety has nearly doubled within the past ten years. In fact, constant social media use has been found to reduce cognition and even shrink parts of the brain. It’s easy to surmise that social media both overstimulates and desensitizes its users, overtaxing the adrenal glands, shrinking attention spans, while simulating a dopamine high. Much like a porn addiction, these platforms leave people seeking immediate gratification but leave them with lingering dissatisfaction. Pornography is a leading cause in sexual dysfunction in men. And it has been a primary culprit in relationship issues, inciting mistrust and emotional abuse. Yet, why do people partake in such damaging outlets? Maybe it offers a level of escape, validation, or thrill-seeking. And to an unhealthy mind, it is easy to be swayed by these temptations. For others, it is for money or power.
When American culture so readily glorifies pimps, strippers, and the sex industry, it might seem enticing to the impressionable. It is interesting to note that multiple rappers have been convicted of sex trafficking charges. Most recently R. Kelly was sentenced to 30 years in jail for sexually abusing young fans. “You made me do things that broke my spirit. I literally wished I would die…” said one unnamed victim. Even Marilyn Monroe herself once described Hollywood as an “overcrowded brothel.” With allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein coming out, it turns out the “casting couch” stereotype is more than just a trope. As these stories are exposed, it seems more than ever that sexuality is at the center of some of America’s major industries. And with most desperate situations exploitation becomes the trend.
How do we explain those who choose sex work for themselves? Maybe it’s as simple as money, power, and glory. There are many who believe that sex work is a respectable line of work. However, looking at the exorbitant rates of sex trafficking, violence, and emotional problems, I can’t help but question the results.
When sex is a transaction and survival is reduced down to quid pro quo, it is the greatest defiling of the human spirit. Standards are replaced by the bottom line. And with this justification, anything goes. Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan suggested that “the medium is the message.” In other words, it’s not what you say. Rather, it’s how it is said that counts. Perhaps no matter what personal realizations or mantras are being shared online, it all blends into one big deafening cry.
And that cry is, “here I am.”
Social media has made that voice reverberate through with static-like energy. For the time being, maybe it brings in money, fame, or personal validation. But at the end of it we will have to ask ourselves one question:
Was it worth the price?