This paper explores how disabled online sex workers experience "racialized disgendering" in social media spaces and content platforms and introduces a new framework for "cripping sex work." After discussing how disabled sex workers experience crip time and their bodyminds while navigating labor demands in the online industry, this paper argues for a shift away from the neoliberal "empowerment" discourse in much research and activism related to sex work. And demonstrates how white and otherwise privileged sex workers uphold systems of power that financially benefit them through sexual gentrification, while multiply marginalized sex workers experience cyberviolence and microaggressions at the hands of other sex workers. My analysis uncovers specific ways that racialized disgendering impacts sex workers with disabilities and argues for the importance of mutual aid and paying sex workers for their labor, culminating in a list of tangible action steps for privileged sex workers.
Introduction: Bell's Story
I interviewed Bell after taking a break from interviews for my mental and physical health. It was late, and as had happened many times during my research, I was exhausted and experiencing an Adderall crash that was kicking my ass. I was also nervous, and the social anxiety I have battled my entire life wrapped its fist around my stomach and refused to let go. I set up my nighttime interview station—my coffee table pulled toward one corner of my couch and raised so that I could comfortably focus on my computer with access to water, my notebook, and my voice recorder. I opened the computer and set up my secondary recording app, opened my set of interview questions, and arranged the windows on my screen to have room for our call. Steadying myself, I launched the Zoom meeting and turned on my camera. My little corner, curated to represent my academic persona, contained a bright lamp, stacks of academic books on sex work and pornography, and the bromeliad pup I propagated during quarantine and somehow managed to keep alive. I took a sip of water and waited.
When Bell entered the Zoom room, they were wearing glasses and comfortable clothes. They had natural hair that was dark at the roots and hot pink at the ends of their tight curls. We said our normal awkward pleasantries, discussed the goals of my project, the consent documents I had emailed, and then I listened.
Bell, a Black, non-binary, disabled, queer, sex worker has an unapologetic Twitter presence that balances calling out problematic online sex workers and advertising content. One of my interview questions asks my participants to reflect on how their identities impact their experiences in the online sex industry. Bell, who had worked as a full-service survival and street worker in the past, brought a unique perspective to this question:
So, the difference between me as a full-service survival sex worker, who's non-binary, dark skin and a white full-service sex worker who probably just does this because this is what she wants to do [is] like, you know, her parents have money. If she needed money, they would give it to her or whatever…she could tell men [clients] "Hey, I don't like that. That hurts." I can't say that. Now I can, because I already have my money, but like, but back then, I had no understanding of that, but I knew I needed to eat. So, I kind of let men use my body as a human sex doll and it hurt at times.
Bell's experience in, and opinions on, sex work are inextricably tied to their positionality. Bell saw a clear difference in the boundaries that white sex workers were allowed to maintain and establish while they could not do the same. Bell also linked marginalization to access. Bell, who had been an unhoused sex worker struggling with financial precarity in the past, was put in a situation where the lines between choice and coercion were blurred, where, in order to survive, Bell had to give cis men access to their body —in ways that they explicitly stated they would not and do not now —so that they would have more financial security. Part of that inability to restrict access and set boundaries means that Bell, and other systemically oppressed sex workers, are at an increased risk for violence, harm, and trauma.
During 2020 and 2021, I was fortunate to be able to interview Bell and several disabled sex workers who had participated in both street work and other forms of full-service sex work (FSSW) before the COVID-19 lockdown when they shifted to online-only work. They provided important insights into how, as Aragon (2020) argues, "[a]ccess to indoor and online work is classed, gendered, and racialized" (para. 19) and how these positionalities are further complicated by dis/ability. Online or computer-mediated sex work (i.e., camming, clip modeling, sexting, etc.) presents a unique demand that sex workers always be "on"—continuously interacting with current and potential customers, posting on social media, advertising, and producing new content (Sanders, O'Neill, and Pitcher, 2017; Jones, 2020). Scholars have already documented the challenges compounded for multiply marginalized sex workers when gaining access to customers, increasing visibility on distribution platforms (i.e., clipsites, camsites, etc.), experiences of discrimination, and heightened expectations to perform emotional labor (Jones, 2016 Henry and Farvid, 2017; Jones, 2020). During the past several years, more disabled sex workers and sex-working activists have become vocal about the unique benefits and challenges they face in the online sex industry (Tastrom, 2019; Warfield, 2020; Peepshow Podcast, 2020).
In this article, I explore the experiences of disabled sex workers living at the intersections of multiple marginalized identities to articulate how different embodied identities impact experiences in the online sex industry. I argue that "cripping sex work" requires an intersectional attention to power and who is left behind in activism and research and inherently refuses the neoliberal feminist legacy of "empowerment" in studies and discussions of sex work. Online sex work presents a unique set of challenges, often requiring a more extended time commitment to marketing and developing a "personal brand" to build up a big enough consumer base to maintain a steady income. This demand can be incredibly impactful for disabled sex workers. Furthermore, my interviewees described the toll of embodying historically fetishized identities in the sex industry, marking their existence as taboo and deviant. White sex workers using cultural appropriation as marketing reproduced this fetishization. These issues place disabled sex workers in a uniquely disadvantaged position when trying to survive through online sex work. Disabled sex workers provide an original theorizing of sex work as a unique "mediated choice" and a type of labor that is more accessible and readily available to disabled people. Their interviews also build on the concept of "bodyminds" through their refusal to see the forms of erotic, physical, and emotional labor as separable and their lived refutation of "selling their bodies" through sex work as inherently different than any other job under late stage capitalism (Kafer, 2013; Sheppard, 2019; Berg, 2021). As digital and physical spaces continue to integrate through new state-sanctioned surveillance technology, categorizations of sex work and associated risks become less tidy, and all sex workers are increasingly at risk for technosocial death.
Drawing on Obourn's (2020) framework of "racialized disgender" and Kafer's "feminist queer crip theory," I argue that while there are many documented benefits to online sex work for sex workers, my research shows that these benefits are often only accessible to white, cisgender, able-bodied/minded sex workers. Research on disability and sex work that is not intersectional only upholds the white supremacist and capitalist logics of online platforms and customer bases that create and enforce these issues. "Cripping online sex work" thus opens up new imaginaries for a more radical online sex industry and suggests concrete action steps that privileged sex workers and civilians can take to advocate for disabled sex workers.
Throughout the paper, I use the term "online sex work" to refer to any type of sex work that requires an online platform to sell technology-mediated services or products, including cam models, clip models, etc. I also use the phrase "content creator," since my interviewees most often used that, and I believe, troubles the false division between "social media influencers" and "online sex workers" that upholds whorephobic respectability politics. 1 I also use the term "full-service sex work" to refer to sex workers who engage in sexual acts with one or more partners for money that would fall under the legal category of "prostitution." Although some sex workers have challenged the usefulness (and clunkiness) of this phrasing to try and separate into specific job categories (moon, 2021), I want to make it is clear as possible that I am attempting to refer to these types of sex work (full-service and online) as separate because my interviewees made that distinction, especially those who had participated in full-service work. I also use "direct" and "indirect" to describe sex work that involves contact versus sex work that is somewhat mediated by technology or other means (Sanders et al., 2016). Lastly, I use the term "survival sex worker" or "survival worker" to describe the work of individual sex workers only when an interviewee self-identified with that label, because of the problematic history of this term. 2 Throughout the interviews, several sex workers identified "survival sex workers" as a more vulnerable group who are often overlooked and discounted in discussions of labor conditions and marginalized within communities of sex workers, and only used as props to argue against decriminalization by anti-sex work activists and politicians. In these instances, I have not redacted this term. However, to recognize how the term has been deployed to divide sex workers and discount their agency, I will not use it outside of these circumstances.
Through this paper, I continue the tradition of critical disability and crip theory scholars who have worked to trouble historical and mainstream understandings of what "disability" and lived experience means. My work is situated within critical disability theory, which demands "…scrutiny of normative ideologies [that] should occur not for its own sake but with the goal of producing knowledge in support of justice for people with stigmatized bodies and minds" (Minich, 2017, 3). I use the terms "crip sex work" and "cripping sex work" to make the call for coalition between sex work(ing) scholars and activists and disability scholars and activists. Disabled sex workers have already provided us with a framework of "sex work [as] antiwork," (Berg, 2021, 23 & 184) that, like crip theory, resists neoliberal capitalist ideology that expands pathologized experiences and identities to uphold systems of oppression.
The Project and Participants
The ideas and concepts in this paper are derived from my dissertation project on labor, community, and technology in online sex work. I conducted informal and formal fieldwork on Tumblr and Twitter from 2016-2021. I utilize a mixed-methods approach using autoethnography, ethnography, and textual analysis. My project data derives from seven years of formal and informal digital fieldwork, specifically, interviews with online sex workers (n=34) conducted during January 2018 and throughout 2020 and 2021, a survey of current sex-working respondents (n=138), and writings and podcasts produced by disabled sex workers. The University of Kentucky Office of Research Integrity and IRB reviewed and approved my research protocol. All of my interviewees were given approved informed consent documents that discussed the goals and scope of my project. At the beginning of each recorded interview, I reviewed the consent document, discussed the potential for the publication of collected data, and recorded verbal consent before proceeding with my interviews. All participants were compensated for their participation in this project. Furthermore, for any Twitter threads I consulted or cited, I contacted their creators for consent and paid them for the labor of composing their thoughts, recognizing the time and labor that is often unpaid for multiply marginalized sex workers and the understandable assumption of a right-to-privacy for social media spaces where users exist in a liminal space between public and private.
While many of my interviewees openly identified as disabled, chronically ill, and/or neurodivergent (n=27), this case study draws specifically on 12 interviews with 11 interviewees. In the process of analyzing my interviews alongside the published writing, podcasts, and panels of disabled sex workers, I quickly reached saturation 3 . I have selectively chosen unedited sections of specific interviews to provide the most representative sample and to foreground the voices and theorization of multiply marginalized sex workers. All interview participants have been given pseudonyms and are referred to with their self-described identities and preferred terminology (Sheppard, 2019). Of the included interviewees, five are Black, three are white, two Asian, and one identified as mixed-race. Ten of the interviewees self-identified as queer and one identified as straight. Six identified as trans, non-binary, or gender non-conforming, and 5 identified as cisgender. Unless openly disclosed in the selected excerpts, I do not provide a list of the specific disabilities of my participants since they varied widely and included experiences with self-diagnosis, formal diagnosis, and contested and/or undocumented disability.
Disability, Sex Work, and Labor
Sex workers have long advocated for the recognition of "sex work as work," and thus a job worthy of labor rights, workplace safety, and respect (Leigh, 1997). While some of my interviewees focused on the freedoms of online work and the creativity they could utilize in their content creation, disabled sex workers consistently challenged this rosy picture of online sex work. They offered a more nuanced look at how their disabilities influence their choices to become sex workers and how daily online work impacted them. Many interviewees discussed the tension of navigating the amount of labor (emotional, erotic, and physical) required to maintain a steady income through online work. Like other forms of body work (Wolkowitz, 2002), sex work presents unique physical challenges that are even more prevalent for disabled and chronically ill sex workers. Nabila, a disabled, neurodivergent, queer, non-binary, Muslim sex worker, discusses the prevalence of disabled sex workers because of the potential for more flexibility:
There's definitely a lot more disabled sex workers than you think, a lot of us hide it. You know, if people are ambulatory, it's a lot easier to hide it. But there are a lot of sex workers that I know that are autistic. And for a lot of people, that's not necessarily considered a disability, but legally and medically, it's technically considered a disability. We think differently than other people. And people are, you know, people are jerks when they find out that a sex worker is autistic. You know, I know a lot of girls who have mobility issues and other medical issues, and they got into sex work because like I said, it's like the only job that you can do, you know, you can make your own hours, you can decide what you want to do and what you're not going to do, depending on how your body is feeling that day. And you do it from home. You don't have to drive into a job. You can do it at whatever hour you need to be for however long you're able to be awake. And that makes sex work one of the main viable options for people who are disabled.
Several of my interviewees described strategies they used to navigate the physical, mental, and emotional demands of sex work. Nabila made the conscious shift to move from live camming to more recorded content and/or one-on-one domme work when they were injured on the job:
When I was doing camming, I was doing vanilla camming for the most part, which is just all, everybody wants you to have sex with yourself on camera. And, you know, as somebody with… I had recently had a hip surgery and I have all these pain issues and my joints just go out of place for no reason, you know, doing that kind of work specifically was so, so hard on me. Like I remember one day where I was in the middle of a show and my hip went out of place and I had to pretend like I was fine and fake an orgasm and then end the show and then get assistance because my hip was out of place. And I think that was the day where I was like, "I can't do this anymore" …Camming was physically exhaustive and painful, [but] doing pro-submissive work was an intense amount of emotional labor because I had two Doms that I lived with already that…I loved and was serving. So, trying to add on random internet people trying to be my Dom is ridiculous. And so…I talked to people, and I was like, okay, how do you do this online? What is this about?…And everyone I talked to was like, yes, it is so much better when it comes to your emotional labor, because you, it's not about pleasing whatever this person wants constantly for forever. You know, you can do a session and it's an hour. And it's way less intensive than if you were the sub, you know? And that's what I found to be true. And I'm going to be honest, like there's a lot of, there's a lot of girls that I've seen that are into pro Dom stuff online. They're wearing collars, they're all subs in real life…And yet, like we go out and we do this as our job, because it's just exhausting to be a sub all the time, you know?
In this interview selection, Nabila explains the complicated self-negotiation that disabled sex workers must do, thinking through which types of labor are most feasible. During our interview, Nabila discussed the difficulties of getting a diagnosis as a sex worker with limited access to healthcare, health insurance, and how their sex work history and xenophobic doctors created barriers to the documentation she would need to seek care and accommodations. Echoing Kafer's argument that crip theory includes "people identifying with disability and lacking not only a diagnosis but any 'symptoms' of impairment" (Kafer 2013: 13), Nabila's story demonstrates how "crip sex work" can reveal ways criminalization and stigmatization impede access to care and resources for disabled sex workers, across a range of bodyminds and formal diagnoses.
For Nabila and my other interviewees, choosing to do online sex work and specific subspecialties was often necessary because other forms of sex work (such as direct work or submissive work) required physical and emotional capacities that they did not have. In several of my interviews a temporal element was salient in which sex workers felt they had the capacity to do camming (more live encounters) and while others felt more comfortable with pre-recorded clips, allowing them to strategically work with their disabilities in order to use the "boom and bust" cycle of disability and neurodivergence. Rebecca, a white disabled cis woman in her early 30s living, working, and attending graduate school in New York City, describes her entrance into sex work and how her different disabilities have impacted her experiences:
So, I am diagnosed with bipolar two. I'm starting to question the accuracy of that diagnosis. I, cause I definitely have depressive episodes where it's hard to get anything done. And those are days when sex work is really helpful. Cause it's like, there's no expectation that I have to be there at a certain time. I can wait until… then online what complicates that if you're trying to stick to a schedule is, which is again, another thing that I'm just not good at for online work. And I think some of the symptoms that were being classified as hypomania are actually like ADHD. And I get a lot of the, uh, hyperfocus, like once I start doing something, which can be helpful for things like editing like 10 clips in a row. But you know, my schedule isn't strong. Like I need to be able to switch from like, activity to activity. Like I need to fit homework in there and I need to clean and I need to…so, uh, that has been difficult. And I also have IBS, which, it gets better and worse. When it's bad, like I have had to like cancel some things. Cause I'm like, I can't be on the subway for half an hour. I'm going to need to use the bathroom. So yeah. That definitely has affected my ability to do work in the past. I also had PTSD that has sort of resolved by this point. But that was also something that made it difficult to work like a nine to five. For things like chronic illness, physical or mental, I think sex work is often a really popular option because it gives you that flexibility.
Rebecca shifted to online work during the COVID-19 lockdown and struggled with the differences in online and full-service work. Her experience reveals how disabled sex workers navigate "crip time" (Samuels, 2017) in a service industry that demands punctuality and prolonged attention. One myth that quickly circulated about online sex work was the ability to make a lot of money fast, a myth that is continually perpetuated by non-sex working journalists and content platforms looking for new gig employees. All of the sex workers I spoke with refuted this. Rebecca spoke directly to the differences between FSSW and online work and the different barriers to success:
If you need money super-fast online sex work's not going to do it. I don't…(pause) most of the people that I know honestly are other in-person workers who have started doing online work because of this pandemic. And a lot of them are still doing in-person work. I was still doing some in-person work, cause like I just couldn't afford a lot of the time to not do it. And I think it's, you know, people like me who, like I have a disability and I'm in school full time, so I just don't have the luxury of time…and energy is also kind of a limited commodity, for me. I think it's, in order to be successful in online work, you need to have time, energy, privacy and just…the ability to put in those startup costs. I think of like equipment. You know, I'm lucky that I had both a laptop and a smartphone, but I had to purchase, um, a tripod and lights. And then, you know, all of the equipment that I was using for in-person stuff I can use on camera, but that's another thing it's like equipment, props, outfits. I think it's; I mean, I don't know for sure, but I'm assuming that online work is more people who like, have really thought about it and planned it out and decided that this is what they're going to do. Whereas in person work, I think most of us got started when we were in a pinch.
How successful one is in sex work is often determined by identity in many ways, including race, gender, socioeconomic status, language, region, education, etc. However, trying to neatly sort the "whorearchy" is complicated when comparing full-service sex work and online work, especially within an intersectional framework.
Racialized Disgendering in Online Sex Work
Non-normative bodyminds exist at the fringes of desirability politics. Sex workers of color, fat sex workers, trans sex workers, queer sex workers, disabled sex workers—have all been considered a niche market. This type of stratification extends into the online community and marketplace. Disabled sex workers experience what Obourn (2020) identifies as "racialized disgender…that is, how race and gender are constructed via symbolic, social, and material disabilities and how the ability status of the body intersects with and co-constructs racial and gender identities" (Obourn, 2020: 84). Obourn, citing Brown (1995), describes racialized disgender, particularly for those multiply marginalized by gender, disability, and race/ethnicity, as "an ongoing set of culturally acceptable microaggressions as well as a 'lifetime risk of exposure to certain trauma'" (Obourn, 2020: 99).
For the disabled and multiply marginalized sex workers I interviewed, the process of "racialized disgendering" was experienced through interactions in social media spaces with white and otherwise privileged sex workers and online content platforms who (1) uphold the neoliberal, capitalist logic of the "individual entrepreneur" who has "equal opportunities to succeed" while (2) obfuscating or refuting the systemic power structures that benefit more privileged sex workers through microaggressions and (3) continue to benefit financially through cultural appropriation, digital gentrification and segregation, and fetishization (4) without participating in mutual aid efforts or paying disabled, multiply marginalized sex workers for their intellectual and emotional labor as they continued to call out these issues and provide community education.
Neoliberal Girl Bosses and the Platforms who Love Them
One of the things that kept bubbling to the surface of my interviews and my fieldwork were questions about who can survive and be successful as an online sex worker and who gets to be the face and voice of the sex worker rights movement. As Bell explained:
It's like, I should be able…because sex work was made literally for people like me, people who are sex workers weren't people who had the means to just survive. Like even, even though I don't believe in God or anything, like even in the Bible sex workers, didn't live in mansions, they were poor, and they lived on the street and they did whatever to feed their children. Marsha P. Johnson didn't live in some big fucking house. Like she pretty much lived on the street for a while. And then she saved up the money through sex work to buy a building, the house, for other youth like her. Like then to watch those people suffer…and a lot of content creators, they don't care. So I look, I don't want to be in the space where people will do more talking than actually doing something for the people who this shit was really made for. And you don't like, I support them because sex positivity and, um, normalized sex work. But it's never (audibly emotional) "normal survival sex workers," the girls in the street who are on drugs, the trans woman who couldn't never possibly do online sex work, because they can't even deal with the gender and body dysmorphia that they would face on the internet. Like, it really sucks that the people who screamed the loudest about normalizing sex work are the ones who do nothing for the mobilization of like…you know, the big content creators, go get their praise and stuff and they'll get to buy their big houses and their nice cars. And I'll still live in the projects wondering day-to-day how to feed myself. And that's not what we were trying to normalize. And I just feel like I would fight so long. So as a marginalized person, I kinda just bowed out…the pandemic made it very easy, made it so easy.
Bell cried while they talked to me about how they felt left behind, silenced, and forgotten. They were frustrated not only by the lack of reflection by white sex workers surrounding their dominance of the narrative, but by their use of normalization rhetoric to make money, a ridiculous amount of money, while other more marginalized sex workers continued to struggle. For Bell, white sex workers shifting the focus of sex worker rights to the right to be wealthy rather than the right to live, from survive, to thrive drove them out of online sex work and out of social media community spaces. 4 This moment of racialized disgendering, like the moment they described in the introduction of this paper, produces and reproduces the sex industry as a space where specific bodies are valued, while others are regarded as undesirable, unworthy, and literally worth less, based on the amount of money multiply marginalized sex workers can charge.
Bell, in expressing their discomfort and anger with the reality of their positionality in sex work, speaks to another way that ability, whiteness, and gender intersect—sexual gentrification. While "anti-trafficking" activists and scholars use "sexual gentrification" to dismiss the concerns of sex workers by saying that all online workers are privileged and promote their anti-sex work and anti-pornography agenda, I think "sexual gentrification" has the potential to serve a different purpose. Based on the critiques of my interviewees, "sexual gentrification" can be used to refer to the variety of practices that white, nondisabled sex workers use to flatten differences in sex worker rights discourse and the influx of affluent, nondisabled white women into online sex work spaces at the direct expense of more marginalized sex workers. One of the consequences of sexual gentrification is an issue that has plagued feminism and other social justice movements in the US forever—white, privileged women take control of and dominate the narrative, and thus center their concerns as the starting point for all discussions around the issue. For sex work, that talking point has become "empowerment." Sex working intellectual moses moon argues:
Articles about camming and internet porn tend to lean into empowerment rhetoric, with writers proclaiming the advantages and flexibility of working from home, the ability to set one's own schedule, and the power of owning your own business. What these articles neglect to mention is that many sex workers enter the trade to provide for their loved ones, are disabled, or have been previously incarcerated. (moon, 2021, paras. 5-6)
In her work on neoliberal feminism, Rottenberg articulates what I argue lies at the heart of the intra-group tensions and public distinctions between online sex workers and direct FSSW: "Feminism increasingly produces a splitting of female subjecthood: the worthy capital-enhancing feminist subject and the 'unworthy' disposable female 'other' who performs most of the reproductive and care work" (Rottenberg, 2018). Although all sex workers are stigmatized for the type of care work they perform, racialized and disabled FSSWers are unable to position themselves as "worthy capital-enhancing feminist subject[s]" in the same way that nondisabled, white online sex workers are able to. The emergence of public fascination with sugar babies and high-end escorts, demonstrates a willingness (albeit fetishizing and voyeuristic) to tolerate the services that palatable sex workers provide—affluent, white, cisgender, thin, educated, conventionally attractive escorts—while more marginalized sex workers are relegated in status to the "cautionary tale" and portrayed as victims of poor individual choices and in need of assistance from the savior-industrial complex (Kaye, 2017). Nabila expands on this, saying:
And I think that's difficult because like, that means that in minority communities we are going to have more people who are survival sex workers. And you know, it's not, not saying that survival sex work is a bad thing, but no one should have to be in that position is my, is my personal feeling on it. Like I started out as a survival sex worker. No one should have to be in that position where they're freaking out and not knowing, like, how they're going to pay their bills or keep a roof over their head or put food in their mouths period. But we, no one should especially be in that position and then have to decide to do something that is considered morally questionable in our society in order to take care of yourself or your family. Um, I feel like if people do sex work, I wish that we lived in a, in a world, in a society where people did sex work because they want to do sex work. But I feel like also a lot of times when people talk about, you know, survival sex work, um, it gets ignored or like, um, diminished kind of, because a lot of times when people start talking about it, white sex workers will be like, Oh, well, I don't have, like, I, I'm doing this because I want it. I don't, blah, blah, blah. Why don't you just tell people this, that or the other, you know? And it's like, okay, like, it's great that you have that privilege, but most of us don't.
Nabila, like many of the marginalized sex workers I spoke with, was very clear that sex work should be a choice made not out of necessity, but that all sex workers' reasons for choosing sex work are valid, regardless of how that choice is understood by society. Sex work, while not always preferable in the eyes of civilians, is sometimes tolerable to outsiders if participants can provide a convincing argument that they are "good" capitalist subjects, that they are "good" feminist subjects, in that they are both making more money than they could ever make in another profession, and they proclaim empowerment. The moment those civilian illusions of the sexually and financially empowered "girl boss" are shattered, sex workers cease to be individuals and become stories, fodder for human trafficking organizations seeking to end the sex industry once and for all. Nabila, like Bell, holds a specific perception of how white, nondisabled sex workers interact in online sex worker spaces on social media sites like Twitter and Reddit, where sex workers build and maintain fan bases, attract potential new clients, and create community with each other.
As many sex workers have theorized, the centering of "liberation" and "empowerment" have obfuscated the actual needs of the most vulnerable sex workers (Lee, 2019). Indira explained:
And so I think there is just like a lot of white women that I know in sex work talk about it as this like liberation thing as this, like it's a fun experiment or like it's a commentary on how bad wages are in various contexts, which is true. But then they also don't acknowledge the racism that exists within sex work as an industry. And I fall somewhere in the middle, that like I benefit very much so from proximity to whiteness, less but more about like distance from Blackness. I'm obviously not white, but I'm also obviously not Black. And so I don't experience anti-Black racism in hiring. I don't experience anti-Black racism in client selection. I am racially ambiguous, unless I tell you I'm Asian, a lot of people are like Puerto Rican, Dominican, and I'm not sure is that what you're looking for? Like, I've been Brazilian, I've been Hawaiian. I've been Russian with a tan. I was a lot, um, And I benefit from that and I can use that to my advantage, but that is racism in action. And that's like, what race-based privilege looks like. And I think a lot of my non-Black people of color friends who are like sex workers are willing to talk, talk about that and acknowledge that. And a lot of white sex workers I know are not, they're like, no, it's all the same. It's an equalizer. We're all in here together. We're all like struggling with the same way. And I'm like, but we're not though. And I don't see a lot of white sex workers choosing to make that the thing they talk about and raise awareness for and like problematize, but instead talking about like, "no one should shame me. I'm doing this for fun. I'm a liberated strong 21st century woman and I should be allowed to do whatever I want with my body." And I just don't think that "I should do whatever I want with my body" argument is like, what needs to be discussed in sex work right now? I don't think that's the issue. I think larger issues are…[that] there are wage inequities and hiring inequities in sex work like every other industry…That is a big problem in the way that like sex work is discussed in the way that, because [white women] have the privilege to be visible. So many white, voluntary sex workers are able to co-opt the narrative and take control of it and be like, I want to talk about my issues and not larger issues in the industry. And I think it's because they don't think about the industry.
The continual focus on "empowerment" and "choice" erases the systemic issues in the sex industry that reflect larger issues in the global economy. It's not that sex work can't be empowering or that there aren't empowering moments for sex workers during their time in the sex industry but choosing to abandon "empowerment rhetoric" is an outright refusal to subscribe to neoliberal feminist ideologies that erase the hierarchies and whorearchies that are a reality for all sex workers in the industry. White, cisgender, nondisabled sex workers have a responsibility to recognize the ways their race, gender, and ability renders them hypervisible and enables their gentrification of sex work spaces and discourses, while allowing them to believe their privileges are secondary to their marginalized status as sex workers.
Many of the white nondisabled sex workers I interviewed barely acknowledged how their positionality benefited them in the sex industry. If they did, it was at a surface level that somehow circled back to how hard they worked, again relying on neoliberal ideology. Some disabled sex workers, however, were keenly aware of how their privileges and oppressions intersected. In talking about her identities, Rebecca, a disabled queer sex working activist, openly acknowledged the ways that some of her privileges benefitted her financially and emotionally:
But I, I'm also white and cisgender and relatively thin and young, although less so than I used to be. Those are all privileges when it comes to sex work. You know, people don't really fetishize me. I'm just the norm. I'm what they're supposed to be sexually attracted to, uh, which works in my favor. It gives me like a broader client base than a lot of other people. I've talked to friends who are women of color and trans women. And, you know, they talk about how difficult it is to be fetishized for these aspects and sometimes offensive ways or ways that, you know, if you're trans can feel kind of dysphoric, um, that, you know, they have to play to that kind of like racist male gaze or, um, in order to make that money, which again is something that I'm lucky that I don't have to do…I'll also say like educational privilege. Um, when guys think that, you know, you're smart and well-spoken, it's like, Oh, well then you must be doing this because you want to and not. And also, you know, when I talk about being a student, they feel better about themselves. Like, Oh, I'm funding her education, you know? Um, so that makes it easier for me to market myself. And it makes it easier for me to do the work without having to like put myself in those uncomfortable kinds of positions.
Rebecca was cognizant of her privileges, especially of the situations her more marginalized colleagues experienced. Her interview also revealed another interesting aspect regarding how privileges compound in unique ways in sex work. Rebecca's "educational privilege" to already have a degree and to currently be able to claim her status as a student was strategic. Based on her experience as an indoor direct worker as both a domme and a sugar baby, Rebecca concluded that wealthier clients did not want to be with sex workers who were doing sex work as a "last resort," preferring to see themselves as a benefactor funding further schooling for an already "educated young person." Rebecca's story was not unique, and after she explained her educational privilege this way, I started to notice that for many sex workers, claiming student status (for some not even in school or well into their 30s) was a unique way to put clients at ease and build a relationship with them.
I think there is also like men like sex workers who don't want to be sex workers forever. They like, they like that. I'm only doing it while I'm in school…which is what I turned into, but not where I started, which was an interesting transformation for me. But there was a familiarity and like the majority of our clients are white. And that's a part of it when you work in like the higher end higher price tag stuff is you see a lot of white collar men from, from wall street. That's what you see.
For nondisabled online sex workers, this mythos can be easier to build and maintain through the mediation of technology in ways that disabled content creators and street workers cannot. Engaging in respectability politics and lateral whorephobia in order to separate themselves as "good sex workers" or "happy hookers" was a recurrent strategy that my interviewees noticed among privileged sex workers, an understandable strategy given the ongoing stigmatization and criminalization of sex workers. As many of my interviewees noted, however, the strategy of playing the "good sex worker" is not available to all, especially within the context of the historical hypersexualization and fetishization of racialized sex workers. Sex workers who maintained these forms of ideological and digital segregation also refused to acknowledge their overt and covert racism in the form of microaggressions and cultural appropriation. Other racialized interviewees pointed me to exchanges in which some disabled white sex workers would deploy their disability and/or queerness to deflect claims that they were racist, bringing their identities into the conversation to distance themselves from whiteness. The disabled, sex workers of color I interviewed discussed the importance of widespread reflections on the actions of white sex workers within sex worker communities and spaces.
Cash App in Bio: The Importance of Mutual Aid and Paying People for their Labor
As Rebecca mentioned in an earlier excerpt, for disabled sex workers, time and energy are a limited resource. For multiply marginalized sex workers, this limited time and energy can often be depleted just by logging on to Twitter and seeing racist, ableist, and transphobic rhetoric on their timelines. This time and energy are often demanded and rarely compensated. Many marginalized sex workers, specifically BIPOC, LBGTQIA+, and disabled sex workers, talked about how more privileged sex workers further benefited from their positionality in these spaces and then did not participate in any activism or acts of community care. Paying marginalized sex workers for their labor, participating in mutual aid, and performing other acts of financial and material allyship were widely preferred over rhetorical demonstrations. As one sex worker described:
Like that's another thing I'm going to get frustrated about really quick. I feel like there's a lot of just like sex workers passing back the same fucking $20, you know? And I feel like we talked about this a lot and a lot of it is like Black and Brown sex workers. Like, I feel like white girls will like say, or like they'll put in their profile, like go Black lives matter, but it's like, are you actually doing anything? No. Like, are we, are we doing stuff for each other?
Because privileged online sex workers can exist largely in their own curated community bubbles through strategic blocking of marginalized sex workers who call out their behavior, there isn't any real pressure to conform to values that have historically been at the heart of sex worker community building and organizing.
Marginalized sex workers regularly tip each other with "no strings attached" and will also send money after discussions where a sex worker from a more marginalized position does the emotional labor of calling community members "in" and educating them about problematic practices or language. Paying people for their labor, however, does not provide an open invitation to replicate exploitative labor practices through sex work. Unfortunately, during the past year, there has been a rise in online sex workers, especially those OnlyFans models occupying the top tiers of the site, outsourcing their labor. While subscriptions can be lucrative, the best way to make a large profit on OnlyFans is to have one-on-one interactions with clients through paid messaging sessions and "pay-per-view" messages, images, and videos. However, there are only so many hours in a day and so much time one person can spend interacting with multiple clients simultaneously. To manage this demand, some top models have started hiring assistants to help with social media management, promotion, and even to work as messaging assistants. One top model is rumored to have assistants working in shifts 24 hours a day, so there is never any missed opportunity for profit. Izzie and I had the opportunity to discuss this phenomenon and her frustrations with the proliferation of sex workers benefiting from other more marginalized sex workers:
But like sure. You're hiring other models, but are you hiring them ethically? Are you just saying, Oh, I'll charge you $10. If you text for this one guy all day knowing good and damn well, you'll make $400 off that man or…like it makes me so angry. It's because this is literally what we said we wouldn't do. This is literally what we said we wouldn't do. We didn't like how porn companies would sit here. And even though there's nothing more important companies, but there's a lot of men involved who take our money. There's a lot of people who exploit a lot of our resources, I would say, um, Oh, my goodness. It makes me so angry, so it's like we see those companies exploiting our resources. We see how, um, talent agencies will just show up and be like, Oh, let me rep for you on only fans. If you pay me this month, like we see how they come in at eight and exploit us. And then we decide, okay, so you know what to do it by yourselves, we can hire an assistant. We'll pay our assistants fairly. We can hire this person. You pay them fairly well. All of a sudden you see the money and you get greedy for what at the end of the day money is literally paid for. And it would burn. Like, I just don't understand that I don't, I don't get it if it's not like you wanted to hire someone and make sure they're having a livable wage, because one of the people I met, like who was actually a fan of mine, I met them in a mall near me and they actually worked for a model I looked up to and they were like, yeah, I knew her in high school. And she paid me $5,000 a month. It is good, heavy like wage. And that was her only assistant. And I was like, that's amazing. And then I hear other models on OnlyFans who make probably like closer to $100,000 a month to $45,000 a month. And they're like, yeah, I pay my assistant probably a hundred dollars a month. That's exploitation!!! You've taken this thing. And just like, I'm like, it's literally say sike right now. Tell me you're lying. You can't even offer them healthcare?! A hundred dollars a month?!
The models participating in these exploitative practices are overwhelmingly white. For Izzie and other marginalized online sex workers, these business strategies violate what is at the heart of sex work for them and create even more disparity in an industry that has always had issues with pay equity. Whiteness and capitalism are at the center of "girl boss" feminism, and for sex workers, it is no different. White women have led the rallying cry of "empowerment" and used the bodyminds of queer, BIPOC, and disabled sex workers to climb to the upper echelon of earning power in online platforms while centering their own issues.
Conclusions: Cripping Online Sex Work
All but one of the BIPOC sex workers I interviewed expressed frustrations toward white sex workers, especially those with privileges related to gender, class, and ability, who further monetized their success by taking money from other sex workers. Izzie, a Black queer disabled online sex worker, described her frustrations with the individualistic, capitalistic, non-critical ideology that many white and otherwise privileged sex workers operated from. In an imaginative exercise, I asked her and other interviewees what white, nondisabled, and otherwise privileged sex workers can do as individuals to disrupt these processes and work toward larger systemic changes for a more equitable online marketplace and internet. She said:
I do feel like that all in all, there needs to be more participation from white sex workers to the general community. I know a lot of them are like, well, I worked hard for my money and I get that. But the thing is about this community is that you can never do anything alone. You get fans because another sex worker retweeted you, you get engagement because another sex worker commented for you. You get engagement because another sex worker liked your photo and it showed up in their likes tab and one of their fans went there and then went through all of your stuff and followed you. Yeah. That's the only way this thing, anything works in this business is through networking. And if you can't network appropriately, and help out people appropriately. Like it doesn't even have to be financially. If you say you don't want to do it financially, that's fine. But you need to push other sex workers of colors, push other sex workers that don't look like you. If you're going to do like a, a one-on-one group and like help other sex workers do it for free, because there's no reason why you are in the top 0.1% asking other sex workers who are 10% up to pay you for your services. I just don't. I feel like that's, that's capitalistic. And I feel like I understand everyone's like very much like anti-capitalism, but we all learn how to capitalize our bodies, but like there's no reason we should use that against each other. Like, I don't, that makes no sense. It makes no sense to me. And it seems, uh, it seems backwards. It seems like it's counterproductive. That's the word I'm looking for. So I feel like. If they want to boost others' engagements. That's fine. That makes sense. That makes sense. If you want to do X, Y, and Z, that's fine. But also don't just do it because someone is telling you to do it…
Based on her answer and the answers of my other interviewees, I have compiled a list of suggestions that offer ways to "crip sex work," that is, to refuse the narrative that sex workers, especially disabled sex workers have no future, and add dismantling whorephobia to our reflexive practices. As we continue our individual work, we must advocate for changes in whorephobic institutional policies and the full decriminalization of sex work. As many sex of the sex workers I interviewed argued, it is only through the liberation of criminalized sex workers that we can reduce stigma. While these individual changes do not abolish the complex systems that oppress all sex workers, they are steps to make online sex work communities more equitable and open for multiply marginalized sex workers. This is a necessary step toward making space for the most vulnerable in organizing, activism, and scholarship.
- Pay marginalized sex workers for their intellectual and emotional labor
- Send money directly to sex workers when you learn something from their work through the payment information on their social media and websites
- Do not ask sex workers to explain things to you, and definitely don't ask without paying for their time first
- Participate in mutual aid
- Calculate a percentage of your earnings and redistribute your wealth to sex worker-led organizations and mutual aid groups
- Amplify and promote multiply-marginalized sex workers and their content
- Call in (or out) privileged sex workers when they commit micro- and macro- aggressions
- Advocate for the reform of platform policies that uphold neoliberal ideology (i.e. contests, top earners, etc.)
- Don't speak over sex workers in your advocacy
- Groups like Peep.Me are creating co-op digital platforms to push back on the mainstream platform model
- Do the work of educating yourself—read articles and blog posts, and listen to podcasts and interviews with marginalized sex workers
- Listen to marginalized sex workers when they call out racism, ableism, transphobia, classism, and xenophobia
Online sex work can offer increased work flexibility for sex workers who are disabled, chronically ill, and/or neurodivergent who want to work from home or need to work from home due to systemic ableism in many workplaces. While it is accessible to many, there are barriers to success for many "newbie" sex workers, including full-service sex work veterans who have years of experience with direct sex work, but have not entered the online marketplace for a plethora of reasons. Furthermore, multiply marginalized sex workers, those who exist at the intersection of identities without privilege, face an untold number of barriers in online sex work. The theorization of these sex workers about their own experiences reveals the ways that disabled online sex workers experience racialized disgender and, ultimately, technosocial death. As sex workers face a new wave legal and political threats in the post-FOSTA/SESTA "war on sex work," it is these sex workers who are at the most risk for digital deplatforming, state surveillance, physical and digital violence, and ultimately, erasure (Blunt and Wolf, 2020). Situated in this "nonpromissory future-oriented logic" disabled online sex workers demonstrate the power of a "crip existence," revealing new pathways and ways of being that subvert and resist ableist, white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal capitalist logics (Obourn, 2020: 101). Disabled sex workers are at the forefront of new imaginaries and discussions of collective liberation, futures, and community care.
I would like to thank the reviewers and editorial committee for their generative feedback. Your words of support and comments helped shape this piece into something more than I ever imagined. Most importantly, I wish to thank my research participants and the countless sex working activists and intellectuals who have theorized about their experiences and put their words out into the world. Without your expertise, this project would be nothing.
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I use respectability politics to refer to the strategies used within communities to police and gatekeep the behaviors and presentations of those within the community in an effort to achieve legitimacy to the dominant group.
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As one of my reviewers helpfully pointed out, the term "survival sex worker" can have the consequence of "dividing sex workers into categories legitimizes the decisions of some sex workers and not others. Some sex workers who are labeled as survival sex workers feel the way the term is currently used makes it seem like they are not strong or not capable of making the best decisions for themselves." (Bruckert, et al. 2013: 3).
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In qualitative research, saturation refers to the point at which collecting with new data ceases to yield any new results. Compton, D'Lane. 2018. "How Many (Queer) Cases Do I Need: Thinking Through Research
Design." In Compton, D'Lane, Tey Meadow, and Kristen Schilt, eds. Other, Please
Specify: Queer Methods in Sociology. Berkeley: University of California Press, pgs. 185-200.
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As Erevelles & Kafer argue, "the ideology of disability has been used to justify the racial and gendered division of labor based on heteronormative notions of the family and, in doing so, organizes class relations in a capitalist society" (Erevelles & Kafer 2010: 206). Bell's experience illuminates the ways that sex workers are stratified within a white, heteropatriarchal, ableist society.
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