*Source's name changed due to safety and privacy concerns
She woke up to messages in her inbox, each punctuated with a probing air.
“Is this you?”
“Is this really you?”
Her heart sprung into her throat as she navigated to the account screenshotted in the messages.
It was her. But no one could know that.
Someone posted content from her anonymous OnlyFans and her name on a public Instagram for the world to see. Surrendering to the adrenaline, fear and violation, she cleared out her OnlyFans account.
“I wasn’t public about it,” Susie*, an ASU senior, said. “I am a university student, and I would never want my family to find out about it. I saw it as like ‘oh I'm going to make a quick buck and leave.’”
There is an image of virtual sex work plastered across the internet — one dripping with ease, flexibility, and the promise of an auxiliary income capable of financing both the fundamental and the frills of modern life.
But this image omits the labor required to establish sex work as a viable source of income, the potential danger of losing one’s bodily autonomy through leaks and revenge porn, and a corporate absence of loss prevention for sex workers using virtual platforms.
“It was like my worst fear came true,” she said. “I was playing with fire and trying not to get burned. And then I got burned.”
With crystal clear webcams and highspeed connections, virtual sex work, comparable to traditional sex work, is oftentimes a more viable accessible option for university students to earn money with their own bodily capital.
While online sex work has seen a boom as a result of technological development and increased sex positivity, many are hesitant to embrace it. Stigmatization of sex workers has permeated all levels of society; sex workers routinely deal with exploitation, discrimination, violence and abuse.
“It isn't something that I think, at this moment, should be embraced wholeheartedly without more examination of the cost to the students who are doing that kind of work,” Sally Kitch, an ASU professor of women and gender studies, said.
Sex work has long existed in university spaces. But the internet altered who gets to participate.
In 1996, the first camgirl, Jennifer Ringley, began using a webcam to upload images of herself from her dorm room. She recorded 24/7, capturing herself sleeping, studying, stripping and occasionally engaging in sex acts.
The camera offered a “real-time look into the real-life of a young woman.” Ringley soon turned the feed into a paid subscription site, charging viewers for more vulnerable facets of her life. Thus, the birth of a new form of sex work: webcamming.
In 2010, Ginger Banks was a 19-year-old chemical engineering student at ASU when she began working as a camgirl.
After growing up in a strict controlling household, Banks learned more about herself and her sexuality when she moved from her small hometown to attend ASU.
While immersed in campus culture, she was able to explore her sexuality in ways she had never been able to. She soon uncovered a viable way to make money and pay for her education: live streaming explicit images of herself to paying customers through webcamming sites.
Banks felt empowered to take control of her body.
At first, she did not know of any sex workers among her peers. But, when Banks began to open up about her job, she learned she was not alone.
“I started to realize that there were a lot more people out there who did it super secretly,” Banks said. “There were friends I knew in college and we were both doing it and didn't know.”
Banks realized she had become popular when she saw her photos circulating around the internet on forums like 4chan, and she began to make a considerable amount of money from her work.
However, being a sex worker in college put Banks in a predicament.
“I didn't want to continue going to school because I didn't want to deal with the reactions of my peers,” she said. “Back then, I was still lying to everyone in my life about my job, so that was just not an option.”
Banks eventually quit school. She had carved a place for herself in an industry that awarded her for being herself and gave her the freedom she had been craving.
Sites like OnlyFans capitalize on the feeling of freedom and flexibility, allowing anyone over 18 to post their sexually explicit images while setting their own prices and managing their imagery.
Susie started her OnlyFans account in the summer of 2020.
Living at home in the middle of the pandemic, her parents forbade her from getting a job. She wanted some cash, and she had seen OnlyFans creators posting their rather impressive earnings.
“When Beyoncé mentioned it in a song, I was like ‘OK, so this is actually a big thing,’” Susie said.
She could work from home and it afforded her flexibility and anonymity. So, she made an account.
Users on OnlyFans pay a monthly subscription fee to access content, sexually explicit or otherwise. The first summer Susie posted on the site, she had around five subscribers.
The next summer, at her peak, she had about 20 subscribers, while still making sure to avoid posting her face or full nudity. But she learned the hard way that posting explicit photos was not as easy as social media made it out to be.
“If you're not constantly pushing it and promoting it, it's not really going to happen for you,” Susie said.
Her income also paled against the promises she was sold by popular OnlyFans creators.
“For somebody who doesn't want it to be their main source of income, just enough for a quick buck, I think you can fall for that lie,” Susie said. “You think you can make a ton of money when in reality you're probably not going to make that much money.”
Over two summers, Susie’s gross earnings totaled $477. She took home $381, OnlyFans took the other $96 or 20% of her pay.
Knowing what she knows now, she’s concerned about how the site seems to prey on younger vulnerable people.
“They target younger people with less money. There’s kind of a promise. You can live the life you want. You can make as much as you want,” Susie said. “People only see the good. You don't really see the ugly until you're actually in it.”
After Susie’s photos leaked online, she swore off OnlyFans.
Despite taking precautions to distance herself and creating an anonymous persona, she still fell victim to doxxing — her name prominently displayed next to photos meant to be nameless.
“I just think it's kind of a trap,” she added.
As sex work becomes increasingly visible, it is important to remember how intertwined it is with criminal activity that preys on poor and marginalized individuals, Kitch said.
Exploitative situations impact marginalized people and communities more than they do on people with resources and other opportunities, Kitch said. In the 21st century, we are more capable of sexual expression than ever before, but with every freedom comes consequences, she added.
Along with having to deal with reactions from her peers, Banks had to grapple with her family’s reaction. Her father, ex-stepmother and two siblings no longer speak to her because of her job. Now, Banks is an activist for sex positivity and tries to spread knowledge and awareness to her 340,000 followers on Instagram.
Despite the drawbacks to sex work, over the past decade, there has been a huge shift in tone toward the profession and sexuality as a whole.
Joris Van Ouytsel, an assistant professor at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication and an expert on digital media and sexuality, said hypersexualized media culture can be very positive because it “opens up a whole new range of how relationships can be and disrupts the standard heteronormative expectations around relationships.”
But on the other hand, Van Ouytsel said, it can also put a lot of pressure on sex, sexuality and relationships.
“People learn about sexuality and relationships from the media,” he said. “It sets some kind of pressure and expectation for how to behave in relationships.”
Van Ouytsel’s tips for sexting or posting explicit photos online are to ensure your head, or anything else that can be identifiable like tattoos, birthmarks or backgrounds, is not in the photo. He also stresses to never post anything under pressure.
Susie said platforms like OnlyFans need to take responsibility in protecting the privacy of their content creators.
She believes OnlyFans should put safeguards in place to prevent screenshots and avoid leaks like her own, as well as more transparency in their policies.
Others put the responsibility on their educational institutions to ensure a safe place to connect with personal sexuality.
Durham University in England offers an educational program ensuring students who are engaged in sex work do so safely. Though the program saw some backlash for “legitimising a dangerous industry,” the university stands by its decision.
Devils in the Bedroom at ASU adopted a similar mission of support. The club focuses on sexual health and wellness, as well as giving students different tools they may need in order to be sexually autonomous, Thea Eigo, media communications director for the club, said.
The club promotes sex positivity and the ability to have open honest conversations about sex in whatever way feels comfortable, whether you choose to have sex or not, Eigo said.
Eigo began exploring their sexuality in college, like many others.
“In our society, sex as a whole is really taboo and a lot of people don't think it’s ok to talk about in honest and open ways,” they said.
While ASU does provide services like sexually transmitted infection testing, treatment and contraceptives through health services, Eigo believes ASU, or any institution, is not as open about sex as they need to be.
“Universities and institutions really shy away from having conversations about sex when they should be opening up that space,” they added.
Susie hopes conversations around virtual sex work would allow for those debating starting an account to weigh all the options. Though she does not necessarily regret her time on OnlyFans, in many ways she still feels changed by the experience.
“It ruined my trust,” Susie said.
“In everyone. In the site, in the people that subscribed. In everything.”
Kiera Riley is a managing editor at State Press Magazine. She also interns at the politics desk for the Arizona Republic