Did 2020 set us free from the stigma of online sex?

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From unprecedented porn engagement and record-breaking sex toy sales to an uptick in camming over quarantine, for many, 2020 will be defined by sex.

At a time when many were entering the sex industry, Leah Shrager was leaving it. Leah decided in early 2020 she would sacrifice her three million-strong fanbase as performance artist-provocateur on Instagram, as well as a successful camming career via regular requests, in lieu of more “traditional” artistic pursuits. Then March ushered in the most crippling global pandemic in a century. Unable to enjoy culture beyond digital devices, we regressed to our primal instincts. While the creative world shuttered overnight, sex inflated to twice the price. Perhaps, Leah mused, she should reconsider. 

Rehashing the great sex boom of 2020 feels somewhat fruitless, mostly because it has been so widely publicized. Outlets that usually skirted such tawdry subjects published how-tos for aspiring online sex workers. Masturbation made The New York Times headlines, and reports of sex toy sales enjoying a 200 percent increase (tripling in New Zealand) were heard around the world. We chortled as Pornhub offered premium access in Italy and France to unprecedented engagement spikes — with a 41 percent traffic increase in the US by late March — and watched with furrowed brows as infidelity matchmaking platforms reported 17,000 new members a day at the peak of the pandemic. 

Then there was OnlyFans

No matter your age, race, gender or even perceived good looks, for the financially upended by Covid-19, OnlyFans became The Promised Land. Usership was bolstered by increasingly limited entertainment options after weeks in lockdown, and as such the platform emerged as Daddy Warbucks for the digital gen — offering riches in exchange for rags… or sexy lingerie. The lonely, bored or just plain horny became increasingly aware of the interpersonal — albeit digital — connection cam sites offer, and porn began to feel like yesterday’s news. 

“The increase of cam site visitors, or just guys online, was incredibly beneficial to the market,” Leah says of 2020’s embrace of online sexual activity. “It’s been harder for some who are starting at the beginning, but great for those of us who have an audience.” 

She’s right. While mentally maneuvered around one’s morals, the market might very well saturate with 100 girls who fit your exact archetype, especially once the celebrities caught on. Bella Thorne elicited immediate backlash from online sex workers after earning a record-breaking $1 million dollars in her first day on the platform, by offering “nude” pictures for $200 — prompting OnlyFans to cap tips and pay-per-view charges. While the move may have infuriated existing cam girls, it brought the platform widespread attention. 

For those like Leah, who already boasted a hard-won following, the stars were aligning. To supplement her income, Leah founded a coaching service for young women hoping to better deploy their sexuality for maximum impact online. When one of her students revealed to Leah her sizable monthly earnings from OnlyFans, Leah decided to re-embrace adult entertainment. Her Instagram account had amassed four million devotees during quarantine, she may as well use them. 

Within weeks of her logging on, a gallerist — overdue on payment for Leah’s pieces — suggested they curate a show with a virtual component to sell her work. At this point, the artist had just hit her three-month anniversary on OnlyFans, and she was making $30,000 a month. She rejected their offer. Instead, she set up a gallery in her bedroom, papering the walls with her prints and self-broadcasting to OnlyFans. For the performance piece-cum-exhibition, Leah would discuss each of the pieces in-depth. For the finale, she would engage in intercourse with an unidentified male. Like each piece of art, the sex was for sale. 

“I had one of the biggest dealers in the world recently tell me that my work was too sexual for the current ‘conservative’ art market, but that he’d like me to come to his home in LA and give him a private example of what I do on my OnlyFans… charging for my Bedroom Gallery performance was like retribution.” 

For many, this year will be defined by sex. The ease of coronavirus spread saw to the disintegration of hookup culture and the state of New York advocating for masturbation, or, if absolutely necessary, masked sex. Those in relationships, situated a few feet from their partner all day, everyday, were forced to find new methods of creating or sustaining chemistry. Lingerie went head-to-head with loungewear when quarantine began, with lace bra sales up almost 40 percent. Not only are we buying and gifting vibrators, but talking to our partners and friends about doing so. Musician Lily Allen even created her own, holding a press conference hinged on the hashtag #IMasturbateDoYou? 

Therein lies the double standard in our sexual liberation’s second-coming. While we might have come to terms with our sexual habits, we, as a society, still can’t endorse those who facilitate them. Excluding porn producers from unemployment benefits, we refused to acknowledge that the tax-paying citizens responsible for stimulating us might need a stimulus of their own. Despite earning hundreds of thousands throughout her career, Leah remarks that the stigma around what she does is still “very real.” Collectively, we are quick to reward those with money, but only if it’s made the “right” way. 

“There is a huge stigma with [sex work], even today,” award-winning porn director, Erika Lusttold i-D earlier this year. “I’ll do a TED Talk and won’t hear anything [from my parents]. As a company, we had problems that other companies don’t face. Opening up a bank account at a good bank, or donating to organizations who wouldn’t take it. We also face severe censorship online, especially if we are talking about female content or female sexuality.”

“I think with Covid-19 every woman this year has probably thought — should I get an Onlyfans?” Leah says. “There is a bit more recognition that work is work and money is money, but I fantasize that the next generation will look back at ours and see it as incredibly repressive.”

This year, Buzzfeed documented the phenomenon of nurses turning to camming to make ends meet. Sources at leading sugar baby dating site, Seeking Arrangement, tell i-D the site is up 74 percent in sign-ups this year. The field shared by most ‘babies’? Healthcare. It’s further proof that sex workers, indeed just like us, are also all around us: not only providing an outlet for primitive desires, but restabilizing society. Sex has finally come-of-age as an essential service, isn’t it time sex capitalism became as socially compatible as any other kind?

Sounds like something worth getting behind.

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