For as long as we’ve been exchanging goods for services, sex work has existed. “Sex workers have been movers and shapers in every community that we've been a part of—which is all of them,” says Kaytlin Bailey, founder of Old Pros and host of The Oldest Profession Podcast, a show that spotlights sex workers throughout history. “I mean, we are everywhere you look.” Still, sex workers are denied basic workplace rights.
In 2020, people turned to online sex workers to feel a connection amid isolation. OnlyFans—the subscription-based platform often used by sex workers—skyrocketed in popularity, and "camming" sites like CamSoda and ManyVids reported an influx of new users. “The pandemic really showed that sex work is work—and it's necessary work,” says Zola Bruce, communications director at Sex Workers Project. And yet, those workers struggled immensely during the pandemic—and their precarity hasn’t improved. Whether it’s being glamorized or vilified, in American culture, sex work is shrouded in mystique, morality and unbalanced power dynamics—while often being excluded from meaningful discussions about labor.
Today, sex work is illegal in nearly every state, and it’s not decriminalized anywhere in the U.S. In the age of digital self-promotion, independent contractors in the industry are regularly repressed online—where Bruce says sex work is “the safest.” Systemic barriers like wage theft, financial uncertainty and de-platforming (when your account gets demonetized, suspended or deleted altogether) are common risks. Not to mention rampant shadow-banning—when a platform blocks a user’s content from showing up on others' feeds without warning them—which disproportionately affects sex workers. With a volatile working landscape, this demographic is constantly struggling to ensure safe conditions. Below, five sex workers share their perspectives on sex work, and why it matters.
Going from lawyer to sex worker is not your typical career route. For Jazmen Jafar, doing so illuminated how drastically different these two jobs are treated in society. Being a lawyer is one of the most respected professions you have,” she says. “People think you're smart, people think you're accomplished, people think you have this great job—versus being a sex worker, which is one of the least respected professions.”
Coming from an immigrant household, Jafar says her parents had traditional expectations for her to get the “right” kind of job (doctor, lawyer, engineer). While studying for the bar in 2021, she began doing OnlyFans for some extra cash. After graduating, she started working at a law firm and kept her secret side gig going at night. But she realized she was only staying at her office job because of societal expectations. “I was like, ‘What is preventing me from being a sex worker fully?’ I had no moral issues with it. I felt empowered by it,” says Jafar.
So, she quit the law firm and joined OnlyFans full-time. And while it’s her most empowering job yet, it’s also the most hustling she’s ever had to do—especially because of the discrimination on the internet. “We're constantly de-platformed… We're constantly at risk of losing our avenues to make money,” she says.
Jafar points to FOSTA-SESTA, a 2018 U.S. law that conflates consensual sex work with sex trafficking, holding platforms liable for the actions of users. This has made many sites ban sex work altogether and has prompted payment platforms like PayPal to block transactions made through sex work. Of course, these regulations haven’t gotten rid of sex work on the internet. They’ve just relegated workers to the shadows. “You don't have an HR department to complain to if you get banned; you're kind of on your own,” explains Jafar.
She says a lot of these issues could be tackled if online sex workers were unionized. But with laws like FOSTA-SESTA, it’s near-impossible to come together. “We're all scattered. We don't have an OnlyFans headquarters or office,” she explains, adding that many have to do their jobs under the table, which makes things even harder. “We're tired of the discrimination. We're tired of the unique issues that we have to face just because we choose to use our bodies to make money.”
In July of 2022, Arielle Egozi updated the experience section of her LinkedIn profile to include “Sex Work.” After quitting her job as a director at a start-up, she had been reflecting on how unsafe she felt in traditional workplaces—and how much she had gained from her time as a freelance sex worker. She was not ready for what came next. The post went viral, flooded with professionals—many in hiring positions—shaming her in the comments. “It basically reinforced how unsafe work environments are,” she says. “I was like, ‘Okay, why would I ever want to work for these people?’”
The thing is, even with fancy job titles, Egozi’s “seat at the table” didn’t feel empowering. When working in prestigious positions, she notes that she never saw other people who were queer or who had the same background as her. “I was seeing myself reach higher points in my career and be in rooms with more responsibility,” says Egozi. “But the pressure and silencing I felt was only getting worse.”
Sex work gave her a financial cushion to leave the job she was unhappy in—and taught her vital freelancing skills. Now, writing a book and working as a full-time freelance consultant for companies, she factors emotional labor into a price when she’s quoting clients. Egozi is better at assessing how much energy a project took, and whether her boundaries were respected. And she checks in with herself, consistently. Since coming out as a sex worker, she knows the clients she’s working with are accepting which has made her professional experiences safer.
When Egozi made that LinkedIn post, “sex work” wasn’t the point, she says. Mostly, she was trying to draw attention to the fact that climbing up the professional ladder doesn’t automatically bring acceptance. But “sex work” is what everyone focused on—which further proved her point. “My hope is that sex workers are no longer seen as a monolith, and are no longer flattened into one-dimensional depictions,” says Egozi. She emphasizes that sex work is just a small part of a larger identity—just like any other job on your resume.
“There's a stigma around it—especially when you're a mom.”
Chloe Sasha was a stay-at-home mom for five years before starting her OnlyFans career. When she was married to her now-ex-husband, Sasha’s full-time job was taking care of their four kids and home. This all changed when her husband cheated on her. “He basically kicked me out with the kids and told me he didn't want to be with me anymore,” she says. As a newly single mother, it was difficult finding a job after having been out of the workforce for so long. She landed a 9-to-5 managerial role at a dental office, but between childcare costs, rent and everyday expenses, Sasha was struggling financially. “I couldn't even make ends meet,” she recalls. Then her friend told her about OnlyFans. “I hadn't thought about doing it because there's a stigma around it—especially when you're a mom.” But upon giving it a try, she doubled her monthly income. So, a few months later, in the summer of 2022, she quit her day job and took it full-time.
A year later, Sasha calls OnlyFans the best job she’s ever had. “I work as hard as I want to work. I control my hours. I control what I put out and the people that I talk to,” she says. From posting to her followers to engaging in one-on-one chats, Sasha—like all successful OF creators—runs her profile like a business. “It’s just customer service,” she says. But unlike other businesses, Sasha isn’t allowed to openly promote her services. “The hard part about [sex workers’ jobs] is getting people to know about us,” she says, noting that platforms like Instagram often shadow-ban sex workers for even existing. The site’s community guidelines strictly prohibit nudity and any content “offering sexual services,” meaning sex workers can’t use it to discuss their work. “It's frustrating… We're putting in the work, but then we have to work even harder because we're being reported.”
While sex work is often written off as an illegitimate gig, she emphasizes how it re-launched her career. Not only was it an industry she could join with no prior experience, but it gave her an entrepreneurial skillset. “A year ago, I knew nothing about running a business. Now, I'm like, ‘I got it.’” says Sasha, adding that she has plans to open more businesses down the line. Regardless of what happens, her intentions for her career in sex work remain the same. “I’m going to keep doing it.”
Photography by Mindy Tucker.
“Sex work was a tool that helped enable me to take care of myself.”
Growing up in an era of “abstinence-only” sex ed, Kaytlin Bailey says she felt she was being lied to about her body. “I came to sex work with all of the privileges that I brought to every other job,” she explains. With an upper-middle-class background, she entered the industry from a place of curiosity and rebellion as a young adult. Then, she came back to it a decade—and a college degree—later, when she was trying to make it as a comedian.
“I was able to pay my bills. I was able to get health insurance, to procure an apartment and get access to the basic building blocks that we all need to move our lives forward,” says Bailey, adding that she wasn’t able to find this stability with traditional gig work like tutoring or waitressing. “I, like millions of other people around the world, felt that sex work was a tool that helped enable me to take care of myself.” It also taught her how to advocate for herself in other jobs when she felt she wasn’t being treated fairly.
Now, Bailey is the founder and executive director of Old Pros, a non-profit media organization working to change the status of sex workers in society by acknowledging that it is, quite literally, the oldest profession—even predating money, according to her. “I believe that sex work is work. But I also believe that sex work is sex,” says Bailey. She notes that efforts to regulate sex work like any other job tend to disempower workers.
Take Nevada. It is currently the only state where sex work is legal, but Bailey points to a 2018 study that shows it has the highest arrest rate per capita for prostitution-related offenses. That’s because in order to legally work in the state, you have to become a licensed prostitute. “This comes up in child custody cases. This is something that is subpoenable about you for the rest of your life,” she says, even if you’ve only done it once or twice. “It makes sense why people wouldn't want to go through this process, but in not doing that, they don't have access to any of the protections that legal sex workers have.”
Bailey says the way to shift the treatment of sex workers is not by legalizing sex work, but by decriminalizing it. “We should not arrest people for engaging in consensual sex, whether money is exchanged or not,” she says. “If you are looking to increase the negotiating power of workers, it's about increasing access to services, and by just removing the criminality of sex work, you empower sex workers to report crimes committed against us.”
“Sex workers provide important physical, sexual, emotional, mental and spiritual services.”
In 2009, a photo of Zola Bruce in the New York City burlesque scene was published in a local newspaper, prompting their boss at the time to ask them to “hide” their side gig. “That was my first [time] realizing, like, ‘Okay, I'm going to be shamed. I'm going to be stigmatized if I show myself as a proud erotic performer,’” they say. This changed after they moved to Amsterdam and Berlin, and experienced first-hand a sex-positive culture where that work isn’t stigmatized. “I realized it's just a normal job for everyone there. It wasn't even necessarily sexy—it was just sex work,” they say.
On a freelance visa, Bruce began doing BDSM work and erotic story writing. “As a freelancer, I realized that sex work is a very viable job,” they say. When they moved back to New York years later, they felt the skills they picked up on doing this work—entrepreneurship, the nuances of consent, ethics—had to be repressed. “I had a chunk of time where all my work-related experiences were sex work-based, but I wrote it on my resume as ‘research’ for my writing,” recalls Bruce.
Now, they work as the communications director at Sex Workers Project, a national organization that defends the human rights of sex workers, while doing BDSM workshops on the side. They’re grateful for the role, but in it, they’re constantly reminded of the mistreatment of sex workers, like wage theft. “In brothels, there's a lot of people who don't pay what they say they're gonna pay, and there's nothing we can do to protect ourselves from that,” says Bruce. They point to OnlyFans, which, in 2021, announced plans to ban “sexually explicit” content from its site, only to reverse the decision days later. This scenario served as a reminder of how precarious sex work can be. Now, it’s harder for sex workers to make money on OnlyFans, with influencers infiltrating the space and the algorithm making it specifically hard for Black and Brown bodies to succeed, explains Bruce.
This kind of censorship reduces access to information. Sex Workers Project has been shadow-banned multiple times, with Bruce noting the organization’s account was recently deleted by Instagram. “We do anti-trafficking work but we also do sex education-based work… The fact that we got banned is so upsetting because that means a lot of people are not getting the resources that they were getting from our site.”
Above all, the “stigma, sensationalism, and dehumanization” levied against sex workers makes it harder to build community and keep good working conditions, says Bruce. “The more you repress people, the more they're gonna have to go underground—and the more unsafe it will be.”