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COVID transformed the sex work industry, but not the laws governing it

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"Sex work was among a kind of array of jobs that are incredibly vulnerable and precarious, like in the gig economy where you’re not protected," said Mireille Miller-Young, a feminist studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Pictured: Activists and sex workers participate in a protest in Miami Beach, Florida. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

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Wednesday was International Sex Workers’ Rights Day. A group of scientists who research sex work marked the occasion by asking the Biden administration to decriminalize it as part of its criminal justice reform.

In part, they’re calling to repeal laws passed during the Trump administration, especially regarding online sex work, a part of the industry that’s been transformed by the pandemic.

By its very nature, most sex work doesn’t involve social distancing. It didn’t for Sinnamon Love. (That’s her professional name.)

“I could not work,” Love said. “Because we had to lock down, the idea of doing in-person work was impossible.”

She had to go completely online. “I was very nervous. Digital work has a learning curve,” she said.

Love studied up on lighting, shooting video and photographing herself. She also ramped up her social media, including her OnlyFans account, a paid platform for sexual content.

Meanwhile, she’s had other responsibilities. Love’s grown daughter and grandchild have been at home all day, every day.

After some lean months, Love made $72,000 before taxes last year. That’s what she earned pre-pandemic. But she’s got a following, and has been doing this work for 26 years.

Other sex workers aren’t making that kind of money, says Mireille Miller-Young, a feminist studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Sex work was among a kind of array of jobs that are incredibly vulnerable and precarious, like in the gig economy where you’re not protected,” Miller-Young said.

But a lot of people have turned to this type of gig. OnlyFans said it had over a million people selling content on the site in December. That’s nine times more than the year before.

And the market was already saturated, said Angela Jones, a sociologist at Farmingdale State College.

“Now you have this influx of people who are looking for work online,” Jones said. “We all know what happens in saturated markets, what happens to wages.”

They go down.

This week, Jones and Miller-Young were among the researchers asking for the repeal of the so-called 2018 FOSTA-SESTA laws that were meant to stop online sex trafficking.

Along with other safeguards, they compel social media platforms to censor certain posts. Love said that had other consequences.

“It penalized people who were doing consensual sex work from being able to have access to the platforms that they need to drive traffic to platforms where they make money,” she said

And that, she said, ends up especially hurting people who are doing this just to get by.

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