Social distancing practices adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have been a financial disaster for sex workers who see clients and customers in person; this is exacerbated by the fact that many sex workers are not eligible for the governmental aid programs meant to provide a safety net during the pandemic.
For this reason, sex workers who provide in-person services (e.g., dancers, dominatrices, and escorts) have had to quickly pivot their businesses online. For many, this has not been a simple transition; it has required learning new skills and a different approach to relating with customers.
To get a deeper understanding of what this transition is like, I reached out to Aussie Rachel, a NYC-based escort who has spent her quarantine becoming a successful OnlyFans model. We discuss how she entered into the industry as a full-service sex worker and what challenges she has faced transitioning her business online.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Tell me a little about yourself and how you got into sex work.
I started my sex work career working in a massage parlor and it was one of the most revelatory things I have ever experienced.
That is really interesting, the massage parlor segment of the sex industry is something I know relatively little about. What was revelatory about your experience there?
Working at the massage parlor was the first time that I was able to recognize vulnerability in men. In the parlor rooms, men laid flat and immobile in front of me, but my feet were planted firmly on the floor.
I think that, because of my past, I was scared of men for a long time, but that experience in the parlor—that shift in power—made me see them in a different way. The experience kind of shifted everything in my brain and gave me back the power I lost as a little girl.
I worked in a couple of the parlors around town, and I made friends with one of the madams, who taught me how to be an independent, full-service sex worker, which I have now been doing for years.
It sounds like you found your home in independent full-service work/escorting. What do you like about it?
I love the nutshell narrative: each encounter has a beginning, middle, and end. With every date, my client and I open up a vacuum of space that belongs to us and to the moment. It is a little bubble that we create—a bubble of secrecy in time.
I think what I love about it is that it feels ethical and honest. Our encounters do not bleed into “real” life, our dates are a hermetic space. In this way, it is clean. We both know the rules, and one of the rules is that the encounter stays in the space we create for it. It is beautiful, I just love that!
When COVID hit, it became unsafe to have these in-person encounters with clients. What was your initial reaction to this?
My initial response was panic, a lot of panic! But, I had met a woman named Marcella at a SWOP Brooklyn meeting. She was an in-person sex worker who transitioned into being an online queen! She took me under her wing and helped me learn about the online world. I cram studied when I realized I wouldn’t be able to do in-person work. It felt like learning a whole new language and way of being. At the beginning, it blew my mind and was so overwhelming.
What does online sex work look like for you now?
I created an OnlyFans account (a subscription site that hosts videos and pictures), and joined an OnlyFans Telegram groups with other online sex workers to learn and cross-promote. I have also been learning how to use Reddit to promote my Onlyfans.
While I have an Onlyfans account, I’ve only heard about these Onlyfans telegram groups. I’ve never joined one, what are they like?
I’ve learned that being successful on Onlyfans isn’t as simple as just posting a picture and hoping people subscribe. There is so much behind the scenes work that is taking place on Onlyfans, and Telegram is where it’s happening!
These Telegram rooms are really intense, though. There can be thousands of people in the room, sex workers promoting free and paid Onlyfans profiles. They drop their links very quickly and you have to be incredibly alert to keep up with these cross-promotions.
While I am tech savvy, I am not a millennial and the fast pace of the Telegram rooms is really stressful!
Have you tried to bring some of your in-person clients into the online realm?
Yes, I have. I think that my strength as a provider is that I am good at extending intimacy and empathy in person. When it became clear that I was no longer able to do this, I tried to figure out how to stay connected to my clients online.
At the beginning we scheduled Skype dates. For some reason, though, I found these dates did not make me feel closer, the opposite happened. Online, I could feel a stronger sense of their absence, their absence was always there.
Part of this is tied to my own body issues. In these video calls, I had to confront my own body dysmorphia. I had to view my body through the gaze of the other; it was this projection of myself for myself, and then for others.
In-person work is more immediate: the work is visceral and of the body. Online, I am viewing my body instead of experiencing it, and this viewing comes between me and my client. Because I see myself on screen, I am anticipating their gaze, and this gaze reshapes the experience.
What are some of the other differences that you notice between in-person sex work and online sex work?
One of the main differences is scale. With online work, especially Onlyfans, you have to thin yourself out among so many people at once. That makes it a very different experience than the one-on-one world that you create with full-service clients.
Another issue is that boundaries are less clear. Full service encounters happen within a context and a time frame, and what happens in that world stays in that world. It is a fantasy world that doesn’t spill out into my life or his life. This is different than online work where you have to create and constantly and continuously market a fantasy. And the encounters with online customers also aren’t contained to a specific time and place. There aren’t the same rules.
It sounds like you are saying that with online work it is much harder to maintain a private life.
Yes, the online world is semi-public. And in order to be a successful online sex worker, you have to make yourself more and more public, you have to inhabit more online spaces. For example, I am now on Reddit promoting my Onlyfans, and I never used that platform before. Reddit scares me.
With this increased exposure, I definitely worry about being outed. I know that I would be judged if I was outed. I worry about losing my non-sex work career.
When you can go back to in-person work will you keep up some of the online work?
I am worried that I may not be able to go back to it until next year. When I do, I will continue Onlyfans. I am glad that I was pushed to learn this side of the industry. I have learned so much, and it has been good for confronting my own body dysmorphia.
I also think that having been pushed by circumstance into online sex work has given me a much greater appreciation for online sex workers. I felt like there was a disconnect between us before. Now that I have seen some of this world, I feel like there can be much greater solidarity, I have gained so much respect for online sex workers.
Jessie Sage is a sex worker and writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s also the co-founder of Peepshow Magazine and the co-host of the Peepshow Podcast. Her words can be found in the Washington Post, VICE’s Motherboard, Hustler Magazine, Men’s Health, BuzzFeed, and more. She’s currently writing a book on sex work, motherhood, and illness called An Unexpected Place (forthcoming on West Virginia University Press).