Online Sex Work: How the Internet Changed the Sex Industry


The internet has changed the way we all live. While the amount of literature on sex and work and the internet is growing, some other questions about how digital technology affects sex workers remain. Sociologist Angela Jones lays out some of these questions in her article “Sex Work in the Digital Era“:

Despite the growth of literature about sex work in a digital era over the past 10 years, we still do not know enough about how the Internet has affected the work experiences, wages, and working conditions of many sex workers. This literature needs to reorient itself in ways that will yield more information about how sex workers use the Internet in their businesses and in ways that reshape sex work.

Though there’s a great deal of research on sex work in general, most of it focuses on female prostitution transnationally. Overall scholars have categorized the online marketplace for sex positively. It documents various affordances for sex workers depending on the field of study, most notably cultural studies, criminology, psychology and health studies as well as the sociology of sexuality. According to the research the internet provides sex workers safety, better wages, advertising opportunities, the ability to screen clients and build a reputation. Lastly, the internet prevents negative interaction with police and permits positive collective action among sex workers.

How the Internet Changed the Game

Online sex work refers to the exchange of sexual commodities and services via the Internet. While it can relate to the delivery of a service, it also describes the marketing of services delivered in physical space. Currently, most research focuses on how escorts use the internet to market their services and screen clients. Historically, technology like the telephone and page altered the streetwalker into the “call girl,” thus allowing sex work to be shifted indoors. The internet offers opportunities to create potential. Indeed the internet now makes sex work appealing across social statuses.

According to the literature, the internet provides sex workers with five benefits:

  1. Reduced risk of bodily harm and physical violence
  2. Online sex work leads to better wages because sex workers can recruit high-end clientele
  3. The internet facilities advertising, screening and recruiting
  4. The use of the internet reduces negative interactions with law enforcement
  5. The internet provides political benefits to sex workers

One predicament of much of the research is that it focuses on prostitutes instead of other women in the industry like we came models, pornographers, dominatrices, and exotic dancers. Another predicament is that the nature of sex work on the internet elicits individualized erotic labor, sex work performed, managed, and marketed in isolation. This negatively affects the social networks of sex workers. For instance, some sex workers might view each other as competition. Another factor that matters is the local contexts of the sex workers. Policies by governments and law enforcement shape where sex work happens. Additionally, dangers on the internet continue to exist including online harassment. Currently, the literature assumes the internet offers sex workers more privacy than public sex work.

New Directions for Research about Online Sex Work

Women like webcam models and escorts regularly get exploited. Indeed, this also reflects the tactics of law enforcement tasked with regulating “vice.” Furthermore, gender is not binary and most research has failed to grapple with the experiences of queer sex workers online. Research tends not to focus on the racialization of erotic labor. How does racist discourse affect sex workers online? Another facet of research underdeveloped includes looking at intersectionality. Intersectionality complicates the affordances of sex work online.

Since the literature has narrowly focused on affordances, Jones argues there are specific areas in need of further research:
1. Diversity and complexity of sex work online
2. Rise of individualized erotic labor
3. Local context shape migration into online sex work
4. Danger and privacy of online sex work
5. Reactions by law enforcement to online sex work
6. Racialization of erotic labor
7. An intersectional analysis of online sex work

Unless otherwise stated, all material cited here references Angela Jones’s 2015 Sociology Compass article “Sex Work in a Digital Era.”