Barbie Ferreira as Kat Hernandez, who dabbles in camming in HBO's Euphoria

Meet the peo­ple mak­ing mon­ey through the thot­shot economy

Selling nudes or partial-nudes is becoming big business and even those with small social followings are getting involved. Moya Lothian-Mclean investigates the new era of sex work.

Lucy* was half-jok­ing when she tapped out a tweet in Jan­u­ary about being so skint, she was pre­pared to sell her most inti­mate pic­tures. Any­one want to buy nudes?” she wrote. But when men start­ed appear­ing in her inbox, eager to take up her offer, she thought: Why not?’. 

Most of the del­uge of mes­sages the 25-year-old received didn’t seem gen­uine or were too demand­ing. But a few had the whiff of authen­tic­i­ty; they were more non­cha­lant, inso­far as men on the inter­net ask­ing a woman half their age for nude pho­tos can be non­cha­lant. Lucy picked one prospec­tive buy­er, a man who appeared to be in his late 40s or ear­ly 50s and set out terms: £30 for a sin­gle snap, £50 for a set of two to three sent at one time, via mes­sag­ing plat­form Kik, picked because it masked her phone num­ber. Her heart raced as she set-up a Pay­Pal account with a fake name; she won­dered whether she’d be able to go through with it. Alone in her room she sur­veyed her­self in the mir­ror, she’d nev­er loved her body, it had nev­er con­formed to the high stan­dards soci­ety had set for her. She sent him the Pay­Pal details and with­in min­utes saw the mon­ey appear. So that was it, she’d have to go through with it.

To be hon­est, I con­sid­ered start­ing a pre­mi­um Snapchat or an Only­Fans account,” she tells me, of the first ten­ta­tive steps she took after decid­ing to give the enter­prise a go. But I want­ed to be in con­trol and know exact­ly who my pics were going to.” Over the next four months, she made over £1000 and cal­cu­lates she fired off 30-ish pho­tos to her client, along with one striptease video that Lucy brands hilar­i­ous” and def­i­nite­ly not worth £120”. Speak­ing to her, she is now supreme­ly unboth­ered about the entire sce­nario. As Lucy sees it, why would she be? 

She was snap­ping nudes any­way, for men she was dat­ing at the time. Why not simul­ta­ne­ous­ly earn some quick cash by send­ing them to a far more appre­cia­tive recip­i­ent? She sent full-body images of her­self in under­wear as well as nude and top­less pictures. 

As an unex­pect­ed bonus, know­ing her body was in such demand was like a shot of val­i­da­tion – Lucy says her poor body image was improved when some­one was will­ing to pay to see it. 

Lucy isn’t a social media influ­encer or a porn star and her fol­low­er count is well below 2k. Instead, she’s one of a wave of ordi­nary young peo­ple – most­ly women – who infor­mal­ly dab­ble in sex work to make extra cash.”

But Lucy isn’t a social media influ­encer or a porn star and her fol­low­er count is well below 2k. Instead, she’s one of a wave of ordi­nary young peo­ple – most­ly women – who infor­mal­ly dab­ble in sex work to make extra cash (Lucy says hers was spent on shop­ping or going out). It’s a world explored through Bar­bie Ferreira’s char­ac­ter, Kat in HBO’s new smash-hit Eupho­ria — enabled by sex­u­al­ly pro­gres­sive atti­tudes, a late-cap­i­tal­ist under­stand­ing of them­selves as com­modi­ties and the inter­net, these one-time sell­ers dip in and out when it suits them, apply­ing the same approach they would to hawk­ing the odd pair of trousers on Depop to x-rat­ed pic­tures of them­selves. They’ve got lit­tle inter­est in for­mal­is­ing the hus­tle or expand­ing their cus­tomer base – usu­al­ly, the amount of buy­ers they’ll sell to stays solid­ly in sin­gle dig­its. Mean­while, sell­ers are unlike­ly to take major risks or go out of their way to ful­fil requests, even if big mon­ey is on the table; con­ve­nience and their feel­ing of safe­ty is key for them. 

I only do it when I want and when I can be both­ered,” says 23-year-old Rae*, who’s been sell­ing pic­tures and video clips of her­self for two years, via Snapchat and Insta­gram DM (like Lucy, she col­lects the mon­ey through Pay­Pal). She has two male cus­tomers; one’s a foot fetishist and the oth­er just wants basic nudes. On aver­age, Rae sells about two pic­tures a month, despite the demand being much high­er. But as she tells it, how she’s feel­ing that day, rather a burn­ing need for cash is the decid­ing fac­tor in whether she starts snapping.

Once the nude guy offered me £500 but I wasn’t in the mood, so I didn’t take him up on it,” she recounts. The most I’ve ever made in an evening is about £150. He’s obsessed with my boobs, which feels very 2005 — it’s all about butts now, bud­dy. The foot fetish guy want­ed me to do a POV video wank­ing’ his dick with my feet. I declined.”

Rae’s entry into this slight­ly shad­owy world was sim­i­lar to Lucy’s; a man shot her a mes­sage and she spot­ted an opportunity. 

A guy came into my DMs ask­ing for feet pics and sent me mon­ey upfront to show he was legit,” she explains. He and the man who asked for lin­gerie nudes are the only two I’ve ever sold to; I’m asked a lot but they send mon­ey upfront and don’t push for more than I’ve offered.”

Rae pro­fess­es a very clear dis­dain for the men she sells to, she also con­fess­es an ele­ment of guilt at feel­ing as though she’s rip­ping them off”

Rae has a big­ger social media plat­form than Lucy — over 5k fol­low­ers — but she’s hard­ly Kim Kar­dashi­an. While her feeds are a steady drip-feed of glam­orous self­ies and meals out, she’s still a world away from adult enter­tain­ers or cam girls. And yet, behind the scenes, they over­lap sig­nif­i­cant­ly, brought togeth­er by the unceas­ing lust of men on the Internet. 

Because, as Rae tells me, it’s always men.

The demo­graph­ic is entire­ly men,” she says. I just don’t think women are as like­ly to buy pic­tures from strangers online. Maybe it’s a stereo­type but the whole thing is so trans­ac­tion­al; I think women gen­er­al­ly require more emo­tion behind the action to get any kind of sex­u­al thrill from it — but I could be wrong.”

Inter­est­ing­ly, even though Rae pro­fess­es a very clear dis­dain for the men she sells to, she also con­fess­es an ele­ment of guilt at feel­ing as though she’s rip­ping them off — even though these are mid­dle-aged men who are so des­per­ate to see a 20-some­thing in a state of undress that they’ve pulled out their bank cards.

I was charg­ing the foot guy £60 for three foot pics but realised that was ridicu­lous [‘Is it?’, I think to myself] even though he was hap­py to pay for it,” Rae says. To make myself feel bet­ter about it, I’d throw in extra mini clips of videos. I do that with the nude guy too, charge him £50 for two stills of my tits in a bra but will throw in a few video clips or outtakes.”

The pow­er dynam­ic in these par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tions is some­what hazy. On the one hand, you have a patri­ar­chal cul­ture that has groomed women to see their own bod­ies as their most valu­able com­mod­i­ty first and fore­most, with men only too hap­py to rein­force that idea by pay­ing for access to them. But on the oth­er… the young women engaged in the thot­shot econ­o­my don’t seem to give much of a shit. Per­haps there is a slight air of priv­i­lege at play with this par­tic­u­lar branch of sex work; because it’s not their main form of income or even one the sell­ers depend on reg­u­lar­ly, they can afford to be far more choosey in terms of when, how and who they engage in it with. That’s not to say it can’t still get dicey though. 

It does make me feel a bit pow­er­ful, know­ing a pic­ture of my boobs in my dirty bed­room mir­ror can net me £45 from a bor­ing mid­dle-aged man,” admits 21-year-old Cassie. Until a week ago, she sold the odd nude to a sin­gle client for £25 a pop. The buy­er, a man called Richard who liked to chat about the inane goings-on of his life, includ­ing recount­ing trips with his fam­i­ly to see Coun­try­file Live, had been fol­low­ing her Twit­ter since she was 15, a fact Cassie found creepy”.

When I was real­ly skint, Richard would send me mon­ey for a take­away [again, via Pay­Pal], and did this every few months,” Cassie says, recall­ing how the rela­tion­ship evolved. Even­tu­al­ly he was like Oh, I should have asked for a nude in return!’”.

Cassie’s first reac­tion was to block Richard, uncom­fort­able with his request. But when she was out of cash a few months lat­er, she approached him again, pre­pared to take up the offer. Over the next two years, she sold about four top­less pic­tures to him, turn­ing down sub­se­quent propo­si­tions to send full body pic­tures in return for £5 extra because the mon­ey was too low and she didn’t feel con­fi­dent enough about her body. Even­tu­al­ly, in July 2019, she decid­ed to end the exchanges, feel­ing uneasy that thot­shots with her face vis­i­ble were sit­ting in Richard’s inbox. As a good­will ges­ture, Richard sent her £45 for the last pic­ture she pro­vid­ed but Cassie still feels she has to respond when he pops up to chat mundanities. 

I have to keep him sweet,” she says. If we have ever had a falling out, he’d have those pho­tos to hold against me.”

Lucy too tells me she’s decid­ed to bow out of the pic­ture sell­ing game after sud­den­ly being struck by the ick”. 

It made me feel incred­i­bly pow­er­ful, until sud­den­ly… it didn’t,” she explains. I stopped as soon as it felt uncom­fort­able. I don’t know if the dynam­ic changed, or if I just became hyper-aware of the safe­ty issues with it? It was weird. One day, it just made me feel a bit gross and not like before.”

The deci­sion came from with­in rather than any out­side judge­ment; her friends knew she was doing it, but were all for it. Rae too tells her part­ners about her pic­ture tak­ing, and they’re sup­port­ive, even encour­ag­ing, while Cassie tells a sim­i­lar sto­ry about sup­port­ive friends, some who have even ven­tured into pic­ture sell­ing them­selves, although she says she’d be very appre­hen­sive to tell any male part­ner about her side hus­tle because they just wouldn’t understand.”

Both Lucy and Cassie don’t view their ven­ture into pic­ture sell­ing as out­right sex work, due to the lack of phys­i­cal inter­ac­tion, but agree it sits on the fringes.

I sup­pose I would see it at sex work in a sense of the word,” Cassie con­sid­ers. But it’s very tame and doesn’t com­pro­mise your safe­ty in ways oth­er, more phys­i­cal, sex work would.” 

In com­par­i­son, Rae doesn’t place her­self in that brack­et; she believes that her out­put is too impromp­tu and tame to real­ly earn the title.

It’s so ad hoc and has nev­er been more than undies pics. I wouldn’t send any­thing that I couldn’t per­son­al­ly upload to Insta­gram,” she says. But if you’re earn­ing your main income from it and doing full nudi­ty or touch­ing your­self — such as an Only­Fans page – I would say it’s clos­er to sex work than it is modelling.”

But sure­ly any work that involves sell­ing your­self and your sex­u­al­i­ty is… sex work? The inter­net has mas­sive­ly broad­ened what falls under that umbrel­la; Cam­Girls, Only­Fans, hawk­ing used bath­wa­ter on Twit­ter. Yet the women don’t seem to shy away from iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves as sex work­ers out of any kind of shame – rather because they don’t con­sid­er them­selves to be doing enough hard graft to actu­al­ly call it work’. It’s hob­by­ist sex work but it’s the kind of inter­mit­tent, cash hus­tle that we can expect to see more of as a gen­er­a­tion of dig­i­tal natives, with far more lax atti­tudes to pri­va­cy and sex, come of age and look for ways to earn some extra money.

Rae says she is tak­ing a break though – because she needs more respect from her clients.

I’m ignor­ing my main cus­tomer at the moment because I’m lazy but also because I don’t think he respects me enough,” she tells me. He keeps mes­sag­ing me get­ting more des­per­ate when I don’t respond. I want a lev­el of respect before I send him any­thing else, even if he wants to send me money.”

Plus, the risks wor­ry her; she frets that there’s always the chance they may not pay, or demand more for their mon­ey. But if her finan­cial need becomes greater, Rae says it’s always an option.

If mon­ey gets tight enough, I will go back to doing it,” she says, adding. It’s easy enough.”

*Names have been changed

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