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.
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 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