Introducing Internet-based ‘Incidental Sex Work’ and its Implications

Author: Max Morris, Durham University

Internet-based technologies have transformed many sex work practices. From webcam shows to sugar dating, the democratizing effect of social media has provided opportunities for both professionals and amateurs to work more autonomously and securely, often without clearly defined legal barriers. Location-based smartphone applications, commonly described as dating or hook-up apps, have also grown in popularity over the past decade, including Grindr, Hornet, Jack’d, Recon and Scruff for gay and bisexual men, alongside apps for people of all genders and sexualities such as Blendr and Tinder. As the number of social networking platforms has proliferated, so too have spaces for sex work to occur, making these practices more casual and covert. Thus, my most recent qualitative study has explored the experiences of sexual minority men who occasionally sell sex after being propositioned by users of social networking sites and apps. I describe this emerging practice as incidental sex work.

Last year I travelled to towns and cities across Britain to interview 50 incidental sex workers. I recruited men aged 18 to 26 who had never advertised as selling sex, with few identifying with conventional labels such as escort, prostitute, rent boy or even sex worker—a label I use to align my work with contemporary research and politics. To find this hidden sample of “sex workers,” I sent the following message to 3,000 Grindr users in metropolitan areas: “Hey. Have you ever been offered money for sex online and said yes? I’m a social researcher looking for guys to interview anonymously about their experiences.” This enquiry was occasionally met with misunderstanding (“Are you offering to pay me?”) or offense (“Do I look like a filthy prostitute to you?”). However, with an almost 50% response rate, I found that 14.6% had been paid for sex on at least one occasion. Follow up questions revealed that 2.3% had worked as professional escorts or porn actors, while 8.2% had engaged in incidental sex work or webcamming.

Although this straw poll of Grindr users cannot be viewed as fully representative, it suggests that those engaging in incidental sex work outnumber those involved in professional sex work. This is consistent with an online survey conducted by the Student Sex Work Project, which found that 4.8% of 6,773 British students had been involved in the sex industry, with most selling sex on an irregular basis. It also highlights that incidental sex work among young men is a more common practice than previously thought (if thought about at all), making its absence from research and policy debates noteworthy.

Perhaps a reflection of my recruitment strategy, the preferred platform for meeting other men was Grindr, with 43 out of 50 participants having been paid for sex using this app. Harry said, “If it gets to 10 or 11 o’clock at night and I’m feeling horny, I’ll go on Grindr to see who’s available… That was how I met the guy who ended up paying me.” Describing the first of three times he was paid for sex, Alex said, “I didn’t really fancy the guy, he was not my usual type, but I was on Grindr and horny when he offered a hundred quid.” Alongside opportunistic financial rewards, several participants described a desire to “experiment” sexually as a motivation for selling sex. Paul said:

I suppose I did need the money, but I didn’t think of it in that way. It was more that it gave me an excuse to try something out. I was curious to see if being paid for sex would turn me on, would be a bit of a thrill, and a different sexual experience.

Features of Grindr (and other apps) such as “Send Photo” and “Send Location” allowed participants to assess whether they wanted to meet the men offering them money. For example, James said, “At first I said no, but then he sent me his photos and I thought, ‘Well it’s only an hour and I need the money.’ We agreed the price then he sent me his location.” These narratives highlight how social networking apps made it possible for young men who had never considered selling sex to do so, making it easy for them to determine whether they wanted to, and then arrange incidental sex work encounters.

Although most participants did not identify with sex worker labels or identity politics, their perspectives do challenge a common characterization of sex work as universally exploitative, harmful or immoral. For example, Andrew said, “I never had a negative experience with the guys who paid me… If I was ever short on money, I would do it again.” Justin said, “I felt safe with him, I knew he wasn’t going to hurt me or anything like that, mainly because we talked about it online for a good while.” Even the minority of participants who framed their encounters using negative terms such as “danger” or “risk” tended to do so in relation to the age or physique of their clients rather than the exchange of money. As Bradley said, “The danger was only in the back of my mind, probably because he was older. But I suppose it was no more risky than a regular hook-up.” Others reversed the exploitation narrative by saying that they saw themselves as the ones exploiting the older men who offered to pay them. Jeremy said, “It’s not about being used, it’s about using them. You’re the one in control. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to associate selling sex with exploitation.” Similarly, Michael said:

People have asked me, “Do you think they’re taking advantage of you?” Because that’s the stereotype—that people who are selling sex are being used by those who are paying—but I think it’s the other way around… If anything, I feel slightly guilty that I’m taking advantage of these men who want to, or have to, pay to be with me.

These participants invoked notions of their clients being “used,” “taken advantage of” or “ripped off,” inverting the framing often used by anti-sex work campaigners to describe clients.

Incidental sex work poses further problems for those seeking to abolish selling or buying sex. It has been argued in The Economist that the growth of online sex work “will make the sex industry harder for all governments to control or regulate, whether they seek to do so for pragmatic or moralistic reasons.” This is because internet-based sex workers (particularly incidental sex workers) are less visible and more mobile than those working from a fixed location. Furthermore, as a recent article about webcamming in The Conversation highlighted, “unlike pornography or prostitution, there are virtually no laws regulating this form of sex work.” Additionally, internet technologies can create challenges regarding under-age sexual activities including online dating, sexting, and pornography consumption, with definitions of legal age varying by countries and jurisdictions. Often misguided by moral panics, the challenges such social concerns raise for users, website owners and researchers will be a topic increasingly discussed and debated.

Although the private exchange of money for sex between adults is legal in Britain, incidental sex workers do not even engage in soliciting, which remains a crime. Despite this, 39 out of 50 participants incorrectly believed that they had broken the law by selling sex. Some compared this form of rule-breaking to other deviant acts which are difficult (if not impossible) for the state to police. For example, Josh said, “I know it’s illegal, but in the same way that torrenting a movie online is, everyone does it and no one really cares,” while Mark said, “It’s like smoking weed, how are the police going to know what you do in private anyway?” Thus, the perceived illegality of selling sex did not work as a deterrent for these men.

My research with incidental sex workers poses problems for both the moral and practical policing of sex work. How can we, and why should we, stop people from engaging in these private exchanges? It also highlights that academic understandings of sex work are incomplete. How can we make sweeping statements about commercial sex given that such diverse practices have gone almost entirely unnoticed by researchers, until now? What other gaps in our knowledge might there be? Finally, incidental sex workers challenge the perception of selling sex as being somehow out of the ordinary, by showing that young men use everyday internet technologies to make money in experimental and opportunistic ways.


About the author

Max Morris is a Sociology and Social Policy doctoral candidate in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University, England. His research about sexual minority youth and social media has been published in journals including British Journal of Sociology, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, and Sociology.