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Strangers’ Things



Pornography is the most common form of sexual experience available online — so common, perhaps, that a market for rarer intimacies has emerged.

Bottles of influencer bath water sell for $30 a jar. Some cam models have scaled back on erotic performance because they can earn more money selling homemade cookies and hair clippings. You can even pay a stranger to gorge himself on snacks from Trader Joe’s, if that’s your thing.

For some people, such work is a full-time job; others see it as a side hustle — one where the hourly pay can be considerably higher than the going rate for, say, dog walking or bartending. Plus, it doesn’t require leaving your dorm room or apartment.

“You’d have to babysit a lot of hours to make $250, which I can do in a few hours of online sex work, said Ella, 19, a sophomore at Parsons School of Design who asked to be identified by her first name as a safety precaution. “I know because I babysat for a long time. I hated it.”

Ella says that in her first semester at Parsons, she made around $800 a week from a few different sex-work-based revenue streams, including selling photos of her feet. She set up an OnlyFans account after her campus closed in the spring and she moved back home, but she hasn’t been active there yet. “It was a little hard to with a house full of family,” she said. For the most part clients contact her through more PG sites like Tinder and Instagram.

“Many sex workers now perform part or all of their labor in an online environment,” Angela Jones, a sociologist, noted in a 2016 academic paper, “I Get Paid to Have Orgasms,” published by the University of Chicago’s Signs Journal of Women in Culture and Society. In other words, sex work has been a largely virtual occupation for years.

The pandemic has only accelerated the trend; in March and April, for instance, OnlyFans had a 75 percent increase in new users and creators, the company said.

It’s perhaps old news by now that selling oneself — your body, your content, your nude photos, your appetite, your phone line — is no longer taboo or seen as degrading. Many people, especially those who grew up with social media, are perfectly comfortable exposing every detail of their lives online. And it’s become conventional wisdom in the business world that anyone and anything can be monetized as a brand.

“I mean, I’m probably really biased because I’m an art student living in New York City, so my friends and I think online sex work is really normal,” Ella said. “We talk about ‘checking our privilege,’ in the sense we are sex workers and we don’t have to be.” (For the vast majority of sex workers, there are fewer choices.)

Still, what’s the appeal, one may ask, of having someone pay you to count your stretch marks, or selling pictures of your phalanges to strangers?


dm me on insta @tarvh if u need sum tip + tricks! *I also worked in the past, but since quarantine dis is how Ive been gettin the bag ##fyp ##foryoupage

♬ As An Accountant – Rocky Paterra

To start, there are low barriers to entry. A good smartphone camera is the only overhead, at least initially. And for a generation saddled by student loan debt (Ella’s tuition is about $47,000 a year, leaving her with a tab of $35,000 after financial aid and scholarship money), along with the rising cost of living and growing inequality, the paycheck for online sex work can be appealing.

While lifestyle is certainly one part of it, the economics are the driving force. The Atlantic noted earlier this year that the United States, where two in five adults would struggle to come up with $400 in an emergency, is experiencing an “affordability crisis” and families have been “bled dry by landlords, hospital administrators, university bursars, and child-care centers.”

And that was before the coronavirus crisis, which experts predict will be particularly punishing to young people’s economic and employment prospects.

So whatever the legitimate moral, ethical and safety concerns about online sex work may be, for this new cohort of performers and content creators — many are tech-savvy freelancers working outside the adult entertainment industry and don’t identify as porn stars — it is undeniable that this is one pathway to some semblance of financial stability.

A number of the entry points into this line of work now come from mainstream social media, both widening the playing field and lessening the stigma. “I operate primarily through Twitter, Snapchat and OnlyFans,” said a 29-year-old online sex worker in Seattle who asked to be identified by her alias, Eevie Lain, for safety reasons.

“I feel like those sites have really opened so many doors to a lot of people online who don’t label themselves as ‘sex workers’ but are selling things like underwear because there is such demand for it,” said Ms. Lain, who sells her lingerie for $50 to $400. She has also sold hair clippings, bras, gym socks, stockings and homemade holiday cookies that go for $200 a batch. (No, they are not shaped like genitalia.)

“People just want things from you when you start interacting with them online, even if there is no physical contact,” she said. “I don’t cam anymore, but I am still selling my belongings.” (When she first started camming in 2012, Ms. Lain said she earned $10,000 a month, allowing her to quit her job selling coffee and to move into a better apartment. Since the coronavirus outbreak, she said demand for her services and belongings have decreased.)

Mz. Kim, a college graduate in her 30s who used to work in the technology industry and who now works full time as on online dominatrix, said she earns $18,000 to $22,000 a month. She has sold a pair of socks for $850 and pantyhose for $1,500 (more than once). “I know it really does seem so ridiculous when you think about it,” she said. “The way that this really works is that the person has some sort of attachment to you. They have a sort of love for your persona, your look and your brand.”

Credit…Amy Lombard for The New York Times
Credit…Amy Lombard for The New York Times

And even now, as most of other industries are struggling because of Covid-19, Mz. Kim said her online business is booming. “Many of my clients are home and need guidance, understanding and a reassuring, strong voice,” she wrote in an email, adding that “another reason for business being up may be that the subset of men who are now forced to stay home simply have more opportunities to play.”

Many others just dabble in the work. “I had a number of students who disclosed to me that they were performing sex online, primarily webcamming, and the significant majority of them were doing it primarily part time,” said Ms. Jones, the author of “Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Work Industry.” One of them, she recalled, said they had made $10,000 in one month on a webcam site. “I immediately stopped and said, ‘Well, clearly I have the wrong job,’” Ms. Jones said.

Robert, a student at Parsons who wanted to be identified only by his first name, was propositioned on Grommr, a fetish website for men that encourages weight gain, to eat $150 worth of food on a live webcam for $100. Would he do it again? “I’d want way more money,” he said.

Since she started 2012, Ms. Lain estimates she has brought 20 friends into the industry. Most of them, she said, work on a part-time basis. “They saw my lifestyle and income and wanted in,” she said. “I think that as a generation we are a little more comfortable exposing ourselves.”

While the seemingly wild sums of money can be appealing, Ms. Joness research of nearly 500 online sex workers indicates that those making the megabucks — think $50,000 a month — are working full time. “Moving in and out of the industry can be problematic and not as lucrative,” she said. The median monthly earnings for an online sex worker, Ms. Jones found, was about a $1,000 a month, with cisgender women averaging $1,250, trans women $1,000, and cisgender men $350.

If that sounds paltry for posting sexual content that may still be online for your grandchildren to see, not to mention the multitude of other potential physical and professional risks, Ms. Jones said to think of that sum in a global context. “$1,000 a month can pay for someone’s full-time child care in some places,” she said.

Alec Hardy, 34, a software engineer in Budapest who asked to be identified by his alias to avoid any professional repercussions, used to work two day jobs and earned $1,500 a month in his senior management positions. His third paycheck came from camming for sites like Flirt4Free and Chaturbate, which he said more than doubled his monthly salary.

“The base salaries are really low in Hungary, so the supplemental income allows me to have a competitive global income,” Mr. Hardy said in a phone interview.

In the spring Mr. Hardy quit his day job to work full time in online chat rooms. While his clients are currently spending the same amount, many, he said, have warned him that they may have to cut back in the future. “I also have a number of clients who are usually watching from the office, and now they can’t because they are stuck in the house with their wife and kids,” he said.

These days, he said, he is making more income from recorded videos, like sex toy reviews, and affiliate commissions — enough that he’s almost entirely given up camming. “Most people just want to get paid for showing their feet, but I think it’s important to not put all your eggs in one basket,” he said.

Becoming a successful online sex worker isn’t easy. To gain a following, freelancers have to be savvy marketers, be highly proficient in search engine optimization, know how to budget, maintain a blog, and have pretty advanced video editing and producing skills.

Mz. Kim has created courses to help people build that skill set, including “Monetizing Your Appeal Online: Content Strategies for Models”; before the pandemic, she held classes across the country. Part of her gospel is: “It’s not about starting a profile on Twitter. You have to provide something more than selfies. You have to think about: What is your core appeal?” (Next week a new class, “Investing for Sex Workers,” will go live.)

Attendees of the four-hour class in Las Vegas included a retired military officer in her 50s, an out-of-work photographer and a casino worker in her 40s exploring new career options. They all sat in the bright upstairs space of the Studios, a club that bills its clientele as gender-fluid, diligently taking notes on start-up costs and publicity tactics. (One insider tip that Mz. Kim shares is using the platform SextPanther, which monetizes texting and online content.)

Mz. Kim levels with her students, telling them that while online sex work can be quite lucrative, it’s far from a workplace utopia. Her disclaimers are: You will lose friends. Your family may not be supportive. Anything you post online will likely be there forever, potentially jeopardizing future job opportunities. You’ll have to take many measures to protect your privacy. (This is why the vast majority of online sex workers use an alias.)

Then there’s always the fear of being booted off the platforms and programs that are critical for online sex workers to connect with their followers, like Instagram, Twitter and MailChimp. Payment processors, including PayPal and Venmo, do not accept payments for legal sex work, Mz. Kim said, forcing many sex workers to turn to third parties which typically take 30 to 80 percent of the profits.

One of the most valuable commodities online sex workers can offer is something women have typically given away for free: emotional labor or “the girlfriend experience.”

“Women will put out a menu of digital services: for access to my texts it’s this amount. FaceTime is this amount. Snapchat is this,” said Sean Dunne, the director of the documentary “Cam Girlz.” “A lot of these guys just want to feel like they have something going, like they have a girlfriend and that someone is paying attention. Women have monetized that aspect.”

Buying “the girlfriend experience” often doesn’t involve trading money for sex. Mr. Dunne has observed that “a lot of what happens online is actually very vanilla boyfriend-girlfriend behaviors.” For instance, Ella, the art student at Parsons, charges $160 to $200 for a 45-minute Skype session, many of which are not sexual in nature. “I’m just sitting in my bed talking to this person,” she said.

“More and more, I’m selling my time,” Ms. Lain said. “I do a lot of one-on-one video calls, just like you’d FaceTime a normal friend, but I’m getting paid $5 per minute. I’m building social connections with people.” Currently, she says, 70 percent of her work is not related to performing any kinds of live or recorded sexual acts.

But did our mothers and grandmothers really burn their bras so the next generation could sell their underwear?


Kavita Ilona Nayar, a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst whose research focuses on digital cultures of sexual commerce, has written that “in an economic and cultural environment that encourages an ethos of individualism and entrepreneurialism, selling sex and intimacy makes sense. So, why the continued stigma?”

One reason is the long and well-established intersection between paid sex work and exploitation of women. But with so much sex work now being done from behind a screen or through mail order of items, the dynamics of exploitation are being rethought.

“Personally, I think the person who is driving an hour every day for a low-wage job for something they don’t care about is way more exploited than someone doing online sex work,” said Cass Greener, the producer of “Cam Girlz.”

She added, “These are women who are working for themselves and the for the amount of energy and effort they put into this they see a direct return, which isn’t the case with most jobs.”


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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.



The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.


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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.



The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.


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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.



As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.


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