Ever since Mark Zuckerberg announced in October that his company would change its name from Facebook to Meta and majorly invest in the “metaverse,” there’s been widespread speculation about what, exactly, a potential metaverse would look like. But if it’s anything like the current Internet, it’ll be a major site of both sexuality and commerce, which means it’ll inevitably include sex work.
Like every industry, save for maybe coal mining, the landscape of sex work has been transformed by the Internet, from the rise of camming to the explosion of OnlyFans. And throughout the rise of virtual reality, both porn and sex work have been at the forefront.
Philip Rosedale says that the company he founded, Second Life, one of the earliest platforms to create a complex virtual world online, has entailed plenty of sex and even sex work since its debut in 2003. “People were, from the very start, able to sell things to each other or pay for services,” he says. “And sex is one of the many services people pay for.” It’s not difficult to speculate that sex work in a metaverse would simply be an expansion of the marketplace that already exists online.
“Instead of doing custom content, people will create custom experiences,” says Noelle Perdue, a porn producer, journalist, and historian who focuses on how technology influences the adult industry. She imagines a more elaborate, full-service version of what we’re already seeing: “people having platforms where they interact with [clients] on a subscriber basis, like OnlyFans or Pornhub Fan Club.” That could mean one avatar paying another to have the kind of sex that mirrors current real-world encounters — or it could mean delving further into fantasies that are impossible, impractical, or even illegal in person.
“Virtual reality opens up so many exciting possibilities for exploring the more surreal elements of fetish and kink,” Perdue says. “There are a lot of fetishes that are not possible to recreate in real life, like a giantess fetish, or hypnotism, or more fantastical, niche desires. Virtual reality provides such an amazing opportunity to actually be in those fantasies in a way that you can’t in [reality].”
Angelina Aleksandrovich, a pioneer of virtual reality sexuality and founder of “a multisensory metaverse” called RD Land, envisions a similarly exciting menu of possibilities. In a functional metaverse, “sex workers can jump into any kind of avatar that the client wants to play with; they can change the world on demand, play out different scenarios that the clients want.” This would include out-there fantasies but also new personas that transcend gender or any kind of biological reality. Arousal and desire could be informed by colors, shapes, elements, and character traits. “The more creative [sex workers] become with the tools out there, the more they can offer to their clients,” Aleksandrovich says.
“Virtual reality opens up so many exciting possibilities for exploring the more surreal elements of fetish and kink.”
Tech entrepreneurs like Aleksandrovich tend to focus on these utopian elements of fantasy; sex workers might be more likely to weigh the logistics. “One of the primary benefits of online sex work has been safety,” says Angela Jones, a sociology professor at Farmingdale State College and author of Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Work Industry. Social media and platforms like Chaturbate, along with other sites that facilitate in-person sex work, have allowed sex workers to “better screen clients.”
Tamika Spellman, the policy and community engagement manager of the DC-based organization Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS) and a longtime sex worker herself, sees the rise of online sex work as handing “more benefits to sex workers because of its increased flexibility” and an opportunity for “different types of artistic expression.” During the pandemic, she says, online sex work platforms like camming and OnlyFans have been lifelines for sex workers like her who previously offered mostly IRL services. And especially for more vulnerable sex workers like Spellman, who is Black and trans, online transactions can keep them safe.
Virtual services might allow a sex worker to keep physical distance, but there is always the problem of online harassment, where the client will feel entitled to certain acts or fantasies that the sex worker might not want to do. And this problem could get even more acute in a hyperrealistic metaverse. “I have found that online platforms provide a level of anonymity that people do take advantage of,” Perdue says. In her camming days, she remembers that people would routinely attempt to live out pedophilia fantasies that made Perdue, a petite woman, extremely uncomfortable. Jones says this is a common occurrence with camming. “Many people on the client side feel empowered to harass people” if they’re only interacting online, she says. Sure, performers “have the ability to ban them from their room” on camming platforms, but resilient clients can simply create a new account.
This threat isn’t hypothetical: Beta testers in Facebook’s metaverse have already reported incidents of gang rape and groping. Perdue points out that even though things like violence and rape fantasies wouldn’t cause bodily harm in the metaverse, the suggestion of them can cause psychological damage. “Interacting with the desire for violence to be brought upon you is not a positive experience, even if you’re not physically experiencing it,” she says. “That is still traumatizing.”
Experts and advocates also foresee accessibility becoming an issue in the metaverse, just as with any other new technology. “Some platforms require the use of Bitcoin,” Spellman says. “I don’t know anything about Bitcoin. There are some where you need to have a major credit card to pay for a space to advertise. Not everybody has that.” Current versions of virtual reality also require pricey headsets and a pretty advanced understanding of the latest tech. “This technology is still very inaccessible and expensive,” says Perdue, “so there will inevitably be a divide between sex workers.”
That’s assuming Meta or any mainstream platform would even allow sex work, which, judging by most social media platforms’ intense regulation of any sexual content, isn’t likely. Perdue expressed a bit of optimism that the metaverse might actually aid in decriminalizing sex work in the real world — “I would love to see virtual reality shake up that stigma as full service becomes more normal in a virtual reality space,” she says. But anyone who’s watched social media’s crackdown on sex workers in the last few years worries that the metaverse’s sex workers will get into the crosshairs of anti-trafficking laws like FOSTA-SESTA, which many advocates argue have kicked sex workers off platforms that once afforded them safety and community.
“This technology is still very inaccessible and expensive, so there will inevitably be a divide between sex workers.”
That said, there might be a lag in regulating the sex work that happens in the metaverse. Like earlier versions of the Internet, more advanced VR platforms might enjoy a few years of the Wild, Wild West as legislators struggle to grapple with the changing landscape. Still, metaverse platforms may succumb to online sex work regulatory laws — which, thanks to sex work opponents’ recent pivot to anti-trafficking language rather than decriminalization, have become “even more repressive” in the last few years, says Jones. Of course, there will be indie platforms like RD Land, which is explicitly sex-positive, and Second Life, which has a “neutral stance” on sex work, according to Rosedale. But these sex-work-friendly platforms will likely follow the “consumptive pattern of smaller platforms getting eaten by larger platforms until it’s really just one company that owns every single property online,” Perdue says. “Spaces will start independently and get Hoovered up into a larger metaverse space.”
This corporate cannibalization is “fundamentally dangerous in terms of its risk of homogenizing people and applying one standard to everybody’s behavior,” Rosedale says. And whether we’re talking about sex work or music or speech, “it’s also just boring.”
Regardless of crackdowns, there’s a truism when it comes to sexuality in general and sex work specifically: It finds a way to survive, regardless of a hostile environment. “Sex work has been around since the Biblical times,” says Spellman. “It’s not going anywhere.”
In the best case scenario, the metaverse will be an exciting frontier, both for our sexual imaginations and for the safety and de-stigmatizing of sex workers. Practically, though, it may end up being entangled in the same biases and dangers of our current reality.
Philip Rosedale, founder of Second Life
Noelle Perdue, porn producer, journalist, and historian
Angela Jones, sociology professor at Farmingdale State College and author of Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Work Industry
Tamika Spellman, policy and community engagement manager of HIPS and sex worker