As she followed reports of the chaos within Twitter, OnlyFans creator and artist Stephanie Michelle fretted over what losing Twitter would mean for her livelihood. She had already faced suspensions and content strikes on other platforms for sharing her artwork, much of which features abstract depictions of naked women.
“Starting from scratch is so demoralizing and so humiliating,” said Stephanie Michelle, who only wanted to be referred to by her stage name out of concern for her safety. “You feel like all of these platforms are laughing at us, like, ‘Haha, you think that what you have earned is worthy. Well, we can take that away from you in a flash.’”
OnlyFans allows creators to directly interact with paying subscribers, but creators note that it isn’t a platform for sex workers to build community because it’s a subscription service, not a social media site.
Twitter is one of the few platforms that allows explicit content. In recent years, it has become the center of a flourishing community of sex workers who connect with fans, advertise their content and educate other “Not Safe For Work” creators. But with Twitter’s future in question after Elon Musk’s takeover, sex workers who spoke with NBC News said they are worried that the community they built and depend upon will be fractured across social media platforms that don’t tolerate explicit content.
A spokesperson for Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
I genuinely feel like it [Twitter] saved me.
-Caitlin Reid, a cosplayer and OnlyFans creator
Sex work circles have existed on Twitter throughout the platform’s history, and more recently have become a haven for adult creators funneling in from other sites. In 2018, for instance, U.S. law enforcement agencies shut down the classified ads site Backpage and, later that year, Tumblr banned porn. (Tumblr announced earlier this month that it will allow nudity, but not sexually explicit images, on the site again.) The pandemic and subsequent OnlyFans boom brought a new wave of adult content creators to the so-called sex work Twitter.
Many sex workers said Twitter is a necessity for them as it allows them to advertise their services, from one-on-one cam sessions to fetish art commissions. It also provides a vital centralized space to share resources.
“So much of sex worker tradition has always been word of mouth because it’s protective,” said Twitter user BotticelliBimbo, who is a stripper and Columbia University graduate student. She only wanted to be referred to by her Twitter handle because she feared jeopardizing her academic future.
“It’s like every other marginalized community," she said.
BotticelliBimbo said that she started dancing because of sex work Twitter. If she didn’t have the network of other strippers, she “would have never known all the small nuances of dancing,” such as proper club attire. She was able to relocate from Austin, Texas, to Houston, she said, because other dancers advised her on the local club scene.
The online sex work community is also tight-knit, so it’s also become a space to warn others of potential dangerous customers. When a woman went missing after leaving a Houston strip club last year, strippers based in that city turned to each other for support.
“The only reason anybody knew in the community was because everyone would tweet about it,” BotticelliBimbo said.
Because sex work is so widely stigmatized, sex workers rely on each other for mutual aid and support.
Caitlin Reid, a cosplayer and OnlyFans creator, said that she was able to raise enough funds to leave an abusive relationship and move to a different city because of the sex work community on Twitter.
“I genuinely feel like it saved me,” Reid said in a message.
More from NBC News’ Culture & Trends team
Stephanie Michelle said she created a group chat of over 30 adult performers to boost each other’s content and educate each other on how to maintain their social media presences.
When Instagram and TikTok update their terms of service, for example, Stephanie Michelle said that the group keeps tabs on the platforms’ explicit content policies to make sure they won’t be flagged. They also update each other with their new social media handles if their accounts are taken down.
The sense of community on Twitter also humanizes sex workers because it’s so candid, she said.
Twitter “allowed sex workers to be viewed as fully functioning three-dimensional humans,” Stephanie Michelle said. “I was someone who hopefully had a little joke here and there, or shared how passionate I was about this new anime, and creating these connections with people who probably joined you just to follow boobs, and then realized, ‘This person has a life. This person has a family, has ups and downs.’”
Morgie Mog’ronn, a former sex worker and current artist who specializes in fetish art under the Twitter handle pogf_olio, noted that the NSFW art community has been crucial for her commissions.
Morgie, who only wanted to use her artist pen name out of concern for her safety, considers herself “pretty lucky” for a “relatively unknown artist” because she was able to build a following of 4,000 in the last year through adult content Twitter.
Popular artists with already sizable followings will likely survive without Twitter, Morgie predicted. But lesser known artists who are still building a dedicated following might not.
“Many creators in the 50,000 or 75,000 [follower] mark have their own website. They have establishments in other places,” she said. “They’ve mastered the content flow, in that they can generate their own organic traffic via all those different websites. Midsize creators, a lot of people under 10,000 haven’t had to do that yet because they don’t have enough content to generate that sort of revenue stream.”
Without being able to advertise her content on Twitter, Reid, the OnlyFans creator, said she would likely try to join an OnlyFans marketing agency or buy promotions from bigger creators. It would be “pretty devastating” for her finances, she said, but she “could survive” off her current OnlyFans subscribers.
That may not be an option for less established sex workers, though. There are few viable alternatives to Twitter for sex workers to discuss their industry, much less promote their content. The Instagram account thedancersresource, which solicits and posts reviews of strip clubs from actual dancers, has been suspended multiple times, BotticelliBimbo said.
“You watch other girls and learn how to be safe,” she said. “You can’t do that on Instagram because they’ll just take it down.”
A spokesperson for Meta, which owns Instagram, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Some adult content creators have also struggled to stay on TikTok, where content moderation is so strict that “algospeak” — that is, code words or euphemisms that won’t be flagged by the platform — has developed into its own online dialect. “Strippers,” for example, are referred to as “spicy dancers” or “$trippers” to evade content filters.
A spokesperson for TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment. TikTok’s community guidelines prohibit “nudity, pornography, or sexually explicit content” on the platform. It also forbids “depictions, including digitally created or manipulated content, of nudity or sexual activity.”
“Clout is unfortunately part of a sex worker’s job for getting bigger opportunities with brands that will accept us, because there’s already very few.”
onlyfans creator and artist stephanie michelle
“It’s awful because then it reduces it. Like it sucks having to censor yourself because censorship isn’t just losing the word,” BotticelliBimbo said. “It’s losing visibility and it loses the respect when you constantly can’t say it. You can’t say sex work on any other platform.”
And although Tumblr now allows nudity again, some sex workers like Stephanie Michelle said they are wary of the site. In her experience, she said, explicit content has been moderated inconsistently in recent weeks. A raunchy cosplay might be flagged, while some nude photos fly under the radar. It’s harder to prove a following and traffic analytics on Tumblr than on other sites, she added.
A spokesperson for Tumblr did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Clout is unfortunately part of a sex worker’s job for getting bigger opportunities with brands that will accept us, because there’s already very few,” Stephanie Michelle said. “So if we wanted to work with a sex toy company, or a clothing company that makes bikinis or something like that, to show these numbers, it is important.”
The few online spaces that are tolerant of explicit content are largely siloed, according to some adult content creators.
On Twitter, the sex work community is intertwined with the NSFW space, Morgie said. Many of her commissions are from adult performers retweeting her work to their audience. Others who buy her art — which caters to very specific kinks — stumbled upon it because it was reposted to their timelines. If she advertised her art on places like Reddit, a potential customer would have to know what they were looking for, and know the specific subreddits to find it.
Some adult performers are expanding into vanilla, or non sex-related, industries in anticipation of losing Twitter.
OnlyFans creator Zoey Sterling launched a public relations agency this year, shifted her Instagram account “more into influencing” and plans to open an art gallery. She said that in her experience, many banks shun sex work.
Sex work has “always been profitable and will always continue to be profitable,” Sterling said, but the hostility that sex workers face both online and in real life prompted her to solidify her backup plans. Doing “civilian” work — a phrase used among sex workers to refer to non-sex workers — provides stability.
“I decided to use my social media presence to pivot into other ways that would create less high-risk income and make this a more stable situation for myself,” Sterling said. “My pivot was mostly due to the lack of regard and respect that sex workers deal with, so if I can make an impact through my vanilla work ... then I feel like sex work will have a better chance in society among the civilians.”
Even if the sex work community on Twitter dies out, sex work itself — an occupation that has existed for thousands of years — will “always survive,” BotticelliBimbo said.
She added that many sex workers have experienced losing their followings and community because of how hostile other social media platforms are to adult content creators, even if they aren’t posting explicit content. To survive, “you have to be ready to go or escape anytime.”
“Losing Twitter is hard and it’s awful, and it’s gut-wrenching, but you’re always so prepared for that emotionally anyway,” she said. “And you know, you just have to rebuild.”