Caitlin is a stripper in her early 20s, though online fans probably know her best as the Melbourne-based artist behind the popular Instagram account @exotic.cancer. There, Caitlin posts irreverent illustrations of the often unglamorous and occasionally mundane reality of sex work, including uncomfortable conversations and awkward encounters inspired by her own experience on the job. Many of her followers have no personal connection to sex work but are simply drawn to the millennial pink and pastel-colored strippers that characterize Caitlin's illustrations.
Caitlin credits her creative success to her background in graphic design and social media savvy, as well as her chosen subject matter. Since the passage of FOSTA-SESTA in 2018, which marked a devastating loss to the rights of consensual sex workers, cultural conversations about sex workers' rights and decriminalization have entered into mainstream consciousness. Sex work activists and advocates have always organized in defense of their rights, but in recent years, these issues have come to the forefront of political discourse and social justice movements. Mainstream platforms like Instagram and Twitter host vocal communities of sex workers speaking out in support of decriminalization—and millennials are listening.
Art by @exotic.cancer via Instagram
In addition to its increased political visibility, sex work is also having a media moment that's catching the attention of high-profile, formerly anti-sex work advocates, like Jameela Jamil who tweeted last April, "Hey! I'm very pro sex worker now." Netflix's Bonding, though deeply flawed, brings sex work narratives to millions of potential viewers; Hustlers is a runaway success at the box office; and thanks to proud former strippers like Cardi B and Amber Rose, many fans may actually be seeing sex workers for the first time.
For author, performer, and sex work advocate Andrea Werhun, this is a good thing. "I'm happy when people can say out loud that sex workers are human beings who deserve equal rights, love, and freedom, which is extremely basic," she said. Caitlin, who wishes to keep her last name private to protect her anonymity at work, agrees that increased media attention and visibility can be a powerful force against sex work stigma. "We want sex work to be accepted, and the more people that show their support and acceptance of sex work, the better it is for minimizing negative stigma, even if they're just jumping on the bandwagon because it's the cool thing to do nowadays."
Sex work is becoming more than just acceptable—the rising popularity of sex worker-inspired fashion, aesthetics, and philosophy among millennial women, including those who aren't sex workers themselves, is sparking a complex dialogue that's redefining traditional definitions of sex work. "Everyone having their own platform for thirst trapping makes everyone feel like they can be a ho in the safety of their own bedroom, with their ring light and plastic shoes," said artist and comedian Jacq the Stripper. With many millennial women capitalizing on their sexuality as social media influencers and Instagram models, Jacq feels this raises complicated questions about how this can be construed as sex work, and what doing sex work actually looks like. "The pillars of what an influencer does can be compared to what a cam girl does, yet one is not considered sex work while the other is. I mean the more we talk about how trash patriarchy is, the more we want to just say 'fuck y'all, pay me.' This has been sex worker rhetoric since the dawn of time, but now that sex workers have more visibility online to non-sex working folks, our gospel is spreading."
Like "lesbian chic" in the '90s, some non-sex working millennial women are adopting sex work as an edgy aesthetic, because being a sex worker—or rather, looking like one—is cool. "I can definitely see the trend," Caitlin said. The global popularity of "pole fitness" is possibly the most widely recognized example of sex work entering the mainstream, and though many studios are owned and operated by strippers, many fans are quick to distance themselves from pole dancing's origins. Millennial women shell out so they can learn how to move like strippers, yet most strip club customers are still men.
"Everything cool gets co-opted, and whores have always been the coolest people in the room"
To someone unfamiliar with sex work, and the constant existential threats sex workers face, being a sex worker might seem like being part of an aspirational cool-girls' club. "Everything cool gets co-opted, and whores have always been the coolest people in the room," said Jacq the Stripper. Strippers working the pole or posing with stacks of cash on Instagram look cool, because strippers are cool, but co-opting sex work as a personal brand without actually being one isn't. "If you take our rhetoric, our style, and our organizing strategies without showing us actual support—and, yes, I mean money—you are part of the problem."
Caitlin believes there's a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. "I am seeing a lot of 'feminist' artists now tending to lean into creating more sex work-related content recently but not being sex workers themselves because it's trending," Caitlin said. "If you're starting to shape your entire artistic identity off sex work without ever having done sex work yourself, I find it a little unsettling." Jacq the Stripper added, "If you're taking from this culture without acknowledging the struggles we continue to face, you are outing yourself as a complacent appropriator."
For some sex workers, this sudden wave of mainstream support is complicated. "If y'all love sex workers so much, how come I never see you in the club?" @local_._honey captioned a photo on Instagram. Caitlin wonders if some non-sex-working allies might be latching on to the movement to prove their "wokeness" or secure their public image as next-level feminists. "Why are they only [supporting us] now?" Caitlin wonders. "Would they have done it if it wasn't 'trending'?"
Publicly declaring support for sex workers' rights isn't admirable when it comes at the expense of actual sex workers, or when it's used to hide a deep-seated discomfort with sex work. "It's important to lift the voices of actual sex workers, but don't try and speak for us for your own social gain," Caitlin said. "Pass the mic but stay in your own lane."
"Why are they only [supporting us] now? Would they have done it if it wasn't 'trending'?"
Aesthetics are temporary, but stigma can follow sex workers for life. "Sex workers are facing increased violence since the passage of SESTA/FOSTA. They are less able to do what we all need to survive, like screening clients. Their money is being seized by PayPal, and in spaces where they can work legally—like strip clubs—the labor conditions are exploitative," Jacq the Stripper said. "So if you're spending $60 on a pair of Pleasers, you'd better be throwing $60 to SWOP, you feel me?"
Jacq the Stripper prefers her friends to stay away from the club when she's working rather than spend their rent money on overpriced drinks or undertip, and though performative wokeness can't change policies, raise funds, or bring about systemic change, she thinks it's a step in the right direction. "Even if it's just wearing a T-shirt in support of sex workers," she said, "it's an opportunity to start a conversation, and I think that's important."