Abington professor’s new book explores the rise of digital sex work

Kurt Fowler, Penn State Abington criminal justice faculty

Kurt Fowler, assistant professor of criminal justice at Penn State Abington.

Credit: NYU Press

ABINGTON, Pa. — Today’s sex workers use the internet to attract clients, shape personas, share information, screen potential clients and build community, according to a new book from a Penn State faculty member. Kurt Fowler, assistant professor of criminal justice at Penn State Abington, applied an approach called narrative criminology in his new book "The Rise of Digital Sex Work" (NYU Press) to provide an intimate look into the changing face of the industry, telling stories of workers and revealing how they go online to share information, grow their businesses and establish global communities.  

“There is a cultural perception about sex work, and reading their stories can alter that,” Fowler said. “Digital sex work is changing the shape of what it means to be a sex worker in the 21st century. They want to have more say in when, where and why they choose to work. We rarely hear from the workers themselves, and the underlying meaning of their stories are important to all of us.”

Fowler conducted 50 in-depth interviews with workers from industrialized countries worldwide who provide services ranging from web-camming to escorting. He offers insight into how race, class and privilege affect their work and the role of the internet and explores how they manage their daily business and client relationships, their use of digital technology for safety and as a broader social resource, and the role race plays in their work.  

"These are not just sterile measurements. These are human beings with human stories, and in order to understand the sociological consequences we need context, which my book provides. Their stories say more about us than the workers and how we choose to frame it reflects society’s understanding. Digital sex work is on the rise, and it has nothing to do with sex work. It’s all about our digital lives,” he said. 

There are striking differences, Fowler explained, between traditional and digital sex workers. 

“Most of the people I interviewed were highly educated, white, middle-class women with a median age of 28, which is older than cultural stereotypes. But it says something about the network in this subculture that only people who are feeling secure in their position in life and society are comfortable talking to me about their illegal behavior. Someone with a pimp or who is on drugs likely won't talk to me,” he said.  

“Those variables speak to their own personal sense of security; it’s not a risk to talk to me. At first it was difficult finding workers to interview, but then word got out through emails and other means that I had no agenda. The difference is agency: ‘I have the choice of clients and to talk about my work or not,’” Fowler said.  

He explained that most research into sex work is drawn from samples of people leaving the profession or those in the criminal justice system, which fuels stigma. 

"Most of the people I interviewed were just trying to get along in the world, but no one stigmatizes businesses that don’t pay a livable wage. This is a job on a spectrum of jobs they are willing to do, but ones they’ve tried before didn’t pay enough. They are trying to enrich their human experience and pay the bills,” Fowler said, adding that he did not interview workers who were being trafficked. 

Stigma also limits access to resources.  

“They can’t call the police if they get attacked or they must falsify their stories to doctors. From a narrative criminology standpoint, it’s our impressions that limit them. For example, digital sex workers generally rigorously screen potential clients, including asking for real names, banking information, and references from other providers. It goes against the cultural perception of sex work where a guy pulls up in a car and the worker gets in,” Fowler said. 

“These workers are preemptively making sure they are safe. The ability to create a digital and virtual community that spreads information and best practices is crucial to them,” he added. 

The impact of the pandemic is the focus of a chapter in "The Rise of Digital Sex Work."  

"There’s been an explosion of people using digital platforms for sex work. Porn is the new reality of an inflated cost of living. I revisited three workers and asked them to speak to changes since COVID. One worker used to do different types of sex work and then when the pandemic hit, they moved to video. They are making more money now sitting in their living room than they used to,” he said. 

Fowler's research reveals that sex workers want a seat at the table where policies and programs that affect them are formulated, but they are generally opposed to decriminalization. 

“They consistently said, ‘Stop telling me and start asking me.’ They are a marginalized population so when regulations are passed, they aren’t consulted. The criminalization of sex work obfuscates the difference between victims and people who are agentically running their own businesses. They make money because this is taboo, but they are also speaking from a place of privilege,” he said. 

Fowler’s research into digital sex work began with his doctoral dissertation, which described how sex workers use internet technology to circumvent traditional social institutions and create new resources for their community. He also focuses on deviant subcultures, particularly how they create and sustain culture in digital spaces to identify problems and address them. He has examined the subculture of incels and how they share perceived realities to bolster their ideology and how police use institutional language to absolve themselves of wrongdoing.  

About Penn State Abington 

Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st-century public higher education within a world-class research university. With more than 3,100 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 25 majors, accelerated master's degrees, undergraduate research, the Schreyer Honors College, NCAA Division III athletics and more.