The commercial sex economy — the good, the bad, the battle for legitimacy | News
When Nickey Huntsman entered the adult film industry, she was 19 years old, mid-divorce from her high school sweetheart and responsible for a baby girl.
A production company had reached out to Huntsman on Model Mayhem, a model networking site, offering $1,000 a day for three videos. They’d cover her flight to Florida, hotel and STD tests. Huntsman, navigating motherhood and an impending divorce, figured she’d take the job, get ahead on her finances and then be done with it.
But news of her porn debut spread quickly around the Springs. For months, Huntsman experienced harassment and shaming — and she became depressed, then suicidal.
Six months later, she rejoined the industry and took some time away from the Springs. Over the next few years, she healed. “It pays well. The people are nice. I get to travel,” she says. “And if people are going to be jerks anyways, I might as well just be doing it.”
The motives and experiences of sex workers are diverse, yet society’s perception of sex work tends to be reductive. What constitutes “sex work” has expanded alongside the internet: Sex workers can make money on the streets, in brothels or strip clubs — but they can also operate businesses out of their own homes, as cam girls, phone sex operators and online content creators.
In general, it’s an industry that leaves people more vulnerable to mistreatment — by clients, by production companies, by law enforcement, by future employers, by strangers, by companies who refuse to provide services, by the average person who goes, “But what kind of person would voluntarily do that?”
For some, like Huntsman, sex work has been healing and empowering. For others, it has been dangerous and debilitating. For still others, it has been gender-affirming; political; necessary.
But for most, if not all, sex work is just that: work.
Huntsman has since steered away from adult film, but still offers services online, on platforms where she is in control of her content and revenue. She typically makes anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 a month, depending on how much time she invests.
On OnlyFans, Huntsman posts photos and videos, livestreams and Q&As. She also offers dick ratings. “Men will literally pay you just so that they can send you a dick pic and ask you for a rating,” says Huntsman. “I’ll get $25 to record a minute-long video, fully nude, being like, ‘Your cock is so beautiful Jeremy, it’s a 10 out of 10.’ Or ‘You have such a tiny pathetic little dick, I would never touch it.’” She gives them the option: honest, mean or nice. Most times, clients ask her to be honest.
Huntsman’s favorite platform is SextPanther, a phone sex operation service, because of the flexibility. She can text or do voice calls, and she doesn’t have to set up lighting or do her makeup.
Huntsman hasn’t disappeared from the porn world altogether, though. Working with major production companies means exposure, and the occasional video helps Huntsman stay relevant.
Surprisingly, she has little control over her profiles, even on major sites like Pornhub. Currently, her bio reads, “Originally from Colorado Springs, CO, Nickey is one of few porn babes who openly supported Donald Trump’s election campaign. In any case, porn isn’t about politics; it’s about jizzing, and that’s a bipartisan issue. Her support for Trump brought her a lot of flak, and some might say it even affected her career …”
She rolls her eyes. “I think somebody was just really mad that I voted for Trump …,” she says. “And it’s funny, because [PornHub] will get back to me on other things, but not about my bio.” And no, Huntsman clarifies, her politics didn’t affect her career.
Huntsman has also learned to deal with other industry challenges. Once, she was flown out to Prague, Czech Republic, by a porn production company. Her agent was only informed about some of the details, and they tried to force Huntsman to do more once she arrived. She put her foot down.
“I get there, out to Prague — which mind you is a crazy long journey, like two or three days of traveling and going on multiple flights — and I’m finally told, when I’m about to start my scene, that it’s not two male performers, it’s going to be three male performers … and then they’re trying to have me get pissed on … I’m like, ‘Fuck no.’”
She continues, “Even after the scene was shot, [the director] was putting me down, telling me, ‘Oh, this probably isn’t going to be usable because [you] didn’t do that.’ And he just tried to make me feel really horrible.”
A less experienced person might have felt pressure to comply, says Huntsman, even if they had no legal obligation.
In her 10 years in the industry, this is one of only a few negative experiences Huntsman can recall. Typically, companies are respectful and care about their actors, she says. That, or they want to avoid legal repercussions and damage to their reputation. But it’s similar to any industry, she says, in that there will always be people who try to take advantage.
Ultimately, Huntsman is grateful for how her job has changed her life. It helped improve her self-esteem after an abusive relationship; she’s had the opportunity to travel all over the world; and thanks to a flexible work schedule, she can spend more time with her daughter.
“It helped me discover who I was,” says Huntsman. “It helped me build my confidence.”
Zariah Aura, a Denver sex worker who grew up in the Springs, says people don’t realize the time and energy required to maintain a successful OnlyFans profile. Aura spends hours editing content, doing shoots and scheduling collabs — and maintaining hundreds of interpersonal relationships.
Having so many fans can be exhausting: “Most people just automatically feel like they own you or they know who you are just because they’ve seen you online. … People feel like just because they give you $10 a month that they can request anything from you, get anything from you, have your attention at all times.”
But sex work has also been personally fulfilling for Aura. “I started doing it as a boy,” she says. “I had not started transitioning yet. And I did well. … And then, once I started to see that people appreciated me showing who I was, I was more willing to be myself.”
For some creators, OnlyFans is just a side gig. Take LJ Hernandez, a Colorado Springs resident who works full time in the social work field. “It wasn’t something that I did because I needed [money],” says Hernandez. “It felt empowering. It felt important. And it was a different way of supporting and advocating for sex workers.”
While many sectors of sex work, like OnlyFans and porn, are legal, prostitution is illegal (and only allowed in some counties in Nevada).
Pasha Ripley was working as a domestic violence counselor at a battered women’s shelter in Denver when she started doing underground sex work. “That night, I walked away with more cash than I made in a week as a domestic violence counselor,” she says. “And it allowed me to set my own schedule and take care of my son at home.” She would return to the industry years later, when her husband was ill and they were facing foreclosure on their home.
In Ripley’s experience, as a former sex worker and “madam” (a booker of sorts, arranging meetings with workers and clients), most clients are non-violent. “I had one guy who came to me with a letter from his wife,” says Ripley. “She had cancer and sex was painful for her, and she just wanted him to be able to — you know — and he sat there the first five or six appointments. All he did was sit there and cry, thinking he was cheating on his wife.”
In 2018, Ripley was assaulted by a client of 10 years during an out-call. “I thought he was going to kill me,” she says. “I was raped, sodomized … and when I left, he said what I had heard many times before. And it’s such a cliché, but it’s so true. ‘What are you gonna do? Who are you gonna tell? They’ll arrest you.’ And he wasn’t wrong.”
She went to the hospital and begged the emergency team not to call the police.
“It was dumb on my part to have trusted [him],” says Ripley.
Then she retracts: “Well, that’s not fair. That’s very victim-blaming because, really, it’s not my fault. … But the fact is, you just saw me slip. Even with myself. I was like, ‘That was dumb. I can’t believe I was that naive.’If someone else said those words to me, I’d be like, ‘No, it is not your fault. It is their fault. They’re the ones who attacked you. They’re the perpetrators. And it’s not your fault at all.’ There’s still a lot of self-loathing within our own community.”
Legislation like Colorado’s “Safe Reporting Assaults Suffered by Sex Workers” aims to protect sex workers from violent acts without fear of prosecution. It’s what Ripley calls a “baby step” in the larger fight for sex workers’ rights.
“I have had so many other representatives say that they were going to help me submit this bill, and it never happened,” says Ripley. “They were always like, ‘It’ll die in committee.’” The legislation, spearheaded by Rep. Brianna Titone (and co-sponsored by Rep. Matt Soper, Sen. Jim Smallwood and Sen. Rhonda Fields), passed the House unanimously in March and was signed into law a couple months later.
It’s difficult to say whether enough trust exists between sex workers and law enforcement for sex workers to take advantage of this law. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction, says Ripley, and will hopefully act as deterrence.
Criminalization, which effectively forces sex work underground, only makes it more dangerous, argues Ripley.
Even laws to curb sex trafficking can impact consenting adult sex workers. Federal FOSTA-SESTA (“Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” and “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers”), legislation passed in 2018 intended to curb trafficking, has made working conditions for sex workers more unsafe. “A lot of people who had been working as independents had to go back to working for pimps on the street,” says Ripley. Without these internet spaces, it became difficult for sex workers to choose and screen clients on their own; it also made it more difficult for law enforcement to prosecute.
Sex workers are often subjected to a slut-victim binary, says Ripley: “On the right, we’re dirty, promiscuous whores, or we’re lazy, that it’s easy money (which, God, it isn’t for so many different reasons). But then on the flip side of the coin, on the more liberal side, they say we’re all victims. Either way, it kind of sucks as far as being an independent person.”
“There’s a million reasons people get into sex work,” she continues. “Just like there’s a million reasons people choose any other vocation. And like I always say, it’s just a job. We don’t want your man. We’re not out there to break up families. We’re not out to bring drugs into your communities. It is just a job. And 99 percent of sex work is not done on [Denver’s] East Colfax. It’s done in your suburbs.”
Tiara Kelley, a former sex worker who testified in support of the Colorado bill, says she encountered violent clients frequently.
“Initially, it was out of a desperation thing,” she says. “As a Black trans woman, especially living in Florida, it was not easy finding employment. So for me, it became a necessity. Because I had to live.”
Kelley’s goal was to save money until she was in a better place, and then find something legal and stable. Every day she was working the streets, she was trying to get out.
“I had to use cocaine most of the time when I was out there because it took away the pain and the reality of what I was doing,” says Kelley. “So during those times, for me, it would be like, get up. Do some cocaine. Go out on the corner and stand there until the next person that decided that you were their pick of the day would pick you up. And then you go.
“Normally, it would be finding a spot somewhere to park such as an alley or behind buildings and stuff like that. Or sometimes, they take you to their apartments or to their hotel room. And then you basically perform your act, whatever it is that they’re looking for, and you take your compensation and you leave.”
Kelley continues, “And that’s just my story. I know some of my friends who happen to be in sex work, and it’s comfortable for them. They’d rather deal with those types of experiences than they would to have to go and be turned down by six jobs because they’re transgender and the people that work there don’t know how to handle that. Or because they may have a record or may have created some type of history criminally for themselves being out on the streets, and now they’re trying to find a job and that’s stopping them.”
Once, she suffered a severe 15-minute beating in a hotel parking lot. The police never asked her for a description of the man or his car. Instead, they wanted to know what she was doing in the car in the first place. “Safe Reporting Assaults Suffered by Sex Workers” is what Kelley calls a “commonsense law.”
When Kelley finally exited the sex work industry, she found a job at McDonald’s. Her boss found out about her past, and began making sexual advances — advances she rejected.
Then she was fired. “Now, of course, he didn’t say that that was what he was firing me for,” says Kelley. “But I knew. He knew. So it was difficult initially, trying to find a job. But the more that you get it behind you, the easier it becomes to function in normal society as a, quote unquote, normal citizen.”
River Phoenix (stage name), a UCCS graduate and Colorado Springs resident, works part-time as a legal brothel courtesan in Nevada.
Most people assume all sex workers are desperate, says Phoenix: “A lot of times, men are like, ‘I want to save you. I want to take you out of here. I want to be your boyfriend. Why do you do this job? You could come live with me, and I could take care of you.’”
She encounters men with this savior complex frequently. But for Phoenix, it’s the most empowering job she’s ever had. When the marijuana company she worked for got shut down last year, she started waitressing at a strip club, then moved over to stripping. With the encouragement of a friend (more experienced in the sex work industry), she began applying to brothels in Nevada.
Phoenix is still based in the Springs, but once a month, she flies to Nevada to work at the brothel. (Two weeks on, two weeks off.)
While she would prefer to not have to travel for work, the brothel offers safety and protection: surveillance, security, panic buttons and regular STD testing.
“It’s not a job we necessarily need saving from,” she says. “We choose it because we want to do it.”
Torrey Lisa, another Coloradoan who works in Nevada as a legal brothel courtesan, considers herself a nurturer, a caregiver and educator. For Lisa, sex work is more than a job; it’s an opportunity to provide intimacy and connection.
And like Phoenix, she wishes brothels were legal across the country. There is a demand for it, and if that demand is not met, it will inevitably go underground, says Lisa: “It would make sense to make it safer. But we’re so caught up in the whole ‘sex’ part that we forget that there are actual humans involved in this industry.”
Lisa plans on staying in the industry as long as she can. “Everything that I did in my life brought me to this thing, and I am the most self-actualized, fulfilled, vibrant expression of myself,” she says.
“I’m living my best life.” ♥