Sex, Money, and the Trillion Dollar Shadow

Sex workers have long driven major revolutions in technology. They have also been at the forefront of innovating new business models for content, communications, and services themselves.

by Bardot Smith on June 8th, 2015

As the technology and financial infrastructure converges, access to capital is increasingly linked to these industries. As loopholes are exploited, traditional industry gatekeepers have less and less influence over the trajectory of the industry. Wall Street does not have a choice to adopt technologies; technology is enveloping finance, becoming the medium and the mode of money itself.

And yet: hardly a female founder to be seen. Data aside, the lack of female perspective and experience in technology is not a concern of token equality. It’s a missed opportunity. The female population holds spending power in the range of $20T global annually and expected to grow. Yet, many mainstream female entrepreneurs report a lack of familiarity (or even awareness) amongst VCs around anything related to women… their health, business, or social lives. Pitches are often met with a VC “checking with” his wife or daughter before making a decision.

Building pillars of the New York Stock Exchange, rich with gold accents.

Photo CC-BY ilaria, filtered.

In May 2015, Nasdaq opened trials on blockchain as a ledger for the exchange. This, given the inescapable nature of modern capitalism, affects everyone. And while women indirectly control the overwhelming majority of major purchases being made, they have limited exposure and access to the development of these new systems and tools.

The adult industry is the exception.

A Study of Adults Making Decisions

The adult industry and the financial sector were destined to become the model for this discussion. They have always been connected, flagrantly and subtly, as women are always directly linked to the movement of resources in an economy. It’s never been more evident than now, due to the exposure modern technology provides.

Nearly all men enjoy the output of the commercial sex industry in some way. Venture capitalists are certainly no exception, and the finance industry in general has a long and storied love affair with the working girl. Most importantly, the end goal is always, unapologetically, a direct transfer of wealth to women.

As tech perfuses our personal communications, it has naturally impacted the dynamics of… the pursuit. Technology creates direct access between people, opening channels of communication that do not fit within a pre-existing social context. Since these modes are new, there are no customs established around them. Women, specifically those who profit from the digital demimonde, are at the forefront of these innovations.

In the past, for a woman to capitalize on the relentless inflow of male interest, she would work in a defined context, a dancer at a club, for example. As commerce and communication became fluently mobile, the dynamics of pursuit changed as well. Women moved their enterprises online in ways that expanded their revenue streams, not simply to advertise an offline service. She was no longer dependent on established modes of exchange. Neither was she limited to a client pool that frequents them. Sex workers of all variety — escorts, erotic models, dommes, strippers, porn performers, sugar babies, part-time, full-time, lifestyle mistresses and women existing in a financial gray area between marriage and love — moved online.

Already agile and business-minded, sex workers have long driven major revolutions in technology: still photography, video cameras, telephone services, VCR, peer-to-peer computing, phone and video chat, and streaming. They have also been at the forefront of innovating new business models for content, communications, and services themselves. From producing some of the first content ever sold on the internet, to creating and monetizing today’s subscription services, private websites, synchonous and asynchonous communications, live-streaming, internet advertising, screening services, subscription models… I could go on.

Golden statue of Athena.

Photo CC-BY Lemsipmatt, filtered.

Sex workers and the enterprises they build to operate their businesses are intrepid. Women have the opportunity to find a niche and business model that suits her. There is always an audience. (Rule No. 34) Because of the sheer size of the market, women are developing new and emerging technologies, innovating content consumption and distribution, driving mass-market demand of the Internet, and fueling not only technical innovation but the surfacing of new modes of digitized financial interaction. Who likes to leave money on the table?

And yet, we find no public advocates. Rare is the space where we can speak about the issues that we face for ourselves. Rarer is support or funding for developments that would improve our efficiency. We are blocked from payment platforms for even suggestive content and barred from using mainstream technology services. It seems that despite the fact that adult content drives 30% of internet traffic, and the fact that companies are profiting from the traffic, ads and services involved in the industry, the women who power that capital flow are treated like criminals.


Adult entrepreneurs…

  • Are frequently invisible in their role driving ubiquitous tech, media, and business innovations because it makes people uncomfortable that men spend money online and off to accommodate their sex drives.
  • Are driven from using the finance and tech tools that do exist. Are then expected to pay a premium to have our payments processed. (Guess who profits.)
  • Are passive-aggressively prevented from gaining roles in finance, tech (and are marginalized, generally) EVEN within the adult industry, but certainly in the mainstream tech & finance sectors. There’s always another excuse for this.
  • Are thus being cut out of billions or trillions in wealth for a machine that we built and powered to harness this pre-existing and perennial marketplace.

This is about to accelerate in the convergence of tech and finance.

Tech and finance don’t need to include women because there are so few women, but because women are actually building the infrastructure for person to person financial patterns. We are pushing towards the vision of direct (and transparent) value transfer between entities in a market.

We are eliminating the middleman.

The Hook

Large Trojan horse on a beach, a ladder against its ribs and people clustered in the background.

Photo CC-BY Tama Leaver, cropped and filtered.

The emergence of fintech challenges the efficacy of regulatory bodies by creating pathways that interrupt, reroute, or completely dismantle traditional capital flows. Investors and entrepreneurs have recognized its transformative potential, fueling innovations that are impossible for institutional finance keep pace with, but also impossible for them to ignore.

Technology is becoming the medium and the mode of finance. And it’s only natural. Most of us carry a device that can access the entire store of human knowledge and almost anyone on the planet nearly instantly. It’s hard not to make money from that, to be honest.

As this field opens, theoretically anyone can participate in the acceleration. However, there is a funding rush, and as developments move quickly, those with established access or higher-proximity to entrepreneurial and investor networks will have a higher rate of success, if only by sheer exposure to odds.

All the while, women are surfacing market behaviors that have vast mainstream applications. And we are hiding in plain sight.

Increasingly, I field requests for advice on technical infrastructure for adult entrepreneurs. There is untapped creative talent — beyond the proverbial use of the word — in female entrepreneurs, especially ones who’ve operated out on the wild fringes. Succeeding in a business that didn’t exist before you invented it depends not only on your skill and agility but also the ongoing ingenuity to imagine, build, and connect directly with the receptive audience. In an economy that is not only ignoring that you exist but actively thwarting your progress? That is brilliance.

For industries so obsessed with the notion of a free market and personal liberty, it does seem hard to believe that this class of female entrepreneurs remains relegated to the shadows. There is an obvious reserve of expertise and drive: We are positioned at heads of multi-channel enterprises. We conduct successful businesses in a hostile and rapidly evolving environment. Though the vast volume of this market indicates hypocrisy in any who criticize us, we face daily stigma. Many of us choose to incur these risk in order to work for ourselves rather than in institutional and corporate environments (where we frequently experience…violence anyway). No one understands male psychology quite like a woman who’s successfully used the internet to capitalize it. Plus, investors and sex workers already know each other… frequently intimately.

It would be easy to rely on the most visible and obvious populations to supply the research, strategy, and design of the fintech revolution. But I wouldn’t ignore an exploding population of creative female hustlers who thrive or die on their ability to hack your technology to our advantage. Independents can’t build flow from an established framework. We build from scratch. Despite impossible logistical, technical and social challenges, the most successful of us have created nuanced and integrated enterprises that drive and monetize a pre-existing and bottomless supply of attention. That drive results in an endless source of internet traffic. Women are driving strategies to harness and convert those patterns of search and consumption into dollars.

Theoretically, there is no ceiling. Open the gates.


The Female Economy, Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre, Harvard Business Review

Rise of FinTech, Accenture

The Future of Fintech and Banking, CB Insights

Silicon Valley Chooses Fintech Over Banks, Rob Price, Business Insider

Fintech Investment Landscape, CB Insights

Women in Fintech, Elizabeth Lumley, Finextra