Kaunda Selisho
Lifestyle Journalist
10 minute read
22 Nov 2019
5:12 pm

‘Popcorn Rooms’: Sex work takes a new shape on social media

Kaunda Selisho

Two big trends are currently blurring the line between sex work, pornography and social media. The Citizen spoke to some of those who are involved.

Picture: iStock

This has contributed not only to shaping laws regarding sex but to the way the people within these societies think about and relate to sex.

Luckily, sex and attitudes towards it have evolved with time and this is made evident through noticeable trends throughout history. 

Two such trends are recent developments that have been facilitated by the effects and impact of computer-mediated communication and globalisation on one of the oldest professions in the good book.

To many, Instagram gossip page ‘The Popcorn Room’ is a source for all the latest sordid gossip about their favourite celebrities and influencers. To others, it is a place to find and secure what the page’s loyal fanbase have come to refer to as “bags.”

“Bags” is the preferred term among Popcorn Room followers for men with money who are looking to enter into transactional relationships. The term was derived from the slang phrase “secure the bag”, which means “ensure a source of income”.

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In the page’s early days, the pictures, Instagram handles and other particulars of said bags would be posted and the page’s followers would be told to have at it as they scrambled to try to enter into relationships with these men in the hopes of gaining access to their wealth.

The targets were later made aware of this and tried through various means to put an end to it.

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There were those who welcomed the advances from the page’s followers and even began to follow the page and scour the comments section of the page in search of women to date and have sex with in exchange for money and gifts.

Things quickly turned sour, however, as more and more women sent their grievances to the page’s anonymous administrator in countless direct messages that the administrator then took screenshots of and shared on the page as posts.

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Chief among the various complaints was the fact that so-called bags were cheapskates in real life who would send the women amounts of money that were too small, ask for their money back as soon as they were unhappy about something or not even pay them at all in the event that they did end up having sex upon meeting face to face.

“This guy once invited me for dinner in Camps Bay and told me to bring a friend and I did and he paid for the food, cool. Then he said we weren’t gonna eat there we were gonna eat in his hotel room… jiki jiki we finish our food and he starts touching us saying he wants to f*** both of us, imagine. And when we said no, he got really angry, I’ve got a video,” said an unidentified follower of the page in a message that was screenshotted and shared publicly, along with the video.

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Other complaints took a similar shape.

“I virtually met a guy via your page, we met in person, we agreed upon a transaction and fee, we had sex and he did not pay.”

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The Popcorn Room’s followers have therefore now begun to engage in sex work (sometimes unknowingly), but unlike the people who identify as sex workers and do it for a living, these women are not taking the necessary precautions a sex worker normally would.

According to Kholi Buthelezi, national coordinator and founding member of the Sisonke National Sex Worker Movement, these women are putting themselves in danger in doing so.

“There are various forms that sex work can take – via social media, over the phone, in person…” explains Buthelezi.

“As an organisation, we work with people who recognise themselves as sex workers – not transactional sex. The danger with transactional sex is that people don’t have control over their business and their bodies. They do not negotiate for safer sex,” she said.

She went on to explain that this distinction presented a number of challenges, starting with the fact that organisations such as Sisonke can’t regulate or monitor what these women are doing.

“Sex workers get to set boundaries and they even know which products to use to ensure maximum pleasure,” added Buthelezi.

Like sex workers, however, women who engage in transactional sex of this nature are at risk of being abused by those they engage in sex with as their “clients” know the law is not on the side of those who solicit sex.

Another distinction that Buthelezi identifies as a problem stems from the fact that the stigma surrounding sex work makes people shy away from identifying themselves as such.

She believes that the decriminalisation of sex work would go a long way towards solving that and many other problems. Not just regarding laws relating to prostitution, but laws regarding pornographic content as well.

OnlyFans

As mentioned by Buthelezi, sex work takes many forms and the latest form to catch the attention of South African social media users is a subscription-based social media platform called OnlyFans.

While the site has been around for years, it gained an unparalleled amount of publicity in October when Twitter user @OddeOmontle (real name Oddette Mashego) tweeted “call me a whore or whatever.. but I made R7800 yesterday alone from my OnlyFans account and I didn’t have to sleep with your dad so go f*** yourself!”

Many were intrigued by how seemingly easy it was for Mashego to rake in such a large amount of money for simply posting raunchy content on to a website that was hidden from those who had not paid to gain access.

The site found itself trending for days on end, which motivated innumerable South Africans to open both an OnlyFans account as well as what is called a “burner” Twitter account as a means to promote their OnlyFans content in hopes of gaining subscribers. 

One of the people who did just that is a young woman who chooses to be identified only as Barbie.

Barbie – who refused to disclose her age as she felt she was too young – has had her account for less than a month.

During that time, she has earned just over R9,000 through subscriptions, tips and monetary gifts sent to her through the website’s messaging feature.

Barbie says she found out about OnlyFans through Instagram because one of the American girls she follows used her Instagram account to promote her OnlyFans account.

While many of the South Africans who opened their accounts last month were motivated by money, Barbie’s motivation was slightly different.

“I’ve always taken nudes and last year I experienced something really bad where me and a guy were being really stupid and we took a couple of videos… One thing led to another and a bunch of people ended up having those videos. That just made me not really care and I realized that I shouldn’t feel bad for something that I genuinely like doing. I really like to take nudes. I feel like it’s art,” she explained.

What sets her account apart from they many others is the fact that unlike most of the faceless bodies on what we will call South African OnlyFans Twitter, Barbie occasionally shows her face. She has also begun to play around with catering to a few of the fetishes she has discovered through interacting with her subscribers and finding out what else they would like to see apart from her naked body.

“I started showing my face yesterday on my content. I just decided that I will do it because my followers want to see my face.”

She says she finds comfort in South Africa’s amended revenge porn laws as she feels as though it provides her with recourse if someone tries to maliciously repost her content outside of her OnlyFans page.

In addition to discovering the world of fetishes, Barbie says her OnlyFans experience has helped her experiment with her sexuality and discover new things about it.

“I’m a very sexually submissive person and when my fans ask me to do things for them, it kind of stimulates me because I enjoy doing things for them.”

“It has also taught me that it’s not easy. You need to promote yourself and put yourself out there [by posting content on social media in order to divert traffic back to your account]. It has taught me that people will judge you because they don’t understand and they weren’t taught sexual self expression,” she added.

On the aspect of safety, Barbie says she has learned to employ a number of tactics such as not showing her face too often in her social media promotional content, which allows her to have separate personal accounts and OnlyFans accounts.

What she has not thought about, however, is the taxman. When asked what her plan for paying tax on her earnings is, Barbie said she does not have one. She instead hopes that the fact that she already receives a lot of foreign deposits from family members will mask her OnlyFans earnings.

Chartered accountant Thupedi Lamola says that money earned from such a venture would be “deemed as an income and taxed as such”.

“If you’re a South African-based company or person making earnings, you’re taxed on a worldwide income, there is no funny exemption from that,” said director of Wingman Accounting Adriaan Basson.

Both Basson and Lamola said that not declaring one’s income would be unlawful and trying to classify it as a gift would constitute tax evasion.

If Sars does an audit into the earnings of creators and discovers that no tax was paid on it, they could face heavy sanctions, unlike the women already mentioned who earn money through “gifts” from their benefactors.

Porn

Despite the growth in the number of locals posting pornographic content of themselves online, online pornography originating in South Africa is technically illegal.

According to a 2018 Witbank News article, the reasons for this is the difficulty of age-verification and the stipulation that pornography only be distributed from designated, licensed physical premises.

Under the Film and Publications Act 1996, however, only pornographic content originating from a website hosted in South Africa is prohibited. Pornographic films and photographs originating from different countries are entirely legal.

Barbie says she will consider starring in locally produced adult films if the offer were lucrative and came from a reputable producer. However, she currently has no faith in the quality of South African pornographic content and has some ideas on how it could improve.

“Right now I don’t think the adult content created in SA is really good,” said Barbie before noting that South African amateur videos supposedly don’t cater to fetishes.

“They just do the same old cliche. They’re naked, they’re just fingering themselves, taking nudes. That’s like generic porn. People that sub to OnlyFans want a connection and they want to feel in control because they’re paying you… SA porn is not bad but it’s basic. Right now what’s booming is fetish content.”

When asked if she would call what she dud sex work, her answer was neither here nor there.

“A lot of people would call it that but I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t mind if you called it that but I wouldn’t. I’ve always thought that sex work was you going on the street and getting booked. People do do that on OnlyFans but I don’t. This is SA, it’s not safe.”

Due to the fact that locally made pornographic content is “already circulating in various ways” and the fact that “there are so many people already sharing it for the wrong reasons” Barbie believes the laws should be amended in a way that no longer criminalises the act.

She concludes her interview with The Citizen by suggesting that legislators should “make it legal for people that want to do it and put it out there”.

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