Sierra Rhodes: Performance and Education Married Into One

A sex worker’s crusade to see the gap bridged between the porn industry, and who it caters to.

Despite their divergence in method and demeanor, a thing that sex workers I talked to seem to all agree on is how an ill-informed audience can be of detriment to the content they’re consuming. For sex work specifically, harnessing the power of mass media to unwrap its mystery hasn’t been the easiest, so some have had to innovate. I reached out to Sierra Rhodes — a three-time PornHub Awards nominee, professionally known as TeenyGinger — in the hopes of learning how she does it. What I came away with instead is a much more complete synthesis of the current state of the porn industry, and where things ought to go for the good of all involved.

The beginnings for Rhodes were about standard for the internet age–she dabbled in the genre on a message board under the protective cover of anonymity, but then was compelled to continue it in a more professional capacity. “Originally I started posting nudes on the r/gonewild subreddit and it was just a kind of for fun thing,” she says. “Then I got so many requests for “Oh, I want to buy your panties!” and so from that I started selling my underwear to the people who would pay for that.”

Then inevitably, when that moved into more uncharted territory, Rhodes first had her reservations, but eventually got over them. “It took me a long time to be okay with “well, I don’t know if I wanna record my voice on camera, I don’t want my face to be in it” but as I got more comfortable being on camera, I started letting more of my personality come through,” she says. “I ended up with all these videos that I didn’t know what to do with so I started posting them on clip sites and then the videos that weren’t doing very well, I figured to put them out there for free on PornHub.”

What Rhodes predominantly put on PornHub at the time were rejects, bloopers and funny compilations–and as the recent turn towards parasocial attachment online would have it, they subverted her expectations and became a staple of her online presence. “A few of [my videos] really took off, and [then] they started outperforming my clip site ones,” she said. “It’s gotten to the point now where I don’t even sell physical items anymore–I don’t sell panties at all because I enjoy making videos a lot more.”

With fewer avenues for socialization as many countries in the world are still under heavy lockdown regimes, the demand for something familiar and approachable is at an all-time high–it just so happens that Rhodes’ content perfectly met the moment. “Right around when COVID hit, my OnlyFans really took off,” she says. “I think a lot of that was because people were just staying home and separating from people more, and so they’re more likely to look up porn. They would run across my PornHub channel, subscribe to the OnlyFans, and from there it’s just kind of exponentially grown even more, and it’s allowed me to take on a lot of fun side-projects.”

One of those side-projects was an explanatory genre of videos the likes of which had already been present on YouTube but barely (if at all) explored on adult content platforms–Rhodes took it upon herself to illuminate some of the most obscure aspects of the industry by dipping into her sensibilities as an educator, injecting some of it into her performances. “I was binge-watching Tiffany Ferguson’s videos because I had just run across her, and I watched all of the media analysis stuff and was loving it. [There’s also] Sarah Z, D’Angelo Wallace, ContraPoints and a lot of commentary channels and I kept watching it and going “I wanna do this so bad! I know how to do all the editing for this, I should just do it!”,” she says. “I figured that you’ve got to talk about what you know, and I get questions about [my work] people DM me [about] all the time.”

Rhodes views dishonesty in her field as anathema to building a healthy relationship with your audience, so she saw crucial to her job a commitment to authenticity in every piece of content she creates. “I try to bring [it] to everything I do online, and I wish that more people would do the same because we’re all presented with this kind of one idea of sexuality on PornHub,” she told me. “It’s “step sister and step bro get stuck in a washing machine” or something like that, whereas in my content, it feels like I could be your neighbor! Especially since I don’t show my face, I try to let my personality show through as much as I can. […] I adlib most of my videos, and the only ones that I don’t improvise on the spot are the really scripted role-play ones–but everything else, I’m just making it up off the top of my head as I go. So I think people really appreciate that and if more content creators did what I’m doing, hopefully they’ll let their personality show through in their work too.”

One major obstacle to performing that work comes in the form of ill-advised legislation. Back in 2018, the signing of FOSTA-SESTA into law stripped sex work platforms of Section 230 protections under the pretense of limiting sex trafficking (something it may have ended up exacerbating), and with it came down harsher scrutiny on online platforms to further tighten their grip on all manners of posted sexual content–what Sierra fears may transpire as a result, is a heavier government surveillance regime which might put porn consumers and creators alike in a quite perilous position. “I think it’s really difficult and it’s kind of in a similar vein as a law in the UK they’re trying to pass on age verification online, which on the one hand sounds great! I would love to have a way to verify that everyone who watches my content is of the age of the majority, but it also means that in order to verify their age, they’re going to have some kind of tracking,” she says. “So the government knows exactly what videos they’re watching and what kind of content they’re consuming, and that crosses a lot of privacy lines. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is how I feel about this.”

If you ask legislators about this, even if they do not deflect to sex trafficking as the main concern, they’ll cast doubt on the porn industry’s ethical core–Rhodes acknowledges that while there are a lot of issues to solve, sweeping the rug from under sex workers is the least effective way to do it. “There’s a way to make ethical porn, but I don’t think all porn is ethical,” she says. “There’s a lot of stuff on the internet that doesn’t get verified in any kind of way before it’s uploaded–especially on sites like PornHub. […] I think that’s why a lot of content creators now are moving away from the free video sites and towards OnlyFans, JustForFans, and all those other subscription sites so that the consumer knows for a fact that “this is the individual who made this video and they’re being paid to make more videos like it.” It’s definitely something that we should explore more, and I wish more sites would take a more active role in verifying the content that gets posted there.”

What underlies a reticence to embrace a more comprehensive legal framework for sex workers is the claim that what they do is ultimately talentless, so it’s not worthy of the labor protections standard in other industries–as Rhodes outlines, this couldn’t be further from the truth. “You can make money with very low effort content–you’re just not going to make much,” she says. “In order to be as successful as a lot of the top models, you do have to put in a heck of a lot of work, but it’s a spectrum–I have coworkers who only work for 5–10 hours/week and they supplement the income with a vanilla job, whereas I have others who put in 80 hours/week and they’re making almost a million dollars.”

The next frontier of patronizing sex workers would be blaming them for what is commonly known as “porn addiction”, and while Rhodes recognizes that there’s an industry incentive to keep audiences hooked, she chalks a lot of it down to the peculiar relationship viewers have with porn consumption, noticeably less healthy than with other media produce. “The majority of people can consume pornography without qualm but there are some who will become obsessed with it, just as most people consume alcohol in a healthy way but a few people would go off into the deep end,” she says. “There’s still so much wrapped up around shame because of societal messaging in general–people still have a lot of shame around it, and with shame comes that addiction cycle. It’s kinda like how people are more likely to indulge something if they have to hide it–if you have to hide the fact that you like porn from everyone else in your life, and you think that it’s such a bad and terrible taboo thing, you’re more likely to fall into addiction with it as well.”

An important prong of the sex work taboo comes from the Western European strand of Christianity, which even in its secular form has evolved into a moral scare against all that is deemed ‘indecent’–Rhodes doesn’t rule out the cooperation of faith leaders in seeing that taboo finally vanquished, but she sees it as highly unlikely still. “We’re already having a tough enough time with faith leaders accepting of different sexualities, so I think that the thought of people having sex at all is still very taboo,” she says. “I’m not religious myself, I wasn’t raised in religion, and I do think that pornography addiction is a real problem–but a lot of times people will mix that up with “oh, if you start following the path of the Devil, you’re going to be stuck on that path forever” and going down the addiction rabbit hole, and that’s not the case for everyone.”

To see these issues dispelled, most would agree that a certain degree of sex work literacy is required so that audiences and lawmakers alike are keenly aware of what porn production entails. “I feel like my audience is a lot more literate than the average porn consumer–especially the people who make it to the end of my videos, because for a lot of them recently, I’ve been including aftercare at the end,” she says. What Rhodes means here by ‘aftercare’ is a post-scene ritual that seeks to dissolve any residual shame that members of her audience might still have about porn consumption. “I’ll even say that ‘hey, my name is Sierra, I live in Montana, this is my bedroom, I’m the only person here. I’m doing this myself because it’s fun and it’s what I do”–kind of like an exit interview. From that they’ll think “oh, this girl actually uploads her own videos” and then they go into my profile and see the other stuff. I wish there were easier ways to educate people–I feel like I have to be like “oh here are my boobs, and here’s a message!” but when I put up just the informational videos, they don’t do nearly as well view-wise, so I guess I’m using porn as [a trojan-horse for the information].”

It would seem intuitive for this information to be disseminated through more conventional channels — like YouTube for instance — but despite the possibility presenting itself, Sierra sees an insufficient guarantee of only adults being able to access that kind of content as a strong enough deterrent. “I would love for that to happen, but I can understand why they don’t allow it, since it would be very difficult for them to monitor,” she says. “As fond of the adult industry as I am, I do think that my videos should only be accessible to 18 and over. […] I really hope that at some point PornHub will be able to be behind a better age restriction without [overzealous] tracking [measures].”

Parallel to it has been the rise of more novel forms of sex work, some of them involving little of the performer’s physical appearance like VTubing–Rhodes thinks there’s a disproportionate amount of media attention placed on them, but she deems it more of a blessing than a curse. “Whatever gets the most attention is what’s going to be reported about, so on the one hand, yes, [it feels a bit overshadowing], but on the other, if it weren’t for Belle Delphine, then a lot of my IRL friends wouldn’t even know what OnlyFans is,” she says. “I think it works for some people, but not for everyone. There’s definitely a reason that people would buy Belle Delphine’s bathwater and not mine — it depends on the content creator, their personality — but I’m just not very good at trolling people; I’m far too honest and upfront.”

Casting a big shadow over our conversation is media’s tendency to render sex work a pet issue deserving of uttermost scold or praise for the sole purpose of eliciting strong audience engagement–Rhodes understands there are profit motives at play, but wishes things worked out differently. “I feel like usually, the media, they’re for shock value,” she says. “They’re reporting whatever’s so outlandish, crazy and wild that it doesn’t really portray sex work in the best light for one, but it also doesn’t do so accurately. […] I don’t feel like sex workers’ complaints are taken seriously and they’re only portrayed in either a very negative light, or positive to the extreme.”

Given all the concerns outlined, I asked Rhodes what would she change about the sex work industry were she given a magic wand to wave things into a better state–stronger worker ownership and greater safety for sex workers rank high on her list:

I wish for two things: One, that there would be a platform that actually puts creators first. I feel like all the current options that are available are definitely corporations first and content aggregators second. They don’t actually care about the models, so for one I wish there was a platform like thatit is what ManyVids was supposed to be, but that’s a whole other story. And two, I wish that I could be out and not have to worry about my safety because at this point in my life, that’s the only reason that I don’t show my face. All my friends know, my family knows, everybody in my life knows about itI’m not hiding from anybody except for the guys who go out there to stalk and murder, so I wish those two things would be taken care of.

Despite great present political turmoil, Rhodes hangs her faith high for the next generation to legislate more fairly for her neglected cohort. “I do have hope for the next generation. I do feel like that when people our age are the ones who are in office, at least they understand what the industry and PornHub are, and how they operate,” she says. “A lot of it too is [the older people in our government] just don’t understand that there are models who are making money on the site that have it as a job, that are making ethical porn they consented to creating.”

Understanding that the current state of things is far from perfect, Rhodes felt it necessary to end our interview with a PSA on how to best relieve oneself of the worry that whatever piece of explicit content they consumed, hasn’t been made with the full accord of the performers involved. “The easiest way is to pay for it yourself, of course, but the other way is to check if the account has been verified on the platform that it’s on, and if the other videos match what they posted,” she says. “There’s a lot of amateurs that I’ll follow on PornHub, and you know because they have a little blue checkmark next to their name–that means that they’ve submitted their ID, they took a picture with a piece of paper that has their username and their face in the frame, and then if all the other videos on there look like it’s the same person, that’s probably the person who’s uploaded them.”

If there’s a thing that has been most true about my interactions with sex workers, is that they view themselves as collaborators first, and competitors second. In that same spirit of camaraderie, Sierra Rhodes shows that a mutual regard for one and another’s health is one key way to sustaining an ecosystem under heavy assault from both an ambivalent populace and an incompetent governance–to foster a greater understanding of how the industry works is crucial, and Rhodes has already planted the seeds for such work to become the norm.

Much like past evolutions of the adult content industry, Rhodes’ efforts might yet be an example that the rest can model after in a bid to shift the terms of the debate their favor. What remains to be seen is how truly effective will that be — and how well audiences will respond to being told that much of what they knew about the industry is several layers removed from the truth — but if all goes well, this might pave the way for a less perpetually-hostile livelihood for sex workers, one where everyone operates from a position of epistemic clarity rather than baseless speculation.