Does Sex Sell On YouTube? - Sexualization on YouTube
Does Sex Sell On YouTube?
On January 2023, streamer Atrioc gets caught with a tab on his browser, the content on the tab has paywalled explicit deepfakes of his female peers. Oct 23, popular streamer Amouranth releases a beer fermented with her vaginal yeast. 8 days later Mike Clum releases the documentary The Dark Sad Life of Boogie 2988, about fallen from grace gaming YouTuber Boogie 2988; this fall, at least financially, we find out is due to his compulsion to hire escorts and fund sugar babies. Fuck me, in the year of our lord 2023 sex, does sell. Goodbye.
Or does it? I mean, first off, very unscientific sample size. Sex certainly got monetised in the creator economy and around it, but did it sell? Does sex result in more views, downloads, pre-saves, and yes, sales, than in its absence? And if so, do creators feel pressured to sexualise online? What are the effects of that no them? In my experience as a creator, producer, and viewer, sex, does “sell”. But at great personal cost, and I have some evidence, both scholarly and anecdotal, to support that. So in this post, first we will try to get an operating definition of sex, then we will try to honestly answer "Does Sex Sell On YouTube?", after that we will explore the consequences of sexualising yourself in and for your content (willingly or not), and finally I will close out with some recommendations and action items for creators pondering this and other questions. Also, like and subscribe for more creator advice. Let’s get started.
Part One - Defining Sex
For the purpose of this conversation, sex is not actual coitus. We are talking about representations of sex in media. But not all representations, Corn is excluded from this conversation (Yes, I will be using some algospeak because we live in a free society that polices our very language for the sake of advertiser comfort, totally free society). Porn, or the audiovisual representation of coitus, be they with plot or not, is not sex, for that matter no form of audiovisual sex work is sex. So feet pics or only fans aren’t part of this conversation, for now.
So basically, we have sexless sex. Correct. When we usually summon the phrase “sex sells” we never mean anything explicit, we mean something implicit. The suggestion of sex. Take “The Hot Tube Meta” for example. Some years ago there was a trend among some female streamers on Twitch to don bikinis while streaming from a hot tub (or inflatable pool, not everyone has jacuzzi money). The “Meta Game” here was that the one-two punch of beach wear and water would gain “easy views on a saturated platform like Twitch. Sex, sold… but it wasn’t sex. It wasn’t even the promise of sex, it literally was women creators in bathing suits, talking while in a very small body of water. How is that sex?
It is not, but to some, there was an implication of it. Many a raunchy comedy features suggestive scenes in hot tubs; for many male teens in the west, and its periphery, hot tubs, pool parties, and trips to the beach are the first time they see their female peers in what amounts to underwear for the first time. Hot tubs are not inherently sexual, and for that matter, nor are bikinis or underwear; but they might be tied culturally to ideas of sex. They are sex adjacent.
This is not new in the content sphere. I am a YouTube dinosaur, so I remember when youtube favoured click through rate and “Reply girls”, female creators who replied to popular videos while wearing pronounced cleavage to engage in clickbait, where the bane of the community back then. This was the “cleavage meta” if you will. Cleavage isn’t explicitly sexual, it is implicitly so, at least in a culture where breasts have been erotized, erotized by men, by western patriarchy. Ethnic communities in the amazon, tribes in Africa, and even the cradle of western civilisation itself, ancient Greece, don’t and did not sexualise breast to the extent western civilisation does now. What is sex, if a plunging neckline can be sexualised?
Oscar Wilde famously said: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”. Even when controlling our definition to not be explicit, sex is apparently everywhere. Anything can suggest explicitness, particularly through the aperture of the male and western gaze. But to keep talking we have to define it, or at least try to. So sex, or this sexless, and at the same time sexed up, social media version of it, is not our definition of sex. Then what does? Maybe it the aperture itself… the male gaze. Or the digievolution of it [digievolution sound], the digital male gaze. Hot tubs, anime beach episodes, and cleavage are not sexual. The viewer, the subscriber, the commenter makes it sexual. Pries explicitness out of even the most innocuous implicitness. Women used to be able to record videos of them barefoot on social media, now some have chosen to blur them. Feet are not inherently sexual, but the digital male gaze makes them so. Sex, is about power.
In her book Being Female, Dr. Jennifer K. Wesley posits The Continuum of Sexualization. [Fig.1.1]. The concept here being a spectrum of experiences of sexualization as experienced by women and girls. In one end sits the socialised aspect of sexualization, or the Typical experience of sexualization. Typical does not mean healthy, it just means mainstream. It’s all the embodiment of gendered behaviour (that is becoming increasingly pornified by media) that people who are socialised as female have to go through. On the other side of the spectrum is the Severe, the outright abuse. Sexual exploitation and victimisation. In between, everything else, the hot tub, the bikini, the cleavage, anime, the cat call, the social media comment. Social media platforms would love nothing more than to not be part of this, but they are a key reason younger and younger women as thrust onto the Continuum.
So, Does Sex Sell on YouTube? Sex crudely defined here as anything in this part of the Continuum [Fig. 2. The 1st Third], sell on YouTube and social media in general? Why that part? Well…
Part Two - So, does it sell?
“Explicit content meant to be sexually gratifying is not allowed on YouTube. Posting pornography may result in content removal or channel termination. Videos containing fetish content will be removed or age-restricted. In most cases, violent, graphic, or humiliating fetishes are not allowed on YouTube.”
–Nudity & Sexual Content Policy, YouTube
So no porn, got it. Porn is explicit. But what about sex education? I mean to teach about sex you literally have to explain it. Is frankness explicit? I remember the first time I found out about Subbable, for those of you who don’t remember a sort of proto‑Patreon, where one could [gasp] have direct paid subscriptions to creators, was in a Sexplanations video. There, Dr. Doe explained all the work that went into making her sex-ed videos and how subscriptions could allow her some stability amid a recommendation engine and YouTube ad policy that did not know what to do of her channel.
Sex-ed does not sell, got it. But let’s return to the digital male gaze, the buyer in all of this. What does it buy? If we are to believe YouTube’s ad rates, the male gaze buys… financial advice? YouTube, to my knowledge, doesn’t have public documentation of their ad rates by category, or viewers by gender; also their ad platform is auction based, so prices fluctuate all the time depending on demand. But, according to this study by Insider Monkey (the most reputable source I could find that didn’t culturally appropriate the term “guru” and put it in front of the noun YouTube), Finance is solidly the top earning content vertical on the platform in 2023.
Money sells, got it. Wait, money isn’t sex. Weren’t we supposed to find out if sex sells? Isn’t it a bit too broad to say only males consume financial advice. I mean, yes and yes. But remember Andrew Tate? His content wasn’t only misogyny, it was misogyny packaged as financial independence. What is the Sigma grind set™ if not entitlement to sex and hierarchy within white patriarchy, all thinly veiled as the more palatable and capitalism friendly “work ethic” and “financial advice”. “Finance bad” isn’t my point here. There are great people doing great, common sense, actionable and capitalism critical financial content (eg. The Financial Diet, Two Cents, even 1Dime), my point is more like “finance co-opted”.
Misogyny sells, got it. Not again, misogyny isn’t sex. So let’s get back to the continuum. If a hypothetical female creator, that is conventionally attractive, able-bodied, a Harvard MBA, and between the ages of 18 and whatever society deems appropriate, were to launch a YouTube channel where she would give financial advice on a hot tub, she would do great, wouldn’t she? Wouldn’t she? I’d believe, that no matter her credentials, she would face backlash. How about, no hot tub, great hypothetical views right? Exactly, but she’s not doing anything sexual, but the categories female, conventionally attractive, able-bodied, are doing a lot of heavy lifting here, because those categories aren’t neutral, they live on the Continuum.
Ok, ok, pretty privilege sells. ding-ding-ding-ding. BINGO. Pretty Privilege or Body Privilege, was coined by Samantha Kwan to describe how the Western norms of beauty (thin, white and Eurocentric for women; muscular, white and Eurocentric for men) grant privileges to those who embody them, but also non-privilege or exclusion to those who don’t. I’m gonna give a very anecdotal example. If you didn’t know it, I co-created and was CEO of fairly large YouTube channel, we did comedy sketches and had a large-ish pool of actors that we worked with. I would be lying to you that part of the calculus in casting for those sketches didn’t involve the attractiveness of the actors, even when that category wasn’t plot relevant. Sometimes we were crude about, and I’m ashamed of that, but most times the relevance of this during casting was quite matter of fact. At the time of this writing of the top two most popular sketches in the channel, both surpassing a 100 million views, are literally one that is about and has sex in the title; and the other one’s whole comedic conceit is a team of odd ball males play football against a team of conventionally attractive women..
And that’s just some old YouTube videos, here’s a quote from a recent-ish study on Finnish academic journal Widerscreen, analysing 3 different TikTok trends: #DontJudgeMeChallenge, #KarmaisaBitch, and #TheBoyChallenge.
“The video samples discussed […] present some recurrent features; first, the user intentionally displays mock behavioural change, from subdued and meek in the first scene to confident and sexy in the second scene. Sexiness, therefore, is associated with beauty and openness. Second, facial features are exaggerated in the negative body image, using makeup or app filters. Third, medical conditions, from acne to more serious diseases implied, are branded as unattractive. A hint of ableism is, therefore, inherent to some degrees in the process. Fourth, old age is also seen as detrimental to beauty which can be seen as a form of ableism as well. Fifth, body shaming was hinted at more than once as users, both females and males, pretended to be overweight in the initial scene in some video samples.”
– Synching and performing : body (re)- presentation in the short video app TikTok. (2019). Khattab, M. p. 11.
Does sex sell on YouTube? Regardless if it does or doesn’t, we’ve been taught it does. Now what do we do about it?
Part Three - Yes, but, at what the cost
So in my twenties I wasn’t the most healthy guy to date. I grew up a painfully shy teenager, and just awkward all around. One day, I declared what I thought was my love to a friend I’d been pining over for the better part of two years. She let me down gently, but I was heartbroken and most of all, confused. In my search for answers I came to Google and literally searched, in English, “how to be good at women”. I was immediately bombarded by Pick Up Artist forums and all the toxic masculinity available in the early 2010’s internet. I dove head first into it. The advice was bad, the rhetoric was toxic, but the results were… good? I was less anxious in social situations, I was better at approaching women I found interesting and attractive, but I also developed problematic drinking and what I could only describe as a “cork in my heart”. I went to therapy, twice, tried to deconstruct my misogyny, made amends with past partners, and even lost friends in the process. There isn’t a day that I am not thankful I did all that, because it is the key reason why I got to marry who I married. The smartest, funniest and most beautiful person I know, my best friend, my lover, my partner. (Also I don’t drink anymore. Please kids, consider not drinking.)
All this to say that I try to correct the harm I did whenever I can. Be that being a good partner to my spouse, giving advice to young men, or, as was the case last year when I was part of the curation team at VidCon Mexico, make space for women to talk about their issues on their own terms. I created the panel “¡Mi cuerpo no es un objeto! Acoso y sexualización en redes” (My body is not an object! Harassment and sexualization in social media). It was a moderator-less panel where a diverse group of female creators could talk to each other and the audience about their struggles and experiences with being sexualised online. All in an unstructured and frank manner. The panel was raw and eye-opening. I regret making it moderator-less, although one of the creators rose up to the occasion and de facto moderated the panel. My colleagues and I, also questioned if it re-traumatised them to share those experiences in a public way. If I ever curate an event like that again I would make some changes, but I’m honestly proud I got to be in a position to make such a space possible, and thankful such talented female creators (Ignacia Antonia, Cons Arroyuelo, María Bottle, Ara and Fer Hernández, Samara Montero, and Mia Salinas) were willing to share their experiences, even though it’s not their job to educate anyone on this topic. It should be ours.
Dr. Wesley developed the continuum for a reason. Sexualization isn’t abstract, it’s real and its effects are too. As of this writing, when you search on Google Scholar “Billie Eilish baggy clothes” you get 77 results. Billie Eilish’s choice of attire, was so unexpected in a media landscape where minors, particularly those in the public eye, are sexualised so instantaneously that it merited scholarly research. I remember when bad guy first came out, I read a comment on its music video that said somewhere along the lines of: “but she thicc tho, right?”. I found the comment, it was worst than I remembered, it actually reads: “She so thicc despite the big clothes damn fbi [sic] come get me y’all”.
“Whilst victim attire influenced the perceived responsibility of the victim, the level of responsibility attributed to the victim did not in turn influence a decision to charge. The presence of provocative clothing impacted the perceived responsibility of the victim, but did not influence the perceived responsibility of the alleged perpetrator. Perhaps women are presumed to have more control over their sexual activities. […] If these views are held by law enforcement personnel, they may serve to excuse the perpetrator and heighten the perceived responsibility of the victim.”
– The influence of victim intoxication and victim attire on police responses to sexual assault. 2010. Graham-Delahunty, Goodman. p27.
Sexualization isn’t abstract.
Sex sells not because creators chose to sell it, but because social media and the upstream systems that enable its for profit existence WILL make creators sell it. Particularly those that are assigned female at birth, able-bodied and conventionally attractive to western standards. Even if you try actively not to sell it, it will make you (just ask the creators who got their likeness pornified via deepfakes); patriarchy will in all likelihood have even more of a fascination with you trying to exert sovereignty over your sexuality. And while it’s not up to me whether you can or should sexualise yourself willingly, I can only point you to this fascinating interview of pornographic film actor Damon Dice by Mark Laita for his channel Soft White Underbelly. In it, Dice recounts how he chose his line of work. He needed money to keep his startup afloat. Later in the video he says that one of the common misconceptions he finds untrue about the corn industry is that of performers coming from “distress situations”. He argues that most of his peers come from “good families”, are college educated, and most of all, actively sought out to be part of the industry.
“Art and sex occupy similar positions under capitalism. The commodification of each, while rampant, is also rife with anxiety and subject to questions of ethics, purity, and meaning. This is because we are told art and sex shouldn’t be commodified. Both are seemingly sacred forms of human expression, and we are taught to keep them close to ourselves, safe from capital’s voracious appetite. And yet, art and sex—and specifically the art and sex industries—are actually capital’s stress points: two industries saturated in hyper-capitalist relations while also existing on the outskirts of the formal economy.”
– Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex. 2023. Giovannitti, S. p.15
“When it comes to sex work, we have no way of thinking about a breach of contract, or a really bad day at work, as anything other than sexual assault.”
– The Limits of Bodily Autonomy. 2019. Webber, V. p.5
If Damon Dice would’ve gotten more funding through grants or VCs for his start up, would he still have become a performer?
Part 4 - Conclusion and solutions
I am posting this not only to air my opinions and informed observations, but as a way to actively help digital creatives with the hard questions no one is talking about. Which for me as a mentor, is fundamental. Yes, there are the so called gurus, that will try give you hacks to achieve overnight success. Yes, there are legitimate resources like VidIQ or think media which are great to stay up to date on platform changes and have good common sense strategies. What I haven’t found is actual actionable advice on the soft skills and existential questions that creators face today. In that regard, I will finish this video with a better question then “Does sex sell on YouTube?”, and that question is: are you ok?
- Do you feel safe creating, or do you feel demotivated like you have to contort yourself to fit the recommendation engine’s requirements?
- Have you taken a break? Have you talked to a colleague or peer about it?
- Is someone harassing you?
- How public are you? Do you show your face in your videos? Have you shown where you live? Do you have two factor authentication for your accounts? Have you deleted your data from data brokers? Do you have a codeword with people who are close to you in case of phone or text impersonation? Have you briefed local authorities or institutions about common forms of harassment such as swating, stalking or doxxing?
- Where are you on The Continuum of Sexualization?
- Are you a minor? Do you feel the need to make yourself look a certain way for your videos, tiktoks, or music? Do you feel you have to behave and present a certain way to your audience? (eg. Do you hide your relationship status from your audience?)
- Do you know the signs of an abusive situation? If you are in an abusive situation, do you have people or institutions whom you can ask for help and resources to get out of that situation?
- But really, are you ok?
- Are your relationships with your partner, peers, family, and friends healthy? Do they know about your channel or account? Do they support you? Are you finding yourself coping in some way? Is that coping related to mind altering substances, gambling, or self harm?
- What is the change you would like to see?
- Would you like to earn more? Have more time? Have a healthier relationship with the audience? Get rid of bad actors in your community or in your daily life? In what way would you like to feel better about your videos, tiktoks, or music?
I know a lot of these are actions steps disguised as questions, and others are just plain ol’ hard questions. Please, if you can, go through them. I’ve left a link HERE to a downloadable PDF of this questionnaire. It is by no means thorough or absolute, but I believe it will allow you to take some action and ponder things about your journey as a digital creator. I hope you find it helpful.
Take care of yourselves, and take care of others.
Martin Dominguez is a Mentor for Digital Creators and loves to help them with whatever challenges they might face and goals they might have. Apply for mentorship here or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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