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Sex worker university
Illustration Callum Abbott, image courtesy Centro University

Inside the world’s first sex worker university

The newly-launched Centro University fills a much-needed educational gap in the industry, offering business and marketing advice for those entering the online world of adult work

TextBrit DawsonIllustrationCallum Abbott

“I logged online the first time on October 3, 2011, in an apartment with no furniture, and promised myself I wouldn’t log off until I made enough money to cover my first rent payment,” says sex worker MelRose Michaels. “I made over $7,000 in my first two weeks in the industry, and had no plans on looking back.”

Michaels tells Dazed that camming became “a step towards freedom”, and says she did it for eight years before making the switch to “premium social media”. Today, she has an account on cam site FanCentro, where she offers monthly subscriptions to her private Snapchat, a “pay to unlock” direct message service, and a subscription fansite.

Like most sex workers, Michaels learned how to succeeed in the industry by connecting with the adult community and making “all of the classic mistakes” (not saving for taxes, poor time management, and misplaced productivity). But fast forward almost a decade, and she’s determined to give fledgling sex workers the chance to fast-track this education. 

Based in Tennessee, Michaels is one of a handful of teachers offering their expertise at the newly-launched sex worker university, Centro University (CentroU). Established last month by FanCentro, CentroU is a free, online school teaching aspiring adult model influencers everything they need to know about the business side of sex work.

Comprising video series’, live webinars, and masterclasses, CentroU will bring together the leaders of different sex work fields, who will educate on topics including marketing and promotion, film and video production, privacy and censorship, health and safety, and contracts and law. The university is also offering a programme of ‘Success Coaches’, who students can turn to when they have questions or need advice.

Speaking to Dazed, FanCentro’s vice president, Kat Revenga, said the idea for the university came about two years ago, but that it was fast-tracked during coronavirus lockdown, due to the influx of new adult models joining the site.

“It’s strange to think of any industry without a comprehensive source of education, but in the online adult industry, its absence was striking” – Kat Revenga, FanCentro

“It’s strange to think of any industry without a comprehensive source of education,” says Revenga, “but in the online adult industry, its absence was striking. To really succeed as a sex worker online, you need a pretty big skill set. People think that it’s just looking pretty, but it’s a business – marketing, brand management, photography and videography, editing, accounting, hair and make-up. You have to be able to do it all, especially now.”

Revenga says she wants CentroU to be “the educational hub for the new world of adult influencers”, explaining that “newcomers to the industry previously had to rely on learning from peers, finding what they could do online, or using trial and error”. She continues: “Censorship, stigma, and an ever-changing digital landscape are extra challenges that have often resulted in many influencers not being able to survive. We want to help them succeed and be safe.”

For Michaels, teaching on the course enables her to “give back to an industry I’m really passionate about”. Her lessons will see her lead on areas she’s experienced in, including business and marketing, modelling and content creation, as well as offering insights from the “mistakes I’ve made along the way”. Michaels says feedback so far has been “really overwhelming”, with sex workers saying the course has “completely changed the way they create and distribute content”.

Portland-based Tilly Toy, one of the most popular influencers on FanCentro, has already completed the CentroU course. Toy has been in the sex industry for seven years, starting out as a stripper, then moving on to become a dominatrix, before finally joining the online industry three years ago. “I don’t think I will ever stop learning new tricks and strategies,” she tells Dazed. “The online porn industry is constantly evolving, and so is the way buyers interact with it.”

Toy says the university gave her an increased sense of confidence, explaining that “many of the lessons I’ve learned by trial and error have been incomplete or uncertain”. She asserts that CentroU “gives real answers and strategies”, including how to decide the optimal price for your content, which Toy says is “one of hardest decisions to make online”. She’s also integrated the marketing strategies taught on the course into her routine, and says she’s already seen a boost in her subscriptions.

CentroU’s offer of free education for sex workers is especially vital at a time when sign-ups to subscription-based adult sites is higher than ever. According to Insider, OnlyFans reported a 75 per cent month on month increase in workers joining the site since lockdown kicked in, with an average of 200,000 users signing up every day. Cam site IsMyGirl has also seen a similar pattern, with a 50 per cent increase in model sign-ups since April.

“COVID was the tipping point for adult influencers. We’ll look back and see this as the year the industry was reborn; the year that sex worker seized the means of production” – Kat Revenga, FanCentro

“COVID was the tipping point for adult influencers,” Revenga tells Dazed. “We’ve had the technology, we’ve had the will. COVID was the lightning bolt that brought everything together, because studios couldn’t produce, but sex workers could. You had performers figuring out how to produce and market. You had offline sex workers suddenly moving online. We’ll look back and see this as the year the industry was reborn; the year that sex worker seized the means of production.”

Though many established sex workers have been forced to adapt their way of working by moving online, the rising prevalence and popularity of subscription sites – along with the pandemic – has led to an influx of non-professionals entering the industry. In August, actor Bella Thorne sparked controversy after joining OnlyFans and immediately breaking its record for the most money earned in one day (over $1 million). Shortly after, the platform updated its transaction limits, capping models’ pay-per-view at $50 and maximum tips at $100, when there was previously no limit – a decision that will significantly impact creators’ incomes.

“It’s a little bittersweet seeing all the mainstream Instagram or YouTube influencers flood the sex work space, especially during the pandemic,” says Michaels. One positive, she explains, is that it “brings more fans to platforms that sex workers use”, but adds that “it feels like a bit of a money grab on their end”.

“That’s frustrating,” she continues, “because sex workers like myself have been working at this for many years – back when it wasn’t ‘trendy’ or ‘cool’ to do so – and risking relationships and opportunities in pursuit of that same money.” Michaels tells Dazed that the overall sentiment is that “you’re welcome in the adult industry space, but please be here respectfully and help the community, don’t hurt it”.

Michaels goes on to discuss the crossover between the sex industry and the mainstream, referencing performers like Riley Reid and Lena the Plug, who have both capitalised on their success to land major brand deals outside of the adult world. “The barriers are being torn down right now in relation to what you are and aren’t allowed to do ‘after porn’,” explains Michaels, “and that barrier dissolving means so is the stigma.”

Though sex work is still undeniably shrouded in stigma – see: unfair social media censorship – it’s ongoing merge with the mainstream will enable CentroU to flourish as an institution that can provide influencers with, as Michaels says, “centralised knowledge on how they can expand their empires, even into things that aren’t necessarily ‘adult’ in nature”.

“Education is power in every industry. In ours, education is also safety” – Tilly Toy, sex worker

While it’s shocking to think that adult performers – who deserve rights like any other workers – have, until now, been forced to educate themselves in their industry, it’s unsurprising given society’s attitude to sex work.

“Am I surprised this is the first educational initiative?” asks Toy. “Unfortunately, no. There was no education for me as a dancer, a dominatrix, a phone sex operator, or in any other branch of the industry that my friends and I have explored. Education is power in every industry. In ours, education is also safety. Knowing proper testing standards for models you work with, and where you can turn to for help are two extremely important things. The education CentroU provides helps guide you forward, and bypasses the discouraging trial and error processes that most of the people in our industry have had to learn from.”

Revenga concludes: “An educated workforce is the future of the industry. CentroU is about teaching skills, but, importantly, is about teaching a new generation what they deserve, and how to get it. The more equity sex workers have, the more power they have over their bodies.”