Image: Cathryn Virginia

Selling Used Panties Online Is Harder Than You Think

Sex workers told Motherboard about the economics and emotional labor that go into selling panties online.

|
Mar 18 2019, 1:30pm

Image: Cathryn Virginia

Years ago, in her early 20s, Nickie became friendly with one of the regulars where she was tending bar. He always came in with money to spend and would often banter with her, testing her limits in ways that she both welcomed and found exciting.

“He would often say things like, ‘Why don’t you come to my room?’" Nickie, who like other sources in this story asked to remain anonymous in order to protect her privacy, told us in a phone conversation. She often flirted with his propositions but ultimately rejected them. Then, one night, she agreed to a date.

They ate at an expensive sushi restaurant before moving on to a jazz club. Nickie worked at similar places before, but never imagined herself being a patron. After a few drinks and a set spent surreptitiously touching each other under the table, he asked—or, maybe, dared—Nickie to sell him the pantyhose she was currently wearing. With some negotiating, she slipped away to the bathroom and returned with the pantyhose now in her purse. There at the table they made the exchange: the balled up pantyhose for $300 in cash and cab fare.

Even years later, Nickie’s excitement is palpable over the phone. “After I sold him my pantyhose, I felt beaming and proud, I felt like I won something,” she said. “I was like, wow, my pantyhose… someone gives a fuck about them?”

The one-time transaction by a bartender dabbling in sex work with a regular customer offers a stark contrast to the idea, now fixed in our public imagination, of a thriving market for worn undergarments from anonymous women. Movie scenes of “panty raids,” stories of vending machines selling underwear worn by schoolgirls in Japan, subreddits dedicated to buying panties, and even entire purpose-built websites for panty sales all encourage us to believe that used panties are widely-sought fetish objects—detached from the context of a specific person or relationship.

panties
Image courtesy of Princess Berpl

When you add the fact that the internet makes it possible for these transactions to be anonymous, between strangers, some women are beginning to muse about cashing in on their own panties. Could there really be such an easy and low risk way to get your hands on the same money as pornstars dancing in rap videos or strippers holding those stacks of cash on Instagram?

Charlotte Long decided to find out. Over the phone, she told us how she started selling panties: She was a single parent and educator in California, which didn’t quite pay the bills.

“This is so cliché, but I saw Orange is the New Black, and there as a season where [the main character] Piper was selling panties from the prison and making bank doing it,” she said. “I saw that and wanted to do it [too].”

Charlotte set up an ad on Pantydeal.com, a website dedicated to buying and selling used underwear, and sold five pairs of panties in the first week, tripling her grocery budget.

As she interacted with potential customers, she quickly discovered that most wanted panties that were worn for two or three days, so she began layering them under her jeans to maximize her output.

Read more: Sex Workers Don't Trust Kamala Harris

After some initial success, however, Charlotte lost the “new girl attention boost” and sales slowed. It appeared that selling panties alone would not be a sustainable side hustle. In a moment of panic, she reached out to a friend who worked in public relations, and told her that she needed help.

“The education business is killing me, I am selling panties to buy groceries,” she admitted. This admission turned out to be an opening: To Charlotte’s surprise, the friend replied with a confession that the PR firm was a front, and that she was actually working as an escort. She offered to teach Charlotte the ropes.

While Nickie and Charlotte both jumped into sex work by selling used undergarments, many established sex workers started selling panties as an extra product, only after customers repeatedly expressed interest.

“I think I wore them for three days once and then I was like, man, I really don’t think I can do this any longer.”

“Honestly, I don’t know when the first time I sold panties was, but it was definitely related to camming." Canadian cam model GoAskAlex told us over the phone. "It would have been at the request of someone from cam.”

Similarly, fellow Canadian Melody Kush told us that she started selling her panties because regular clients requested it.

Clip producer and cam model Princess Berpl told us that she started selling panties after talking to regular clients about their desires. She recalls asking one of her clients “What can I do to make this special interaction even more special?” She said he responded, “I really, really like panties.”

In addition to online sex workers, some full service sex workers also see panties as an opportunity to upsell their services. Secondhand Rose, a current phone sex operator and retired escort said she sold panties for the first time during an appointment: “When I was escorting, I had a client who asked me for [panties] awkwardly at the end of our session, more or less in the phrasing of a souvenir of our time together. When it was broached that way, it didn’t seem weird to me, it was flattering.”

panties2
Image courtesy GoAskAlex

Whether part of a dare, a brush with fame, or a keepsake of an experience, panties are often symbolic of something larger—most often, a moment within a relationship. That’s the exact opposite of anonymous encounter with the body of another person. In fact, even on Reddit, Craigslist, and dedicated panty sites, customers often crave interaction. These transaction are an opportunity for clients to express and seek validation for fantasies, or to feel valued. When sales are done locally, there is often an expectation that the seller will meet buyer in a public setting, serving as a de facto date (or, at least, an opportunity face-to-face interaction).

Few panty sales, then, are truly anonymous. To the degree that customers exist who might be willing to make these sorts of anonymous transactions, panty sellers still must compete with other kinds of sex workers who have established brands and clientele. Women seeking to exclusively sell panties may have to do comparably more work per sale than their established counterparts. But what, exactly, goes into making a sale?

The Work

Despite widespread media representations suggesting that sex work, in general, and selling panties, in particular, is a source of easy money, the reality is that this work only seems easy because most of it is invisible.

Charlotte’s background in education did not prepare her for the constant client negotiation of sex work. “I kept falling into these [time-wasting] traps, and I didn’t really have a sex work mentor to teach me these things,” she said. “I had to figure that out the hard way.”

Many of the interactions she had with potential clients didn’t lead to any sales at all; she had to learn when to back out. On the message boards on pantydeal.com, she said that “there were a lot of guys who just wanted to chat all day, and you would do it in hopes of making a sale.”

Berpl tried advertising on Reddit, but said that a lot of the interactions there were would-be customers just “bullshitting.”

“The customers have this desire for panties, but they don’t actually want the real thing,” Berpl said. “A lot of it is time wasting.”

Despite the fact that many customers are time wasters, getting any sales at all requires engaging with everyone. “In order to get successful and consistent sales, you have to jump on every enquiry,” Melody said. While in the past she has asked her viewers who asked about panties to send her an email that she can follow up on when she gets off cam, she has found that this isn’t very effective. Instead, she needed to stop her show, get their email, and make sure to follow up on those requests. “There is no such thing as easy money in this industry,” she commented.

Read more: Black, Queer, and ‘Super-Size’ BBWs Challenge What Society Sees as ‘Acceptably Fat’

It isn’t simply worn panties that the clients want. They often want them to be worn for a certain number of days, or to be cum in, or to be a part of a video that they also buy. Most of the sex workers that we talked to described wearing the panties for multiple days to be one of the hardest parts.

“Some would ask me to wear them for three to five days,” Alex said. “I think I wore them for three days once and then I was like, man, I really don’t think I can do this any longer.”

Melody said, “I try to be flexible but I have my own rules to abide by so that it doesn’t get out of control. If they want me to wear them for seven days, I tell them it's a hygiene risk.”

Even just finding time in a seller's schedule to wear these panties for clients can be tricky. “Finding a strategic time to wear them long enough so that they are to the liking of my customer is the hardest part for me.” Melody said. “Between shark week [when she is on her period] and finding comfortable times to wear them, the scheduling of this is the hardest part.”

For Rose, scheduling is a big part of the reason that no longer takes orders from customers who she doesn’t already have an established relationship with. “It is all a bit hectic to me. The way it works best for me is through clients.”

Nine year veteran MyFreeCams model Miss Lollipop, who has has only sold panties in conjunction with camming, says that she will often make videos of herself cumming in panties prior to shipping them off.

Most of the people we interviewed learned that selling panties isn’t as simple as popping them in the mail and sending them off. “When I first started I wore the panties and sealed them up. I didn’t know you had to dry them out first before you packaged them, otherwise they would get mildew-y," Berpl said. She went on to explain that they have to be dry, “otherwise all of the bacteria that is on your body gets trapped in the packaging.”

Alex ran into a similar situation. Early in her panty selling career, she had a customer from Florida purchase her panties and she shipped them right before a hurricane hit the region. Mail was stopped for a long period of time, and when he finally got them a few months later, the client said they were a moldy, disgusting mess.

The Money

Prospective panty sellers are attracted to the possibility of a high markup on something relatively inexpensive. But, it’s often not that simple. Rose said, “I don’t think it is as lucrative as most articles in the last 10 years have made it out to be. You have to take photos, you have to wear them. There are logistics to this stuff.”

The established models we talked to generally sell their panties for about $75, though more famous models can charge $100 to $150 or possibly even more. Charlotte plans to return to panty sales when she retires from escorting later this year, and wants to leverage her existing client base, as well as a series of self produced porn clips, to fetch prices in excess of these figures.

But using $75 as a baseline, most of these models make these sales on the platforms they use for other online sex work. These platforms keep around 40 percent of the sale price to cover the cost payment processing and their own profits, leaving models with a payout of approximately $45. Subtract domestic shipping from that, which Miss Lollipop reports is “usually around $5-6” and you’re left with $40 per pair.

Sellers also have to factor in the cost of the panties themselves. Sometimes this can be avoided. “I sell cheap panties or panties I would be throwing out,” Miss Lollipop said.

In some cases, the cost of panties is nominal, but a typical seller will only have access to so many worn-out panties. Ultimately, sellers have to eat the cost of panties, which can be anywhere from $3-15. Once we factor in an average of $10 for the costs of the panties revenue from the sale drops to about $30.

Finally, we have to factor in taxes, which will be around 35 percent for middle income independent contractors, and sellers are left with a net profit of $20 on a $75 panty sale.

This does not include the extras like packaging. Alex customizers her panty packages with nude stickers, wrapping paper, thank-you cards or photos from photo shoots.

panties3
Image courtesy Charlotte Long

Berpl points out that while we can go through the financial costs associated with panty sales, it doesn’t get at the emotional labor that goes into the sales.

“The bigger cost is the cost that it takes to interact with people,” she said. “They will hang on you forever and hang it over your head.” One customer bought a pair recently and and the asked her, “Hey sweetheart, I have a question, what is someone so beautiful like you doing in a business like this?” Having to determine how to handle invasive and inappropriate questions such as these become part of the labor of the transaction.

To avoid having such interactions just to make low profit sales, Rose decided to only sell panties as an add-on item with other services. She has one client who buys a pair of panties from her every month, with a hard copy of an erotic fiction series that he also purchases from her.

“Usually, I don’t have to do anything fancy for him,” she said. “I will pick nice ones, and I change him an extra $50 for them.” Despite the upcharge for expensive panties, she considers the panty sale worthwhile because it enhances other, more profitable services. She says, “I come out ahead because I get paid for the custom story and the phone call before or afterward. And it builds a connection for us.”

The Risk

These transactions all come with significant risks. Safety is major concern for sellers. Rose worries about inexperienced sellers on sites like Reddit. “My heart always goes: ‘Is everyone safe?’ It seems like a vulnerable exposure for both parties,” she said.

Berpl recalled that when she first started selling panties, she didn’t know how to keep her own information safe, and I had to research it—like avoiding going to the post office right next to her home address. Miss Lollipop follows safety precautions like using a P.O. box. Paying for a P.O. box and all driving around to various post offices dips even further into sellers’ bottom lines.

Established, full-time sex workers may already be doing these things, already selling a range of products of high volume, and, this, already absorbing these costs; however, for new sellers seeking to exclusively market panties, purchasing and traveling to a distant P.O. box may be a serious financially obstacle. In sex work, like other industries, there are benefits that come from economies of scale.

Melody explains that frequent trips to the post office can be a problem for another reason: It raises the suspicion of postal workers. Some sellers worry that worn panties could be classified as biological materials and thus illegal to ship. According to USPS, shippers are not allowed to ship anything that contains body fluids. When asked about restrictions to mailing used undergarments, a spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service told Motherboard that it is “mailable with no restriction unless it’s emitting obnoxious odors.”

Whether there is enough biological materials on panties is probably up for interpretation, but this is something that sellers have to consider. Once when asked what she sells in these tiny packages, Melody panicked and said, “I knit dog booties.”

“There is a reason why people buy panties, it is a real and tangible connection"

But while some things like P.O. boxes are simple fixes, there are other privacy concerns that are more difficult to navigate. Customers sometimes ask invasive questions about sexually transmitted infection status, which are typically reserved only for sexual partners, and, in that sense, begin to treat panty sellers as though they were sexual partners.

“It makes me so uncomfortable that someone who I am not engaged with sexually could blame for me something that they got,” Berpl said. She refuses to entertain these questions. “It doesn’t feel like information I should provide. What they do with my panties is up to them. I am not advertising my panties as something that they can put their dick in.”

Customers may ask other sorts of invasive questions, as well, under the guise of seeking verification that the seller is indeed the one who has worn the panties. Rose found this process off-putting. “I started to wonder if they were going to request a DNA test next. This is, in every way, supposed to be a fantasy,” she said, “and fantasy is not supposed to be verifiable.”

The Fantasy

Most customers’ desire for panties is driven by something more than pheromones or other biological stimuli. Interest in worn panties isn’t just about what they are, it’s about what they represent. Panties are being sold for their symbolic value.

In the most basic sense, panties are a connection to the body of another person. They offer an indirect way to smell and touch and have an intimate sort of knowledge about someone else’s body. “There is a reason why people buy panties, it is a real and tangible connection,” Rose said.

Berpl describes the desire for closeness. “A lot of guys want to wear them to be close to me. They don’t want to be in my shoes, they want to be in my panties,” she said.

Panty sales also facilitate interaction. The process of planning and arranging a sale is not an obstacle but an opportunity for the buyer to be recognized by a person they are attracted to or admire. In this way, panties become a conduit to the other person. The opportunity to have an interaction is an important part of what makes panties valuable for the customer. The sale makes a customer feel visible and known to the seller.

panties4
Image courtesy Secondhand Rose

Panties can also act as a keepsake or souvenir that holds a cherished memory. Rose, who previously talked about panties in terms of a souvenir, recalled that the first time she sold panties was when she was working as an escort and had a client who wanted something to remember their evening by. Similarly, Berpl describes panties as “memorabilia” for fans who interact with her online. Miss Lollipop once had a regular wasn’t typically into panties but bought them from her in person at a convention.

“He would not normally spend that amount of money, it was a big deal to him,” Miss Lollipop said. “But he was excited by the fact that I took off what I was wearing at the convention and gave them to him.” The panties were a keepsake from the time he met her.

Panties as souvenirs can represent a brush with fame. It’s a way of connecting to celebrities analogous to an autograph. In this case, the value of a pair of worn panties may also depend on other people’s recognitions of the seller’s prominence. Berpl explained the perspective of her buyers: “I like that you have a following, that is sexy to me that someone is desired and I can have some sort of part of that.“

She said that without fame, it is much harder to sell panties for a reasonable price. “If you don’t have a face on the internet, I think it would be really hard to sell things like panties.”

Melody agrees that a degree of online fame is required for panty selling to be viable: “In terms of actually making a living off panty sales, I don’t think that anyone can actually do that without [having built] a platform. You would need some genius marketing to do that.”