By Amanda Scriver
For the past few years, virtual YouTubers, a.k.a. “VTubers,” have gained popularity online as streamers and vloggers who use 2D and 3D computer-generated characters and engage in a variety of activities on social platforms, namely Twitter, YouTuber, and Twitch. VTubing originated in 2017 in Japan when creator Kizuna AI amassed more than 4 million subscribers across three YouTube channels. Other creators followed Kizuna’s model: creating a CG avatar for vlogging purposes, choosing a platform to stream on, and deciding on which types of content to share with their audience.
As of 2022, there are more than 10,000 active VTubers around the world, some of whom have attracted lucrative brand deals, and the trend shows no signs of slowing down. A number of these successful VTubers are LGBTQ+ people, with a growing faction of trans and nonbinary sex workers gravitating toward the space. But why?
According to Asian Studies scholar Liudmila Bredikhina, VTubing appeals to users for a variety of reasons. Posing as an animated character grants them anonymity, mitigating the risk of safety concerns like stalking. These users can be anyone and anything they want, and their virtual community interactions offer a release from their own physical body.
Throughout the pandemic, when jobs were scarce, some LGBTQ+ VTubers began to explore LewdTubing as a means to an end. These virtual cam performers use their digital avatar to perform more suggestive acts and, according to one expert, gain more creative expression through anonymity. And while some individuals who explore LewdTubing may not partake in releasing sexually explicit content, many do.
Mimi Moonbeam's VTube avatar.
Mimi Moonbeam, a pansexual trans woman based in the United Kingdom, currently hosts content on Twitch, YouTube, OnlyFans, Twitter, and Picarto. While her streams will typically highlight her playing games, working on original music, or chatting with her fans, Moonbeam shares that to keep her fans’ interests piqued, she will engage in suggestive chats. “I’m not afraid to talk about sexual stuff while online.” However, she is extremely cautious when it comes to any actual sex work and ensures that she keeps that to NSFW platforms like OnlyFans, where she offers a mix of livestreams, videos-on-demand, and still images.
Moonbeam says her VTube community has helped her immensely while navigating her own gender dysphoria. “It's definitely been nice because although I’m relatively small and don’t make a lot of money, I have been able to make some upgrades in my life and afford nice things because people are kind and give me money.” Moonbeam lets out a shy laugh and adds, “I think that when you’re a VTuber, specifically a LewdTuber, your fans are right there growing with you, and they feel like they are invested in your journey as much as you are.”
For many in this space, VTubing offers more than acceptance: It’s a world where LGBTQ+ individuals, specifically transgender and nonbinary folks, can transition with minimal roadblocks or repercussions. In the physical world, trans and gender non-conforming people experience disproportionately high rates of workplace discrimination and hate-motivated violence. VTube’s anonymity and inherently virtual nature provide additional layers of security. It helps that users have total control of their avatar's appearance, which can be incredibly affirming.
Blu3_Rae's VTube avatar.
The positivity and support of the VTubing community is a welcome relief for queer individuals, who are often targeted by trolls online in addition to homophobes and transphobes IRL. Blu3_Rae, a nonbinary queer VTuber from the Philippines who started LewdTubing in August 2021, says that embodying their avatar helped them “become a lot more confident as a person living in the Philippines since I attended a very uptight Catholic college. Life was kind of restricting in a lot of ways.” When Blu3_Rae originally started out, they were only on TikTok, but they have since expanded onto Twitch, Twitter, Discord, and YouTube. Their streams usually consist of Minecraft gameplay in either singleplayer or multiplayer, where they try to create a cozy and comfortable vibe for their community of fans. “During streams, I've taken to using suggestive and lewd outfits on my model that viewers can redeem with channel points,” they share. They also recently began engaging in more flirty chats with fans and posting suggestive images on Twitter.
Within their VTube community, Blu3_Rae has mostly been met with kindness and open arms. “No matter what language you speak, what country you’re from, or what kind of content you’re streaming, VTubing just kind of fosters this smaller community, which is always really nice.” There is the odd instance where someone on a stream will try to harass them. The most bizarre request they’ve ever received was from someone who asked if they wanted their ears petted. Blu3_Rae’s response? “That’s for after the stream, and it costs extra, my friend!”
Christopher J. Persaud, a PhD student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, believes there is a huge sexual VTubing subculture taking hold across digital platforms right now, including Discord, Twitter, and of course, Twitch and YouTube. “Some of these [platforms] might be more monetizable,” Persaud explains, “and there’s certainly benefits of being able to find out and explore one’s gender and sort of embody how they'd like to be seen in digital spaces.”
But there is a line. Persaud notes some tension that has bubbled up within these digital communities around white trans individuals potentially engaging in cultural appropriation by using Asian aesthetics to win over fanbases. “There are some things that maybe could be improved on, including how VTubers choose to portray themselves.”
Avery Sai, a pansexual trans woman from the U.K., started out on YouTube in the eSports community three years ago. But it wasn’t until a year ago that Sai decided to explore VTubing, specifically LewdTubing. “When I first got into it, I didn't know what I was doing,” they share. “I kind of just jumped into a deep end, but learning through trial and error and teaching myself how to do different things has now led me to carry it on.” Now they have their own Twitch and Twitter where they engage in lewd content via art or audio that can be redeemed on streams should fans so choose.
An explain of Avery Sai's lewd art.
Like Moonbeam, Sai says VTubing has helped her to navigate feelings of dysphoria, specifically around her voice. When she started streaming as a VTuber, she was feeling unhappy about how she sounded. “VTubing has been a very good sort of coming-out tool because I could express what I wanted to express without a fear of anything, really,” she recalls. “It has made it sort of easier for me, at least, and I think that's amazing.” Her VTubing community was one of the first to support her when she decided to come out as pan as well, and she felt that everyone was very welcoming with absolutely no judgment. “The support and outcome that came from that, even though it was completely brand new, was overwhelming, you know?”
According to Bredikhina, avatar-mediated sexual interactions can provide emotional fulfillment and satisfy communication needs. In this way, VTubing can be vital for LGBTQ+ people not just financially but mentally and emotionally. Yet no platform or medium is totally risk-free. Meta, for instance, recently announced the introduction of personal boundary zones after a woman reported she had been “virtually gang-raped” in a digital VR environment.
With Twitch adding a VTuber tag to its system, it begs the question if this largely underground community will continue to stay underground. Plus, with Meta’s large focus on the Metaverse and other forms of virtual reality games — including The Sims and Second Life, which some individuals have hacked to include sexual content — it will be interesting to see if sexually explicit content from queer and trans sex workers remains at the forefront.