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“Some Heroes Wear Nothing”

How online nudes became the most fashionable currency in the fight against the Australian wildfires.

A hand holds up a smartphone with a photo of a naked woman on it. The woman is covered by a bar of text that says, "Thank you for your donation."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

This week, Kaylen Ward came up with an ingenious way to motivate people to donate to Australian wildfire relief: She promised to send nude photos of herself to anyone who could document a $10 contribution to related charities like the Australian Red Cross.

Her plan worked: Within days, she claimed to have raised more than $1 million, though she told the New York Times that she couldn’t verify all the donations because of the high quantity. Ward, a model and sex worker, calls herself “the Naked Philanthropist” on Twitter, where she now has more than 385,000 followers. But in addition to the money she raised, Ward also inspired women with much more modest followings to forgo their modesty, for a good cause. Many of them already work full time or moonlight in the online sex community, where they earn money for sharing NSFW content, as well as providing other services.

A California woman who uses the name Leila Lahey on Twitter saw Ward’s posts and, even though she has a fraction of Ward’s followers, decided to post her own offer of nudes in exchange for proof of donations. “I was going a little crazy because I couldn’t donate myself,” she said. “I figured it doesn’t hurt to make the post. Honestly, the way that I look at it, all these guys are already begging for the photos in my messages anyway.”

A woman living in Italy who goes by the name Juicy on Twitter soon coined a hashtag for the movement: #nakedforaustralia. “I’m incredibly proud and incredibly grateful for the fact that so many people joined in,” she said.

Among them was a woman who uses the stage name Valerie in Brooklyn. “I’ve done fundraising before, but not like this,” she said.

“People are definitely taking advantage of the fact that it’s like, ‘I’m donating money. And I get nudes,’ ” said a Michigan woman who asked to be identified as Monique. She added that she is going to school for zookeeping and is particularly passionate about saving Australia’s wildlife.

Most were following Ward’s lead and offering a single naked shot in exchange for a screenshot proving a $10 donation, with an escalating menu of additional pictures and videos for larger donations.

Before long, some women in the online sex work community with slightly different client bases caught wind of the fundraising. “I had a ton of friends on Facebook sharing a post about the Naked Philanthropist,” said a woman who asked to be identified as Ari. “I was like, ‘Oh wait, I do a watered-down foot version of that.’ ”

“A lot of people who are into feet and acrylic nails, regular nudes don’t do it for them,” she explained. “So I was like, ‘Well, I might as well try and catch the niche market.’ ”

A Midwest woman who goes by the name Amira online lamented that the urgency of the fundraising didn’t allow her to incorporate face and body paint into the photos she was offering. “Man, it would have been really cute to take some koala-themed photos or something,” she said.

As with any online venture, the initial attention eventually gave way to scammers: people trying to photoshop old donations or use one-time donations to score multiple pictures.

Many of the women said they attempt to check that the donations are legitimate before honoring their end of the bargain: “Most people will send their screenshot, no problem, as long as they’ve actually done the donation,” Leila Lahey said. “To vet the process and make sure no one’s photoshopping an older donation from someone else or anything like that, I make sure it has some part of their name in it, so first name at least, and it has to have the date and time of the donation.”

“It’s really disappointing,” Amira said. “We’re trying to help humanity, and they’re trying to take advantage of it, and that’s really sad.”

For Juicy, the scam attempts pointed to larger issues with how the public sees sex workers: “People seem to think that we are dumb because we’re doing this, because we sell nudes,” she said. “We are organized. We see everything. We know everyone who has sent a donation; we know how many times you have used the same screenshot to get nudes from different people.”

“They think that they can just pull one over on us,” Amira agreed. “We’re doing this and by doing this, we aren’t gaining anything. We’re all taking a hit because of this, and a lot of people are trying to say we’re getting something out of this or trying to scam guys.”

Valerie said that taking the photos, uploading the videos, fielding messages, and vetting donations could be grueling. “It’s still work. People make it seem a bit easy. It does take time.”

If not quite the $1 million Kaylen Ward claimed she hauled, Juicy said that she had raised about $3,000 on her own and that the women she’d been in touch with through her #nakedforaustralia hashtag had raised $30,000 together.

Though the Times pointed out that charities have occasionally turned down contributions that they deemed as coming from untoward sources, the women who participated say they’re proud they raised the money from the sex worker community in particular. “Sex workers and unofficial sex workers, even people who sell feet pics—it’s really extraordinary the way we can get together and do things the millionaires don’t do,” Juicy said.

Monique added, “I’ve seen many, many tweets that say like, ‘Sex workers are doing more for the environment than anybody else’ and ‘Some heroes wear nothing.’ ”

“I really hope that us doing this on such a great scale will maybe help even two people to reconsider their opinions of sex workers,” Juicy said.

And besides, “NSFW” means nothing to a koala bear.