“HI BOYS! I’m Valarie and I’m a Roblox stripper,” the tweet reads. “I will dance on u and have sex with u for free so DM me <3.” The message is accompanied by a GIF: a barely legible, pixelated, geometric image that seems to be a facsimile of a woman’s body, clad in white thigh-high boots, twerking its bare ass.
Valarie is the alter ego of a 16-year-old high school student we’ll call Katie. (Due to her age and the sensitive nature of this story, we’re not publishing Katie’s name or her location, though she does live outside the United States.) Like many teenagers, she’s been playing Roblox — the hugely popular platform that allows players to create their own virtual games — for about five years; and also like many kids during the pandemic, her use of the platform has increased exponentially. In particular, for a few hours a day, she goes to strip clubs and gives lap dances to patrons; she’ll also regularly haunt “condo” games — essentially, games that are home to NSFW content and activities — and have virtual sex with the anonymous players, which usually looks like expression-less Lego creatures robotically rooting into each other’s BandAid-colored flesh.
“She likes having fun. She’s up for anything if you ask her to,” Katie tells me of her Roblox persona Valarie, who wears a crop top and short shorts and has long raven hair that she pulls up in an Ariana Grande-esque ponytail. “Most of all she’s always looking for attention. She wants your attention.”
Katie has had a lot of people on Roblox try to doxx her, threatening to expose her IP address or send people to gang-rape her at her home if she doesn’t immediately respond to her DMs or send them nudes. (As she told me on a Zoom call, she also lives at home with her family, who don’t know about her second life on Roblox: “I can’t be bothered to explain this whole thing. It wouldn’t benefit me or benefit them,” she says, her baby sister wailing in the background.) Her messages are constantly filled with either, as she puts it, “horny teens,” older men pretending to be horny teens, or people furious at her for flouting the guidelines for the famously kid-friendly platform. (Roblox prohibits games with sexual content, and has adopted more stringent parental controls and rating systems in response to the proliferation of condo games and strip clubs on its platform.) Some people will even accuse her of being a “groomer,” a term used to describe adults online who have sexualized interactions with minors, even though Katie is a minor herself.
But Katie says she doesn’t give much thought to these messages. All of it — fending off nude photo requests and doxxing attempts from adult men, facing accusations of being exploitative or, perhaps worse in online spaces, cringe — is part and parcel with being a teenager on the internet. “I mainly do it for the attention,” she says. “Negative attention, positive attention, sexual attention — honestly, it’s all the same.”
Anyone born in the 1980s or 1990s remembers the era of cybersex. Many preteens coming of age during the dial-up era would congregate in chatrooms with names like “Bored housewives over 30” or “Naughty wellhung surfer boys 18+,” experiencing their sexual initiation through lurid convos with strangers following the standard introductory line “a/s/l.’ Chatrooms on adult cam sites were accessible, affordable, and most importantly, anonymous: you never knew if you were talking to a man or a woman, a 10- or a 50-year-old, a normie, or Mandy Moore on a burner account. Despite early warnings of stranger danger and cautionary tales about minors being abducted by people they’d met online, it was common for a preteen posing as a 19-year-old to sexually experiment online with a 45-year-old posing as a 20-year-old.
Today, this dynamic lives on in the form of Roblox strip clubs, where young people — mostly, minors — playact at adult sexuality. In these clubs, dancers rub up on horny virtual patrons (called “slenders” due to the body type of their virtual avatars, or “oders” for “online daters”); because Roblox does not allow players to directly exchange funds, they exchange for selling digital shirts for Robux, the platform’s currency, which can also be converted into real-world money. To evade Roblox moderators, these clubs usually have fairly innocuous names (some of them are marketed as spinoffs of the extremely popular children’s multiplayer game Adopt Me) and are extremely short-lived, opening up and shutting down within just an hour or two.
The primary hubs for communication are on the gaming and chat platform Discord, where club owners and operators have servers announcing “openings” and inviting members to send applications asking to be featured as dancers, or even to work as bartenders or bouncers. Though some of these servers do not allow users younger than 13 to join, in accordance with Roblox’s own rules, there’s little enforcement of such guidelines, and the vast majority of the “applications” reviewed by Rolling Stone are from minors under the age of 15. (This is consistent with Roblox’s demographic: as of August 2020 it has more than 160 million monthly users, more than half of whom are under the age of 16.)
Popular, ostensibly SFW Roblox dance clubs like Club Iris, which has had more than 107 million visits since its inception in 2018, can also serve as “gateways” to more sexualized interactions on the platform, says Katie. “There are people on there who dance on rich guys for Roblox — 1,000 Robux, 2,000 Robux,” she says. “It’s moderated but very rarely. There are a few admins on there but they don’t do much. There’s a lot of attempts of girls to get sugar daddies. I’ve tried getting a sugar daddy” to give her Robux to buy clothes, hats, and games passes on the platform. In response to questions about Club Iris, Roblox said it had reached out to the Club Iris developer, which updated the game to include the following warning for new players: “You may receive warnings, kicks, and bans if you engage in behavior that is against the Roblox Terms of Service (TOS). In addition, we have a zero tolerance policy regarding any inappropriate behavior including, but not limited to: re-enacting inappropriate scenes or poses, online dating, bypassed clothing/inappropriate avatars, and any VR players caught performing inappropriate actions. Players caught performing any of the above or other inappropriate actions will be permanently banned on the spot and will have to appeal within the communications server in the game description. Repeat offenders will be immediately blacklisted and will not be allowed to return to Club Iris.”
Since Roblox does not allow strip clubs (or its more explicitly NSFW cousin, condo games, which were subject to a lengthy investigative piece in Fast Company in 2020) on its platform, club owners have to be creative in terms of how they advertise. Alex F, who runs the Roblox news account @Roblox_RTC on Twitter, says it’s not uncommon to see strip clubs advertised on Roblox gaming sites like RBXFlip. “They advertise very openly, even though it is kind of a private culture,” she says. On YouTube, there are dozens of videos posted by popular gaming vloggers of Roblox strip clubs, with titles like “I BECAME A STRIPPER ON ROBLOX!!” and “TRAPPED IN ROBLOX’S FREAKIEST CLUB (MUST WATCH).”
Since the pandemic began, however, TikTok has become the primary venue where Roblox strip clubs have been advertised. “During the pandemic people were bored out of their minds and needed something to do,” says Alex. “And it gets kids’ attention immediately when they see, ‘you can make money at this Roblox club by twerking virtually.’” The TikTok videos, some of which have hundreds of thousands of views, have the distinct feel of serving as recruitment videos. “If this is on your FYP [for You page] it’s a sign 🙂 to become a roblox dancer,” says the caption for one Roblox club, Heelz. “NOTE: you get to make your own bank!,” before showing off the club’s locker room, makeup room, and poledancing platform.
The promise of monetary compensation, coupled with the image of a powerful, confident (albeit square-headed) woman strutting in stilettos, has the effect of making Heelz look alluring – even, I daresay, empowering — to new recruits. “I feel like [kids] either think it’s funny or are into it, or they are young, impressionable kids being told it’s a good thing and fun, or a way to meet new friends or gain money,” says @Dipybrick, who with @calwiener runs the Twitter account @BadRobloxTikToks, on which he regularly posts Roblox strip club TikToks.
Unlike condo games, where virtual sex does take place, there’s nothing overtly sexually explicit or graphic about most Roblox strip clubs. Nor are they particularly sexy, in large part by virtue of the limitations of the platform’s UX: in one recent strip club I attended, I watched the dancers shimmy down the poles inelegantly, square limbs twirling in the air, before flopping onto the platform like bean bags in a game of cornhole, as Ayesha Erotica rapped, “I’ve got the blow, come snort it, Becky/My pussy tastes like mom’s spaghetti.”
Due to the young age of Roblox’s user base, many on the platform are concerned about the popularity of such games, and the prospect of predators using strip clubs to “groom” young users; much criticism has also been leveled against the club owners who directly profit off the games. “Sexualizing your virtual avatar [at a young age] is not right in my opinion,” says Alex. “And because they are so young it could lead to real-life interactions [off the platform].”
Adults approaching young people on Roblox is indeed a risk, and something that has happened on the platform. Last year, for instance, a 48-year-old Kansas man was arrested and charged with sexual exploitation of a child for allegedly persuading an eight-year-old girl he had met on Roblox to send videos of herself in various stages of undress in exchange for Robux. “I don’t think [Roblox strip clubs] are inherently bad. Children by nature are very curious,” says Kati Morton, a licensed therapist and a popular YouTube creator specializing in mental health. “But when there’s no regulation and no monitoring, it can be dangerous, because it’s not like only other kids are in there…[and] when it comes to social media and gaming, it unfortunately gives bad people more access to children.”
For her part, Katie says she is frequently approached by people she has met on Roblox who claim to be teenage boys but, upon closer investigation of their social media profiles, turn out to be older men. Most of the time, however, much like the preteens and teens of early-2000s chatrooms, she doesn’t know or care about their real ages. “I don’t really care if it’s a 40-year-old man on the other end. If I knew it’d be way more creepier,” she says. “I just assume they’re my age. I’d rather play clueless.” Many of the men Katie has had sex with in condo games have DM’ed her requesting for nudes, or face pics, or to meet up with her in real life. As a security measure, she says, she does none of these things (though she will send face pics, albeit of another girl’s photo she finds on Google Images). “I never associate myself with people on the internet outside of social media. They will try but it’s not gonna work,” she says.
This line between roleplaying and reality, between youthful virtual sexual experimentation and actual predatory behavior, is what makes so many people, including experts, ambivalent about exactly what type of danger Roblox strip clubs pose. Carole Swiecicki, chief programmatic officer for the Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center, says that in and of themselves, Roblox strip clubs may not necessarily qualify as fertile ground for predators wishing to groom young victims, and there is nothing inherently deeply problematic about horny 14-year-olds virtually twerking on couches. The line, she says, is whether the interactions on the platform cross over into real life.
“The line for me is one-on-one relationships [that arise from the game],” she says. “That game existing, it really is a product of our societal norms around sexual behaviors. Where it leads to grooming is if someone is direct messaging another child within that game and sending sexually explicit messages and asking for things back. It’s that individual desensitization to sexual content that really makes it dangerous.”
To make matters more complicated, many of the teenagers attracted to strip clubs on Roblox appear to be members of marginalized, vulnerable groups, such as the queer or BIPOC communities, according to their bios on Discord. “If you’re questioning your sexuality and trying to figure out who you are, particularly if you’re not out yet, something like this gives you a place to do that,” says Morton. Unfortunately, the ambiguity over who is on the other end of a conversation has the potential to put already at-risk youth experimenting with digital personae at even more risk. “Parents weren’t raised with social media, and not everyone has educated themselves about social media and online platforms,” says Morton. “That’s why it behooves all parents to have conversations with their children about safety and security online.”
For her part, Katie says she doesn’t find “comfort and healing” from being a Roblox stripper; she primarily views it as an amusing distraction and a way to get attention from strangers online, with the financial benefits coming in a close second (though she says she only makes about 50 Robux per day, or less than one American dollar). She has a boyfriend in real life, who knows nothing about her career as an underage online sex worker in a children’s game and probably wouldn’t understand the first thing about it. But she says she doesn’t think about it or its implications too much. “I mean, it’s not actually sex,” she says. “It’s just pixels colliding. So it doesn’t matter.”