Josie West & Harper Thornhill

21 December 2023

Introduction

Online sex workers face a deeply rooted politics of invisibility, which impedes their rights and working conditions. They are absent from debate within mainstream labour politics as an informal and stigmatised labour sector. They are often left out of gig economy discourse and definitions, despite one of the first sex work platforms, Adult Work, dating back to the 1990s. They face ejection from social media platforms and payment processors, due to criminalisation and morality discourses that fail to recognise the difference between sex work and sexual exploitation, consensual/non-consensual sex workers. And sex work platforms exploit this invisibility and their status as “intermediaries,” rather than employers, by subjecting workers to significant wage cuts, data extraction, surveillance and few reciprocal benefits. 

 

Online sex work encompasses multiple forms of labour. Camming is a digital sexual service where online performers live stream on platforms like Adult Work, or produce picture and video content for platforms like Only Fans. Strippers, burlesque performers, escorts and full-service providers use online platforms to advertise their services. To remain competitive, workers often engage with multiple forms of sex work. We view this labour from a decriminalisation and sex-positive feminist perspective, which rejects the carceral feminism of abolitionism and highlights social benefits of work engaged with pleasure. This work is also social reproduction, by regenerating communities and (often) offering essential psychosexual care to men seeking emotional support. For example, Pitagora has shown that ‘psychosexual’ experiences of sex facilitate both pleasure and exploration of heteronormative conceptions of masculinity through BDSM power dynamics. This can enable male clients to have an outlet to reject the constricting expectations produced by toxic masculinity, explore their femininity and come to terms with their own sexuality.

 

We believe that sex work must be recognised as an essential service which produces socially reproductive benefits. The UK government must also recognise that full-decriminalisation, visibility and recognition, ethical labour standards and worker owned enterprises are critical to improving rights in this sector. First, however, we must unpack why the needs of online sex workers are so complex.

Workers' rights in the online gig economy

In recent years, the gig economy has come under fire for exacerbating precarity within informal labour markets. While such workers may desire flexibility, this also risks  eradicating them from the safety net of employment protections. Platforms backed by venture capital investment, like Uber and Deliveroo, are not particularly concerned with improving labour standards and have entered fraught legal battles with unionised workers over issues like worker status.

 

In 2021, the UK supreme court ruled that Uber drivers should be classified as workers and entitled to minimum wage, paid holidays and pensions. This case was launched by Yaseen Aslam, a former Uber driver who founded the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU). Despite this historic win James Farrar – who is also a former driver and workers’ rights advocate –  has brought another claim against Uber. Farrar wants a declaration from the Employment Tribunal which specifically clarifies how Uber can define and calculate minimum wage and paid holidays. The claimant maintains that Uber continues to only pay its drivers for the period that they pick up a passenger and then drop them off. In addition, the supreme court ruled against Deliveroo riders’ claim that they have an employment relationship with the food delivery giant in November 2023.

 

The fight for workers’ rights in the gig economy is therefore still ongoing. Online sex workers, as a largely invisible gig economy sector, face a much more complex uphill battle. Much like Uber or Deliveroo drivers, online sex workers interact with workplace AI systems. Algorithms offer novel tools to direct and monitor online labour dynamics. This enables sex work platforms to encourage the hustle, categorise and racialise performers, monitor erotic performances and inhibit workers from taking customers off-site. There is no due process involved in disciplinary action like account deactivation, nor opportunity for bargaining over labour conditions. Surveillance is solely directed towards increasing profits and complying with pornography regulations – which have nothing to do with improvement of labour standards.

Image-based sexual violence

Online performers also face unique gig economy challenges. Algorithms don’t monitor abusive consumer behaviour such as the unsolicited recording and distribution of erotic performances. This practice is known as image-based sexual violence, or ‘revenge porn’, and is illegal in the UK. However, online sex workers are almost invisible in the discourse about this crime. There are no protective mechanisms built into platforms to protect them from image-based violence – again despite the seriousness of this crime.

 

This is due to an attitude that online sex workers can’t be a victim of this crime, an attitude which effectively says, ‘if they’re willing to put nude content online then how can they be victims?’ This idea is extremely harmful. There is a huge difference between sexual content which is consented to, often in what is considered a private online space, and sexual content which is stolen and distributed within freely accessible online spaces without consent. This is sexual violence and can be hugely traumatic.  

 

Due to the politics of invisibility, sex workers in general are usually forced to think of the solutions to the problems they face. For example, during Josie West’s PhD research several research participants suggested Anti-Screen Capture software to protect workers from people taking illegal screenshots and recording content. Social media platforms like Snapchat, for instance, use this technology.

 

In addition, Harper Thornhill, as an experienced online performer, believes that image-based sexual violence could be prevented in this sector by modifying the EXIF data of sexual content in the interests of sex workers. EXIF (Exchangeable Image File Format) files store data about photographs, like where the photo was taken. When content is uploaded to online platforms like Only Fans, the EXIF data is removed. This technique is called steganography, which enables data to be hidden and combined with encryption for additional protection. Harper questions whether EXIF data can be added, rather than removed, from files in a way to protect sex workers from highly sensitive content being leaked. Could platforms add EXIF data into files so that it’s clear who they belong to, who’s viewed it and in who’s inbox it’s appearing?

Institutionalised stigma

Criminalisation also puts sex workers at risk of harm and causes even deeper marginalisation. UK pornography regulations following the Online Safety Act 2023 will increasingly criminalise consumers and producers of sex work. The act makes online platforms liable for advertising of full-service sex work (illegal solicitation of prostitution), and sex trafficking victims without taking into account the impact it will have on consensual sex workers – including those in fully legal sectors like camming.

 

This act follows America’s 2018 FOSTA-SESTA bill, which came into effect under the influence of the Trump administration. Trump sanctioned a series of harmful polices towards women including limiting access to abortion and sexual health services. This bill makes owners of websites accountable for advertising of sex trafficking content. Subsequently, social media platforms began blocking and banning sexual content to avoid being held liable. A blog by the English Collective of Prostitutes has made the following important statement about this issue:

 

‘Research found that online communication platforms have excluded people working in the sex industry as a result…. This… is backed up by evidence showing an increase in poverty, insecure housing, suicide, murder, isolation, and the deterioration of physical and mental health for sex workers. Many reported that the loss of their online presence made them more susceptible to labour exploitation and trafficking, or forced them to work outdoors.’

 

Such punitive measures effect all forms of sex work, beyond full-service, including those that are fully legalised like stripping and camming. AI systems are unequipped to distinguish between consensual/non-consensual sex workers, illegal/non-illegal advertising of sexual services. Subsequently, sex workers in general are being ejected from the digital spaces they fundamentally shaped. Few social groups face this level of institutionalised discrimination.

 

Indeed, sex work stigma is so institutionalised that American border control uses facial recognition technology to scan the faces of tourists, identify sex workers due to their online presence and then prevent entry into America. Moreover, the data protection practices of these unregulated sex work platforms are not transparent. It’s essential that platforms are built with sophisticated privacy-protection for online identity due to the potential for their data to be used against them, not only within their own country but across borders.

Photocredit: Mina Karenina, SWU

Data violence

Josie’s PhD research has adopted Anna Lauren Hoffman’s use of the term ‘data violence’ to account for these practices. According to Hoffman, data violence refers to the ‘material, symbolic, and other violences inflicted by and through data technologies and their purveyors.’ This term enables understanding of the broad range of violences exacted against online sex workers, such as ejection from payment processors, social media platforms, and practices of deactivation and exploitation on sex work platforms – including image-based sexual violence. The UK government, alongside online platforms and payment systems, have a responsibility to protect sex workers from data violence and recognise how they are contributing to it.

 

Harper is the online sex worker representative for the Sex Worker Union UK. Since the Online Safety Act came into effect in November 2023, she has already faced reports of sex workers being ejected from online spaces like Google Drive, whilst sex worker WhatsApp group chats are being shut down. This ostracises sex workers from online communities which offer essential networked spaces of mutual aid and care. It is concerning that an act which purports to protect citizens from online harms shows no concern for consensual sex workers – a group which is also vulnerable to violence and exploitation. The discourse of the Online Safety Act fails to even mention consensual sex workers – they are, once again, invisible. Meanwhile, online advertising of services is criminalised because this falls under ‘inciting prostitution for gain’ under UK law. Sex workers are therefore being held responsible for their own ‘sexual exploitation’ in this legislation, which is ironic given their eradication from online advertising will actually increase sexual exploitation.

 

A recent report by Sanders and Keighley on ‘the role of adult service websites in addressing modern slavery’ found that sex work platforms are vulnerable for use by sex trafficking perpetrators. Sanders and Keighley argue that regulation must increase responsibility of all adult service websites, who must play a crucial role in developing anti-trafficking measures which identifying and prevent criminal activity. Sanders and Keighley argue that regulation must increase responsibility of all adult service websites, who can play a crucial role in developing anti-trafficking measures which identifying and prevent criminal activity. However, due to the politics of invisibility in this sector – and general lack of concern for consensual sex workers shown by state actors – Sex Worker Union fears that the government will start shutting these platforms down for use in the UK. This would be akin to shutting down all nail bars, car wash businesses and manual labour firms, which are also vulnerable to trafficking perpetrators, instead of attempting to make these labour sectors safer.

 

A recent policy brief by Niina Vuolajärvi for LSE’s Centre for Women, Peace and Security titled ‘Criminalising the Sex Buyer: Experiences from the Nordic Region,’ found that 6 per cent of sex workers in Sweden who participated in their study were trafficked, which they maintain is consistent with studies in other labour contexts. Approaches to online harms which ignore what is possibly 94 per cent of the population within this sector are extremely problematic. Significantly, Vuolajärvi also found that:

 

 ‘…sex buyer criminalisation has a minor role in the regulation of commercial sex in the area. Abolition of commercial sex through disrupting the market has become the primary goal of policing – and this policing takes place primarily through sex workers and people in the sex trade and increases their vulnerability to violence and exploitation.’

 

Eradicating online sex workers from the safety net digital spaces provide will push many workers onto the streets where health and safety risks increase considerably. These risks are exacerbated by the semi-criminalisation model maintained towards sex work in the UK, whereby solicitation of prostitution and running of brothels is illegal. As Vuolajärvi shows, models which attempt to abolish commercial sex by making the work harder to do simply don’t work. Governments generally, for ideological reasons, are blind to the logic of sex workers’ rights. They ignore the evidence-based research of NGOs like the World Health Organisation, which has demonstrated through modelling studies that ‘decriminalizing sex work could lead to a 46% reduction in new HIV infections in sex workers over 10 years, while eliminating sexual violence against sex workers could lead to a 20% reduction in new HIV infections.’

Decriminalisation

So, what is the solution to the complex needs of online sex workers? We believe that we must force the government to understand that decriminalisation of sex work is absolutely imperative to protecting sex workers from the extensive harm caused by their own evidence-less ideological conceptions of women’s rights. Sex work is indeed largely performed by women, but it’s important to acknowledge that it’s also accessed by a range of gender identities which can present differing experiences and issues. Sex workers are also often neurodivergent and/or have disability and care needs, which makes the accessibility, flexibility and creativity of the online sex industry extremely valuable.

 

We call on the UK government to recognise sex work as a formal labour sector that needs inclusion in mainstream labour debate. Morality discourses which present consensual sex workers as victims are problematic. As Rand argues, online sex work is conceived as ‘bad work’ which excludes this population from debate. Consensual sex workers do not need saving, they need recognition and legal protections.

 

On the 7th of December 2023 we went to the European Parliament with the European Sex Workers’ Rights Alliance (ESWA), who organised the attendance of grassroots and academic sex workers rights’ advocates for a commitee on health outcomes. The Director of ESWA, Sabrina Sanchez, made the following important statement in their address to the European Parliament:

 

‘Every time we come here we try to occupy the building because decisions are made here that effect our lives and our wellbeing… usually the violence against us comes from the state, from the security, the police, the borders and the laws that come from those borders.’

 

Harper also made the following critical comment to the MEP: ‘The enforcement framework of the EU digital services act will be applied {in the UK} from the 17th of February next year. 96% of the people I represent will be displaced by criminalisation of the buyer.’

Ethical standards: from fairtrade to fairwork

In addition, we believe online sex work needs to follow in the footsteps of the Fairtrade movement to establish ethical labour standards and sex worker led certification bodies to ensure platform adherence. In her work as the online representative for Sex Worker Union, Harper has been advocating passionately for this idea for several years. It has always evolved from the grassroots. For example, feminist porn producer Tristan Taormino advocated for fair trade porn over a decade ago. Tristan centres this idea in her discussion of her feminist porn work. As a porn producer, they adhere to ethical standards, including conversation around consent and emphasis on female pleasure.  

 

We want to encourage consumers of sex work to make an ethical choice and to humanise the people from which they derive pleasure and buy valuable services. Sex work should be understood as pleasure-centred reproductive work, which contributes meaningfully to people’s lives. Consumers must also understand the ethics of the services their buying. For example, when a person walks into a supermarket and must choose between a chocolate bar with a fairtrade sticker, and a chocolate bar without one, this locates the products in their abstract supply chain systems and forces the consumer to make an ethical choice.

 

The Fairtrade movement has recently been adopted and expanded upon by the Fairwork Foundation. The project has brought together key stakeholders to set minimum Fairwork standards for the gig economy, including workers, academics and legal professionals. It is a transnational research project pioneering labour standards for digital work. The foundation has established five principles of fair platform work. Recently, the foundation has begun investigating the needs of online sex workers.

The case for worker ownership

Current sex work platforms are unlikely to receive a good Fairwork rating, due to a general lack of (1) fair pay, (2) fair conditions, (3) fair contracts, (4) fair management and (5) opportunities for representation. However, we are concerned that a bad Fairwork rating will not particularly dent the reputation of sex work platforms due to the stigma and invisibility online sex workers face. This context has led us to the conclusion that worker owned platforms must be developed in order bring about meaningful change. These platforms must be recognised and prioritised by the UK government and built with Fairwork principles in mind.

 

“Platform cooperatives” offer alternative economic structures to exploitative gig economy firms. They are democratically owned by workers and offer more protections and support from union organisations. Professor Trebor Scholz, as the founding director of The New School’s Platform Cooperativism Consortium (PCC) in New York City, has been advocating for platform cooperatives to counteract the concerning labour practices within venture capitalist-funded gig economy firms. Together we intend to draw on industry, grassroots trade union and academic expertise to develop a platform cooperative for online sex workers. This follows in the footsteps of the full-service platform cooperative called Horizontl, that has recently been established by Kate Flemming in the UK.

 

We are currently seeking funding opportunities for the platform and will be looking at innovative options like crowdfunding campaigns, grant applications, cooperative banks and credit unions. This platform will be completely worker owned and managed, with profits equally divested. The aim is to transform the gig economy model into something more radical, built in the interests of workers rather than capitalist actors – work which prioritises the right to autonomy, flexibility, community building, mental health and the value of pleasure-based services. In turn, we want to throw a spotlight on poor labour standards within capitalist enterprises such as exploitation, isolation and data violence.

Could a Platform Cooperative challenge stigma and criminalisation?

We also want the UK government to recognise that, if they really care about sex trafficking and sexual exploitation, then they must let consensual sex workers build their own economic structures which are protected against use by perpetrators of trafficking. We want the government to help us build safety mechanisms into the platforms to protect against criminal use.

 

A PCC policy report by Scholz et al., titled ‘Policies for cooperative ownership in the digital economy,’ recommends procurement policies to provide preferential treatment of platform cooperatives over privately owned platforms. Governments therefore can and should take action to support gig economy workers build safer, less exploitative and more empowered lives. We believe that gig economy services, in general, should be worker owned. Capitalist actors do not care about labour rights – nor do their tax evading ways care about contributing meaningfully to the UK economy.

 

We believe the Online Safety Act 2023 needs urgent counteraction, so it incorporates consensual sex workers in its definition of online harms. We believe the regulation of online sex work does not have to rest in the stigmatising hands of politically incompetent legislative actors. We believe the future of online sex work can be bright. It is possible to fight the politics of invisibility this sector faces and build a better world for marginalised workers.

Josie West is currently finishing her PhD in Digital Humanities at King’s College London. Her research focusses on the class composition and the politics of invisibility within online sex work in the UK. Josie is interested in labour struggles emerging in the digital economy, alongside concrete opportunities for worker power. She has several upcoming publications in 2024 about the counteractive politics of visibility in this sector.

Josie West (@JosieRWest) / X (twitter.com)

 

 

Harper Thornhill is the Online Representative for The Sex Workers Union, a branch of sex workers in the UK organising for better working conditions and fighting to change the industry from within. She has spoken at the European Parliament advocating for sex workers rights as well as presenting at the 2023 European Sex Workers Alliance Conference on ‘Data Violence against Cam Models: Revenge Porn and Institutionalised Stigma.’

Countess 💎 (@thecountessdia) / X (twitter.com)

 

  • Hoffmann, A.L., 2021. Terms of inclusion: Data, discourse, violence. New Media & Society23(12), pp.3539-3556.

 

  • Pitagora, D.A., 2019. Pleasure, power, or both? Heteronormativity, stigma, and the intersections of BDSM and anoreceptive heterosexual males. Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

 

  • Rand, H.M., 2019. Challenging the invisibility of sex work in digital labour politics. Feminist Review, 123(1), pp.40-55.

 

  • Scholz, T., Mannan, M., Pentzien, J. and Plotkin, H., 2021. Policies for cooperative ownership in the digital economy. Platform Cooperativism Consortium and Berggruen Institute. Policy Paper (Dec 6.2).pdf (archive.org)

 

  • Taormino, T. (2013). Calling the shots: Feminist porn in theory and practice. In Taormino, T., Parren˜as-Shimuzu, C., Penley, C., & Miller-Young, M. (Eds.), The feminist porn book: The politics of producing pleasure (pp. 79–93). New York, NY: Feminist Press.