When you think of September, what comes to mind? Children returning to school? Apple cider in the markets? Autumn colors? New beginnings?

What about abstaining from porn and masturbation?

That’s a new September tradition that recently formed subreddit, r/NoSimpSeptember, is hoping to make a reality. The group of now more than 2,300 members encourages men to avoid online interaction with women—particularly with online sex workers and porn performers.

Like No Nut November that came before it, No Simp September is an internet challenge that discourages men from acting like “simps.” This term is popping up more and more. I personally had to ask the Gen Z’ers that live in my house to explain it to me. And, from what I gather, a simp describes a boy or man who seeks attention from or is overly concerned with pleasing women, especially if those women aren’t returning this “kindness” with sexual favors.

Looking at r/NoSimpSeptember’s 6 rules gives valuable insight into what the group is trying to avoid. To paraphrase:

  1. If you break a rule, don’t lie about it.
  2. Don’t give money to online sex workers. In their words, “booby streamers, TikTok (*shudders*) dancers, E-girls, etc.”
  3. Don’t decline social events in order to watch “any of the culprits above.”
  4. Don’t upvote, like, or look at women’s photos online.
  5. Don’t watch pornography.
  6. Do group check-ins. 

As an online sex worker who could reasonably be called a booby streamer or an E-girl—though I’ve honestly never used either of those words, and I’m certainly too old for TikTok dancing—this got me wondering what it is about online sex workers that has these men angry enough to ban interaction with us all together (albeit temporarily), and, moreover, to publicly celebrate themselves for doing so. After all, no one is forcing them to interact with us.

I emerged from the Reddit rabbit hole still curious what to make of all this, so I turned to a few of my colleagues to ask how they understood the NoSimps. As hoped, they had more reflection and insight than anything I read on the NoSimp forums. 

While the NoSimp rules appear to be obsessed with women who sell sexual content online, Bitcoin Stripper, who describes herself as a multifaceted sex worker, says that she doesn’t think this is really about sex work. She says, “I don’t think the original intention was explicitly to harm online sex workers or OnlyFans. The sex worker becomes the object of negative focus/hatred/avoidance much like a bottle of whisky becomes the hated nemesis of an alcoholic or how a sex addict has a compulsive relationship with their dating apps.” 

Online sex workers are more sexually available to these men (at a price, of course) than our civilian counterparts, and these interactions make the NoSimps feel vulnerable. She goes on, “These NoSimps are so lacking in personal self-control, they require a massive support group to validate their struggle and give them the control they lack internally.” 

Princess Berpl, an online sex worker and content creator, agrees with this, pointing out that part of this insistence on control is posturing to the men in their online community that they are not weak. She says, “Some people (primarily men) on the internet who want to feel different from an imagined group of ‘simple’ guys. In their mind, these ‘simps’ are so gullible that they’ve been tricked into supporting content they like, created by evil women like me.” She goes on, “If you’re a woman on the internet who makes an income through streaming or content creation, you’re hustling these poor lonely ‘simps’ for their money by preying on their desire to have a connection with women.”

This interpretation seems to line up with their fear of handing financial control over to online sex workers. Their second rule, after all, clearly states, “[Giving money to sex workers] is one of the purest forms of simping, you are submitting and surrendering your financial power for a fleeting moment of lust.”

It is perhaps not surprising that this forum popped up in 2020, when a global pandemic has pushed many of our interactions, including our sexual ones, online. Bitcoin stripper suggests this is contributing to the intensity of the NoSimp’s sentiments. She says, “They are staying at home jerking their dicks raw… then their internal shame machines kick into overdrive.” 

In other words, the underlying problem for the No Simps is not that we booby streamers and the TikTok dancers exist; rather, the problem for NoSimps is their own feelings of shame, inadequacy, and unfulfilled entitlement to sex that they attempt to assuage by, as Bitcoin stripper says, “shifting focus and blaming sex workers.” Far more intoxicating than sex workers is the way in which these NoSimp echo chambers paper over this collective shame with a veneer of moral superiority—they offer men a chance to feel good about the things that otherwise haunt them, even if that feeling is fleeting.

Thus, abstention from using online sex workers’ services is, at best, a distraction from the real problem (and I don’t just say that because I want to get paid—though of course I do). The anger and resentment these men feel won’t disappear unless and until they change the expectations they have of women, in general, and sex workers, in particular, to provide sexual gratification without some form of reciprocity. Entitlement—and not the women whose attention they feel entitled to—is the real source of the NoSimp’s unhappiness.

Marcela Luv, an online sex worker agrees. “As someone online I think it’s very healthy to enjoy porn and rub one out and go about your business.” She goes on, “I have some wonderful fans that respect me and just jerk off and go on with their day, I call them my bust a nut guys and I let them know it’s healthy and I understand them cause dating can be difficult.” But the key here is using the services sex workers provide in a way that is beneficial to both sex workers and clients. 

Princess Berpl believes that this is possible and wants to see a world in which this sort of collaboration is healthy and fruitful, and where the relationship between workers and consumers is not a hostile competition in the way NoSimps assume it must be. “I want to create content and a community where people can share their thoughts and explore themselves in a way that doesn’t shame them just for being themselves,” she says.  “And I dislike there being a shame-focused meme targeted at men who are already struggling to embrace themselves and their connections to women.”

This can be done only if NoSimps are willing to reflect on their relationship to us and our content. How might they go about doing this? Princess Berpl has a practical suggestion: “One resource I think might be helpful is a YouTube channel called HealthyGamerGG where a Harvard-trained psychiatrist named Dr. K streams conversations with incels about the experiences that support their hostile feelings about women. I imagine it would help a lot of guys work through their issues.”

Jessie Sage is the co-host of the Peepshow Podcast and the co-founder of Peepshow Media. She is a sex worker, educator, and writer. She writes a weekly syndicated sex column, and her articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Men’s Health, Hustler, VICE’s Motherboard, ZeroSpaces, and more. You can follow her on Twitter @sapiotextual

The following is an edited transcript of a brief talk I gave as part of the Women of Sex Tech Virtual Conference given on May 2, 2020.  

I’m an online sex worker; I’ve been doing this work for the last five years. If you’re unfamiliar with sex work— and in particular if you’re unfamiliar with online sex work— it is an umbrella terms that covers any erotic performances or interactions that are sold and mediated online. This includes sexting, selling nudes, porn, phone sex, amateur clip making, sexual Skype sessions, and more.

As digitally mediated erotic labor, online sex work sits at the intersection of tech, intimacy, and business: it’s quite literally the commodification of virtual intimacy and sexual gratification. It’s the business of pleasure.

As such, it’s not surprising that during COVID-19, when shelter-in-place orders and social distancing have pushed most of our social and professional interactions online, clip stores, sexting apps, porn platforms, and phone sex sites are seeing an uptick in sign-ups from both new customers and new performers.

Forbes has reported that adult chat and video sites have seen increases in traffic sales and sign up with some of the biggest sites seeing more than a 75% increase. Subscription site Onlyfans, for example, has seen more than a 75% increases in new signups, amounting to 15,000 new users every 24 hours. Manyvids, a clip site, has seen a 22% increase in models launching live webcam sessions. Additionally, Rolling Stone has reported that IsMyGirl has seen a 300% increase in new sign ups, and the CEO is quoted as saying that he believes that most of the people who are signing up are recently laid off from vanilla jobs.

The conditions of COVID-19, in other words, have led many non-sex workers (folks that we call “civilians”) into wanting to get into online sex work. As someone who has been working in the industry for some time, I have seen an influx and messages from civilians who’ve lost their jobs and are looking for a “quick and easy way” to make ends meet sheltering-in-place. I understand their logic: Online sex work seems like a good way to make money while at home.

My kneejerk response to these requests for advice on how to get into the industry, though, is to tell them not to do it. Or, rather, my more nuanced position is to not do it if you believe that online sex work is a low risk path to quick and easy money. Online sex work is neither low risk, nor is it quick and easy money. And I’m going to lay out the reasons for this.

As a personal aside, I want to say that when I first started doing online sex work, a friend who had been camming for years told me that the risks aren’t worth it unless you’re willing to put in the significant time that it takes in order to really get an online sex work business off the ground. Dabbling, in other words, doesn’t get you very far. She also said that you must be willing to accept the whore stigma that comes with being naked on the internet.

At the time, I wasn’t actually ready to hear this, I wanted to think that it was possible to dip my toes in the sex industry and exit whenever I wanted. However, her voice rings in my ears every time I see a civilians in my DM’s, asking me how to break into online sex work during this pandemic.

It may be worth it to do online sex work, but you can’t actually know this if you’re only given partial truth that highlight the most successful models and gloss over the risks. In my experience, dabbling in sex work has long term consequences that newbies should be aware of. The image of online sex work as quick and easy money obscures the labor that actually goes into sex work and offers an incomplete picture of what it is that our lives look like.

Where do people get these impressions? Sex workers themselves projects success, and they should. What we’ve learned from being in this industry is that clients will pay a premium if they believe that we’re popular and that our time is limited. But, also, journalists, who are really hungry for sex work stories right now, typically only have access to sex workers who are highly visible and who have large platforms. I say this as somebody who feels implicated: I am a visible sex worker who has a large platform who quite often gives press interviews.

The reality is different than what our own marketing and media stories depict, though. Making online sex work lucrative is not something that just happens overnight. You don’t just start selling nudes on OnlyFans and have a windfall of money. I so wish that was true, but it’s just not.

Of interest to this conference, there are tech reasons for this. Platforms themselves algorithmically favor the already successful, making it really difficult for newcomers to break in. Any success that one has on a platform depends on what kind of traffic that person can drive, and in order to be able to drive traffic, you need to already have a large social media platform.

Importantly, the number of followers that you need to have in order to make this work, to make it profitable, also opens you up to scrutiny and whore stigma. The tech itself becomes a weapon that harms online sex workers. Piracy, for example, is so rampant that we don’t have control over our own images. The biggest porn sites on the internet—PornHub being a notable example—were built on a business model of piracy. And this isn’t true just for pre-recorded content. Even cam shows and other live performances are routinely recorded and distributed without our permission or even our knowledge. And many of the sites that host this pirated content have offshore servers so they simply do not respond to our DCMA takedown requests. I know this because my family members, including my mother, found a lot of my porn on PornHub, a site where I have never uploaded my content.

Also, importantly, facial recognition software is making it increasingly likely that your images in non- sex work contexts are being easily linked up to adult entertainment sites and to your sex work persona. We’re already seeing this with companies like Marinus Analytic, who are ostensibly creating facial recognition software to locate trafficking victims, but, in the practice, identify the images of sex workers and link them up with their non-sex work social media presences. [This software is sold exclusively to law enforcement.]

Moreover, Facebook’s “people you may know” algorithms notoriously out sex workers to their families and doxs them to their clients. This is why I’ve given up on having any social media at all that isn’t my sex work persona, and this is true of a lot of sex workers.

In other words, regardless of whether it’s criminalized (so much of online sex work isn’t), sex work is heavily stigmatized. And, the stigmatization itself leads to problems with employment, custody, border crossing, banking, etc.

So, getting into online sex work during a global pandemic means taking on these risks while at the same time stepping into an already oversaturated market. This market’s oversaturated by current online sex workers who’ve been at this hustle for a long time; in-person sex workers who’ve pivoted their businesses to online during this pandemic; newcomers like the people whose messages I keep getting; and also just exhibitionists who are creating some of the same content for free on exhibitionist community forums.

There’s no shortage, in other words, of naked people online.

While there’s an increase in people, in customers or in clients who are signing up for these sites, individual clients aren’t necessarily spending more money. In fact, in my experience and in the experience of a lot of my friends and colleagues, they’re spending less. There are handful of reasons for this.

First, clients are dealing with their own economic insecurities and in some cases, layoffs. Another reason is that they’re quarantining with their family, with their wives and their kids, or with roommates. This leaves little privacy for spending time with online sex workers.

Moreover, there’s a plethora of options for sexual gratification online, many of which are free.

But, also, I want to point out that the work itself during the pandemic is a little bit different; it’s more emotionally intense. As sex workers we’re spending a lot of time (metaphorically) holding people’s hands through these really difficult times.

All that being said, I’m not suggesting that no one should go into online sex work during the pandemic. Sex work has always been a really important fallback for people in crisis. It’s relatively good money with low barriers to entry and it’s more flexible than many other forms of work.

It’s irresponsible, however, for journalists and other figures to continue to promote the idea that it’s quick and risk-free way of making money. Doing online sex work is neither easy money nor is it risk free. And I think that anyone who gets into it needs to have a picture of what our lives look like, and how theirs will change when they enter into this industry.

Jessie Sage (@sapiotextual) is a sex worker and freelance writer. She is also the co-host of the Peepshow Podcast.

In addition to contributing to Cyborgology, I write a sex column for the Pittsburgh City Paper. This week, I wrote a piece that’s relevant to conversations here, titled, “A new Kickstarter campaign has a terrible solution to your relationship problems.

I look at LoveSync, a new technology aimed at helping couples with mismatched libidos, and argue it’s an example of how technological solutions to social or interpersonal problems can do more harm than good.

Jessie Sage on Twitter @sapiotextual.

Jessie Sage is not my legal name. Shocking, right? It is, however, my public identity. At this point, so many of my interactions happen through this name that it often feels more natural to me than my legal one. As someone who works in and covers the adult industry, it is the name under which everything I do related to sex work and sex work advocacy falls: my writing, my podcast, my profiles, my activist work, etc.

There are very obvious reasons for this. Sex work is highly stigmatized. And even for those who have only done legal sex work, like myself, there can still be dire consequences to being connected to the sex industry: from social ostracization, to loss of vanilla jobs, to custody battles, to threats of (or actual) violence.

It is no wonder then that nearly everyone who works in my community works under a pseudonym. In a world in which a Google search that links your name to porn can shut down your bank account or prevent you from crossing international borders, it only makes sense to not link your legal identity to your sex work.

However, the fact that we work under pseudonyms creates a particularly pointed problem when it comes to dealing with companies, platforms, and media outlets that insist on real names, an insistence that de facto silences our voices. This week, I was faced with such a dilemma. The Washington Post accepted a pitch that I sent about what sex workers can positively contribute to the public discourse around issues of consent. Only in the end stages of the editing process did I learn that it was policy that authors can only be published under their legal name.

I talked extensively to the editor about why this was a problematic policy for sex worker writers, and he was very sympathetic and fought hard for me to be able to publish the piece under Jessie Sage. Yet, neither of us were able to change the minds of the powers that be.

I very nearly pulled the piece, but after much internal debate, I decided to publish it—a decision that I am still conflicted about. The underlying argument in the piece is that sex workers should be taken seriously in public discourse and that their voices are important. Given that this is what I was fighting for, it seemed counterproductive to allow myself to be pushed out of the conversation, particularly on a platform as large as the Washington Post. Moreover, it wasn’t just my voice, I interviewed several other sex workers who I deeply respect, and they deserve to be heard.

While real name policies in journalism predate the internet, I think that it is fair to say that the same divisions in the so-called “nymwars” are also at play here. Famously, Facebook (and Google+, RIP) dug their heels in and claimed that only real and authenticable names can be used on their platforms (though this rule is selectively enforced). The justification for this is the assumption that people feel more accountable for what they say when it is connected to their real names, thus fostering greater safety. Media outlets with real name policies seem to have the same concern: that contributors will be more accountable for their work when it is published under their real name.

But this brings up two important points: first, there seems to be confusion between using a pseudonym and being anonymous; and second, it fails to ask the question, safe for whom?

To the first point. What platforms and media outlets fail to recognize is that for people in stigmatized professions (or other marginalized subculture), pseudonyms often become our identities (or an important part of our identity). This is why, for example, sex workers found it so odd that media outlets found it necessary to repeatedly mention Stormy Daniels’ legal name and, at least until the last couple years, referred to trans folks by their birth name.

The fact that established pseudonyms construct identity differentiates them from anonymity, which conceals identity. In my case, there is way more information online about me under Jessie Sage than under one of the three legal names I have used through marriage and divorce and remarriage. And because it is a professional name and my professional reputation is on the line, I am forced to be thoughtful about what I post under this identity.

And this applies to anyone who uses anything other than their legal name as a professional identity. Several years ago, awarding winning novelist Salman Rushdie won a battle with Facebook over the right to use Salman Rushdie as opposed to his legal first name “Ahmed.” Ironically, the Washington Post reported on this story. It stands to reason that given his prominence, Salman Rushdie would be held more accountable for online activity than would Ahmed Rushdie, who has no public presence.

To the second and more important point, Facebook and others have claimed that real name policies keep the internet safer. But the question here is, safe for whom? I certainly do not feel that I am safer. Setting up Jessie Sage as an identity ensured certain protections. When looking for non-sex work related job employers wouldn’t be able to Google search me and discriminate based on my political writing and my sex work, and Jessie Sage isn’t linked to an address where people can harass me.

I’m privileged in ways that allow me to take risks like this. I am completely out in my family and my community, and the other work that I have done is congruent with my sex work. But this is precisely the reason that I could make this choice. I know that there are many people for whom publishing about their sex work under their legal names is completely unimaginable, and where the negative consequences for their personal lives would completely outweigh any of the motivation for doing it. But this is the problem. These policies push important voices out of public discourse in a way that further stigmatizes and marginalizes entire groups of people.

Jessie Sage is not my legal name, but you can find me on Twitter @sapiotextual. 


The last couple weeks have been rough for sex workers on the internet. Adult content creators are reporting that their porn videos are disappearing out of Google Drive; Microsoft has announced that they will prohibit profanity and nudity on Skype; Patreon has changed its terms of service to exclude pornography; Facebook is censoring events that are related to sex – including even sex ed by refusing to allow for paid promotion (I recently gave a Dirty Talk workshop for a Pittsburgh based sex-positive sex education collective, and their ads were rejected); Twitter is shadowbanning sex workers at alarming rates; and several platforms related to erotic services have shut down entirely: Craigstlist personal ads, several sub-Reddits, The Erotic Review, MyRedBook, CityVibe, Providingsupport, to name a few.

Much of this is a reaction to the passage of FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) in the House, and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) in the Senate. These bills are a response to the government’s inability to prosecute trafficking cases against the online classifieds site Backpage (a competitor to Craiglist known for being more hospitable to sex workers like those from Swallow Salon). These bills would amend Section 230 of The Communications Decency Act of 1996, holding websites liable for content posted by 3rd parties and making it easy for plaintiffs and state attorney generals to sue websites that “knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking” (a phrase that the bill does not clearly define and often seems to conflate will prostitution more generally). In other words, once these bills are signed into law, Craigslist, for example, could be sued because of something that a user posts, if an attorney general from any of the 50 states decides to interpret it as vaguely related to sex trafficking. And, many proponents of FOSTA/SESTA seem to be indicating that they view all sex work as equatable to sex trafficking.

The title of the bills make them near impossible to vote against. What politician would want to be viewed as pro-sex trafficking? Indeed, SESTA passed with a 97-2 vote. But what’s already clear from the aftermath of these bills is that they have a chilling effect that reaches far beyond sex trafficking. In fact, the consequences already seem to be more of an anti-sex work (and perhaps more broadly anti-sex), than anti-trafficking. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, given that one of the main proponent of these bills was the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, a rebranding of Morality in the Media, which was founded in 1962 to fight against pornography. On their website they argue that

Pornography is a social and physical toxin that destroys relationships, steals innocence, erodes compassion, breeds violence, and kills love. The issue of pornography is ground zero for all those concerned for the sexual health and wellbeing of our loved ones, communities, and society as a whole.

Clearly, this is as much about pornography and sex work in general as it is about trafficking.

My sense from being a part of the community is that clip producers who create and sell their own content and who use Google Drive in the process; escorts who advertise erotic services on Craigslist, Backpage, and RentBoy; and sex workers of all sorts who use Twitter and Reddit as a platform to discuss safety measures and build community with other sex workers and fans are, by and large, independently managing their own careers, making their own decisions, and, therefore, not trafficked. In fact, escorts describe sites like Backpage as having made their jobs safer by enabling them to solicit clients from the safety of their own homes rather than out in the streets. One result of FOSTA/SESTA is that independent escorts and trafficking victims alike will be pushed back into the streets to find clients. That is to say, those being affected by these bills are not the ones who the bill is ostensibly aiming to protect. Moreover, the bills do not come with any funding to help actual victims of sex trafficking (which, for the record, sex workers are probably most committed to and have the greatest stake in fighting).

This is a new iteration of an old story. There has always been a tendency to see things as inherently more dangerous because they are mediated by the internet. Researchers continue to argue that heavy internet use brings about greater isolation and is tied to higher levels of depression. Parents are invited to seminars and given pamphlets regarding the danger of the internet and the various ways in which to monitor their children’s online behavior. This moral panic about the dangers of sex trafficking on the internet is just the latest in a long line of rhetoric about the moral depravity of the web. Fear that this uninformed moral panic would result in the loss of sexual freedom the internet that we are now seeing, the Electronic Frontier Foundation lobbied hard against the bill; it even built the website that allowed you to send pre-organized letters that opposed the bill.

Unfortunately, however, lawmakers, along with the population writ large, are steeped in both this internet rhetoric, and in the stigma that surrounds sex work. But these sort of un-nauanced views of both are actually the very thing that puts sex workers at risk. In fact, there is a great social need right now to disambiguate what constitutes trafficking from consensual sex work for the safety of everyone. To have a productive conversation about this, we need to do a couple of things.

First, we need data on sex trafficking. What information we have now is incredibly poor. (The preamble to SESTA cites a spike in calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline as its main source of data, without examining how many of those proved to be legitimate trafficking cases or mentioning that the spike coincided with a major marketing campaign.)

And second, we need to listen to the voices of sex workers whose lives, safety, and businesses are impacted by these bills. Sex workers are speaking out on social media in huge numbers, and an unprecedented lobbying campaign is under way by sex worker-led groups.

In fact, in contrast to the seemingly unshakeable assumption that the internet creates social isolation, the sex work community is a counterexample of the ways in which it provides support, safety and community to an already marginalized population that cannot organize as effectively without it. But viewing sex and punishing sex work through the narrow lens of sex trafficking has already profoundly undermined these communities.

Tech scholars and tech-oriented social scientists have real potential to do social good by examining these sites more closely and working to demystify the panic around trafficking. Without data to support this alternative understanding, sex workers of all sorts will be further marginalized and harmed. This is no small thing. Lives are at stake.


Jessie Sage can be found on twitter @sapiotextual




Or, When Batting Your Eyelashes Doesn’t Work

I was recently asked to run a “Sex School” seminar on dirty talk at a sex club in Toronto. This invitation came by way of Twitter, in large part because of the profile I maintain in part to advertise my phone sex services. Toronto is half a day’s drive from where I live, so I drove up on the morning of the event. For this reason, I primped at home beforehand, which included full makeup appropriate for the role I was playing as sexpert at a club (read: heavy eyeliner and fake eyelashes – sexy for the club, a bit over the top for daylight).

What I didn’t anticipate was the way that my appearance (in conjunction with my role as a paid speaker in a sex club) was going to read to the Border Patrol. Indeed, while they didn’t say it explicitly, they flagged me as a sex worker, and detained my husband and I under that suspicion.

The line of questioning went something like this: Where are you speaking? What do you do to get such speaking gigs? Is there money involved? How much? Did you bring a contract? How will they pay you? I told the Canadian Border Patrol agent that this was all negotiated on Twitter, and she asked for my phone, making sure the social media apps were accessible. We were told to return to our seats, where we watched her comb through my phone from a distance.

I was surprised to receive this level of scrutiny, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Just a few months earlier, I was at an industry event in Miami where several sex cam models on the Canadian side of the boarder were denied entry into the United States after they had their social media profiles examined, which outed them as cam models. They had to forfeit their tickets and hotel accommodations, not to mention presence at an event that was meant to help bolster their careers. So, I suppose it shouldn’t have been too much of a shock that this sort of scrutiny would also flow in the other direction.

More and more, these social media examination policies are a major problem for sex workers who want to freely cross the US/Canadian border. Though there has been an increase in phone seizures since Trump’s Executive Order banning entry for people from seven Muslim-majority countries, this practice did not start with President Trump. Both US and Canadian Customs officers have been scrutinizing certain flagged visitors’ cell phone content and social media presence since George W. Bush’s presidency. And, it is not just in leaving one’s country that this is an issue. Journalist Erin Rock explains that “While US citizens will ultimately be allowed to enter, their phones and electronic devices are still subject to search and seizure at the border.”

It might seem like the easiest solution to this problem would be for sex workers to opt out of social media, or at least any non-vanilla social media presence. This may be possible for strippers and other sex workers who work locally. However, for many sex workers, social media presence is a necessity for the recruitment and retention of clients, and thus for a functional business. High end נערת ליווי, traveling models and strippers, and almost by definition all online sex workers, including cam models and phone sex operators (my forte) all depend on social media to develop and legitimate their brand. This is so much the case that Sherri’s Brothel—one of the few legal brothels in Nevada—offers classes on how to maintain a Twitter profile, underling how essential social media has become in the sex industry.

The last two years data has proven that Twitter is a powerful lead generator for Sheri’s Ranch,” the guide reads. “A courtesan’s tweets add another dimension to her personality and enhances her brand.

In a milieu where carefully crafted branding on social media is a large part of the work of being a sex worker—but where that very social media presence is often used as a weapon against us, restricting our mobility—we are in a bind. Suggesting that we just cease using social media altogether is to suggest that we give up the possibility of actually having a sustainable work model. Further, it doesn’t take into consideration the fact that for those of us who have already had our social media accounts flagged, the upkeep of these accounts may border on compulsory in that the conspicuous absence of them in future trips could raise red flags. Indeed, this happened to a gay Vancouver man who was detailed at the US border for (false) suspicion of sex work due to a dating site. In trying to avoid the same treatment he deleted his accounts before border crossing and was told by the officer, “Next time you come through here, don’t have your phone cleared.”

All this is further complicated because social media presence is thought to be a reflection of who we are as people; just as sex work in life sex work trumps other facets of a woman’s identity, so too on social media does its presence trump all else.

For most people crossing the border, the question, “Are you traveling for business or pleasure,” is a benign cliché. Sex workers, however, are not afforded the luxury of this distinction. Part of whore stigma is the inherent assumption that sex workers are always working—that we are one-dimensional. The cam models who were trying to cross the border to go to the convention were not doing so with any specific intent to cam in the United States. Instead, they were coming for an award ceremony. Yet, they were denied entry because of a failure of imagination: officers, and the system writ large, could not imagine sex workers’ lives beyond their sexuality. The irony is that the multi-dimensionality of our lives is all documented there in our phones. The officers could have just as easily read the many banal interactions with my mom about our dogs, or the groceries lists I send to my husband as they could view promo pictures for my work. But sex work casts a shadow on all else.

Ultimately, given that the sex work I do in the US is legal and that there was no concrete evidence that I planned to do any sex work in Canada, she let us cross the border. However, this wasn’t a given. We overheard her and her superior’s conversation where he told her it was up to her discretion, but that she could turn us away if she wanted. We made it that time, but we’ve presumably been flagged, so this may continue to be an issue.

Is there a way out of this seemingly closed loop in which I cannot do my work without maintaining a social media presence, but that very social media presence can be used to thwart my professional efforts (and perhaps my personal travel)? There are several suggestions online addressed to sex workers specifically: downplay your appearance when crossing the border, maintain a work phone that is separate from your personal one that you leave at home, wipe your devices, etc. While these are all good suggestions, I would like to add one more to the mix (perhaps an overly idealistic one): That we use our social media platforms to raise awareness of the issue, to fight for protection of ourselves, to seek solidarity with each other, and to work toward political and social change in regard to both social media privacy and sex work.

I have a confession to make. I am an outsider. I never saw the original Blade Runner, and I don’t particularly even like sci-fi. Going in, I also didn’t have a clear idea about what the movie was going to be about, though my partner did give me an excruciatingly long history of the movie’s relationship to noir/sci-fi/western films on the way to the theater. (I literally had to check to see if my ears were bleeding).

Perhaps this makes me unqualified to speak about the merits or faults of the film. On the other hand, for this reason—and reasons of my own personal history—I may have related to this movie differently than other reviewers.

I write this reflecting as an online sex worker—someone who professionally plays the role of virtual girlfriend. Someone who, despite the fact that I am a living breathing human being with my own life and agency, takes on a role in my work that looks strikingly similar to Joi—the holographic AI girlfriend of K, the protagonist.

The majority of my work takes the form of phone sex (which, yes, is still a thriving industry). Part of this job is relating to my regulars as though we know each other IRL, even if we don’t. I ask them about their day as if it has consequences for my own life, I talk to them about their work stress, I pretend to share a drink or a meal with them, I rehearse conversations and negotiations that they want to have with their “real life” lovers as a proxy fill-in, and I sometimes even fight with them to urge them to express feelings that they otherwise resist acknowledging.

For this reason, I felt an odd and surprising kinship with Joi. We meet her when K comes home and is out of sorts after a difficult assignment to kill a fellow replicant. She first appears as a post-war housewife who prepared a meal for him, and when that doesn’t do the trick she moves to a sportier version of herself, and then to a more glamorous one—all in an attempt to give him the girlfriend experience that he needs. While I don’t typically do this within the same interaction with a client, I have often felt this sort of whiplash from call to call. My job, like Joi’s, is to create for my clients the sort of relational experience that they desire or need at a given moment, which often means selectively revealing dimensions of myself (MILF, sexpot, intellectual companion, caring partner). In other words, Joi, the AI “pleasure model,” serves a function that is deeply resonant with my own.

It is no surprise, then, that I feel somewhat implicated in the two dominant critiques of her. Let me look at both of these in turn.

It is a common trope in sci-fi and speculative fiction to view AI as a threat to our humanity. I will refer to this as the technophobic critique. Those who hold this seem afraid that this technology is so seductive that we will be unable to transition from AI back to human interactions. Or in other words, we will be so enamored by AI’s ability to give us exactly what we want without asking for anything in return that we will reject the reciprocity required of human relationships. For example, when speculating about a future where AI can spontaneously interact with us, Daniel H. Wilson suggests that it will cloud our judgment. He says, we will be “completely unable… to defend ourselves, at least for a little while, and that may involve people buying a lot of products because they’re in love – because they are literally in love – and that scares the shit out of me.”

Who is Wilson afraid of us being in love with? Well, with the machines. The fear runs something like this: because machines have no agency of their own and can instead be programed to meet our every need, we will be unwilling or unable to recognize the fruitfulness of less immediately gratifying human interaction (I do not choose the term “fruitful” accidentally, given that reproduction is an ongoing theme of the movie).

Related to this is what I will call the feminist critique (of the second wave variety), which is leveled against sex workers at large, and not just AI ones. In this critique, sex workers who participate in fantasy production bow to the desires of cis men within hetero-patriarchy, ultimately alienating both men and women from themselves and each other. In this conception Joi offers no “real” connection. More pointedly, this critique pictures men as lonely, sad, and incapable of connection, and sex workers as those who are either forced into meeting men’s needs in an exploitative system, or as capitalizing on their loneliness. Pornography is often brought up in this conversation, and not surprisingly, it also features in Blade Runner reviews. For GQ, Scott Meslow asks: “Isn’t this a plausible evolution of pornography? That a company might develop an artificial intelligence that is explicitly designed to treat a sad, lonely man as the tragically misunderstood hero in his own life?”

This reading always poses the question: what agency do sex workers have in their work? If they train themselves to explicitly cater to male desire as a mode of livelihood, do they not both give men unrealistic expectations of romantic and/or sexual relationships, and lose a sense of self in the process, forging a double alienation. Is their work, in other words, not directly antithetical to healthy and flourishing human relationships?

This is a large question, which the movie is incapable of answering. However, real intimacy in relationships comes up again and again, so perhaps we should explore what the movie may be trying to suggest, even if it doesn’t neatly wrap this all up for us. In K and Joi’s relationship there is a constant tension between real and artificial intimacy. Though K has a lot of affection for Joi, he questions hers, particularly when she tells him that being with him makes her happy. He responds, “You don’t have to say that.” The viewer is left feeling his distrust and his wonder as to how to take compliments from someone whose job it is to make them. More pointedly, we can ask what we are to make of a relationship that is built on the production of fantasy.

While they only hint at this problem in the movie and do nothing to resolve it, they do give us an analogue with which to understand it: that of the memory producer.

As a replicant, K knows that he did not have a childhood hence he is confused by a reoccurring memory of childhood that seems very real. At one point, he has an interaction with Dr. Ana Stelline, the  most cherished “memory maker” who produces a large number of the memories that are then implanted into the replicants. Out of concern for reality, he asks the Ana if his specific memory is real. She emotionally responds that it is in fact a memory that happened to a real person, while tears run down her eyes. The astute viewer can infer that these are in fact her memories, particularly when she tells K that “there is always a bit of the artist in all of their creations.”

They proceed to have a meta conversation about how she feels about her work producing memories and she displays a rather sophisticated ethic. Indeed, she says that giving people memories ties them to other people in a way that makes them more empathetic and hopeful. That is to say, she understands the service that she provides to be one that allows for humanity to flourish within those who carry her memories. What this implies it that the ontological status of the memory—it’s realness or authenticity—is less important than their very real consequences in the lives who hold them.

What then, does this tell us about K’s relationship to Joi? While Ana produces memories, Joi produces fantasies. If there is an ethic that can be attached to the production of memories, why not the production of fantasies? Do not fantasies also have the ability to be real in their consequences? And, even if they are not a sui generis manifestation of a particular relationship, does this mean that they don’t have a real referent or experiential meaning?

While Joi is a robot who is programmed to respond in a particularly way to K, she is obviously a stand in for a human sex worker, or in other words for a transactional romantic or sexual relationship. I cannot help to think of my own work. Is there an ethic to pretending to be someone’s girlfriend? Does this set up an unrealistic expectation of what a girlfriend is or how one should respond? I ask myself this question in particular when I know that I am standing in for a IRL wife or girlfriend and rehearsing conversations a client hopes to one day have. So often I have thought of my clients’ wives and wondered how they would respond to certain situations, and wondered if I was helping or hurting their relationship. (The fact that outside of sex work I am also a wife makes this all the more pointed to me.)

Emotional labor is morally complicated and there are not simple, universal principles. One positive aspect of this movie is that is doesn’t sugar coat or try to offer easy answers. By writing-off Joi and the relationship that K has with her as artificial, technophobic or feminist critics miss the film’s nuanced eschewal of real/artificial as meaningful or morally significant categories. These boundaries never hold up in practice. Replicants consistently transcend their purpose and go off “baseline.” Similarly, memory makers, fantasy producers, and sex workers all do work that is real in their consequences, even if it is different than the intimacy experienced in non-transactional relationships.

I am able to do this job because, while I do not have established or deep relationships with my clients, I do have them in my personal life. I create fantasies out of the reality of my lived experience, in the way that Ana creates memories out of her history. My clients do the same. Far from being alienating, it is a playspace that allows for new possibilities in our personal lives, once the call is over. While the movie isn’t perfect, many interpretations have failed to appreciate the value of the production of fantasy, or the agency that Joi eventually exerts as a fantasy producer. The movie pushes us to toil with this ambiguity between reality and fantasy, lived and created memory. It invites us, in other words, into an imaginative playscape in which intimacy of different kinds can open new possibilities.

Jessie Sage (@sapiotextual) is an online sex worker, writer, and former academic. Her interests include embodiment, intimacy, the politics of sex and sex work, and reproductive justice. She is co-host of The Peepshow Podcast.

Exxxotica, a large adult-themed expo that started in 2006, was held in Chicago last weekend. While the event is broad and claims to be a “love and sex” catch-all event (including seminars and presentations related to BDSM, swing lifestyle, sexual health, toys, etc.), it is largely focused on the adult industry. Indeed, since its inception Exxxotica has hosted large name porn stars like Jenna Jameson and Ron Jeremy, and it promises to connect fans with their favorite stars.

In its 11th year, changes in the expo have reflected changes in the industry itself. Most notably, there has been a huge shift away from mainstream studio porn production to that of independent content creation. J. Handy, the director of Exxxotica, recalled that the first year that MyFreeCams  was present was in 2012 with a 10×30’ booth and 8-10 cam girls.in contrast, the same site exhibited with a 50×60’ booth and over 200 cam models in Chicago last weekend. In addition to MyFreeCams, other cam sites such as Chaturbate, Cam4, and LiveJasmine were present.  

The massive influx of webcam models at the event points to a shift in the industry; a shift from studios once concentrated in Los Angeles to private production in models’ own bedrooms. When asked on Twitter how much money is in the porn industry, mainstream porn actress turned webcam model Shawna Leneé (who attended) said:

Unlike the mainstream industry where centralized production companies have control over both production and distribution, cam models produce and distribute their own content on the above mentioned sites, which are more akin to social media platforms than they are to film studios. Being a webcam model, then, assumes a fluency in social media and digital technology that was not expected of previous generations of porn performers. Such savvy in the hands of models has the ability to radically change the conditions and culture of the industry, as the events of this weekend demonstrate.

The three day event began Friday. Hundreds of models representing all of the major platforms were there both live broadcasting and interfacing with fans. One of the most visible models, Vera Sky (XBIZ 2017 Cam Girl of the Year) kicked off a heated Twitter discussion on Friday (6/23/17) when she said that she would not return for the second day of the event because fans had assaulted her. In a tweet that was later deleted, she said that she had been groped and that someone pulled her top down and licked her breast. I, too, was at the event and saw that Vera was not alone. I saw numerous models groped by fans seeking pictures without interference from security. Frustrated by the behavior of fans, some models began to discuss whether enough was being done by the event managers, pointed out a lack of clear signage about consent and harassment, then uncovered shocking statements by the Exxxotica owner that seemed to implicitly encourage such behavior.

Response by Exxxotica owner to the revelation of offensive statements from years past

Another important conversation that developed on this Twitter conversation was the presence of Ron Jeremy at the event. Ginger Banks, a cam model, began a thread of women speaking publicly about Jeremy’s assaults against them at Exxxotica events and other events. For example:

As these stories piled up, a spirit of collective action and solidarity emerged. This particular thread was retweeted 198 times (as of this morning), pushing both the owner of Exxxotica and the industry as a whole to account for its treatment of the women who create content. In fact, many performers, including mainstream performers such as Jessica Drake, demanded a response to the concerns that models were expressing online:

J. Handy did, eventually, issue a lengthy statement in response. However,  myself and others found it to be weak. He claims to not be responsible for the actions of Ron Jeremy or anyone else. He says, “We are not the judge and jury. We are an impartial forum for conversation and discussion about love and sex.” (found on @gingerbanks1, 27 June 2017).

While established figures in the mainstream porn industry brushed off the complaints or dug their heels in, at least one site was quick to respond to models’ concerns: ManyVids, the leading website for clip sales by independent cam models, chimed in with the following: “We had no idea this was happening and we are not okay with this. We will not be working with [Ron Jeremy] going forward and appreciate everyone for coming forward.”

In other words, while the owner of Exxxotica failed to take the webcam models seriously, their protests motivated action by other leaders in the industry. Moreover, it is probably more than coincidence that platforms depending on contributions from independent models are more responsible than figures accustomed to a small group of men deciding what gets produced and distributed.

Today’s sex worker is not only skilled in erotic performance, but tech savvy as well. The use of social media as part of professional practice has merged with social media as a political tool. Tech savvy performers use the platform to very publically and instantaneously critique major industry forces and demand change. While rape culture and the conventional porn industry aren’t going to be dismantled overnight, sex workers (who have always been on the front lines of feminist causes) are using the tools of their trade to organize quicker, more collectively, and more effectively than before.

Jessie Sage @sapiotextual  is a current cam model and former academic. Her interests include female embodiment, intimacy, the politics of sex and sex work, and reproductive justice.

Image via: Source