In a recent post that discussed why revenge porn victims feel such a strong sense of violation when images of their bodies are shared without consent, I argued that “the conversation about non-consensual pornography needs to be recentered from property rights, or even privacy, to the concept of ‘bodily integrity.'” In particular, I suggested it might be useful to reimagine our pics and profiles as “digital prostheses” that we incorporate into our sense of self. I concluded that “our pictures and profiles are not merely representations of us; rather, they are us, in some important sense.”

Reflecting on my personal history as a cam model, I want to talk about a related topic: How online sex workers experience loss of control over the images, videos, live streams, and profiles that we produce. A key question I want consider is how we ought to think about context and bodily integrity in a situations where we, as models, commodify our own bodies. Additionally, I want reflect on what role consent plays in such situations.

I did my first cam show in 2013. My graduate assistantship had ended, and I was looking for ways to pay rent while finished my comprehensive exams and tried to figure out if wanted to write a dissertation. I thought it might be a convenient part-time gig that I could fit in between school work and other small jobs I picked up. I was also just curious about it and whether I could make it work.

The fact that it was live made it feel safe. I didn’t expect a large audience, so the odds of someone I knew wondering in my chatroom seemed pretty low. And, once I logged off, I’d be out of sight. In any case, it wasn’t very successful.

Not long after I started playing around with camming, I met Jessie (my now wife). She wanted to try camming with me. I quickly realized that, as a couple, the context had shifted. The typical size of the chatroom exploded from around a dozen to hundreds. Exposure was now a real consideration. What if we were recognized? Again, we consoled ourselves thinking that these shows were ephemeral and were limited to the audience of few specific sites.

Then, one day, we Googled our username. We were shocked to find pages full of screenshots and recorded shows spread across numerous sites that we didn’t recognize. I felt naive, even stupid, that I didn’t realize our performances were being so thoroughly documented. It’s not as though I didn’t know it was possible to capture and save streaming video, it just didn’t occur to me that anyone would be motivated to do so. We were struggling to attract enough tips and viewers to make even minimum wage.

I tried to have our content removed by filing Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown request with the sites. A few complied but most ignored the requests (and, presumably, all US law). Some asked for us to reveal our legal names and other personal details as part of the process. Overwhelmed by the impossibility of controlling the circulation of these videos and images, we took a long hiatus from camming. We decided it was only worth the risk or exposure if we had the time and energy to be successful—to put on shows several times a week and to spend even more time building a following on social media.

On one level, piracy can be viewed as a “job hazard”—something to be factored into the economic calculus of whether the job is worth it. But, like the sexual assault that strippers and escorts often encounter on the job, it cuts deeper than mere economic calculation. In fact, the theft and potential loss of income wasn’t even the part that made us most upset; it was the loss of autonomy and self-determination. Our bodies were being portrayed in ways we never consented to.

While we chose to be naked on the internet, we intended for those performances to be ephemeral and bounded to a specific site. The screenshots—taken at random intervals—often felt even more upsetting than the recorded video. Apart from being profoundly unflattering—often catching us as we shifted positions—they chopped up our interactions, making them appear to be less loving and more graphic than they appeared in context. They dissected our sex in a way that felt alien to us.

Our reaction was personal—emotional—more than dispassionately economic. We felt violated. From this perspective, calling it “piracy” seems like somewhat of a misnomer. But, making sense of this experience of violation requires confronting some difficult questions about the nature of both digitally-mediated interaction and of sex work.

Even as personal digital communications technologies were just beginning to take root in the early 90s, Sandy Stone’s foundational work on “prosthetic sociality” (particularly in regards phone sex) and Julian Dibbel’s account of “A Rape in Cyberspace” presaged the inevitable integration of such technologies into human sexual agency and the possible dangers therein. Stone, in particular, warned against the tendency to treat the Web as a collection of information, reminding us that inside the computer’s “little box” is “other people.” Digital media users follow a long established pattern of people integrating new technologies of interaction into their sexual agency (just as they did with the telephone and written letters before that). In fact, Stone suggests that, as computers became increasingly available for personal use, their incorporation into play—and, in this case, erotic play—became inevitable.

If erotics describes expressions of agency with regards to pleasure, networked computers open the possibility of a new erotics: these digital prostheses have enabled us to “touch” each other in new ways. As Sarah Nicole Prickett observed:

There is nothing like talking to somebody IRL, it’s true. There is also nothing like body language or like the feeling of being looked at when you want to be. But when it’s good there’s really nothing like sexting.

Our new digital prostheses, like “all the earlier and other instances of codifying desire in a future-perfect way, like erotic letter-writing, like sex-room chatting, like getting illicit with it on AIM” (Prickett’s words again) are new expressions of, and encounters with, human agency. However, where agency can be expressed, it can also be denied or negated. So, these technologies also make possible new experiences of violation. Revenge porn, perhaps, being the quintessential case of such digitally-mediated violation.

The issue of digitally-mediated agency and violation is further complicated in the context of sex work, because the agency of (even offline) sex workers is already disputed. The work we do is often framed as “selling our body” for money. This implies a sex worker gives up their right to self-determination with regards to their body and forfeits it to the client as a detached, lifeless object. Not only does this diminish all of the imaginative and emotional effort that goes into sex work, it reduces it to a mere act of domination where the client is the only recognized actor. This framing—more than sex work itself—objectifies sex workers, portraying us as objects divorced from any intentionality.

The sex-worker-as-inert-object frame conflates consent with desire: We can only consent to the things that we desire. Desire, in turn, is essentialized—seen as an end in-itself. This perspective leaves little room for context and eschews any secondary motivations behind sexual interactions (dismissing not only financial incentives, but also things like care or creativity).

But this is not at all how independent sex workers think about consent or experience their work. In Playing the Whore (p. 91-3), journalist and former escort Melissa Gira Grant argues:

Sex workers negotiate based not only on a willingness to perform a sex act but on the conditions under which their labor is performed […] The presence of money does not remove one’s ability to consent. Consent, in and out of sex work, is not just given but constructed, and from multiple factors: setting, time, emotional state, trust, and desire. […] It would be a mistake, then, to confuse desire with consent. There is much that sex workers do in their work that they will not enjoy doing, and yet they do consent and have legitimate reasons for doing so.

So, while it is already difficult to get people to recognize the consent and agency that we express with regards to our flesh-and-blood bodies when doing sex work, it is even more difficult to convince people that we are also expressing agency through the digital artifacts of our sex. Arguably, understanding the deep connectedness most cam models and clip producers have to their work should be no more complicated than understanding that being called ugly based on a Facebook pic would probably invoke negative feelings similar to what you’d experience if that person said the same thing to your face. In practice, it’s a much harder case to make. I think this comes down to the fact that, as online sex workers, we are commodifying the “content” that we produce.

But as Melissa Gira Grant suggested with regards to full service sex work, putting a price tag on something doesn’t totally separate it from us. Thinking about sex workers’ (and other digital media producers’) content as disconnected from who they are as a person is a trap that Karl Marx called “fetishization.” Here, I don’t mean “fetish” the way we usually use it in the context of sex work (that use of the term is more connected to Sigmund Freud). Instead, I mean the tendency we have to forget about the human relations that make up a thing when it goes to market. This fetishization of commodities is particularly problematic when they are products of the digital communications technologies we use to express ourselves because, they not only bear the marks of our agency, but are still extensions of our agency in a very real sense. This is distinctly so for live, video-streamed shows, which feel far more like a platform for interaction than the creation of something separate from us.

Cam sites are technologies for models in the same ways stages are technologies for strippers; they elevate us and make us visible to a specific audience in a specific context. Whether it is ok to capture these performances and remove them from a context that we have chosen to make them visible is at least as much a matter of consent as it is a matter of theft. That is to say, cam piracy has as much in common with revenge porn as it does with illegally downloading movies from Pirate Bay.

And, just like cam models, strippers have also struggled with audience members making non-consensual recordings. For example, the workers at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady peep show made the removal of one-way mirrors (which customers were using to surreptitiously record strip teases) a key demand in the unionization process. More conventional strip clubs have also had to develop policies to regulate photography going back to the time mass produced cameras hit the market. Usually, clubs have a blanket ban on cameras, but a few venues like the Ivar Theater experimented with camera nights, which took a different approach and attempted to capitalize on the desire to document rather than simply forbidding it.

Like strip club, cam sites are now in the position to implement designs and policies that protect models from recordings or help models to capitalize on them—in other words, to offer models more opportunity to decide in what context, and under what conditions, they are accessible to an audience. Looking at the past example of strippers have organized to improve their conditions, I think we need to start imagining what collective action for cam models might look like. Particularly, this means foregrounding consent.

One big thing cam sites could do in the name if consent is to make clear statements to new models about the likelihood of piracy. Creating cam coach or model liaison positions for experienced/retired models is a particularly effective way that some sites have implemented to improve this sort of communication. There are also tools that sites could invest in to discourage piracy such as watermarking and digital fingerprinting. Additionally, limits on anonymous viewers is another design change that may make pirating more difficult. Furthermore, though the legal system is seldom sympathetic to sex workers, one could imagine creative criminal complaints — such asking that cam piracy be prosecuted under revenge porn laws or identifying sites that host pirated content as possible hubs of child porn because they lack the age verification records that models must file with legitimate sites. These legal options, however, would take serious lobbying efforts.

What’s clear is that making the case for any of these solutions will not be easy. Digital mediation adds another layer of complexity to understanding how sexual agency and its negation are experienced in the context of sex work. Not only are we asking people to recognize the way sex workers express agency through our own bodies, but also through other objects — our digital prostheses. We need society to understand that not just our bodies, but our content as well, is an extension of our self in deep and meaningful ways. And, though we commodify this content, it does not cease to be an intimate expression of agency.

For our part, Jessie and I returned to camming, but we hold back more now, assuming that everything we do is being recorded—that every second on cam is a possible screen shot. Because we cannot control the context of our exposure, it feels like we have to be hyper alert about controlling our image, imagining that everything we do will be visible to anyone at any time. We’ve accepted it, but camming now feels like a much bigger choice—like it’s not something we can just try. We have to be all in or all out. I’m left wondering what this will do to the amateurism that characterizes these sites, if the risks become too great for all but high-earning, full-time models. And, if so, will piracy hinder the spontaneity and diversity that makes cam sites such exciting places to be?

PJ Sage (@peejsage) is cam model and sex work researcher.

The lies told to artists mirror the lies told to women: Be good enough, be pretty enough, and that guy or gallery will sweep you off your feet… But make the first move, seize your destiny, and you’re a whore.

– Molly Crabapple, Drawing Blood

The question of how to handle adult content is difficult and unavoidable for any social media platform. The complexity of the issue is such that companies’ responses are all over the map. Before talking about what companies lose out on when they ban adult content, it’s probably helpful to look at where the largest social media platforms stand on the issue.

Current Policies of the Major Social Media Platforms

Facebook bans all nudity—defined to include female but not male nipples. In response, female-bodied users have sometimes protested by photoshopping male nipples on top of their own to highlight the seemingly arbitrary nature of the rule. Breastfeeding mothers also bristled at not being able share pics of their babies nursing. After years of protest (in which mothers argued Facebook’s rules, in fact, contributed to sexualizing nursing) Facebook added an exemption for nursing pics.

Instagram has similar rules to Facebook (which has owned it since 2012). In 2015, Dazed reported on revisions to Instagram previously vague policy on nudity. The new policy stated:

“We know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.”

It also stakes out an explicitly anti-sex work position:

“Offering sexual services…(even if it’s legal in your region)…is also not allowed.”

Recently, many sex workers have experienced massive drops in engagement on the platform. This appear to be due to the announced implementation of a “shadow ban” policy removes posts from searches and making them visible only to followers. The shadow ban comes into effect without notice to the users. Since the policy is not explicitly spelled out anywhere, user do not know what terms the are violating and how to avoid getting in trouble.

Snapchat‘s rules on adult content are also explicitly anti-sex work:

  • We prohibit accounts that promote or distribute pornographic content.
  • Breastfeeding and other depictions of nudity in non-sexual contexts are okay.

Prior to 2014, Snapchat largely dealt with adult content by simply downplaying its existence on the platform. However, following the 2014 launch of Snapcash, Snapchat began to crackdown on porn accounts. This is thought to be because Snapcash is powered by Square, which does not process payments for adult content. Probably, the implementation of “Story” features that allow users make posts for a mass audience also contributed to their motivation for cracking down.

Twitter has consistently been the most adult-friendly of the major social media platforms. It forbids “graphic content” in headers and profile pics but allows it in posts so long as the user marks their account as “containing sensitive media.” Following the controversial introduction of algorithms in early 2016, sex workers have grown increasingly concerned that their content is being aggressively filtered. Earlier this year, Twitter introduced a “time out” feature meant to crack down on spamming and other rule violations; it temporarily makes a user’s posts visible only to their followers. Many sex workers fear that this policy may amount to a shadow ban on their accounts accounts (similar what Instagram has implemented) without any notice from the company.

Tumblr is the most interesting case study in policies for adult content. Founded in 2007, Tumblr quickly became a go to place for amateurs looking to publish erotic writing and images. Analyses consistently suggest that adult content makes up around a 1/5 of all Tumblr’s posts. The ready made sites and “ask” feature made it easy for sex workers to engage with current and potential clients.

Shortly after Tumblr announced it was being bought by Yahoo! in 2013, the site began blocking adult content for anyone not logged in or who did not disable the default “safe search.” User posting material with nudity or our a sexual nature were expected to self-classify their blogs as “nsfw” or “adult” to facilitate the blocking process. Then, earlier this year, they rolled out an additional “safe mode” feature that allows you to allow block content deemed “sensitive” from blogs you follow on your dashboard.

Since the Yahoo! sale, Tumblr’s popularity has waned. It’s no longer even in the top 100 list of iOS apps. While its decline likely has many reasons (including a mass exodus of employees), I would suggest it is, at least in part, because the new policies have alienated adult content producers and promoters, who are less enthusiastic to build a presence on a site that they fear will continue to make changes that undermine their work.

Ban the Part, Lose the Whole

In the same way that affluent neighborhoods often resist strip clubs or adult bookstores, fearing they might bring down property values by making the area seem less “family friendly,” social media platforms try to appeal to a wide audience by creating a perception of respectability and safety (particularly for children). In both cases, decision-makers (whether they be city planners or site developers) recognize the social stigma associated with sex—and, particularly, sex work—and translate these sex negative values into discriminatory designs—into segregation and ghettoization.

One of the most problematic aspects of whore stigma is the tendency to reduce sex workers to one-dimension figures—the embodiment of sex. What the planners and developers who view the world through the lens of whore stigma fail to recognize is that sex workers are also the very parents, artists, small business owners, and “influencers” that they seek to attract and who they depend on for their very existence.

For independent sex workers, little of the work of sex work has to do with sex. Instead, it involves the kind of creative, entrepreneurial, and social skills that help communities to thrive. This is particularly true of online sex workers who spend an extraordinary amount of time producing and developing their own unique sites, brands, and content. Sex workers also use social media to support and organize on behalf of one another as well as to engage with a range of social/community issues including transgender rights, feminism, mental health awareness, and parenting. But sex workers—like anyone—are reluctant to invest time and energy in a context where they feel insecure, even persecuted.

Whore stigma blinds Web developers from seeing that sex workers are multi-dimensional—that they bring the skills they develop and that sustain them financially in their sex work into other social, artistic, and business ventures. And, because sex work benefits from creativity and affords workers with a level of flexibility not offered by conventional 9-5 employment, it is attractive to creative and entrepreneurial types. Steady income from sex work allows many sex workers to take artistic and business risks that may not otherwise be sustainable.

As Molly Crabapple wrote in her recent (2015) book, Drawing in Blood:

Naked-girl money was my escape hatch. Without it, I’d never been able to do the work that got me noticed. I’d never have had the materials, the space, or the time.

When you crack down on the activities that make it financially viable for sex workers to pursue their other creative and business interests, you force them to give up or take their skills elsewhere. This is a big loss for platforms and for society as a whole.

PJ Sage (@sapiosage) is cam model and sex work researcher.

ghost modeSnapchat recently released a new feature called Snap Map that lets users see the the location of their friends’ snaps organized on a map. The feature is opt-in only and carefully avoids unintended disclosure of user data. Snapchat even nudges users to actively manage who they share their location with. The Snap Map support page says (only half-jokingly):

Only the people you choose can see your location — so if you’re friends with your boss, you can still keep your location on the down low during a “sick day” 😉

This cautiousness in introducing features—particularly ones that reveal location data—is laudable and also not surprising. Many social media users may not remember the ill-fated rollouts Facebook Beacon and Google Buzz [1, 2], but Silicon Valley designers remain acutely aware of how intense the backlash can be when new features fail to incorporate sufficient privacy protections.

While Snapchat has been careful in their implementation of Snap Maps, the feature has raised serious concerns for cam models, clip producers, phone sex operators, and other online sex workers, many of whom are very active on Snapchat and rely on it as a significant source of income. Often, sex workers chose to work online precisely because they want to maintain geographical distance from their client and to ensure their physical safety. Most online sex workers are very guarded about their location and many adult sites incorporate geoblocking tools that allow workers to only interact with clients that do not live in the same city or state.

Harassment, stalking, and doxxing of personal information are common hazards that online sex workers face when clients fail to understand the boundaries of compensated relationships or when they are called out for bad behavior. In extreme cases, sex workers have gone into retirement, which is particularly problematic considering widespread employment discrimination against former sex workers.

Immediately following the release of Snap Maps, Twitter was flooded with concerns over prospect of incorporating geolocation data into the platform.

Models! Please be aware that snapchat now shows your exact location unless you turn it off. Retweet to help!

#RT SNAPCHAT PRIVACY STUFF If turning on ghost mode still feels creepy use app permissions in ur phone to deny location access MODELS I dunno about you but since the Snapchat update my geo location was turned back on wtfffff check yours now!

Sex workers are not just concerned about the particular details of Snap Map in its current form, which can easily be shut off; they are also more broadly concerned about what future changes the platform may make now that it has invested itself so deeply in geotagging. These concerns are exacerbated by the fact that Snapchat has always had a tenuous relationship with sex workers (and sex in general).

It was obvious from the beginning that the limited scope and ephemeral nature of snaps made them highly conducive for sharing sexual content. But, Snapchat steadfastly discourages any associations between its brand and sex, fearing that being labeled a sex site would close it off to a much broader audience (particularly young people). Earlier on, founder/CEO Evan Spiegel downplayed Snapchat’s utility as a vehicle for sexual content by dismissing digitally-mediated sex as inferior and undesirable:

I’m not convinced that the whole sexting thing is as big as the media makes it out to be. I just don’t know people who do that. It doesn’t seem that fun when you can have real sex.

Even then, Spiegel’s statement appeared somewhat disingenuous, given that a Pew survey* conducted the same year (2012) found that 18% of people ages 18-29 report sending sexually suggestive pictures or video of themselves with a cell phone. 42% of people in this age group reported receiving such images.

Surely Snapchat management did and does realize that its platform is widely used to share sexual content. Moreover, Snapchat’s emergence coincided with an explosion in independently produced interactive pornographic content, which grosses over $1 billion annually (while the rest of the porn industry is in a tailspin). I am in no way suggesting that Snapchat is responsible for the boom in independent porn production by cam models and clip makers, but I cannot believe that anything but willful ignorance is behind their failure to recognize that the platform has become one of the chief tools sex workers use to communicate and share content with fans—and a major component of many sex workers’ livelihoods. By trying to keep its brand clean of the stigma surrounding sex and sex work, Snapchat places sex workers in a precarious situation.

One consequence of Snapchat’s willful ignorance regarding sex work is that sex workers are marginalized in the design process. They are not included as one of the imagined users that designers consider when evaluating possible changes to the platform. On the one hand, this means Snapchat fails to institute features that accommodate the needs of its significant sex worker/client user base. Sex workers must use Snapchat against the grain by offering unofficial subscriptions that are meticulously tracked in spreadsheets with payments being processed through other vendors. On the other hand, this means that designers are not asking how the features they do green light will affect sex workers.

So, while the current version of Snap Map is unlikely to drive sex workers away from the app, the potential consequences of having one’s location outed is so great that sex workers are left asking “what’s next” from a company that seem intent on ignoring them.

* Download crosstabs to find these statistics.

PJ Sage (@sapiosage) is cam model and sex work researcher.