When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, one of the first steps the strip club I worked at took was to have all dancers wear masks. The club also limited the number of patrons who could be in the club at any one time, following rapidly evolving CDC guidelines. But then, on March 16th, Los Angeles County went into lockdown. What we thought would be only a week, soon became months, then an indefinite question mark.
Stripping is a high risk occupation in the middle of an airborne viral pandemic, and it became clear we would be among the last industries to reopen. We weren’t considered essential workers. Many of us weren’t even properly registered as employees, which meant that we were ineligible for government aid. I was hesitant to apply for unemployment because I wasn’t sure if my club had declared me as an employee, and I was afraid of retaliation if I exposed their less-than-above-board financial situation. Erotic laborers were also initially explicitly banned from receiving Paycheck Protection Program loans. I realized I would have to figure out a survival strategy, part of which was moving my work online.
Countless sex workers around the country were navigating similar crises. I’m the president of Strippers United, a coalition of strippers working to create safe and equitable workplaces for strippers across the United States and beyond. As states began shutting down strip clubs during the pandemic, our social media page was inundated with strippers who were suddenly out of work and terrified because they didn’t know what to do next. We began providing mutual aid to strippers facing evictions and imminent homelessness, and helping our community members address the numerous challenges of having to move online.
One of the biggest challenges came from large social media platforms. As strippers and other sex workers became increasingly dependent on digital spaces to earn income during the pandemic, we were simultaneously in the midst of one of the largest ever digital crackdowns on sexual content. Beginning in 2018, following the passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, better known as SESTA and FOSTA respectively, apps like Instagram, TikTok, and Twitch initiated major terms of service changes that prohibited even the mention of basic words to describe our labor.
SESTA/FOSTA was purportedly created to prevent human trafficking and curb illegal sex work online, but the legislation was written without consultation from legal sex workers, and has ended up threatening our work as well. Because of the penalties enacted by the laws, tech companies decided the best solution was to police themselves. Thoughtful moderation would have required paying a human labor force to personally screen every account flagged for sexual content to determine whether or not what has been posted is legal and consensual, but tech companies don’t care enough to pay for due diligence. Instead, they began enlisting blunt algorithms that could hardly tell the difference between a Georgia O’Keeffe painting and a human vulva.
Not long after SESTA/FOSTA went into effect, numerous sex workers began reporting “technical issues” when we attempted to upload content that included words such as “sex,” “stripper,” or “pornstar”; the issues disappeared when we removed sex-related language. Even when we were careful, we noticed that more and more sex workers seemed to be getting deprioritized by social media algorithms—effectively censoring our content—or worse. Major Instagram influencers with hundreds of thousands of subscribers found their accounts taken down just because they had OnlyFans links in their bios.
Over the course of the pandemic, even legally recognized sex work was increasingly treated as illegal by social media platforms. (Currently, Twitter is the final stronghold when it comes to major social networking platforms that permit explicit content, and while it is popular with many sex workers, it isn’t right for everyone.) I received multiple warnings from Instagram throughout 2020 and into 2021, notifying me that my account was under investigation and might be taken down for “violations of terms of service,” due to the sexual nature of my content. The pictures on my timeline were no more graphic than pictures posted by celebrities like Doja Cat or Miley Cyrus—but unlike them, I was considered disposable.
The problem was far bigger than the ability to post selfies. Sex workers are vulnerable small business owners, and many of us who were not already earning money on the internet were forced by the pandemic to move our work online. When sex workers were removed from social media platforms, they lost their audiences and vital sources of income. Apart from the major social media platforms, there are not many popular places to advertise as a small sex-work business. This is not because the labor these workers are performing is against the law: strippers, cammers, pornstars, and many other sex work professions are legally recognized.
Things got worse in early 2021, a year after the pandemic began. In March, Mastercard announced it was going to enforce a radical new payments policy requiring even stricter oversight of adult content providers. One of the effects was that independent porn creators lost hundreds of hours of content overnight. A few months after the announcement, the site OnlyFans—whose explosive growth was built on the backs of adult creators—said it would ban sexually explicit content; it only backtracked after an online uproar from sex workers and media outlets, who lampooned the platform for its critical miscalculation of who was actually driving its success.
As the prospect of being deplatformed at any given moment became more and more likely, many sex workers began to wonder whether we would even be allowed to exist on social media at all. For months, my coworker, Summer Miller, had been trying to sell me on an idea: to build an online platform for us, by us: one entirely owned by the people making the content. Initially, this had seemed to me like a pipe dream because of the high costs of developing a platform, the dangers of federal regulation, and a lack of technical expertise among us. But trying to face the twin crises of the pandemic and SESTA/FOSTA convinced me Summer was right. The only way to really achieve just working conditions was by making sure that content creators had a powerful say in shaping their labor conditions, rather than leaving everything to faceless big-tech teams who are unreachable and unaccountable. To save our industry, to create an equitable workplace, and to protect sex workers, we had to take the industry over from the ground up.
Adult Only, Adult Always
Summer and I began fundraising for our platform, which we called V Union, in late 2020. The following January, we received a message from Donia Love, the founder and CEO of PeepMe, another nascent platform for adult creators. The PeepMe team was a mix of people already involved in sex work and sex-work advocacy, along with allies in tech development and cyber security who were willing to put their careers on the line to support the enterprise. Their mission was everything we were aspiring to do: “adult only, adult always.” So V Union decided to partner with PeepMe.
Our aims for the platform are ambitious. In addition to creating a worker-owned cooperative, in which workers have democratic power over the running of the platform and a share in profits, we also want to give individual workers ninety percent of the revenue they generate. Additionally, we intend to donate ten percent of our profits to sex-worker-led community organizations. One caveat we are applying to cooperative ownership is the site cannot be sold off or lose its identity as an adult content platform. We believe this is the only way to create a just alternative to the exploitative business practices of the online adult industry.
Launching such a platform has had many challenges. Almost immediately, we were informed by our bank that PeepMe had lost its account because it was the bank’s policy not to serve “prurient” businesses. We have tried to partner with three different software development teams, but each of those collaborations has hit roadblocks due to SESTA/FOSTA and the threat of criminal liability for content hosted on the platform. One way to sidestep liability would be to make a decentralized and open source platform, but that would threaten our efforts to make PeepMe a worker-owned cooperative. Another option would be to use a prefab “white label” platform, but those can come with unknown security risks to sex workers and their financial data, and damaging the trust of sex workers would mean undermining the foundation of what we are hoping to achieve. There are also difficult questions about how to make PeepMe profitable and for whom: Do we sell the business to the community of users at some point, exiting the business for profit? Do we build a cooperative platform and then profit by selling or licensing its model to other cooperative platforms? How can we make the platform financially sustainable while lowering the barriers for sex workers to access sustainable, profitable work themselves?
Stigma has also affected the ability for PeepMe to spread via word of mouth. During a small mock-fundraising session consisting of close friends and family, many people expressed enthusiasm for the platform and a willingness to donate, but were hesitant to help spread the word because of the stigma around the work. During a fundraising Zoom call, one prospective donor said, “I cannot shout out you guys on my feed. I just can’t because of the way the world works right now.” It’s one thing to personally believe sex workers deserve rights and their own platform, it’s another to relay that to coworkers without getting accused of sexual harassement and inappropriate conduct.
One thing that hasn’t been hard is finding sex workers who want to join the platform. Using Strippers United’s large Instagram presence and its connections to other sex work advocacy groups across the world, we have had great success doing outreach to adult creators. In particular, we have heard from many people who no longer trust OnlyFans and who understand the importance of a platform built by and for sex workers.
Frustratingly, though, we can’t yet serve all the sex workers we want. SESTA/FOSTA constrains us in similar ways to big tech corporations; unlike those companies, we have the appetite but not the capital to litigate our case. This means that, while we can legally host cam models, online strippers, porn stars, and other sex workers whose labor isn’t technically criminalized, we still can’t host full-service sex workers, who are ultimately the most at-risk members of our community. It is a heartbreaking compromise that I hope won’t last forever. For now, we’re aiming to protect who we can, and we hope to provide a sanctuary occupation—one accessible to people regardless of citizenship status, ability, education, race, and gender—for more and more people as our reach and visibility grows.
Currently, PeepMe is a team of about ten people, plus our tech team. Our goal is to raise $650,000 to launch and maintain the platform until it becomes self-supporting. So far, we have received $60,000 in donations, which means we can now afford to continue paying a cybersecurity specialist, a social media manager, and for account services that the founders were once paying out of pocket. We’re slowly succeeding in building something that once felt impossible.
Ultimately, I have a vision of a sex industry that is owned entirely by sex workers. Brick-and-mortar strip clubs, major porn studios, camming and porn-streaming platforms, adult fan sites—they should all belong to us and only us. The sex industry has been controlled for too long by people who make money, hand over fist, from our labor, without taking on any of the social or carceral risk that sex workers take on. They have exploited us, because they are able to due to societal stigma and criminalization. Anti-sex work abolitionists have capitalized on this exploitation to enact laws that have made our labor even less safe. The only way to change the system of exploitation is to put power into the hands of the workers. PeepMe is a bold step in that direction. We still have a long way to go, but we won’t be coded away.
If you’re interested in donating to our efforts to create the first ever cooperatively owned adult fan site, please sign up for our newsletter at peep.me.