“I love TikTok, it brings me joy, it’s funny, people are funny, they have fun, I want people to feel themselves, I want people to feel hot and sexy…but, I am really upset by the hypersexualisation of women, men and anybody that doesn’t conform to a gender,” Billie Eilish said in December 2021 during an interview on The Howard Stern Show. “It’s horrible to me. People think it’s a kids’ app,” but some of its content “is literally porn. That would traumatise me if I was a kid.”
Eilish was in discussion with Stern about the negative impacts that watching porn had on her psyche and subsequent sexual life when she revealed details about a trend noticed on the app. The trend, according to Eilish, involved the simulation of sex. Little did the singer know at the time, her warnings on TikTok’s worrying comfortability with explicit content—on a platform that largely hosts minors—was foreshadowing a situation that has since then greatly worsened.
In fact, Ahrefs’ data shows the term ‘TikTok porn’ has shot up in search volume—“an estimation of the average monthly number of searches for a keyword”—over the last few years: January 2020 had a search volume of 59,917, jumping to around 391,000 in October 2021 and a current global volume (as of 19 January 2022) of 923,000. The simulation of sex continues with TikTok’s ‘cam girls’.
The description of said individuals engaging in such behaviour as ‘cam girls’ is not directed as a derogatory or defamatory definition against these users. Instead, it’s used as a mode to which may best help describe their online TikTok activity (as we cannot show such content). The debate and discourse surrounding the empowerment or degradative nature of the sex industry for women is hotly divisive. There are ample arguments for both sides, however, this article is not directly engaged in this wide, general subject nor is it an attack on sex workers—not in the slightest. In fact, we have consistently reported on the support of their rights. What this piece aims to offer rather, is a critical look at TikTok’s failure to moderate sexually explicit content on, what everyone is in agreement of, a kids’ app.
There was a disturbing period in which my For You Page (FYP) was anything but for me. Every other Live appeared to be some strange kind of portal into amateur porn I did not sign up for. Girls with their head and shoulders in shot, often laying down on a bed, would bounce continuously—a means to simulate sexual intercourse. Whether intercourse was actually occurring or not (as many would debate in the comments) was neither here nor there to me. The result and impact is still the same: an unwanted, and perhaps traumatising, explicit sexual display that could end up at the top of an innocent 10-year-old’s FYP.
The bed squeaks, the turning to look back, the biting of the lips and the Nintendo Switch playing are all just a few additional elements of the Lives. The slow action to take down such content is enough to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of content creators—particularly those of the BIPOC, plus-sized and disabled communities—whose videos are removed for the smallest of ‘violations’. It seems the disturbing trend—the one Eilish so rightfully spoke out against—may have laid the groundwork for explicit content of such kind to permeate its way throughout the app. Other more ‘milder’ forms of these Lives present today involve a financial trade-off in the form of TikTok coins.
The social media platform’s in-app currency has become part of the interaction between user and watcher. Users purchase the coins with actual money and often convert them into tokens like diamonds, crowns or gifts (to name a few) when wanting to support a livestreamer. Insider noted an ASMR streamer who was able to earn up to $300 from the gift ‘tipping’ feature. The same is now happening with the ‘cam girls’.
Such livestreams often contain a ‘key’ of some sort to the side of the screen; ‘diamond: to wiggle my toes, castle: to twerk’,—I mean, this isn’t exact but you get the gist. Such real financial transactional sexual relationships should not exist on TikTok. There are many places to get your bag, but on a kid’s app? That’s just not it. What it may become is a far more accessible gateway to the world of porn—exposing minors to monetary sexual experience far too young. It is this understanding which could define such behaviour as predatory.
While TikTok may have successfully been able to tackle this epidemic plaguing its livestreams—my personal feed has certainly been eradicated (mostly) of such content—its implications live longer than the Live. The Wall Street Journal’s comprehensive 2021 investigation, titled HowTikTok Serves Up Sex and Drug Videos to Minors, showcased how easily exposed young users were to explicit content because of the app’s incredibly sensitive algorithm. Lingering for just a few seconds was enough for TikTok to notice and drive you into a “rabbit hole” of similar themes—aptly named by the publication as “the addiction machine.”
Studies by organisations like Fight The New Drug display the same concerns around the addiction of porn: why it occurs, why it’s difficult to curb and why it’s so dangerous. It cites the “incentive sensitisation” theory, which argues that repeated exposure and engagement with said addictive behaviours forms compelling links between the behaviour and the environment. So, to put it simply—and apply it to this scenario—the more sexual content you see on TikTok, the more you associate the app with sexual content. This, in turn, may create an inescapable cycle. The organisation goes into further detail about desensitisation—again, simply put, you’ll become used to it, then bored of it and then associate it with boredom. When you’re next bored, you’ll watch porn.
An op-ed in USA Today on 18 January 2022 noted that such studies are worrying enough for adults let alone children, “Porn has also been found to cause developmental problems, body image issues as well as erectile dysfunction. If these are consequences of adults’ pornography consumption, the consequences of viewing pornography are likely worse for children whose understanding of relationships and sex is still being shaped.”
While calling the content I’ve mentioned ‘pornography’ may be a stretch (in terms of the ‘traditional’ pornography the above research discusses) the report in USA Today highlighted that for many children, their first introduction to sexual content is on social media—and that is worrying.
Sex work has been around for centuries but the advent of digital platforms certainly defined the sex industry and its many different subcategories. From kinky preferences like kinbaku to disturbing penchant like HuCow, the lactation fetish imagining women as human cows, the internet shaped sex work into a gigantic and unprecedented multi-million dollar industry. And like any industry in the service sector, the quality of specific sex workers and what they offer ended up being reviewed online, just as one would check a restaurant’s reviews on Yelp or give five stars to an Uber driver.
Not only did the sex work industry’s digital shift expand its spectrum of services made available—namely digital sex labour such as sex chats and webcam video calls like Slutbot—but it also provided sex workers with online platforms to promote their offline work. While many websites let customers and workers book ‘meetings’ and safely process payments, some online platforms saw more potential in the sex industry.
AdultWork.com was launched back in 2003 and soon became known as the “eBay for sex,” a term initially coined by WIRED. Here’s how it works: for a small fee, sex workers can create a fully detailed profile of their services that allows them to answer some of their clients’ usual requests. From hygiene concerns and dos and don’ts to the possibility of discounts, AdultWork offers clients the answer to almost any question they can have about a sex worker’s services and helps them choose accordingly. Far from being a flawless platform, this type of website has created what appears to be a safe space for sharing relevant information and promoting sex work online, which now makes up an integral part of the industry.
While sex workers attempt to manage their services through platforms such as AdultWork, clients have also realised the potential of going online. With over 70,000 active members, UKPunting.com is the main website where sex workers’ clients can review their services. On the platform, customers or, as they call themselves, ‘punters’ comment and evaluate sex workers.
In a VICE article titled ‘Inside ‘UK Punting’ – The TripAdvisor of Sex Workers’, the website’s founder Nik—who, fun fact, also writes books with questionable titles like When the Fun Stops: The Modern Plague of Gambling Addiction and My Only Romance: Why I Turned to Paying for Sex—spoke to the publication about how the idea for the reviewing platform came, “All existing sites were funded by advertising from service providers, therefore they had, and still have, vested interests in portraying a favourable and often false image of the paid sex scene. Negative reports were often suppressed and people like myself who told the truth were hounded and eventually banned. A number of like-minded punters suggested I start an alternative.”
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with clients creating their own platform to discuss tips and preferences as well as to review sex workers’ services. But after taking a closer look at UKPunting, it’s clear that some comments and threads posted on its forum can have potentially harmful consequences on sex workers and their businesses. Unfortunately, this outcome is rather common on the website.
Because sex workers aren’t allowed on the platform, they are not able to comment on the feedback they receive from clients. The few of them that tried to do so were banned from the website while numerous sex workers were blackmailed in exchange for good reviews. Others went as far as to accuse UKPunting of revealing their addresses and identities, as first reported by DailyHawker UK, which puts them at risk of having clients stalk them.
The language and the terms used on the reviewing platform are often degrading and demeaning; a common by-product of toxic masculinity that isn’t unique to UKPunting. Legislation over sex workers’ rights is a debated issue that results in different outcomes depending on which country it takes place in.
Sex work has always been tangled in socio-legal, cultural and political aspects, so it is understandable that its online transposition made it even more complex to be regulated—just look at OnlyFans. The online manifestation of a sexual-economic exchange comes with its visible pros and cons. Nothing is black or white, and the internet is the main proof of it. It can be used by sex workers to create safe spaces and online communities such as AdultWork but it can also simultaneously foster hate speech and harassment on websites like UKPunting.