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.
Meet Thierry Schaffauser, French social activist, sex worker, adult actor, and writer advocating for sex workers’ rights and the destigmatization of the industry. As a stigmatized industry, sex work is still misunderstood today, especially within politics, meaning that most of us might unfortunately not see how much sex workers’ rights are hindered. In 2003, the Loi Sarkozy II (LSI) laws in France outlawed passive solicitation. In other words, someone being present at a place known for prostitution while wearing revealing clothing would not be able to get off the hook. And not much has improved since then, as sex workers are still being exploited, while the government contributes to this exploitation instead of alleviating it.
As a key figure in the sex worker rights movement, Schaffauser is constantly working towards dismantling these issues—in nearly two decades, he has co-founded Les Putes, a Paris-based organisation defending sex workers rights in opposition of the LSI laws, founded Hackney Pride, wrote and published a series of articles educating the general public on sex workers rights, and is now working with STRASS, the French sex workers’ union. Screen Shot spoke to Schaffauser about his work, political affiliations within the sex work industry, and what he believes its future will look like.
1. How did you embark on your career within the industry?
I officially started sex work at age 20, (…) I was young and wanted to experiment things sexually, as well as logistically, and doing sex work was a good way to make more money and work less, have more freedom to study as I also managed to go to university at the same time, and it gave me more time to do activism. I started sex work activism in 2005, when I went to the European sex workers conference in Brussels.
2. In 2006, you co-founded the organisation called Les Putes. Could you tell us a bit more about it, as well as what inspired you to create it?
I visited the sex workers conference in Brussels, and at that time, I was also part of ACT UP, an HIV organisation, and I thought that maybe we could use tools from the queer movement around the ideas of pride, because one of the main issues was stigma—at least it is something common to all sex workers. I wasn’t alone, we were a small group and we were thinking of doing a sex worker pride in Paris, in March 2006 as it was the anniversary of the Nicolas Sarkozy laws. We thought we should demonstrate every year to remind the public and the media that sex workers are opposing this law. It attracted a lot of attention, the concept of ‘Hooker Pride’ was probably shocking to some people, and by marching in ‘sexy’ clothes we really wanted to dismantle stereotypes around what the media sees as sex workers. We tried to reclaim the discourse and have our own say on who we are and what we demand, and be quite clear that the French political idea to abolish prostitution, the idea that we are ‘helpless’ and need to be ‘saved’ by the state, meant more police intervention, and would end up in more exploitation. We tried to shift the narratives to the sex workers’ perspective.
3. Tell us a bit about Out East. What inspired you to organise Hackney Pride and why was it the thing to do at the time?
I moved to the UK in 2007 or 2008 and joined the GMB Union. I think they used to have Hackney Pride in the 70s or 80s. I was living in Hackney at the time, and I was attacked on the street while trying to get on the bus. [Some guys] beat us up so we couldn’t even get back on the bus, and it just drove, leaving us beaten up. I thought we needed to do something, which is how pride started.
4. In 2010, you published a series of articles on the Guardian, aimed to educate the general public on sex workers rights. Would you say that they have improved since then?
I can’t really say it has improved—there hasn’t been any positive change, and in France, it actually worsened. There have been local public orders and new policies in the UK, but not any kind of improvement in terms of rights. Only sex workers’ unions have improved. The communities are growing, especially with online platforms, online forums, and sex work organisations, which creates an increase in visibility for sex workers. On a political level, I don’t think it has improved. There are some sex workers pushing for motion within the trade union and within the labour party. We have the opportunity for these with a new leadership from Jeremy Corbin, who’s a long-time supporter of decriminalisation, but I can also see that it isn’t their say to discuss these publically. So, no, sorry, can’t really say that there has been a great improvement in sex workers’ rights.
5. Do you think social media is helping dismantle stigma around sex work?
I can see new generations talking about the issues of stigma or rights, using the right terminology, even in the feminist movement, seeing young feminist talk about SWERF’s, or talking about intersectionality and inclusion—that is quite new because ten years ago, few people would have. Social media helped people talk to workers. You can keep your anonymity online, and actually be able to write in forums, on various Facebook groups or on Twitter. It created some visibility where people could relate to sex workers, who have previously been erased from the public space. Decriminalisation is also acting as a consequence of getting us banned from the rest of society, because the idea behind it is also that when talking to a sex worker, you can be perceived as a client, and you can be criminalised for doing that. The internet gets rid of that, and creates new spaces for people to speak to us.
6. Do you think the porn industry is shifting towards the right direction in creating a space that is safe and stigma-free? What do you feel still needs to be done?
The porn industry is no longer controlled by production companies. Now, you have a global system and a lot of free content, so most of the porn produced is not paid. The issue is that you have big corporations that own websites, manage to get free content either by piracy, when people put content that they stole online, or through some agreements between porn production companies and websites to get users to try and click on the productions’ website and sell the video directly to the viewers. But most content is free, and actors are now paid much less than what we used to be 10 or 15 years ago. We don’t even know who is behind these websites. There is a lot of money, and it’s very far from the actors that are actually doing the work.
7. And how can we improve this?
Sex workers should own the means of productions. There are platforms such as OnlyFans, where fans can go on the website, access the page of the performer, and pay the performer directly. People watching you are not obliged to pay you, but if they want more, then they have to pay. A lot of people manage to get money through this system, and people are increasingly going freelance and self-employed within this industry, so you no longer work for a production, you work for yourself, but you still have to work through a platform. We are no longer workers, but clients for a third party that will help us access our clients. There are no labour rights, and everyone is an independent entrepreneur, but there is still a form of exploitation. To me, the solution is not shaped in terms of a legal approach, because we can see that the porn industry is perfectly legal, it is also about how laws can be favourable to the workers, how they should all have access to social protection. But I think the most important thing is how workers can organise themselves to be as independent as possible, without having to rely so much on third parties.
8. What are you working on now?
I’ve been working with STRASS since I moved back to Paris in 2012. I am working on the evaluation of the French law and the decriminalisation of clients.
9. Finally, what does the future of the sex industry look like in your opinion? Is it bright?
I think it can change very quickly. I can’t really predict what’s going to happen in the next ten years, but I can see more diversity than before. The good thing that happened in the last few years is the increase in visibility for some sex workers through the internet. But on the other hand, it’s very hard for migrant sex workers at the moment. Because of the human trafficking crisis, we have more and more laws affecting migration and sex work, but these are creating conditions where these people get even more exploited. I can’t see European governments trying to understand the problem, because they conflate sex working and trafficking. In the end, it will be the migrant sex workers who will have to pay the higher price.