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16 Days of Activism: Day 12 - Because privacy matters: the double life of a sex worker

Following yesterday’s theme of issues in the workplace, this blog is going to look at a different type of working environment that is rarely talked about: the workplace of internet based sex workers. We have teamed up with expert academic Teela Sanders at University of Leicester. The ‘Beyond the Gaze’ project examined the ways sex workers use the internet and digital technologies and what challenges or opportunities are created.

‘Sex work is the oldest profession is the world’. We’ve all heard the saying and we all know sex work is part of a burgeoning and ever-changing industry globally. But where is the line drawn between work and privacy for a sex worker? Firstly, let’s cover some facts:

What is internet based sex work? Internet based Sex workers use the internet to advertise services and use digital technology to provide direct services (such as escorting or BDSM) or indirect services such as webcamming, phone sex or instant messaging. 

The internet has not only stratified the online sex market, it’s provided opportunities for new ways of working that allow greater independence through direct communication with clients and new advertising platforms. Sex workers can now use technology to increase safety strategies, screen potential clients and network with other sex workers. So, it’s increased safety for sex workers, that’s great! What’s the problem?

What is the law? There is no current specific law that regulates online or internet based sex work which includes webcamming, phone sex or instant messaging. There is no law against selling physical sexual services when only one consenting adult is working independently from the premises.  

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: if you’re a webcam model, you expect that people are going to see your intimate content posted online, because that’s how you make money. But what happens when someone shares your non-work based and PRIVATE images without your consent online? Or someone shares your private social media platforms in connection to your professional platforms in attempt to ‘out’ you to your family who don’t know your work? Does your job then determine whether you’ve been a victim of abuse?  

The internet has created a safer work place but… 

New opportunities through the internet and digital technologies, of course, don’t come without risk. Whilst internet based sex work avoids the issues faced by street sex workers, such as physical violence or greater chance of arrest and the consequences of the criminal justice system, they face new challenges and forms of abuse.  The Beyond the Gaze study discovered significant concerns amongst sex workers around the fear of being identified, outed or stalked and the risk of having personal data stolen or hacked. Part of the study surveyed over 640 internet based sex workers, and here’s what they found:

  • 52.7% of webcam/phone sex workers are concerned about privacy 
  • 45.9% of webcam/phone sex workers said that information they had put online had been used elsewhere without their consent. 
  • 36% of sex workers have received threatening or harassing calls, texts and emails. 

Privacy is the ultimate concern for internet based sex workers and being on your device or computer provides a digital distance from clients. Due to the stigma associated with sex work, it’s not a job people always want to share with their friends and family. The anxiety of being ‘found out’ can lead sex workers to extreme lengths to protect their identity by leading an ‘double life’. Sex workers are found to create specific boundaries and steps to protect identity online, for example: using a pseudonym name, using a separate device for work and personal life and not linking work and personal social media profiles. 

Where the internet benefits sex workers, it also holds new risks. That’s no revelation. We see that happening all over society and in many different groups of people. The opportunities and threats of the internet and digital technologies are going to be an ongoing learning curve for us all. But we need also to understand that, for these groups of people, there is an impact on their daily lives and a risk of personal danger. It’s an issue that needs to be tackled. 

We’ve barely skimmed the surface of what there is to say about sex workers and, needless to say, it’s going to be an interesting conversation which we want to be involved in. 
You can find out more information about the Beyond the Gaze study here 

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