How Sex Tech Is Changing Sex Work

Camming, crypto, and chilling legal moves.

In the ‘80s, the inventions of the pager and the mobile phone paved the way for the “call girl,” facilitating indoor sex work and allowing more mobility and autonomy for sex workers.

They provide illustrative examples of revolutionary sex tech that changed the field of sexual commerce forever. Of course, current and emerging technologies continue to do so.

Yet while sexual commerce moves into the virtual and digital realms as a result, all is not well in our Internet age.

Enter FOSTA/SESTA

Legislation has finally, and regrettably, realized the Internet’s role in contemporary sex work. FOSTA/SESTA legislation in the United States challenges Section 230 in an attempt to make websites liable for the content published on them, posing some serious questions about the nature of free speech online, especially for those advertising sexual services.

Sex workers and allies denounce this legislation, saying it makes their jobs more dangerous by pushing them back into street-based sex work, removing their online communities, and stopping them from vetting clients beforehand.

Given this chilling climate, it is imperative to reflect on what current forms of sex tech facilitate processes for sex workers worldwide as well as honor their activism in the online realm.

Databases of sex workers (and clients) 

FOSTA/SESTA laws have forced the closure of personal adverts on Craigslist and Backpage, arguably the two most popular resources for sex work advertising in the United States.

In its wake, new pages have emerged such as Tryst, providing a platform for independent escorts to advertise their services. But databases don’t just apply to those looking for sex workers. They also create a reference to monitor potentially dangerous clients.

National Ugly Mugs, a UK-based organization fighting to end violence against sex workers, is pioneering a resource where sex workers can report violence and abuse. By recording threatening messages from specific emails, phones, and clients, this resource provides potentially life-saving information.

Angela Jones’s recent research reflects the importance of digital action for sex workers. With doxing (hacking or cyberstalking) and capping (the unwanted filming and sharing of online erotic performances) becoming a common aspect of online sex work, measures to protect sex workers online is essential.

Changing spaces and changing currencies

Current technological advancements show us that with each development, sex work adapts to find the technological tools to meet its needs—and the changing locations reflect this most.

As recently seen on FutureofSex.net, new technologically mediated spaces will be used that exist outside of the virtual world, with autonomous cars potentially becoming another space to carry out sex work.

Research shows the Internet and technological developments have been the main factor for facilitating indoor sex work since the ’80s But a new change is coming, with sex workers carrying out sex work through webcamming and teledildonics.

Remote sex toys such as those sold by Lovense and OhMiBod were originally developed for couples in long-distance relationships, with both partners being able to control sex toy gadgets and simulate sex through them with a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection.

But “cam girls”, are cashing in on their haptic-touch technology,potentialenabling them to provide sexual services to clients online, and in the safety of their home.

By using teledildonics and webcamming simultaneously, camgirls are able to recreate sexual exchanges exclusively through sex tech.

The payment for these kinds of services is also changing as virtual currencies become the main way to generate income. Not dissimilar to the stripping industry, this work relies on tips –also known as ‘tokens’, with services being offered to the audience when the asking price in tokens has been met.

This interim space of virtual sex work offers security for sex workers, whilst allowing clients to enjoy the experience–and this is just the beginning of an industry that is sure to grow in the future.

Activism and social media

For critics, one of the most concerning parts of FOSTA/SESTA is the loss of sex worker communities in the online world. Sex workers have been pioneers in the field of digital activism, using the Internet as a global consciousness-raising tool for their cause.

In 2015, the hashtag #FacesOfProstitution went viral, with sex workers tagging their selfies to raise awareness about the diverse range and types of sex work and used Instagram as a platform to speak for themselves.

But since FOSTA/SESTA has passed, censorship of sex workers voices has already taken hold. In May of 2018, Instagram censored the hashtag #stripper and #femalestripper with the search result showing the following message: “Recent posts from #strippers are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram’s community guidelines”.

Activist Jacq the Stripper was one of many to denounce the censorship as an act of “whorephobia” and sexism, given that the #malestripper hashtag was still available in post searches.

New forms of online communities are emerging, however. Switter, “the sex worker-friendly social space” provides an open community for sex work, with no hierarchical management.

Such drastic legislative and technological changes in the last two years forces us to wonder where the future of sex work is heading, and how sex workers are currently navigating this hostile territory.

Sex tech as the end of sex work? 

Whilst this new legislation attempts to curb sex work online, it is also worth thinking about how technological developments could also make sex work obsolete.

John Danaher’s research at the School of Law at NUI Galway presents us with an interesting question: “Is sex work (specifically, prostitution) vulnerable to technological unemployment?”

Whilst venturing that this proposal veers into a sci-fi scenario, he recognizes that the development of highly convincing humanoid sex robots could potentially replace human sex workers.

This, Danaher argues, depends on how much they could “pass” for humans. His nuanced perspective shows, however, that it is more likely that technological employment will push people into sex work, as displacement from other types of labor could push them into this field. It opens up conversations on just how successful sex tech could be in the future to come, if able to replace “the world’s oldest profession”.

Laws like FOSTA and SESTA, as well as technological changes make it difficult to anticipate how sexual commerce online will be carried out in the future. But given its current successful manifestations, it is safe to say that sex work and technology will continue to grow exponentially, and symbiotically together.

Image sources: taylorjamesphotos