Two years ago, Gabi was struggling to maintain a career in the adult industry. She worked long hours streaming live as a cam model and producing video content for her online audience, but the job didn’t seem to be paying off.
Since most major credit cards and payment platforms won’t process payments for adult services, including live-streamed erotic content, cam models like Gabi have to use specialized platforms to stream live shows and process payments from fans. Unfortunately, these sites can be extremely competitive, and some use ranking systems to determine models’ visibility on the site based on their time spent online.
“The longer you spend online without making any money, the lower your ranking drops,” Gabi says. “That puts you in a position where you literally have to work for free for days and days and days. Every hour that you spend online without getting tipped, you can just hear the ranking number dropping in the back of your head. It’s extremely anxiety inducing, because the lower you get down in the rankings, the less your chance of making any money to bring your ranking up.” She’d been burned by this system many times. One site, Gabi says, required a 65-percent cut of her tips, in addition to the rights to use her image for advertising purposes as they saw fit. “They advertised me as a ‘Local sexy single in your area ready to fuck for free,’” Gabi says. “Nothing about my services are free.”
Gabi considered giving up camming for good, when she came across a promotional raffle on Twitter for Cryptotitties, a cam site that runs on cryptocurrency. Interested participants could buy tickets using Spankchain, a blockchain-based payment platform currently in beta, designed specifically for use within the adult industry. “I started seriously digging into cryptocurrency and how it could help with all of the payment processor issues that we’ve been having as sex workers,” Gabi says.
“They advertised me as a ‘Local sexy single in your area ready to fuck for free,’” Gabi says. “Nothing about my services are free.”
Gabi, who for a time worked as a Spankchain brand ambassador, believes cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies offer a viable solution to widespread issues with payment processing. “I’m usually thinking about or interacting with the crypto community daily,” she says. As adult performer Janice Griffith wrote for Medium in 2017, blockchain technologies like Spankchain can offer performers greater control of their financial future. “With SpankChain, we’ll be putting more money into the pockets of talent and working hands — instead of payment processors and middlemen — leaving models with more power over their careers and options in how they want to build their legacies,” she wrote. “Control over your career trajectory is the ultimate power.”
A switch to cryptocurrency can also offer greater creative freedom. For example, ManyVids, a popular camming platform that accepts credit card payments, forbids depictions of fetish acts including urination, genital insertions with objects other than dildos or vibrators, or sleeping on camera, as outlined in their terms of service. Official upload rules for models also include a list of restricted words, including “period” and “menstruation.” Cam model Zhaddie Grey says using cryptocurrency eliminates these restrictions completely. “You can basically put out whatever you want.”
The basic functions of blockchain technology remain largely a mystery to many outside the tech space, but as Gabi points out, “some sex workers have taken bitcoin for years.” Cam sites Strip 4 Bit, Xotica, Tits For Bitcoin and NSFW Reddit group Girls Gone Bitcoin all accept Bitcoin payments, serving as cryptocurrency testing grounds since 2015.
Long before Backpage.com shut down, Maxine Doogan, a Bay Area sex worker, activist and founder of the Erotic Service Providers Union remembers teaching herself to use and trade Bitcoin in order to pay for ads on the site, navigating the precarious crypto trading market on her own. Due to restrictions against adult services from credit cards and banking institutions, Doogan couldn’t use a regular checking account to accept payment for her services, or use a credit card to pay for online ads. Without ads, Doogan wouldn’t be able to find work. For Doogan, learning to use cryptocurrency to keep her ads up wasn’t necessarily a choice, but rather a technology she felt forced to adopt in order to survive. This cost her time she’d never recover, and for sex workers, time is money. “I spent hours and hours and hours of unpaid labor, dealing with these cryptocurrencies. Trying to research them, trying to figure out what the accountability mechanisms were,” she says.
Cryptocurrency isn’t the first technology with origins in the adult industry that would later become a male-dominated field. “If you look at the rise of the internet, the adult industry was definitely at the forefront of that,” says Leah Callon-Butler, chief impact officer for Intimate, a payment token created specifically for adult industry use. “Even web streaming, for example, was driven by adult content and the need to be able to access that.” The more recent virtual reality boom first took off with VR porn, powered by sex workers’ labor and fully developed thanks to their participation. “For some reason, the tech bros don’t like us to have credit for that kind of stuff,” Grey says. They want to take over and take all the credit for moving that kind of stuff into the mainstream.”
Cam performers like Gabi and Grey, fluent in the abstract language of crypto and blockchain technology, hold incredible power to bring cryptocurrency into mainstream use. “We can get our clients who have never even heard of crypto to join it, and that is huge for mass adoption,” Grey says. However, despite looking to the adult industry as models of success, tech companies are routinely shutting sex workers out of crypto and tech spaces.
“If you look at the rise of the internet, the adult industry was definitely at the forefront of that,” says Leah Callon-Butler.
In 2017, Intimate submitted an application to exhibit at Web Summit, an annual global technology conference. The company wanted to present Rendevu, an online platform for privately booking adult services and performers on demand, but Web Summit didn’t accept their entry. According to a Web Summit representative, Web Summit’s anti-harassment policy forbids exhibitors, vendors and speakers from invoking sexual language and imagery, or references to sexual activity, at the conference venue. Callon-Butler believes this policy is a form of sex shame. “They basically said, ‘No, you can’t talk about sex here.’ There is no other rhetoric other than, ‘Oh, the sex industry is dirty, and it’s dominated by men, and it’s just all about hardcore porn and things that we all should feel ashamed about.”
Sexism and sex-work stigma within tech industries keep sex workers out of the conversation, only to shut them out of the technologies and platforms they helped popularize, says Gray. “Snapchat, Tumblr, they started with nudes,” she says. “The reason they got so popular was because of nudes, and now that they’re multimillion dollar companies, we are not allowed to [use them.]” Doogan sees this phenomenon as part of a long history of the appropriation of sex work, indicating a pattern among up-and-coming corporations using sex workers as test subjects and monetizing agents. “It just sets the whole groundwork for this larger conversation of how it is that we’re being used here,” she says.
With the continued development of payment platforms like Spankchain and Intimate, some cam models see a new hope for greater financial and career autonomy. “I think that Spankchain is on the cutting edge,” Gabi says. “It’s trying to solve a lot of these problems that are rampant in the industry.” For Gabi, learning about Spankchain marked “a turning point” for her career, and she hopes her involvement with the platform could help bring greater visibility to sex workers’ contributions to the tech industry. “There are people who do want help us. There are people who see value where not everyone does.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Rendevu had been accepted to present at Web Summit. It has been corrected to clarify that they had submitted an application, but were not accepted.