Advancing Alternative Digital Futures for Online Sex Work

‘The enforcement framework of the EU digital services act will be applied from the 17th of February next year. 96% of the people I represent will be displaced by criminalization of the buyer’

– Harper Thornhill, Sex Workers’ Union Online Representative, European Parliament 07/12/2023.

Ideology is key to understanding barriers to sex workers’ rights. In the first decade of the 21st century, sociologist Elizabeth Berstein identified the neoliberal sexual agenda. This reflected a depraved drive to hold individuals responsible for social problems and promote criminal justice over social welfare. Formed by a coalition of religious anti-trafficking organizations, politicians, and abolitionist feminists, this agenda is still very much alive in the UK today. It continues to have a detrimental impact on the {un}freedom and {in}visibility of those who sell sex, whilst masking the central role capitalism plays in conditioning entry into informal labor markets.

Online criminalization of sex workers is becoming an increasingly mainstream policy approach, despite decades of research about the harms this causes. If this issue is not addressed, opportunity to safely sell, advertise and express sexuality online will be significantly compromised. Platform cooperatives (PCs) offer a business model and policy framework to shift state regulations away from carceral approaches and towards improving working conditions. Without opportunity for worker feedback, bargaining and ownership, current adult-services platforms feed exploitation and violence.

This sector is so informal and stigmatized that politicians largely ignore digital labor conditions. In the UK, the Online Safety Act 2023 (OSA) is following advancement of the neoliberal sexual agenda established by US policy makers under the Trump administration. The 2018 FOSTA-SESTA Act holds platforms liable for advertising of sex trafficking victims, without accounting for the impact on consensual sex workers. This makes it commercially risky for corporate tech companies, who tend towards the amoral pursuit of profit, to associate with the sex industry. The global impact of this bill cannot be understated. Sex workers are increasingly ejected from social media and financial technology – “fintech” – platforms. This erases them from the digital spaces they fundamentally shaped.  

The OSA is already having similar consequences, with sex workers experiencing ejection from essential forms of economic and cultural participation online. Criminalization also makes it harder for sex workers to set up their own sites to work independently of exploitative adult-services platforms, as payment processors refuse business with them. Adult-services platforms therefore capitalize off criminalization, as workers become dependent on these infrastructures to receive wages. This echoes neoliberal emphasis on market freedom, which typically benefits a minority elite while worsening inequality and division, rather than freedom for the majority. 

Platform capitalism 
The creation of dependency is generally typical of platform capitalism, which describes the current digital economy monopolized by Big Tech giants with a tendency towards aggressive data extraction, surveillance and rentier-based business models. This is giving rise to a new class, whose power lies in the ownership of a scarce asset. Marxist digital economist, Nick Srnicek, explains that value is extracted through various forms of rent. In relation to platform work this includes infrastructure rents, via a facility fee for the connection of producers and consumers in the market. For adult-services platforms, this cut taken from wages can range from 20%-65%.

Digital media scholar, Professor Lina Dencik, points out that platform cooperativism is a paradigm of data justice. Dencik and others have described this concept not just as a framework, but also as an approach and practice. Data justice offers a lens to critically analyze and address the ideological and structural power relations embedded within data infrastructures. Data is also a social relation, which involves human design, implementation and negotiation. The power of platform capitalism lies in its ability to control data infrastructures across a range of social, political and economic settings. As Joanna Redden explains, this also enables economic actors to distance themselves from those they harvest and extract data. Humanity is lost during translation into the inhuman. Platforms are not simply intermediaries; they are establishing a novel form of governance steeped in longstanding colonial and capitalist power dynamics.

Like other gig economy sectors, adult-services platforms use novel workplace AI systems to ubiquitously monitor workers, encourage hustle culture and develop racialized ranking systems. Account deactivation can happen without warning and opportunity for redress. Algorithmic surveillance is focused on maximizing profits and complying with pornography regulations which ignore labor conditions. Online sex workers also face unique challenges. Algorithms don’t monitor abusive and illegal consumer behavior like image-based sexual violence, whereby intimate content is non-consensually recorded and shared to other sites. Platforms offer no protective mechanisms like anti-screen capture software, end-to-end encryption of content or privacy-protection for online identity.

This context stresses the need for alternative, bottom-up structures that challenge exploitative corporate power in the gig economy. Such firms have exacerbated precarious labor by placing downward pressure on working conditions. PCs are user-owned, online platforms that prioritize democratic decision-making and equitable profit distribution among participants. By converting traditional co-ops into a digital setting, these alternative economic structures challenge the top-down algorithmic control, unethical labor practices and monopolistic tendencies of gig economy firms. This offers exciting possibilities for online sex workers.

Platform cooperativism and Autonomist Marxism
The ideological shift driven by PCs towards stakeholders, rather than shareholders, challenges the very foundations of gig economy enterprises. The imbalanced nature of the digital economy is not a fixed reality. However, it will take a sea change from below and within state policy to challenge the power of venture capital funded firms. PCs adhere to key principles, which empower workers by fostering inclusive and fair economic environments. This includes democratic member control, inclusive economic participation, community organization and, critically, transformative autonomy and independence.

The quest for working class autonomy, through disruption of capitalist technology, invokes autonomist Marxist debate. This builds on Marx’s (1887) arguments about dead and living labor. Workers are the living labor which capital consumes in the production process, whilst dead labor refers to the technological tools which facilitate production. Marx explained that the more dead labor begins to absorb workers into its technical body of machinery, they are increasingly stripped of autonomous capacity to make decisions. Hence, automation represents a relationship of domination. This analysis triggered two schools of thought; technology-as-domination and analysis of struggles which overcome capital’s technological tools of control (Dyer-Witheford 1999). Autonomist scholar, Dyer-Witheford, criticizes the former for overestimating the capacity of capital establish complete control.

This contradiction was the focus of Italian workerists in the late 20th century. Panzieri suggested the use of machines for emancipatory counter-power relies on the “wholly subversive character’ of the working class at historical junctures of struggle. Similarly, Tronti argued that it is within the relations of production where opportunity to subvert the ‘cult of technology’ exists. We need theory which advances alternative digital economies, built on principles of democratic ownership, justice and equality. Such theory exists in the platform cooperativism movement.

The gig economy offers novel technological systems which could operate independently of capital. Workers do partially own the means of production, like computers and phones. Whilst scarce assets, like Amazon web services, are currently owned by capital, it is possible for workers to own and operate gig economy platforms themselves. As Dyer-Witheford notes ‘inside this bourgeois dream lie the seeds of a bourgeois nightmare.’ This dream is undoubtedly relevant to sex workers, who’s long history of independence from capitalist markets represents an inherent quest for autonomy. 

What’s significant about platform capitalism is the dissolution of this independence and displacement into the directly market-mediated sphere of social reproduction. During industrialization, if women were selling sex at home, they could not contribute to factory work, nor waged social reproduction for the state as nurses and teachers or for families as childcare. Today, economic actors are capitalizing on the swelling service sector, by transforming services which often occurred independently of capitalist actors into online platforms. This requires critical counteraction.

Fairwork Platform Cooperativism
The Fairwork Foundation also offers a framework to shift regulations towards labor conditions. This is a transnational NGO advancing labor standards for digital work. The foundation has determined five principles of fair platform work, drawing on the Fairtrade struggle for worker autonomy and empowerment. Many current adult-services platforms will not receive a good Fairwork rating, due to absence of (1) fair pay, (2) fair conditions, (3) fair contracts, (4) fair management and (5) opportunities for representation. This can be remedied with PC ownership and ethical alternatives to the discriminatory algorithmic surveillance practiced by gig economy firms. The integration of Fairwork principles within platform cooperatives can drive the development of more equitable and sustainable business models in this industry.

It is possible to build a safer work environment, engaging with anti-screen capture software, possibilities relating to digital encryption which could leave a trace of the buyer, and creating greater penalties for abusive behavior online. Another issue afflicting sex workers is the inability to exit the industry and find work elsewhere. Due to stigma, workers often have large gaps in their CV in which they appear to be unemployed. A PC could offer workers training to be involved in business and technical development of the platform. This would enable new skills and employment to put on CVs. A PC in the UK will also need to think through how sex platforms can guard against sex trafficking. Research shows that sex trafficking comprises about 6% of commercial sex. However, policy makers fail to differentiate between consensual sex workers and sexual exploitation and use trafficking discourse to justify harmful legislation towards commercial sex.

PCs can charge the policy debate for ethical pornography consumption, facilitate a lobbying campaign for decriminalization and establish digital protections against abusive consumer behavior. This follows the lead of Horizontl, a UK-based full-service {offline} sex work platform currently being developed. The multi-billion-dollar profits of the online sex industry can be more equally divested to create fair and ethical platform labor. By empowering webcam models to become founders of a start-up tech company, male-dominated industry power can also be redirected into ordinary workers’ hands. However, punitive digital services legislation creates a major barrier to PC development in the UK.

Proposed Research Project
My project aims to contribute to the policy debate surrounding ethical pornography consumption and the decriminalization of sex work in the UK. The integration of Platform Cooperative and Fairwork Principles offers a robust policy framework with the potential to reshape state regulations and improve labor standards within the industry. This union can also contribute to ideas for a broader transnational digital labor movement.

I will conduct interviews with Members of Parliament and policymakers to gain insights into their positions on Fairwork commercial sex and platform cooperativism, particularly in the context of the Online Safety Act and recent shift toward criminalization. The findings from this research will serve as a foundation for initiating a lobbying campaign advocating for decriminalization and the incorporation of Fairwork/PCC principles in the sex industry. Leveraging my existing PhD connections with Sex Workers’ Union, I aim to amplify the impact of this campaign.

Research Questions
Main Research Question: To what extent does the Online Safety Act 2023 act as a barrier to the implementation of Fairwork platform cooperativism in the UK’s online sex industry? 

1.      How and in what ways do policymakers respond to questions regarding sex worker ownership of Platform Cooperatives and Fairwork-compliant sexual services?

2.      To what extent is there political momentum for the ethical regulation of sex work in the UK?

3.      In what ways can the findings from this research be effectively utilized in lobbying efforts for decriminalization?

(Learn more about Josie West)