Though its detractors like to paint sex work as a moral issue, advocates are quick to point out that it has further-reaching implications as a labor issue, as well as one of censorship. And while it’s possible to concede to these points intellectually, a new game developed by artist and sex worker Lena Chen and tech collaborator Maggie Oates helps players to empathize and learn about the challenges facing online sex workers, and even connect with resources that might help inform or support them in their own lives. OnlyBans was created by a team of sex workers and allies, and leads users on a first-person journey, trying to earn $200 through simulated online platforms.
“I was inspired to create OnlyBans as a result of my own experiences being deplatformed as an artist and sex worker,” said Chen, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “I’ve faced continual censorship, even while carefully abiding by the terms of service agreements on Facebook and Instagram. Therefore, OnlyBans has been an incredibly personal and political project. Similar to myself, everyone on our team has had lived experience in the sex industry or has been deeply involved in sex worker advocacy. Many of us are also creatives dealing with sexuality in our art.”
To play the game, one selects a username, and then chooses from a set of pictures to “post” one to the internet, in order to gain followers and earn money. Sometimes things go well, and your avatar collects followers and inbox tippers to make the financial goal. But often, the selected image is outright banned or shadowbanned – at which point it is revealed to be an actual pic posted by an actual sex worker, with a quote about their experience.
“For the most part, we are not breaking the rules,” said Chen. “Rather, we are being targeted by biased algorithms that flag our content as inappropriate while allowing celebrities and influencers to get away with posting much more risque material.”
Chen has personally been banned from making Instagram ads including university-made marketing materials for a panel on sex work and digital discrimination.
“Something similar happened with Susie Bright that led to the deletion of Cornell University entire’s YouTube account,” said Chen. “All of this is the result of FOSTA-SESTA – legislation that claims to prevent sex trafficking, though it has never actually been used by federal prosecutors to seek criminal restitution for victims of sex trafficking. Because platforms don’t want to be held liable for breaking the law, they are overly risk averse, leading to widespread censorship affecting sex workers, sex educators, queer community organizers, and artists alike.”
In the run-up and wake of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the same phenomenon is occurring with abortion posts.
“Tons of posts related to abortion have been marked as ‘sensitive’ or taken down altogether without recourse,” said Chen, “which has alarmed many people but is no surprise to sex workers, who have been subjected to these same practices for years.”
Chen and Oates equate these practices of policing sex workers online to IRL public space laws involving “anti-loitering.”
“In both instances, those occupying marginalized, criminalized bodies are excluded in the name of public safety or family values,” said Chen. “Yet, for whom are we making the Internet ‘safer?’ Certainly, in the case of sex workers, who rely on digital networks for harm reduction practices like screening clients, FOSTA-SESTA has only led to greater violence and economic precarity.”
Parker Westwood, a sex worker, community organizer, and podcaster, agrees.
“Not only does OnlyBans give you a taste of some of the hurdles and roadblocks faced by online sex workers, but it tells some of our real-life experiences,” said Westwood, who hosts A Sex Worker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “There is nothing more powerful than our stories, and that’s exactly why the powers-that-be seek to deplatform us. If sex workers are seen as human beings, if our safety really mattered to people, then we would decriminalize all sex work and the status quo would dramatically shift.”
OnlyBans not only raises awareness about common threats and pitfalls of digital sex work — like navigating privacy and cybersecurity issues, having content stolen, or having your accounts suspended — it also cannily offers advice about collaboration, mutual aid, and resource-sharing that can help someone trying to find their way.
“A contributor (whose story/image is featured in the work) said that OnlyBans helped their friends finally understand and empathize with the hurdles they faced in doing their work,” said Chen. “Another contributor, during a play-through of the game with a live audience, learned about the dangers of geo-tagging for the first time.”
In this way, OnlyBans picks up on a trend of that utilizes art and tech at the nexus of social justice work — a kind of praxis through participatory play. Chen and Oates are now in the process of developing OnlyBans, as part of receiving a Creative Media Award from the Mozilla Foundation.
“We are planning to organize workshops with sex workers to imagine the speculative future they hope to manifest for themselves on the Internet,” said Chen. “In doing so, we hope to continue centering their visions and voices as driving forces in technological innovation.”