Liden Lab / Second Life
Kiara is a financial dominatrix from Michigan. Her clients get a thrill from the power-play relationship and from relinquishing all control to her – both financial and otherwise – from acting as the the ‘sub’ to her ‘domme’.
Before the pandemic, she made most of her earnings through ‘cash meets’. “I’d usually take money out of a sub’s wallet, maybe say something humiliating, and walk away,” she says of a typical day’s work.
Now the risk of Covid-19 has made this impossible, and to make matters worse, Kiara’s partner was laid-off from his job because of the pandemic, leaving her with the responsibility of supporting them both.
So, at the start of lockdown, Kiara started using the video game Animal Crossing to keep a close relationship with her clients from a safe distance, using the in-game mechanics to subdue and order them around. On Animal Crossing, subs may pay a fee to go to Kiara’s or another domme’s virtual island, and carry out various chores for them, such as weeding their gardens, tidying their homes, or planting flowers. In-game spoils are also welcome, with cash meets finding their virtual equivalent in the form of ‘bell meets’.
Video games are booming in lockdown, and they’re providing a much-needed cash injection for sex workers like Kiara. She and other dommes offer similar services on Minecraft, charging their subs to shower them with diamonds, or carry out “grinding” tasks, such as collecting resources from the game’s map and crafting. Another domme, who goes by the moniker Princess Void, says she charges $10 for players to join her Minecraft server, and an additional $25 to play with her. It may not sound like much, she says, “but it adds up.”
The games also act as a form of promotion. “Animal Crossing is definitely helping me get out there more, and drive traffic to my AVN Stars (a popular adult platform)” says Madeline, a domme from Los Angeles. Any additional service a sex worker can offer, or marketing they can acquire, is likely to give them a competitive edge in what is becoming an increasingly saturated online market. As offline sex workers are forced to go digital, adult sites Charturbate and OnlyFans have both reported a 75 per cent uptick in subscribers since the start of lockdown.
The pandemic has made the adult industry more precarious, exacerbating the deep harm already inflicted on sex workers by Donald Trump’s FOSTA-SESTA bill. The legislation was intended to curb internet sex trafficking, but a number of websites – such as Craigslist and Backpage – barred posts from sex workers entirely to avoid any potential legal issues.
The legislation has shut sex workers out of sites like Tumblr, Patreon and Instagram, often forcing them to resort to either more dangerous types of work – partly, because it hampers their ability to vet clients – or platforms which take an exploitative cut.OnlyFans takes a relatively low 20 per cent (most take 40 per cent), but largely tends to benefit performers who already have big audiences online. As it garners mainstream appeal, social media influencers and minor celebrities are now clamouring to sell their explicit content on the platform.
“I think it is a problem,” says Heather Berg, an assistant professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality studies at Washington University in St Louis, of the “tourists” who are flooding sites like OnlyFans. “But sex workers are just more shrewd than non-sex workers when it comes to figuring out alternatives.”
“Flouting terms of service agreements, or using platforms in a way they weren’t intended to be used, has a long history among sex workers,” Berg continues. “But as conditions get worse, because of Trump’s bill and the pandemic, their creative strategies have to get even sharper.”
When it comes to video games, which more than often have a limited capacity for sexual activity, the need for creativity becomes even more acute. On Animal Crossing, dommes might spank their subs with a butterfly net as “punishment”, or use the in-game wheel to determine whether their client should orgasm, or pay a fee.
On Borderlands, where Princess Void charges subs $10 a mission, clients might be made to take off a piece of clothing, or ‘edge’ (getting close to climaxing and stopping), when their character dies. “Clients on Borderlands are more fetish people,” she explains, “whereas Animal Crossing is really wholesome.” To get around Nintendo’s strict terms of service, kink chat will usually take place over a third-party platform while playing a game, such as Discord or Twitter.
There are other well-established options for sex workers looking to escape the limitations of these games. The simulation game Second Life is a “perfect storm for sex work,” says Bonnie Ruberg, an assistant professor of digital games and interactive media. “I’m sure Linden Labs (the creators) would say it’s designed for human interaction and the creation of community, but sex cultures have always been at the heart of Second Life.”
Meela Vanderbuilt (as her avatar is known) is well-acquainted with Second Life’s erotic underworld. In 2013, she founded The Monarchy: a virtual brothel where clients can receive animated lap dances, sex and fetish exploration from one of the club’s performers. Meela believes Second Life offers sex workers a safer option amid a harsher online climate – particularly when it comes to payment.
“Because Second Life has its own currency (the Linden Dollar), you don’t have to worry about providing a PayPal to someone and potentially exposing who you are or your address,” she explains. What’s more, doing business with Linden Dollars circumvents the growing discrimination against sex workers from payment platforms such as PayPal and Venmo.
Second Life is also providing a solution to some of the problems around advertising that sex workers face after FOSTA-SESTA. Sarabi, a self-described ‘stay at home mom’ from Arizona, used to do private dancing, but since 2012, she’s worked full-time as a Second Life sex worker, and more recently, she’s been leveraging the platform to drive traffic to her OnlyFans. “It’s introduced me to all types of clients,” she says, “and those who have never purchased sex before.”
A few years ago, Sarabi set up her own academy to train other women in Second Life sex work. She says she’s had escorts approach her whose businesses were “greatly affected” by FOSTA-SESTA and another surge of interest from people – mostly online sex workers – looking to sell virtual sex on Second Life as a result of Covid-19. She’ll teach clients how to drive traffic to “literally any platform – OnlyFans, NiteFlirt, AVN, to name a few,” by purchasing in-game adboards.
But not even Second Life is immune from the censorship that is seeping into almost every corner of the internet. Meela said she’s noticed a growing pushback from the game’s moderators, which include having her in-game advertising blocked. “The platform generally doesn’t have as healthy of an outlook on sex work as the residents,” she says. When it comes to promoting the service on Facebook, she’ll often run into similar problems, because it “sounds too much like real escorting”.
“Game creators are scared FOSTA-SESTA is going to be used on them,” explains Ruberg. “Second Life is also moving to rebrand itself from this fun, shady place to go on the internet, to something more educational and kid-friendly, like Minecraft.”
Sex workers are subject to discrimination wherever they go. When it comes to video games, part of this arises from the conflation of sex workers with sexual predators. Ruberg gives the example of Twitch’s policy documents, which group sex work and sexual interactions with children together. “Sex workers are very careful about age verification,” says Berg, “for their own legal and ethical reasons. And not to mention, kids generally can’t pay.”
The threat of being shut out of a platform – gaming or otherwise – is a real and constant one. “It’s about being really savvy,” says Berg “and making sure your customer base travels with you so you’re not tied to one app”.
Sex workers are currently facing serious consequences for their health and livelihoods, but if history is anything to go by, this community’s resilience will always lead them to find new and often unexpected ways to survive.
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