Web3 Is Still Censoring Sex Workers
Internet decentralization has not stopped the shadow-banning of sexual images, adult performers say.
Two strap-on dildos flop towards each other atop an image of the Sistine Chapel. The wearer, a woman in fishnets and blue nail polish, goes by Cryptonatrix, and she’s been selling non-fungible tokens (NFT) featuring adult content since late 2020, including this one, called the Sistine Chapel of Smut. But shortly after she first put this NFT up for sale on the marketplace Rarible, she says it disappeared.
Jessica Klein is a freelance writer who has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and The Atlantic.This feature is part of CoinDesk's Sin Week.
“They censored me,” says Natrix. “It was really disappointing. I was more upset by the fact that no one else really seemed to care … because a lot of people have hope for this space and decentralization … working against censorship, but it became clear to me really early on that no one cares about that unless it affects them, and very few people would actually be willing to fight for the real values of decentralization.”
This can be a particularly relevant problem for marginalized sex workers, for whom the public rarely goes to bat. (Rarible did not respond to CoinDesk’s request for comment.)
Web3 supposedly promises a new model of the internet, free from the restrictions that plague the centralized Web2 – but for sex workers, the same old patterns of censorship occur even in this brave new era.
“It's still the same, they still have to follow the same rules, they're still governed by FOSTA/SESTA, which means … they censor us, they don't allow us to be on their platform, they don't play nice with us,” says sex worker Allie Eve Knox, who started selling NFTs of her work in 2020. “Web3, any kind of technology, it's still not going to take that away.”
Knox, who describes herself on Twitter as a “vixen, goddess, cryptocutie and findomme,” says major NFT marketplaces “shadow ban” (or make less visible) sex workers’ content just like their Web2 social media counterparts. Plus, sex workers still have to rely on those social platforms, like Instagram and Twitter, to promote their NFTs to wider, adult content-buying audiences. And at the end of the day, the people collecting NFTs and extolling the virtues of Web3 still exist in a universe that marginalizes sex workers.
“So-called Web3 is really just a reflection of this bull&%$# dystopia that we live in, and I can’t expect things to be different [there],” says Cryptonatrix, who also goes by Natrix for short.
See also: Bitcoin's Censorship-Resistance Was a Step Change in History | Opinion
Still, some sex workers who’ve already sold NFTs aren’t giving up on their new revenue stream, even if it’s become an even smaller portion of their income during the ongoing crypto bear market.
“As long as there’s space for us to do our own thing, then we will do our own thing,” says Natrix, “because sex workers are always the most innovative people in whatever we’re doing, whether or not anyone else wants to take note of it.”
The state of sex worker NFTs
Sex workers and adult content creators have historically been among the first to embrace any new type of technology – from VCRs in the 1970s to bitcoin (BTC) in the early 2010s. Continuing that time-honored tradition, many dipped their toes into the recent NFT craze before the masses started going wild about Punks and Apes. But these bearish days, it’s not a particularly popular or profitable way for sex workers to make money.
Natrix estimates that fewer than 100 sex workers are actively minting NFTs right now, based on her experience engaging in the wider NFT community. But she stays away from the NFT platforms that specifically cater to sex workers (more on that later) like TreatDAO, CumRocket and Unique.Fans.
However, there are only a small handful of platforms like those, and one of the higher profile ones, NASFTY, has a website that’s currently “under renovation,” with no word on when it will return or in what form.
TreatDAO’s website lists “450+ creators,” but doesn’t specify how many of those are active users. In an email, a representative from CumRocket, which is still in beta, told CoinDesk that its platform currently has “8,703 buyers registered … and 2,027 creators.” SpankChain, the longest running Web3 company built for sex workers and adult content creators, has worked with about 60 models to mint and sell their NFTs, says Knox, who works with the platform.
Maya Kendrick, 26 and based in Los Angeles, made her first NFTs with the help of SpankChain in September 2021. “It was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be,” she says, because SpankChain handled all the technical aspects. Through her newly minted NFTs, Kendrick also found a way into the wider NFT world, where she describes other project creators as “super welcoming, and happy to have more sex workers in the space.”
Still, NFTs make up a tiny portion of her income. The same is true for Knox.
Adult-focused vs. general NFT platforms
Natrix has had more negative experiences working with “adult”-focused NFT platforms, specifically CumRocket, TreatDAO and Unique.Fans. She describes what she calls some “predatory behavior” by these sites’ operators, including “unprofessional” instances in which they requested content from adult creators before they’d officially joined the site. (A representative from CumRocket told CoinDesk over email that “creators are welcome to join the platform as long as they have a valid form of identification and are 18+ … they certainly do not have to send any free content.”)
Often, Natrix sees these sorts of sex worker-focused platforms as disingenuous. “A lot of them were coming up at this [same] time because … people know that sex workers always need new, better platforms, so they try to take advantage of that, and pretend they’re better [than non-sex worker-specific platforms], but they’re not,” she says.
Those less-specific NFT platforms, like OpenSea, Rarible, and SuperRare, tend not to be the most hospitable environments for sex workers hoping to promote their content. “We’re never going to be promoted on any homepage,” says Kendrick, as many big NFT marketplaces bury sexually explicit content.
As an OpenSea spokesperson put it, “Sexually graphic content, whether it concerns real people or representations, will be labeled 'NSFW,' meaning it will be available on OpenSea, but it won’t show in searches or as trending.” Collections containing “NSFW” content also cannot be verified on OpenSea.
Knox says SpankChain sold NFTs through OpenSea, and the platform “completely shadow-banned them.” The OpenSea spokesperson told CoinDesk via email, “There is no such thing as shadow-banning on OpenSea,” but acknowledges that the only way to find “NSFW creators and their content” on the platforms is by “clicking a direct link (shared outside of OpenSea).”
See also: Inside a Manhattan Web3 Sex Club | Sin Week
After having issues with OpenSea, Knox started listing her NFTs on Rarible. She says the platform has been “very cool” to her so far – she’s made sales there and has yet to be shadow-banned. She’s also since tested minting NFTs on the Near blockchain displayed on a site called Mintbase, which she’s found to be very welcoming.
“I was able to mint NFTs for less than 3 cents each,” she says. “The company not only retweeted and quote-tweeted, they reached out to me for feedback, welcomed me to the platform, answered my questions about nudity and content, and were so cool about me selling there.” Her work there, though, doesn’t so far feature any nudity.
For Kendrick, the key is moving away from big NFT platforms to making your own contracts as an adult creator – in her case using the NFT-minting tool Manifold. Writing your own NFT contracts instead of going to a platform like OpenSea or Rarible (which don’t require users to make their own contracts), gives creators the “most control possible” over their work, Kendrick says. That’s the real promise of Web3 – creators having more direct autonomy over their output, so they don’t have to rely on middlemen to make a living.
However, there’s a steep learning curve to realize that promise. When we spoke, Kendrick couldn’t walk me through the process of creating a smart contract with Manifold, because she’d only ever done it with Natrix when the two collaborated on an NFT.
Natrix, meanwhile, has created multiple NFTs using Manifold, where she’s become friendly with one of the developers. Still, she sees its shortcomings from a Web3 standpoint: “Technically, they’re still a middleman,” she says.
The future of adult NFTs?
There’s a lot of gray area when it comes to what does or doesn’t constitute “adult” or “NSFW” content. Sex workers often lament how platforms will categorize their nudes as NSFW even if they don’t appear particularly different from a photographer’s nude portraits. The latter, however, tends to get classified as art and remains searchable on NFT platforms.
The point among Web3 proponents, though, is that there shouldn’t be any larger powers deciding what’s “safe” for internet users to see, sell, and buy, and what isn’t – the future of the web is all about removing those gatekeepers.
Ultimately, creators like Kendrick see Web3 content platforms following in the footsteps of their Web2 counterparts – like OnlyFans, which started off as a marketplace primarily used by sex workers but then, once it gained popularity, threatened to boot them off the platform. “The people who run those platforms [are] still trying to operate them like businesses, and we are still a liability to those businesses,” she says.
There are other reasons why NFTs are far from the end-all-be-all for sex workers. The NFTs in a collectors’ wallets are public online, and buyers may not want others to see their wallets full of porn, Natrix suggests.
See also: The Truth About Crypto and Sex Work | Sin Week
That makes it harder for adult content creators to follow a classic NFT success model, wherein the buyers of a certain collection come together to boost the project and each other’s purchases to foster community and drive up the value of the work in which they’ve all invested. “Collectors don’t rally around sexual content,” Natrix says.
All that considered – not to mention the current bear market – the creators who spoke with CoinDesk plan to continue selling NFTs. The technology represents another possible revenue avenue for sex workers, and with their precarious position on so many platforms in both Webs 2 and 3, sex workers can always use more options.
“You go on the platforms that will take you until they won't anymore,” Kendrick says. “I understand sex workers who are using any platform they can until they get shut down from it.”
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