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Arts, Sports & Culture

Pittsburgh artist investigates obstacles facing sex workers online

A note to readers: This story contains mature themes.

“Time to set some thirst traps.”

That’s the on-screen text prompt that launches “OnlyBans,” a digital game designed to give a sense of what it’s like to be an online sex worker in a time when federal laws have made the job increasingly subject to suppression and censorship. (A thirst trap is a seductive photo intended to rivet a viewer’s attention.)

Lena Chen
Aleksander Stojanov
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Courtesy of Lena Chen
Lena Chen

“OnlyBans” is the brainchild of Lena Chen, a Pittsburgh-based artist, activist and sex worker. The game is making its Pittsburgh debut as part of Chen’s thesis exhibit at the Miller Institute for Contemporary Art at Carnegie Mellon University, where she is concluding her graduate art studies.

Half of the exhibit is an installation depicting an online video-cam performer’s bedroom-like studio. It sits behind a curtain of translucent purple ribbons, complete with pink bed, sex toys, a small white-enameled vanity, and two continuously running cameras capturing images projected live onto the gallery walls.

“OnlyBans” — the name nods to “OnlyFans,” a subscription-based social network widely used by sex workers — is played on an iPad. Players are told they need to make $200 to pay their bills and given a series of photos to choose from to represent them onscreen. These avatars are photos of real-life sex workers, but players who post the “wrong” one can be flagged for inappropriate content. The reasons for the warnings are often obscure — the photos might reveal too much skin, or include another trait that triggers an algorithm somewhere — but enough violations could get you suspended for a week, or even banned entirely. Then there goes that chance at $200.

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The game is the latest iteration of a work-in-progress Chen and her collaborator Maggie Oates launched more than a year ago. The Miller is the fourth university gallery where it’s been exhibited, according to Chen, who said that during her first year in Pittsburgh, she danced in strip clubs to help fund her graduate studies.

“The next level that we want to take it to is a fully web-accessible game that folks with visual or hearing impairments can play, and a game with a narrative that not just describes the problem of online censorship and discrimination, but also offers potential solutions and visions that come directly from the sex-working community,” she said.

The exhibit also aims to educate audiences about the nuances of sex work, which in addition to other stresses can be emotionally taxing for the workers. The exhibit also includes “Camopticon,” a peep-show-style installation that features a videotaped interview with the Irish cam performer Kiko, who in her online persona wears a cat mask. Viewers enter a small, red-curtained chamber to watch Kiko discuss her sex work, including its emotional toll, while video projections of Kiko herself performing “watch” the viewer from both side walls.

The exhibit – one of four CMU master’s-of-fine-arts thesis shows in the gallery – is Chen’s biggest gallery show in Pittsburgh to date since she arrived in town, in 2019.

Chen, 34, is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and grew up in Los Angeles. She first entered the public eye while studying sociology as an undergraduate at Harvard University, with her blog “Sex and the Ivy.” The blog “dealt with my own personal sexual experiences,” she said. “It dealt with mental health, and just the experience of being at an elite institution like Harvard when I’d felt almost like I didn’t fit in.”

Chen’s candor, especially about sex, won her both fans and detractors; the blog went viral and received national media coverage.

The online harassment and abuse she suffered as fallout was compounded when an ex-partner of hers posted nude photos of Chen online. That revenge porn helped convince her to relocate to Europe, where for much of her 20s she lived under the name “Elle Peril.”

Her European experience, in countries including Germany, included nude modeling and her first exploration of sex work, including gigs as a dominatrix. She also ventured into performance art. “I wanted to explore what it meant to occupy a marginalized body, a fetishized body, as an Asian woman,” she said. “And I turned this modeling project into a conceptual artwork about identity and trauma.”

Applying to CMU grad school was “a shot in the dark,” she said. “I was very thrilled to get into this program because it gave me the structure and the guidance I needed to take my work to the next level.”

In Pittsburgh, Chen has been active in the advocacy group Sex Workers Outreach Project Pittsburgh, which is providing a pop-up resource center at the gallery. (She also became a mother, giving birth to her first child, her son, Rowdy, in February.) Most sex workers are women, and many are LGBTQ, people of color, or members of other marginalized communities. The past few years have been particularly difficult for many of them, Chen said.

Some of the strain is due to a federal law known as FOSTA-SESTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act), which President DonaldTrump signed into law in early 2018. Reversing longstanding internet policy, the law made online platforms liable for the sexual content users posted. The stated purpose was to combat human trafficking. But critics of the law say most sex work is consensual.

“Many of these laws often conflate sex work with exploitation. And that’s not the case in any of the stories or images depicted by our work,” said Chen.

Rather, these critics say, the law’s most pronounced effect has been to persuade platforms like OnlyFans to suppress or even ban content for fear of civil or criminal prosecution — and also to force some sex workers back out on the street, which can put them in danger.

OnlyBans incorporates research by the group Hacking // Hustling. A 2020 Hacking // Hustling report, based on surveys of sex workers, found that about two-thirds “have had content that does not violate a sensible social media policy marked as sensitive media on their profile.” And more than 40% “said they had been deplatformed or kicked off of a social media account.”

Sex workers talk of being “shadowbanned” — not deplatformed outright, but finding one’s content suppressed by a platform to the point of invisibility. Advocates say sex workers who are LGBTQ+, of color, or plus-sized are more likely to be sanctioned.

“That is extremely difficult during a time when a lot of folks have already lost income due to the pandemic,” said Chen. “And it’s hurting a community that’s already marginalized, already has to cope with day-to-day stigma.”

Local sex workers who visited Chen’s exhibition one Sunday afternoon as part of a Sex Workers Outreach Project Pittsburgh event praised the show.

“I loved it,” said Theresa Nightingale, a longtime exotic dancer who also does cam work. “This main room that we’re in right now, this big pink camming room, it is very realistic, and they did a really good job of getting the vibe down, of how it feels when you’re actually setting everything up and going through the process.”

Nightingale seconded concerns about online suppression of sex work. “I have to be very careful about what I post, or else the account will get nuked,” she said.

A cam performer and online dom who goes by the name Kit said she has been shadowbanned. “It is really hard if you get shadowbanned to come back, because you’ve lost initially all that publicity that you needed to pay your bills,” Kit said.

Kit cohabitates with three life-partners and has shown them the game. “This was a really good interactive way for them to understand fully the way my money is coming in. how it is trying to deal with censorship and getting shadowbanned,” said Kit. “I felt like I was really seen. Very seen, after showing my partners and other people the game.”

Chen hopes her exhibit gets people to rethink their assumptions about sex work and sex workers.

“During the pandemic, particularly, we might have realized how important physical intimacy is, how important touch is,” she said. “And those spaces of intimacy and vulnerability are what a lot of sex workers try to cultivate for their clients. And it’s about allowing people to experience pleasure, but it’s also about allowing people to experience vulnerability.”

“Untitled Affairs,” including work by Chen, Marianne Hoffmeister Castro, Petra Floyd, and Matthew McGaughey, continues at the Miller Institute through Sun., April 17.

Corrected: April 13, 2022 at 2:26 PM EDT
This story was amended to include the correct name of the group Sex Workers Outreach Project Pittsburgh.
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