When Alex discovered one of her paywalled clips had been uploaded onto a free porn site, she felt robbed. The video that sold for $3.50 in her clips store had been viewed over 300,000 times for free. “If those 300,000 people had paid me $3.50 each, I would have over a million dollars,” says the adult content creator who is known by the moniker GoAskAlex.
But for Alex, the financial loss was only part of the problem. It also signified a violation of her consent. “Of course, I had made the video myself,” she concedes, “but I never had any intention of sharing it on such a well-known website.” Now that anyone could watch her clip, “it felt like a loss of privacy.” She worried she’d be recognized on such a large website. This was especially traumatizing as she was not yet “out” as a sex worker.
Paywalling one’s content is not just a way to earn income for many adult workers, but also forms a privacy buffer between themselves and the rest of the world. “Because sex work is so stigmatized, people risk losing friends and family if outed,” explains Ariela Moscowitz, Director of Communications at Decriminalize Sex Work, a sex worker lobbyist group.
Further, they risk losing their job if they have another non-sex-work occupation. One just needs to look at all the teachers and nurses who’ve been fired in the past few years when their employers discovered they created porn content or had an OnlyFans page.
Alex was worried that now that her likeness was so widely accessible she might be doxxed. Doxxing is the practice of publicly identifying an individual either by their real name and/or their address online and is “one of the most violent things that can happen to a sex worker,” explains Miss Mai, the founder of Decrim305, a sex worker advocacy group in Florida.
As a result of having their real identity discovered, adult workers run the risk of being stalked and/or physically harmed. Even in less severe cases, content theft is still a violation of consent.
“Somebody might pay for your content, which you consented to,” Miss Mai shares, “but they can steal your content without your consent and post it wherever they want.” Adult workers are left helpless and exposed as a result of the theft of their content.
“Your consent has been violated, you’re experiencing the trauma of that,” says Miss Mai, “and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Content theft denies adult workers the right to control their own narrative
When Nina Galy found her first cam show ever had been recorded without her knowledge and uploaded onto a free porn website, she was livid. Her show was supposed to exist temporarily and only for a small audience. Now it was permanently available for anyone to view anytime.
Her only previous experience with adult work was creating nude stills and making clothed twerking videos for her OnlyFans. Now that she could be found on a website doing“full-blown masturbation and porn,” she felt exposed. Perhaps the most violating part of the theft was that it also robbed her of the ability to control how people viewed her.
“Every single time someone leaks my stuff, it perpetuates a different narrative than what I’d like to put out there,” says Galy. When her content is reposted on websites against her consent, it reaches a new audience. “I don’t have the control to give the first impression the way I want to.”
Fans often discover her on mainstream social platforms where she is fully dressed and discussing her thoughts and ideas. “People are captivated by my mind first. Whereas if you put me on sites where you see my asshole first. People have no interest in who I am as a person.”
Vickie Jay, an adult creator and the co-founder of Proof of Peach, an adult subscription platform built on the blockchain, also had her content stolen from behind a paywall and posted permanently on a free porn site. She also feels this robbed her of the right to define her own narrative.
As Jay could not get the free porn site to remove her stolen content, all she could do was make a verified profile so she could reap her revenue share. However, to do so she had to change what she was professionally known for. “I was forced into becoming a porn star,” she says, an identity she wasn’t comfortable with.
Other adult workers have also felt forced into entering a new sector of the adult industry all because their content was stolen. Vera, who asked not to be cited by her real or stage name, worked for years as a dominatrix. A website lifted her ad from the BDSM section of an adult platform where she’d consented to advertise and reposted it on their own site without her consent. Worse, the infringing website rewrote her ad copy to advertise her as an escort.
Vera had consented only to offer services as a dominatrix. She didn’t feel at ease with this new identity that her likeness was now attached to. But this is an increasingly common experience for adult workers, which leaves them feeling used and unprotected.
Many adult workers simply accept content theft as part of the job
Galy has since hired a professional service to track down and remove her stolen content. The service costs more than her mortgage in Los Angeles, she explains. Even though it’s “very expensive,” she says, it’s not always successful.
According to Alex, “Many websites that host stolen content are based in Russia and other countries where laws surrounding piracy are less severe, or else not enforced.” Even if a professional service issues a takedown notice, these sites are under no legal pressure to remove the stolen content.
Chris Grayson, a coach for aspiring adult-industry influencers, has also witnessed Discord links on Reddit inviting fans to join private servers where stolen photos and videos are freely shared. Content theft is so widespread it’s no wonder that some sex workers have adopted a defeatist attitude.
“I have stopped believing that we can control the unlawful distribution of our content,” says Jessie Sage, a Pittsburgh-based writer and sex worker. She likens it to a game of whack-a-mole. You remove one piece of stolen content just to have three more pop up.
“Sure, we can watermark it and we can sign up for DMCA takedown services, but in the end, I think we all need to have realistic expectations of the amount of control we have,” Sage says. But should adult workers simply have to accept that content theft is part of the job? It doesn’t seem fair.
The problem of illegal “scraper websites” for adult content creators
The website that stole Vera’s content is what is known as a “scraper website.” These sites use software to “scrape” entire pages from other adult websites and repost the content on their own platforms. “In theory scraping is legal,” says Lyle David Solomon, Principal Attorney at Oak View Law Group, “if done for the right purposes, such as research.” However, he notes that when scraper websites repost the ads of sex workers and enable advertising and monetization on their own platforms they are essentially doing it for a commercial purpose, and this is illegal.
Scraper websites use stolen sex work ads to divert people to other websites either to be sold something or scammed. Vera found out the hard way how difficult it is to remove her stolen content from a scraper website when she decided to quit working as a dominatrix.
She’s tried everything she can to wipe her sex worker identity from the internet. It’s been easy to remove her ads if she posted them herself. What hasn’t been easy is removing her images from scraper websites.
One such site had no DMCA link and it was difficult for Vera to even find out who the host was. Scraper websites sometimes use another web service to obscure the host’s identity. (DMCA takedown notices must be submitted to the website’s host to be legally binding.)
Vera did some detective work and finally found the host’s name and submitted a takedown notice. The host wrote back that the page was removed. When Vera checked it was still there. “The site either outright lied, or removed the page for long enough to show the host and then reposted the ad,” she says.
According to Jonathan Bailey, copyright and plagiarism consultant at CopyByte, “Human beings make the ultimate decisions in many of these cases. Humans have biases. One of the biases that is common and unfortunate is a bias against sex workers.”
In short, hosts could do more to go after scraper websites that use their platforms. They don’t because of prejudice toward sex workers.
“There is an overall misogynistic view that once a person gets naked online, they deserve to lose control of their likeness,” Vera says. “It’s your comeuppance for doing sex work.”
Why impersonation accounts are emotionally damaging to adult workers
Impersonation is one of the most common forms of content theft. According to Grayson, “These accounts pose as the creator often in an attempt to scam funds from the creators’ fanbase, and this can become a PR nightmare.” Jay experienced such a “PR nightmare” firsthand when she found she’d been impersonated on mainstream social media.
The impersonators promised her fans Skype shows. “People send money to these fake accounts. The show never happens, and the client comes back mad at me,” Jay says. Her scammed fans have gone so far as to threaten to sue her and have even sent her death threats.
When adult workers like Jay complain about this to mainstream platforms, they don’t get much help. Instagram and Facebook prohibit the accounts of sex workers. As such, when an adult worker’s account gets impersonated, the platform is “already taking a leery look at the official account, and isn’t super motivated to help,” Bailey says.
“It’s like being asked to punish an account with one set of TOS violations by an account with another set,” Bailey explains. Unfortunately, by prohibiting the accounts of sex workers on many mainstream platforms, offenders are allowed to get away with impersonation and continue to traumatize adult workers.
People steal adult workers’ content with the intent to humiliate them
One of the most damaging aspects of content theft is the reason that some people do it. “There’s a counter-audience who gets off at the thought of doxxing adult entertainers and humiliating them,” Galy says. “If users really want to humiliate you, they will intentionally choose the hardest platform to remove your content from. The contact links where you report a problem or submit a DMCA takedown notice just result in 404 error codes.”
Galy explains that people do this because “they think this girl deserves it or they feel personally offended because she blocked them on social media or they just hate adult entertainers.” The result, unfortunately, is incredible stress for many sex workers.
Both the user and the platforms have a role to play in stemming content theft
Jay believes that for this issue to improve, the consumer needs to take ownership of their role in the problem. “They don’t understand the amount of work that goes into making content,” she explains. Users need to value the content much more than they do.
Users also need to put themselves in the adult worker’s shoes. “People don’t understand what it feels like to expose my body, but not to have control over how those images and videos are distributed,” Jay says. Perhaps if the general public understood the traumatizing effects of content theft on adult workers, they’d think twice before committing the crime.
The stigma surrounding sex work really is to blame. “People don’t see us as human,” says Miss Mai. The sex worker and organizer believes that the platforms where sex workers earn income also have to do more to protect the models. “The technology is out there,” Miss Mai explains. Non-sex-industry websites know when their content has been screenshot or recorded. Sex workers could be notified when theft is happening. They aren’t.
Free porn websites could also do more to punish copyright infringement just as YouTube does. Miss Mai says the platforms just don’t care. “They’ve already gotten their percent of the sale—at the adult worker’s expense.” Once again, stigma is to blame.
Until sex workers are viewed as humans who have the right not only to earn all their revenue share from their content but to choose where and how it’s viewed, nothing will change. Adult workers will continue to have their consent violated with little to no repercussions. The effect of content theft will continue to be traumatizing for them.