Meet PeepMe; Creating a Platform Cooperative For and By Sex Workers
One of the biggest challenges for sex workers and adult content creators today, in addition to the threat of violence on the job (including from law enforcement) is that the online platforms where they work could kick them off at any time. Online adult content is a massive industry worth $800 million. The workers who generate that content are at the whim of companies and platforms who both extract profit from their work and then make decisions about their operating terms that often harm the sex workers who have created the value for them in the first place.
In August, OnlyFans announced that they would be banning all sexually explicit content on their site. Then, several days later, they reversed the announcement. For the content creators and workers who have audiences on OnlyFans and who make their money on the platform, the announcement would have potentially devastated them and left them in a dangerously precarious economic position. And it’s not the first time an online platform that’s crucial to this sector of the economy has shut down. Before the OnlyFans scare, there were the actual shutdowns of RedBook, Rentboy, and Backpage. The platforms where sex workers find and build audiences, monetize their work, connect with one another, and build value for the platform owners, are fundamentally precarious for them.
Without digital tools or platforms, it’s harder for sex workers to promote themselves as independent business people or content creators, screen potential clients for their own safety, or work from the comfort of their home.
To solve this problem for sex workers and adult content creators, Donia Love and Jade Rulz are starting PeepMe, fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas. PeepMe will be a platform cooperative by and for sex workers because they believe that “the path to economic liberation begins with community ownership & governance of our marketplaces.”
They are building a platform that will host adult content and be run by people with lived experience in the adult industry, where surplus profits will be shared among creator-members on the site. They believe that PeepMe can not only change the adult industry, but that it can echo outwards and create positive change across sectors.
Donia Love, above, and Jade Rulz
What brings you to the work of Peep.me?
Donia: I have been in the industry for about [17 or 18] years now. When I got started, sex workers were just starting to come online. I realized sex workers [were] independent business owners who should have access to the same kind of support and tools that any other independent business owner or sole proprietor has access to. As the internet happened, a lot of people rushed into the space. You could say that sex workers were the original creators; porn is really what built the internet.
What I was seeing [was] this trend where [people were asking] how much money can I extract out of the labor of adult content producers or sex workers. I started putting together pro-sex work by design business philosophies and started consulting with small to medium brands that were interested in the space. Then I ended up as the director of customer service, sales, and compliance for a mid-sized global adult brand within the industry. [Then, after eight years of dedicated service, I found myself unemployed after the workers rose up against management.]
In that time, we went through what I would like to call the five epochs. The first one was when RedBook got shut down. And then the second one was when Rentboy got shut down. The third was FOSTA/SESTA then the fourth was Backpage. And then finally the fifth was COVID. And through each one of these, I was able to be the voice of our community and advocate on behalf of their needs. And as each of these epochs happened, I had less and less autonomy to make decisions that I felt good about.
Those [shutdowns] were personally traumatic experiences for me because I interfaced with hundreds, if not thousands, of displaced and marginalized sex workers who felt that they were losing their income and fielding calls from people in tears. And then COVID happened. When that happened, it just really opened my eyes to some of the injustices that were happening [in the industry].
And I was like, “What would it look like for the community to start having governance and ownership of the resources of the marketplaces where they exist and where they survive and where they thrive?” And this is when I started gathering all of my favorite people in the industry [like Jade].
This is hard work, the intersection of sex and money. There's misogyny, there's feminine labor, there's racism, there's homophobia. We are tackling this and then we're doing all of this under capitalism. But we are fucking scrappy and resilient as hell.
Jade: I'm a longtime [but no longer working] sex worker and sex work advocate. And when Donia reached out to me at the beginning of the pandemic, she proposed a pretty fascinating idea and she didn't really get too far into it before I was like, "Take my money, take my money. I want to join you." The world felt really unstable and scary, and this seemed like something that was exciting. So even if it wasn't successful, it was definitely moving in a direction that felt in alignment with my morals and my values and my political aspirations and my social aspirations.
It's exciting to think that we could effect real change, not just for the people who create the content online, but what we could do with the money that we receive from it to further the rights of individuals and sex workers and help them be empowered and make a difference in their lives as well.
For someone who is not familiar with a platform cooperative, how would you define it?
Donia: A platform cooperative is a democratic government, a democratically governed and operated technology platform that is owned and operated by its users. For a lot of retail co-ops, you work for hours or and pay a certain fee and participate in the governance of that part of that space. And any surplus, quarterly or yearly, is then distributed back to its owners and its owners are the people who shop in the grocery store. So very similar approach.
I've always known about co-ops because I worked at [a food co-op]. But I never connected the dots and as soon as I did I was like, “This is it, this is this is what we want to create. We want a cooperative that's owned and operated by its workers and creators.”
There's this whole community of people out there who want to build things like all the same tools we used to exist on the Internet, but they want to make it a more just system by applying a cooperative model to it. This is what we want to do. We want to build the first sex worker-owned and operated platform cooperative because we believe economic liberation is rooted in community ownership of our resources.
Run me through the basics of me about how you see PeepMe working.
Donia: On the base level, it really was designed to be a more cooperative alternative to OnlyFans. So for creators, it'll be a creator platform. Like Patreon, OnlyFans, Twitch, all wrapped into one. It'll be a place where people can monetize their content. And then additionally, people who meet the minimum threshold for membership in the cooperative will be able to participate in the decision making of the company. Although we haven't fleshed out the cooperative guidelines or operating agreements quite what that probably will look like is a democratically elected group from within the community will act as a board overseeing the company and participate in decisions like feature sets, executive leadership, next steps, our five-year plan.
If there's a surplus quarterly, what we do is we'll distribute that back to the community. We're not going to distribute surplus in relationship to what they brought in.
Anybody who meets the minimum threshold for membership will get an equal part of that surplus. When we do our final Exit to Community, sixty percent of the surplus in governance will be overseen by our creator stakeholders, 20 percent will be overseen by our workers stakeholders and then 20 percent by our founder stakeholders.
“Final Exit to Community,” what does that mean?
Jade: We're not starting as a cooperative. In order for this to be a successful exit community, we have to be a for-profit company that has established itself in the industry as a success. It will eventually be something that we will be able to hand off and that's going to be written out in our operating agreements. And we have partnered with another co-op named and they are the ones who are going to be overseeing the cooperative structure for the platform and design.
Donia: The other reason that we're not launching as a cooperative is because there's a lot of regulatory and legal minutia that as an adult company we have to deal with. It's more extraordinary and suffocating than most industries. When we do the final exit, when we hand off this baby to the community, [we want to ensure] that it's in good working form and that it has the foundations, the legal foundations, the compliance foundation, the regulatory foundation, the staffing foundation, the market.
Exit to Community is in place of what traditional for-profit companies do, which is get pretty extractive investment and then exit to IPO or exit to acquisition. We're codifying into our operating agreements that the company cannot be sold and therefore it can't be handed over to somebody without lived experience within the industry. The Exit to Community ensures that we can set up the necessary legal trusts and put that in place so that it always belongs to the community for the life of the platform.
For an audience that's less familiar with the world of sex work, the challenges sex workers and adult digital content creators face, what problems does a platform cooperative solve? Or I suppose another way of saying this is; why not OnlyFans? Why not Patreon? What do these things not do for sex workers?
Jade: OnlyFans is a perfect example of why with their most recent back and forth about removing adult content. We've been talking about OnlyFans doing this since we started a year and a half ago. All of us were aware of the fact that once OnlyFans became successful enough, they were going to try to offload their adult content. None of us were surprised when it happened. I wasn't really even surprised when they renegotiated. They're trying to exit to IPO. It has a really bad impact on the community that uses their platform to make an income, especially at this particular time when so many people are still disadvantaged by the loss of income from the last year and a half, from losing their jobs or from not being able to navigate the world the way they once did.
I, for one, am just sick of seeing sex workers always get the shit end of the stick. It is really problematic to me how as soon as you become a sex worker you become in many eyes less than human, like somehow you relinquished your right to your autonomy or your right to be valued and treated with respect and as an equal human to everyone else in society. And that plays out in small micro aggressions and in laws that sort of denigrate sex workers everywhere. But in this particular sphere, you can see it where as soon as a company wants to become successful, they cut sex workers out. And we've seen that with Tumblr, we've seen that with Facebook. They make it big with sexy content, and then they get rid of it. I hope that OnlyFans suffers the way that Tumblr did. That's what I want for them.
There's a huge amount of value that's being generated. And then there's a precarity for the creators because ultimately these platforms are just going to use all of the cool, amazing content that people are creating, that audiences want, to build themselves up and then jettison it as fast as absolutely possible so that they can sell.
Donia: I think [the answer to] why Peep.me [is that] first of all, we'll codify into the operating agreements that it won't be sold. None of us who are here are in it for a unicorn success story. This is about changing the industry as a whole.
This community rarely has a voice in the decisions that are made at the high level that have a huge negative impact on their community. Sex workers need to be included in those decisions., and through the cooperative model, they are. Additionally the redistribution of wealth and profits.
What I love about the redistribution of surplus, especially the way that we plan on approaching it, is that when one creator makes a sale, every creator on our platform benefits. Like if Bella Thorne had gotten on Peep.me and sold two million dollars in 24 hours, the surplus of that would have been distributed across all of our creators and our workers. I think that people who get involved in our ecosystem will see that they have a voice, will see that they get profit sharing checks every quarter, and they will demand it from their other marketplaces. And then they will go and tell their friends who work outside of the sex work ecosystem and those people will start demanding it from their marketplaces.
We will be open and transparent about how we did this. We will give resources. We will throw ourselves behind other people who want to do this. And so, you know, 20 years from now, 30 years from now, when I'm in my little old folks commune in the middle of nowhere where every Internet place, the Google, the Facebook, (I say that because I'm an old lady), these will be platform cooperatives that the workers will benefit the most from these tools, not just the one percent.
What are the problems that a platform coöperative can't solve? What are the things that you are still running up against in the adult industry, in the sex work industry?
Jade: Regulations that we've been dealing with in terms of money. When we first started, we opened a bank account and [our lawyer recommended that we not tell the bank what it was that we were doing. They said just focus on the fact that you are an advertising and media platform. And after our license was filed, the accountant that we had with us at the time was a little more explicit about what we were doing. And the bank found out because they started checking our license. After a while they closed our account and I was called in. I kept asking them, "Why can't we access our account?" And they were like, "Well, you have to come in and claim the check.” So I walked in and I was escorted to a giant conference room, just me and one other person from the bank. And she leaned over quietly [and asked] "is your platform going to have pornography?"
And I said, “Yes,” and I said that we were in compliance with all of the U.S. laws and we would not be posting anything that was outside of that. And she said, “Well, that's unfortunate, because even if you are doing something legal, we don't deal with adult content companies in our bank.” I asked 14 other banks whether or not they would take our or our account. We run into that sort of roadblock over and over again for payment processors and banks and loans. We're just considered a high risk category.
Nick Kristof went after PornHub and they [briefly] lost their processors for a little while. That in particular is incredibly frustrating to me because I think a lot of the trafficking anti-trafficking movement conflates voluntary and/or consensual sex work of adults with the trafficking of children and unwilling participants. I think it's really hard for a lot of people to think that women have any desire for sex in and of themselves. And it's that puritanical perspective of women's sexuality that really helps promote this idea that all sex work is trafficking.
Donia: not even just the autonomy of women. It's the autonomy of queer [people]. It's the autonomy of brown people. It's the autonomy of Back people, poor people. Sex work is the lowest barrier to access financial liberation for every single marginalized community there is. So the anti-trafficking rhetoric is this really powerful tool to repress the poor and the disenfranchised. To be sure, this is not me saying that it doesn't exist. Or that it's not horrible in its existence. When you think about trafficking for human labor, in factory farms and domestic labor it's a far worse issue.
But, the first thing on our to-do list is to get live and to generate income and to make this successful and make sure it's a safe place for adult content creators online and then to distribute the surplus back. And then with the additional whatever additional surplus we have is to fight to lobby for better regulation and better laws.
You touched already on some of the broader implications that you see for the future of Peep.me, but is there anything else that you want to add about how you hope this could change tech sector, worker issues more generally, sex work specifically? Obviously, these are not mutually exclusive.
Donia: I hope that Peep.me is a blueprint that other people can pick up and create the same thing, not even just in the adult industry, but in every industry. That's where I see the future. [That] we've provided this proof of concept. It's wildly successful. The marketplace is active. Our workers and our creators are taking care of. They feel good and empowered about being on the site. And then people are inspired to go out and copy us. It would be the adult industry 2.0. And then reach far beyond that.
There's other organizations outside the sex work ecosystem tackling this issue. Zebras Unite, the driver's co-op happening in New York City to tackle Uber. There are food co-ops. That's the future that I want to see. That wealth has been redistributed, that people who use platforms are also benefiting the most financially, socially, and socially from the platforms and marketplaces where they exist.
Jade: On a more basic level, I would like to produce something that feels like we're actually paying attention to the demands and needs of the people who are using it. For instance OnlyFans, while being successful, is a bit antiquated in their user interface. And I'd like something that is more elegant, easier to access, more intuitive, and has features that people have been asking for. I would love to see us not just deliver something that sounds good on paper, but is actually really fun to use and really easy to use.
So what do the next few months, year of Peep.me look like? What are the next steps for you all?
Donia: We're about to sign our technology agreement with a really amazing tech co-op called Colab, and they'll be building the technology we spent. We got the banking and the processing and all of that stuff taken care of in the first year. We have a great media team. We have a great marketing team. We have partnered with a sex worker organization who's going to take up the co-op design and now we just need the technology. So the next few months will be spent building the platform and the first two or three while we're building the platform will be spent fundraising. We have pretty ambitious goals. We're trying to raise around $650,000 which will easily take care of the tech. But we also want to start paying ourselves because pretty much everybody on the team is current or former sex worker. Start paying ourselves salaries [and] building a strong launch.
Jade: It'd be nice to be able to devote all of my time to this and just be gainfully employed by the company that I'm in love with. The future is all about Peep.me. That's where that's where I'm at. I love it. I'm riding this ship into the sunset.
Donia: If we want to talk about tech and innovation, I think one of the things that I'm super interested in starting having conversations with our tech team and with other people is the introduction of blockchain and NFTs in a really relevant way into the sex work ecosystem. I think that there's something really revolutionary about the technology, but it's been sort of co-opted by wealth chasers and speculators. Once you get past that bullshit, I think that there's some real value there for this particular industry. Are there ways we can introduce blockchain, crypto, and NFTs into the space in a way that's accessible? Also because blockchain by design is decentralized governance. So it's sort of this nice match made in heaven.
How do people stay involved and support you?
Donia: Give us your money! We've opted out of the traditional investors investing type paradigm because we feel like it’s antithetical to what we're trying to achieve. So what we're looking for is charitable donations. And that's one of the biggest impacts people can make right now is just throw money at us.
People can reach out to us and ask us how they want to get involved. We've got a few tech people reach out. We have creators reaching out. We're going to be hosting a few live virtual events so people can meet us and they can talk to us and we can talk to them about how to get involved in that way. But right now, the biggest and most significant impact that people could make for us would be giving us significant math. I'm not I'm not shy about that. I think what we're doing is really amazing. I think that for donors, the return on investment is what kind of impact could this make. I see a world where it's a totally different type of adult industry. I see a world where, all industry is cooperative. So I think that we're a good philanthropic investment.
Jade: Also for people who are a little short on funds following us on social media [Instagram and Twitter] and retweeting us and posting our posts and just generally spreading the word that we are a startup, we're looking for funding, here's what we are, these are our principles and this is what we aim to do. So just helping us get our message out there would be really supportive as well.
Is there something I didn't ask that you want to make space for or that you want people to know about?
Jade: Pay for your porn. Tip your sex workers, give money to a sex worker.
Donia: Decriminalization over legalization. That's what the community is pushing for. I think it's really important for people to understand how the picking away at the adult industry also undermines pretty much the rights of everybody across any industry.
Jade: We see this as a vehicle for a larger social change. That's really a core motivating factor for both Donia and myself. This is great. And it will be amazing if we're successful and able to help influence other people in the porn industry as well as elsewhere. I'm so excited about the prospect of effecting change from within the system because the system is broken. But it's what we're working with right now. And it can be better.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.