Media & Culture

I Played OnlyBans, An Interactive Game About Online Sex Work. Here’s What I Learned

October 26, 2022 by Emily Mendelson

The need to stay home and, for many, the need to find alternative means of income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a substantial rise in the number of individuals performing sex work online. In May 2020, one camming site alone reported a 22% increase in streaming hours in just one week, while other camming sites saw a near-75% increase in new user signups.  The ability to work as a part of the online sex work gig-economy was (and still is) a financial lifeline for many individuals, which includes many folks from marginalized groups who often encounter discrimination in the nonsexual labor market. For example, for disabled and chronically ill individuals, the flexibility in hours that online sex work affords offers an opportunity to work around unexpected health flare-ups.

Despite the increase in online sex work in recent years, laws such as FOSTA/SESTA have increased the amount of online surveillance sex workers face, which has resulted in the mass de-platforming of sex workers, even on websites like DoorDash. In a study on the impact of FOSTA on sex workers, 72% of participants reported increased economic instability, and 34% reported an increase in violence from clients. As a result, activism to protect the rights of sex workers often aims at counteracting the policing and criminalization that comes with participation in the industry.

One such response to this increased policing is the game OnlyBans. OnlyBans is an interactive performance art piece by Chinese American artist Lena Chen that encourages viewers to critically examine how online surveillance disproportionately impacts queer sex workers of color. Informed by her past experiences as a sex worker, and in collaboration with sex workers and allies, Lena encourages players to step into the world of a sex worker online and see if they can make $200 in six weeks to pay for gas and rent.

While not reflective of just OnlyFans, OnlyBans simulates decisions sex workers must make to balance their time, online presence, and engagement with fans. Through the game, players control how much of their identity they share online, what photos to post (they are already there for you to choose from – you don’t upload anything of your own), and whether to collaborate with other sex workers. 

Throughout the game, players encounter obstacles such as content moderation and account suspension, and learn about how these issues impact sex workers from lived experiences of sex workers themselves. 

I tried to see if I could succeed at completing the game’s goal of $200 in 6 weeks (note that each “week” only takes a few minutes). Below, I detail how my attempts went and what I learned from the experience. I encourage you to try it yourself! You can play Version 2 here: 

Attempt 1:

I was not sure what to expect when I first started, but I made my account, posted my first photo, and I got two fans and made $41! Not such a bad start, but by week two, I was shadowbanned. I ended the third week with $133 and week four with $153. My initial excitement about the momentum of my first post was met with the reality of content moderation and account suspension. I ended week six with $191, just shy of my goal of $200.

Attempt 2: 

Second try? Now I know how this works! Or so I thought. A photo I posted on my first attempt and made me money got my account flagged on my second attempt. Because of all the content moderation warnings I received, I only made $74 by the end of week six! That is definitely not enough money to pay the bills. 

Attempt 3:

I told myself that my third attempt would be my last, regardless of the outcome. Fortunately, I had an even better start than my first attempt! I had already met the $200 goals by the third week and had $213 in my account, and made $233 by the start of week four. However, my account was suspended, and I lost the appeal I made to get it back. Even though I met my short-term goal, my ability to remain on the platform and sustain a living was suddenly taken away. 

What I Learned From Playing OnlyBans

OnlyBans gives players just a small glimpse into the complicated world of online sex work, and–obviously–playing a simulation is far from experiencing the lived realities sex workers experience daily. However, I still learned a lot from my three attempts alone. 

  1. Online platforms are more discriminatory to queer sex workers of color than other demographics. After selecting pictures I thought were completely safe to post, I was brought to multiple stories by queer sex workers of color who explained that their posts were seen by very few individuals, and non-sexual content was often flagged as inappropriate.
  2. Sex worker communities are essential to survival and online safety. I had the option to join a groupchat of other sex workers, and they taught me about collaborations, gave me tips to make more money, and helped me navigate how to get my account back when it was suspended. 
  3. Navigating social media is a complicated guessing game, and your ability to sustain a living as a sex worker online can be taken away from you at an instant. In my second attempt, I won my appeal to get my account back after it was suspended. In my third attempt, I did not. I do not feel like I did anything differently from one attempt to another, and even tried to play my third attempt “safer.” This approach did not seem to matter when it came to the appeal decision. 

I don’t want to spoil too much of the experience, but I encourage anyone who is invested in the safety and protection of sex workers to see how they do on OnlyBans. Check out Hacking//Hustling and Stop Sesta/Fosta (links below) to learn more about the impacts of censorship on online sex work as well as further reading and resources.

This post was written by Emily Mendelson, Co-Managing Editor of Sex and Psychology. Learn more about Emily here.

Want to learn more about Sex and Psychology? Click here for more from the blog or here to listen to the podcast. Follow Sex and Psychology on Facebook, Twitter (@JustinLehmiller), or Reddit to receive updates. You can also follow Dr. Lehmiller on YouTube and Instagram.

Image Credits: Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash


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Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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