A token is a token is a token
As a social technology, 1 money is one with many incarnations: a unit of account and a store of value, a commodity, a measure of labor-power, an extractive tool, an equalizer that produces inequality. A slippery entity, money is at once embedded in social interactions and detached from them, being ‘both personal and impersonal, subjective and objective, analytical and synthetic.’ 2 Money, however, is never just money, and not even made-up currencies are simple. On sexcam platforms (such as Chaturbate.com, Bongacams or MyFreeCams), a ‘token’ is at the same time the name of a unit of its made-up currency (‘tokens’) and its descriptor (something issued by an authority that can be exchanged later on). A token stands in for something else. But what else, exactly? As Lotte Louise de Jong’s Tokens shows, sexcam tokens have different uses and meanings for the audience and performers. These differences do not only happen at the users’ level but are sustained by an ecology of associated payment services that deepen the contrast between them. An analysis of the differences in cost and value of tokens shows their many roles.
A free platform
The complexity of tokens is related to the self-declared status of sexcams as ‘free platforms.’ Two common types of platforms clash here: a user-generated content platform (such as YouTube) and a hire on-demand one (such as Uber or TaskRabbit). As platforms that provide user-generated content, sexcam platforms usually do not ask for an entrance fee, nor a mandatory membership. Most of the shows are free to watch, and it is the performers’ job to encourage what are defined as voluntary donations (‘tips’) during them. However, the sexcam platform never mentions these services as such–neither as work nor sex work. With this trick, the platform not only eludes legalities but sustains its fiction–and keeps half of the money.
Broadcasting from what looks like domestic environments (or settings presented in that way), performers make clear that, rather than working, they are having fun. The audience, then, can enjoy the experience because nobody is ‘working’–considered a not-fun activity –and performers cannot make demands about the conditions of their work for the same reason. This has three interconnected capitalist precedents: the disregard of domestic work as work, the usual illegality or criminalization of sex work, and the separation between work and leisure. Tokens, through their fictitious nature, facilitate this triple articulation.
If sexcam performers have to pretend that they are not working, and money is not discussed, how do they get paid? There is not only one answer–and often, the answer is that they do not. Most of the performers expect to receive tips during their shows–as in busking. There are also many different strategies to encourage tips, being the most common to set up monetary goals matched with specific sexual acts. The audience collaborates to reach those goals in a tacit crowdfunding model–or, more exactly, a crowdfucking one. 3 Other strategies include organizing contests or using bots and apps. However, the performers’ earnings do not depend on single events but on their succession. Reputation is key for this reason, achieved for some through regularity and the construction of a fan base, attracted not only by sexual shows but by the interactions with the performers that include conversation and care. More than affective labor, then, sexcam platforms are about the laboring of affect.
The audience buys and holds tokens, spend them, and start the cycle again. The incentives for doing so vary. Tokens not only sustain the platform but are for the audience a communication tool. Despite its fictitious nature, tokens carry and trigger affect, enable conversations, create a reputation, prompt smiles. Tokens allow the audience to be seen by the performer and the public, express and gain recognition, contribute to the room’s ambiance, influence the show, and affect the performers’ bodies. Tokens also have material incarnations through color, sound, and the possibility to remotely activate sex-toys used by the performers. If money is a source of social recognition, sexcam platforms make this statement literal by assigning different colors to users, according to how many tokens they have and how much they have recently spent. The ability to chat is sometimes restricted to users with tokens, and users that tip are named and acknowledged during the show. As voluntary gratuities that express appreciation and allow recognition and interaction, tokens are the audience’s affective currency.
Besides differences in their value depending on who uses them, tokens have different costs. Once purchased, the tokens’ value within the platform is half of the original purchase price. In this way, tokens are a technology that allows the exchange of the same quantity for a different price, with just a sleight of hand. Although blatant, the difference between bought and cashed tokens does not stop here. At each side of the transaction, this difference is enacted through two distinct systems, systems that determine the ease of their conversion into cash (see Fig.1).
Indeed, there are two different ecologies of associated payment services for performers and for the audience–and the platform connects them. Standard and recognized payment services, such as Visa or PayPal, are available for the audience (to buy tokens) but not for performers (to be paid). Performers have fewer options and must use less-reliable services, often with bigger associated fees. These differences show the ecology of interconnected services that sustain what can be called differential exploitation 4 towards sex workers. However, the platform not only profits from connecting these two different markets but engages in similar discriminatory practices by, for example, valuing tokens differently depending on geographic zones.
Sexcam platforms are built upon a domestic paradigm that signals the platform’s services and how value is extracted there. The limit of this construction, yet entangled with it, is sex work. This assemblage determines who the client is on the platform and who provides the service, what is considered work and what is not, who has the right to wages and who does not. The lack of recognition–of work as sex work and of sex work as work–prevents workers from organizing or receive protection, allowing the sexcam platform to establish abusive practices with no consequences.
Despite their apparent simplicity and fictional nature, tokens are coins of many sides. On the sexcam platforms, tokens are a technology that allows differential exploitation, taking advantage of deeply embedded systems of oppression. The interplay between the different values and costs of tokens, for audience and performers, is at the core of this technology. Marxist feminists have shown reproductive labor as structural to capitalism. 5 The sexcam platform not only agrees: it is its business’ area.
Tokens is a work by artist Lotte Louise de Jong with the collaboration of artist and researcher Antonia
Text by Antonia Hernández.
Thanks to the performers:
YoungRiceWang, Lady Morrigan, Oliver Valentine, Residual, Faith and Fawna Fuller.
Programming by Luke Murphy and webdesign by Tancredi Di Giovanni.
Thanks to all staff at V2 and all fellow residents.
Any proceedings of the project will be donated to SWARM Collective, a collective founded and led by sex workers who believe in self-determination, solidarity and co-operation.
- 1. Zelizer, The Social Meaning of Money.
- 2. Hart, “Heads or Tails?”
- 3. Martins, “I’m the Operator with My Pocket Vibrator.”
- 4. Atanasoski and Vora, Surrogate Humanity.
- 5. Federici, Revolution at Point Zero; Bhattacharya, Social Reproduction Theory.