From cam girls to performance artists - An interview about sex work in the Digital Age with #rp18 speaker Lena Chen

Close-up of Lena Chen

Photo Credit: Lorenzo Cervantes

Jessica Fowler by Shifted News

Lena Chen is not only a feminist  performance artist, writer and outspoken queer activist, but also a self-proclaimed walking case study on bad publicity, which has not kept re:publica from choosing her to be one of this year’s speakers for the Fe:male Digital Footprint Topic.

We were lucky enough to meet the Harvard graduate who is currently splitting her time between Los Angeles and Berlin before the convention to talk about how the internet has changed the working conditions for sex workers and give us a little glimpse into what we can expect from her talk Live Nude Girls: Feminist Art & Sex Work in the Digital Age.

Your talk at re:publica is going to revolve around how the internet has revolutionized art and sex work. What are some of the aspects of this development?

Already back in the nineties the internet was in the process of changing the way we form human connections and people were just starting to experiment with things like cam work, which was still considered kind of riskey and on the margins. Nowadays, there’s a lot more visibility particularly when it comes to online sex work. It’s a lot easier to access, the platforms are much more intuitive. The same can be said of the Gig Economy. Anyone can be an Uber driver or work for foodora.

These all sound like positive developments. Are there any downsides to it as well?

Sure, these people are not actually working for a real human entity. Instead they’re working for this brand, for a very anonymous boss who nonetheless holds a lot of power over them. So, exploitation in many ways has been streamlined through technology. Far from liberating us, it’s actually just making means of exploitation more effective. Additionally, a lot of things that we consent to online when we use platforms like Facebook is actively being commodified and sold. Yet simultaneously people find it necessary to have these platforms in order to curate and create their digital identities. And if you want to survive in the current economy you have to have a digital identity. But I think it creates a lot of value for certain multinational corporations, and I’m not sure what the implications are for the psychological well-being of people and for workers themselves.

What is your outlook on how online sex work is going to develop in the future?

I actually think in the years to come we’re going to find people returning to non-digital interactions as a form of intimacy. Because as much as I think the internet can facilitate, I think it also acts as a barrier to connection. I would also be interested to see how sex workers and artists now respond to censorship and to other rollbacks on our freedom of expression online. It might not be that the most effective stance is to fight it, but rather to develop strategies that don’t take place on platforms where we can be surveilled and where our data is collected. Maybe it’s going back to analogue techniques and underground methods