Tweets and past comments from Leftist Twitch streamer Hasan Piker have kicked off yet another argument online about whether sex work is inherently exploitative.
On Thursday, Piker tweeted a video from inside of a strip club, where a young man wearing one of his t-shirts gets a lap dance. Shay, a dancer working at that club, took the video and sent it to Piker; she told me that she had everyone's consent who appeared in the video to record and share it. The tweet reignited the endless debate about whether sex work is exploitation, with some Piker fans accusing him of taking advantage of what they perceive to be an inherently exploitative type of work, and others who claim that sex work is simply work made more dangerous and exploitative because of stigmatization, marginalization, and criminalization.
One of the people arguing in the Twitter thread about the lap dance replied to Piker and wrote, "Just wondering why your followers engaging in the sexual exploitation of women is something you want to brag about."
They then tweeted a video from a stream between Piker and Félix “xQc” Lengyel (who was banned from the Overwatch League in 2018 for using homophobic insults against another player), where Piker talks about his experience hiring sex workers.
"I've had sex with, not even escorts—I've gone to a brothel, Artemis, in Berlin, and had sex with the workers there," he said. Piker has been outspoken on streams and Twitter before about sex workers' rights. "I'm in a space dominated by gamers where some of the more vocal minorities have reactionary points of view against sex work and sex workers, sometimes women in general, so it comes up more often than you'd think!" he told me.
All of this set off a debate online about whether sex work, stripping, and brothels are inherently exploitative. In 2016, Berlin authorities raided Artemis in a "human trafficking" investigation. (Piker said that the clip is from a few months ago, but his visit to Artemis was around 2010.) Some people on Twitter used this as a point to argue that all brothel-keeping, and all sex work, is exploitative—a line that sex-worker exclusionary radical feminists use to make condition less safe for marginalized workers, pressuring platforms, payment processors, and lawmakers into pushing them further to the margins.
As one of the most popular and polarizing figures on Twitch, Piker regularly trends on Twitter for actions that may or may not be controversial if done by someone else. Piker was criticized after buying a $2.74 million home in West Hollywood and after the Twitch hack, which revealed that he was among the most highly paid streamers on Twitch; the general thrust of the criticism was that he was hypocritical for making a lot of money from capitalism while talking about how capitalism is bad.
Articles about the Artemis raid relied on police reports, which said that the brothel "constituted a 'brutal and illegal' system that severely exploited dependent women." Just because the cops say they've conducted a "human trafficking sting," however, doesn't necessarily mean there was any actual human trafficking happening. During raids, police have stolen from sex workers, brutally abused them, sexually assaulted them, and put them in handcuffs in the name of "saving" them. News reports about raids almost always rely on the word of a police spokesperson, but cops frequently lie to the media.
In the Artemis sting, the six people detained were accused of tax fraud and withholding social security contributions.
"I don’t think sex work/stripping is inherently exploitive," Shay told me. Many of the arguments people have against sex work bring up the same conditions people in other industries experience, she said—bad customers, long hours, low wages and strict schedules. It's not for everyone, she said, but for her it was freeing and often, fun. Many sex workers argue that they went into their line of work not out of desperation but because, for some people, it can pay well, offers flexible hours, and they enjoy it.
“I wish people on both sides would see we’re just normal people going to work like everybody else.”
"All work under capitalism is done under coercive and exploitative conditions," Piker told me. "I believe in improving material conditions, helping workers gain autonomy and take more of their surplus labor value back. Consensual sex work in a safe environment can and has achieved that for many sex workers I am friends with, however anti sex work takes—especially those that conflate all sex work with sex trafficking—create an unsafe space for those who would like to do sex work." Decriminalization of sex work and ending the vilification of sex workers, he said, could make it easier to find those who are actually harming people in the industry.
"Of course there are crappy customers but that comes with any industry. The difference is if I have problems, I can either leave or my managers and security have my back and the customer is thrown out," Shay said. "I go to work, get paid to entertain people, talk with them, and have drinks with them, and I go home. People just have this preconceived notion of what a strip club is like and what strippers are like and it seems we’re either victims or dirty whores undeserving of love. I wish people on both sides would see we’re just normal people going to work like everybody else.”
Piker added that legislation like the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act has made it harder for sex workers to avoid the kind of abusive situations that people are talking about now. "These are some of the most marginalized people on the planet for creating something many love and enjoy," he said. "I shouldn't speak for them, but as someone who watches porn and is friends with many sex workers, as someone who cares about workers it would be hypocritical of me not to defend them. Sex work is real work."