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There are some people on the internet who don’t want to be found. That seems to be the case for the elusive, mysterious owner of Stripperweb, a twenty-year-old forum for exotic dancers and sex workers. With just one week of advance notice, the forum’s unknown owner announced that the website will shut down on February 1, erasing the decades-long digital footprint of a community on the margins.
“This place was a digital dressing room where I could listen in on thousands of interesting, profane, disgusting, inspirational, challenging and painfully true experiences,” said a forum moderator, who uses the screen name Optimist, in an email to TechCrunch. “I didn’t feel alone and isolated anymore. This was a digital home that accepts us all, no matter [how] broke, busted, or disgusted.”
The news of Stripperweb’s closure broke last week with a simple notice posted to the top of the website, which is decorated in innumerable different shades of pink.
“For over 20 years, Stripperweb has been one of the best resources for exotic dancers and webcam models on the internet. We’ve made the difficult decision to close Stripperweb effective February 1st. We urge you all to check out AmberCutie’s Forum as a possible new home after we close. Thank you to everyone who has made this such an amazing community.”
Longtime members and moderators acted quickly, driven by a slew of unanswered questions. Who posted the message? Why now? And why choose a seemingly random forum as a refuge?
Taja Ethereal, a Stripperweb moderator who uses the screen name PhatGirlDynomite!!!, took action immediately and offered to buy the site outright.
“The first offer was $12,000… I’m losing my head right now. He wouldn’t even come to the table for $12,000, to be paid out in 24 hours, in cash,” she said. “Even if this person is wealthy, why would you leave money on the table unless the site has already been purchased?”
Taja Ethereal said she knows that the owner saw her offer – but she still doesn’t know who the owner is, or if the site was already sold. None of the moderators know, even those like her and Optimist who have been on the site for decades, putting in years of labor to educate newer dancers about staying safe and getting paid.
Time is ticking. Some sex workers have swiftly taught themselves the Python programming language, writing scripts to scrape decades of data from Stripperweb for posterity. Others are diving deep into the earliest history of the forums, searching for clues as to who might hold the key to the most comprehensive, collaborative archive of what life is like for sex workers in the twenty-first century.
A Stripperweb member named cutiecam, who has been on the forum for over seven years, explained it succinctly: “This is a literal digital museum.” Another user, neverendingkneebruises, wrote on the forum, “I think almost every single dancer [came] across this website when they were starting, no joke… This site helped me get into the industry with standards and boundaries!”
Yet even in the face of five-figure cash offers and intense sleuthing, the owner of Stripperweb and their motivations remain a mystery.
stripperweb is shutting down next week?! The depth of knowledge & advice on this forum is incalculable! An immense communal & cultural loss for dancers, esp new girls looking for a solid resource to start. pic.twitter.com/KZGC38kSoS
— marla cruz (@prolepeach) January 25, 2023
‘Losing our communal memory’
For those in the know, the cultural value of Stripperweb’s poppy, retro pages has been obvious since its infancy. Now a criminology professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, Dr. Lisa Monchalin wrote a master’s thesis about Stripperweb in 2006, analyzing conversations from the forums to investigate the motivations of professional strippers. While sex work is often assumed to be a financial last resort, the conversations on Stripperweb proved otherwise, according to Monchalin’s study.
Stripperweb is an appealing source for academic research, since it provides such an unfiltered, honest look into a historically stigmatized profession. For the dancers who found each other on the forum, it’s also one of the only places they can talk openly about the challenges, victories and nuances of their daily lives. Despite the forum’s name, Stripperweb evolved to include a spectrum of different types of sex work, including camming, acting in porn clips and operating phone sex hotlines.
“Losing Stripperweb is losing our communal memory,” Marla Cruz told TechCrunch. Cruz is a dancer who turned to the forums for guidance when she entered the industry in 2017. “You could mention Stripperweb in any dressing room, and dancers would chime in about their experiences on the forum, or what they learned from the forum. It was that ubiquitous, that everybody kind of knew what it was, but for some of them, it was like, ‘Stripperweb is the Holy Grail of strippers’ knowledge. It’s my Bible.’”
The early lore of Stripperweb’s founding has already been lost to the detritus of the internet. But in that 17-year-old master’s thesis, Monachlin inadvertently preserved a now-forgotten relic of the early forum, which explains how and why the site was founded.
The story of Stripperweb begins in 2001. Pryce, a college student who programmed websites as a side gig, heard from his dancer friends that they couldn’t find a good, central community online.
“One day […] Pryce mentioned creating a better site – one that was positive, full of quality advice, and one that gave exotic dancers new tools to help them do their job better and make more money,” reads the origin story reprinted in Monchalin’s thesis.
Sure enough, a user who goes simply by “Pryce” served as the admin of the forums for many years. A WHOIS domain lookup reveals that the website is owned by someone who uses the email [email protected], but that address – as well as every other Stripperweb email address – is no longer active.
In a post commemorating the ten-year anniversary of Stripperweb in 2012, Pryce echoes the founding story captured in Monchalin’s thesis.
“StripperWeb first opened to the public on January 4th, 2002. Things have certainly changed since then,” Pryce wrote. “I was just a college kid trying to figure out what the Internet could be used for. At the same time, a group of exotic dancers were in need of a virtual hang out to call home. After 6 months and a LOT of late nights, we had a whopping 74 members! That was incredible in those days. Fast forward 10 years, thanks to the growth of the Internet, social media, and all of you posting – we now get 30-50 new members DAILY.”
Pryce wrote that a man named Wayne, “an experienced consultant with access to quality resources,” would lead a team of developers and administrators who would take over his role. Members also recall an admin named Bob managing the forums after Pryce’s departure.
Pryce, Wayne and Bob did not respond to requests for comment, sent via email and Stripperweb’s direct messaging system.
As the forum approaches its final days, one section of that ten-year-old post sticks out. Pryce offers thanks to someone he calls “The Other Owner,” in quotes.
“Thank you so much for your support over the past 6 years. You offered to carry most of our financial burden at a critical time,” Pryce wrote. “Since then, no matter what, you have stayed true to your words and continued to help significantly. I respect the loyalty you have shown. Additionally, at times when the site needed extra funds to complete hardware upgrades or software updates, again you contributed. I thank you on behalf of the community.”
That ten-year commemorative post was Pryce’s last on the forum; his profile shows that he has not logged in since 2013. Taja Ethereal said she believes that this “other owner” is still in control of the site.
Optimist remembers this time on Stripperweb as “a long, strange tale.” These days, the forum is overwhelmingly dominated by conversations among actual sex workers. But according to Optimist, the forum used to have a robust, bright blue counterpart to the pastel pink pages where so many dancers have found refuge.
“The site used to be twice the size it is now because there was a blue board to match the pink board,” she told TechCrunch. “The idea was that the customers had their own area, and we had our area.”
Some men on “the blue side” simply exchanged tales of their experiences in clubs; others tried to arrange meetups with the dancers, who then asked Pryce to close off certain areas of the forum for privacy reasons. But Optimist says he refused.
In some threads from the blue board — which still exist, mostly inactive, in the deep recesses of Stripperweb — men discuss whether or not it’s okay to track down girls from the forums at their clubs. Others debate whether getting a dancer’s number means she’s romantically interested, or if she just wants to text you to come in on a slow night. On other forums, the men compare notes about their “free” sex lives. Taja Ethereal still refers to male customers who intrude on Stripperweb conversations as “blues.”
Optimist added, “[Pryce] claimed it was a stripper support site that he and his stripper girlfriend created for the community. But we had no control over it or [means of] protecting ourselves beyond using avatars and fake names.”
‘COVID is like this generation of strippers’ 2008’
A lot changed over the years on Stripperweb. When the forum first opened in 2002, Internet Explorer held 95% of the market share for web browsers, Mark Zuckerberg was an unknown high schooler, YouTube didn’t exist and the top-selling cell phone was the Nokia 6610, which could only hold 75 text messages.
The sex industry itself has changed a lot too.
“There used to be a lot of money in stripping,” Optimist said. “Average girls were walking into good regional clubs and walking out with at least $1,000 per shift on average. So we had women putting their ‘vanilla’ careers aside to make two to four thousand dollars a week.”
When the 2008 recession hit, the industry was sent into a tailspin. Though Cruz was not in the industry at the time, she learned about the economic impact on strip clubs from old Stripperweb forums, as well as elder dancers from work.
“The site has been running since the early aughts, and what’s interesting is that if you actually look through the years, you can kind of see the ebbs and flows of engagement,” Cruz said. “You see these two really big breaks in 2008 for the recession, and then 2020 under COVID.”
In the midst of the 2008 downturn, Page Six wrote of a “lap deficit” and declared that “Wall Street’s financial crisis has trickled down to Manhattan’s mammary meccas.” In other words, fewer big spenders could pay for lap dances.
“I worked at a club where there were a handful of 40- to 50-year-old dancers who had been dancing for 20 years,” Cruz said. When COVID hit in 2020, the older dancers reflected on their past experiences with a sudden economic shift. “COVID is like this generation of strippers’ 2008. It was a big bomb that went off and decimated everything, and all the dancers were kind of like, left in this wake to fend for themselves.”
As strip clubs closed down for the pandemic, some dancers took their talents online, working as livesteaming camgirls or as creators on adult clip sites. Naturally, the pandemic generated a boom in online sex work. The platform OnlyFans became a household name, bringing in $375 million in 2020, then $1.2 billion in 2021. The company has only continued to grow.
Cruz theorized that Stripperweb’s closure could be linked to the changing state of the industry, but there are a number of possible explanations, including the increasingly suffocating legislative changes to online sex work.
In 2018, former President Donald Trump signed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) into law after it received bipartisan support in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The legislation overrides Section 230, the statute that renders social platforms immune to liability for what users post – under FOSTA, social platforms can be indicted for enabling illegal sex work.
Laws like FOSTA are positioned as ways to curb sex trafficking, but in practice, the policy has been shown to have made sex work less safe. In 2020, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) proposed a study on the secondary effects of SESTA/FOSTA on sex workers.
“Sex workers have reported a reduced ability to screen potential clients for safety, and negotiate for boundaries such as condom use, resulting in reports of physical and sexual violence,” the bill says. “Many sex workers have turned to street-based work, which has historically involved higher rates of violence than other forms of transactional sex.”
To comply with the law, many credit card processors have cracked down on adult payments, even for legal online sex work.
“Liability is not just about whether or not something’s legal or illegal,” Cruz told TechCrunch. “If you’re a legal sex worker – if you do OnlyFans, or if you’re a stripper – and you have an account with Bank of America, for example, Bank of America can decide to shut down your account. You’re at high risk because you’re associated with adult services.”
Cruz thinks that whoever owns Stripperweb might have chosen to shut it down due to potential liability concerns under FOSTA, but the timing seems strange, since the law has been in effect for over four years.
“It could be something to do with FOSTA, like the hammer’s coming down,” said Taja Ethereal. “Every time you turn around, something’s becoming more difficult to do, like people losing their payment processors. We tried to be legit with adult payment processors – they are shrinking, shrinking, shrinking.” She added that one company she works with recently got banned from using Wells Fargo.
“It seems like the noose is getting tighter and tighter.”
‘This site is the most support they’ve ever had’
From advice for dealing with antagonistic customers, to guidance on how to navigate changing legislation, Stripperweb has continually served as a resource for workers in the adult industry. While some community leaders try to hunt down the owner of the forum to negotiate, others have resigned to the possibility of losing the forums forever. In the final days before the February 1 deadline, some denizens of Stripperweb have worked tirelessly to preserve its twenty years of forums as an everlasting archive, writing their own programs and leveraging tools from the Internet Archive to salvage as much of their history as possible.
Taja Ethereal set up two computers to run for twelve hours at a time, scraping as much data from Stripperweb as possible. She’s not the only one.
“A lot of people are archiving it, and then I have other people who I have hooked up with from Twitter. They’re sending these .zip files,” she told TechCrunch. “So basically, it looks like I’m gonna end up with two hard drives filled with files.”
Within days, much of the website was uploaded to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, though it’s not a complete copy of the site. Once all of the data is retrieved, another Herculean task awaits: organizing twenty years of unwieldy, retro internet forums.
Many of these conversations are merely historical relics – one thread about stripper safety from the early 2000s recommends that dancers invest in a cell phone – yet some advice from the forums is timeless.
“The most chilling thing about the site being destroyed instead of sold to a loving supportive group of industry women, is that for some newbie cammers and dancers, that site is the most support they’ve ever had,” Optimist said. “They literally come on to chat like we’re sisters or like elder family members.”
When the site shuts down, there won’t be a central place for forum members to go. The site’s vague notice about the shutdown offers a forum operated by a sex worker named AmberCutie as an alternative, but Stripperweb users seem unenthused, since her forum focuses specifically on camming, rather than other trades like dancing. It’s not clear why the site now points people toward that particular forum, but some users say it reflects how out of touch the owner is with what the community needs. AmberCutie did not respond to a request for comment.
Taja Ethereal wonders if the repository of advice on Stripperweb is exactly what led to its downfall. Dancers share tips on which clubs to avoid, what they should expect to be paid and how they know if they’re getting ripped off. She describes the website like an unofficial union. Last year, dancers at Star Garden in North Hollywood went on strike for eight months before receiving approval from the National Labor Relations Board to conduct an election to join the Actors’ Equity union. If they win their vote, they would become the first unionized strip club since 2013, when the Lusty Lady club in San Francisco closed.
Taja Ethereal says she became suspicious when she and other moderators wanted to upgrade sections of Stripperweb where dancers compare notes about which clubs are safe to work at, but their requests were denied or ignored.
“Why wouldn’t you want a resource so people can find out what’s a good club, what’s a bad club?” she said. “Other people have said that maybe that’s because strip club owners don’t want us talking about their clubs.”
As the community prepares for Stripperweb to close, the members of the forum are looking for a place to go – Taja Ethereal started a website called Cammodelweb, almost an homage to the forum she’s spent more than a decade moderating. As the mysterious, unknown owner lets the forum disappear, its members lament the loss of an accessible place for new sex workers to learn how to stay safe and take care of themselves.
“Right now, there are women living in precarious situations who need help getting hired, getting their hustle down before they end up homeless. Girls fly into a city on a ‘Strip Trip’ and need to know what to do,” Optimist said. “They’ll look up on Wednesday and 20 years of aunties who left their best advice will be gone.”