When you run a business, the conventional wisdom is to present a front of certainty at all times. If you're feeling ambivalent, the theory goes, don't let on; potential customers will pick up on it, and it might make them feel ambivalent too. It's better to hide your doubts, and manifest confidence and certainty that your product is the best there is. So the theory goes.
The problem is that if you're genuinely feeling ambivalent, it's hard to sound positive without it feeling fake. And if your business is founded on principles of authenticity, transparency and genuine self-expression, that fake feeling can amplify any feelings of ambivalence that already exist. It's a negative spiral. And if I'm truly honest, this is where I'm at right now with Dreams of Spanking.
Stopping and starting
When ATVOD first started investigating us, the site was going from strength to strength. Girl on the Net, AJ and I were working together as a solid team; we were earning international recognition and winning awards at film festivals. For the first time since we launched in 2011, I'd managed to get my own workload down to a manageable level. We were earning enough that everyone was getting paid - even me, and I've always made a point of paying everyone else before I take anything for myself.
After three years investing time, energy and money into the project, it was genuinely starting to pay off. I could even envisage a time when I might be able to hand over the video editing to a trusted colleague, and move onto new pastures while continuing to earn a little passive income from the project into which I had poured so much. Pensions are a tricky business for self-employed sex workers, but Dreams of Spanking was my first real chance at a nest egg. I didn't pay myself for most of the work I did nursing it to life in the beginning, but I was hoping that eventually, it would all work out.
Then ATVOD came to call, and after a gruelling investigation the site was forced offline for ten months. From a business perspective, this was a massive blow. Never mind that we were politically and morally vindicated in the end; we eventually won our appeal and earned the right to relaunch. My protestations that the AVMS regulations were unjust, and ATVOD was enforcing them unjustly, were eventually proved right when my appeal was upheld; but never mind that. The damage was done.
It's hard for any business to recover from an enforced hiatus. It's not just the loss of traffic and search engine rank; it's the human aspect too. Fans, promoters and affiliates get bored waiting and look elsewhere. If I'm honest, after my initial grief at ATVOD's verdict, my own focus has shifted too. During those ten months I was able to pursue other interests for the first time since I launched Dreams of Spanking. I travelled, exercised, got therapy, re-invested in friendships and relationships. I engaged with other forms of rewarding work. I made time for play. When I first heard the verdict I felt like my life had been taken away; but in some ways, the hiatus gave me my life back.
More pressingly, while the site was offline, the press attention surrounding the ATVOD verdict gave me the platform to to raise awareness about issues I cared about. I renewed my political activism, and launched a Patreon campaign to crowdfund the work I'm doing to challenge sex work criminalisation and promote sexual freedom. In the midst of trauma and loss from seeing the biggest creative project of my life destroyed, I was able to find a renewed sense of purpose.
Then it all got complicated again. Privately, I was told that I'd won my appeal - but that I couldn't announce it yet. I felt conflicted. I was happy to have won - but increasingly frustrated at having the rules of this game dictated to me; at not being free to express myself. The practicalities were stressful, too. I knew I would at some point be able to re-open the site, but that I wouldn't know when until much nearer the time. That not-knowing was hard. It was impossible to make plans; I didn't know if I could start new projects, or if I would suddenly have put everything else on hold to relaunch the site at short notice. When I launched Dreams of Spanking in 2011 I had created a fulltime job for myself. In 2015 that was taken away without my consent; and now it was being thrust back on me, and in some ways, I felt just as powerless. It felt like whatever steps I took to build a fulfilling, self-actualised life for myself, the government would stick their oar in and mess up my plans.
Of course I'm happy Dreams of Spanking won our appeal. Ofcom made the right decision; ATVOD should never have ruled against us, and the law and the whole investigation was unjust from the start. But the disruption was devastating both financially and personally, and picking up the pieces and trying to rebuild it didn't make the whole thing right again. After winning the appeal, it wasn't like the investigation had never happened.
So we co-ordinated the announcement of the appeal win, and in June I finally re-opened the site. But I was permitted a mere four weeks to enjoy our victory before the next cloud appeared on the horizon.
And now, after so many ups and downs, the future of Dreams of Spanking is still depressingly precarious.
The costs of age verification
The Digital Economy Bill is currently going through Parliament, and has just come to the end of its committee stage. The section of the Bill introducing compulsory age verification for all adult sites accessible from the UK will have a serious impact on Dreams of Spanking, and on many other adult websites.
Complying with this legislation will be difficult, if not impossible. First of all, I'll have to overhaul the whole site structure of Dreams of Spanking. Any content that would be classified as "18" or higher will be illegal to publish publicly, on the open internet. So video, images and audio that contain any nudity, bums or spanking will need to go behind intrusive, privacy-violating age checks.
To prove you're over 18, you'll have to type in sensitive personal details such as your legal name, credit card details, date of birth, address or phone number. That data will be visible not to me, but to whatever age verification system I install - private companies that are free to operate unregulated, and without having to safeguard the security and privacy of your personal data.
Not only is this terrible for you, it's terrible for me. Every age check will cost me money - estimates range from £0.05 to £1.50 per check. Dreams of Spanking currently receives over two thousand visitors a day (under half the traffic we had before ATVOD forced us offline), so the cost of checking the age of every site visitor would add up to significantly more than the site's total revenue - and that's before we take into account existing costs such as production, paying my team members, and bandwidth. In other words, complying with the age verification law will immediately put the site out of business.
Even if I can somehow persuade enough of those two thousand visitors to buy memberships that I can afford to verify all their ages, the site will never be the same. This law will mean no more public previews. No free trailers, no preview images, no free hosted galleries, no birthday spanking giveaways, no Creative Commons projects and no charity caning films. No more getting around CCBill's content restrictions by giving material away.
No more transparency, and no more free porn.
The value of giving things away
When I launched the site, it was hugely important to me that I didn't follow the standard paysite model. You know the one: some garish tour pages with flashing banners and fleshy montages, with all the actual scene previews, video trailers and so on behind a paywall. It's a scarcity based business model; the only way you can get to see the good stuff is by paying. I personally believe that's one reason why piracy has been such a problem for the porn industry - people resent having the content they want to see withheld, and it motivates them to buck the system by filesharing.
Instead, I wanted something closer to a loyalty model. Rather than trying to force a situation where buying a membership is the only way you can see Dreams of Spanking films (which is impossible when filesharing is so common), I wanted to make it so that people wanted to support the project. The idea of the model I came up with is that I give lots away, and you trust you know what you're getting if you do decide to pay. The brand gets more visibility; you feel more included. Everyone wins.
I have no desire for my porn to pop up in the browsers of young children who won't know how to assess what they're seeing, and might be distressed by it. But I don't use popup advertising, and Dreams of Spanking doesn't have high enough search rank for children to "accidentally" stumble across it. Even if a child did somehow find the link to the homepage, they'd have to click through the content warning page, scroll down, and click again on a link to an individual scene in order to see anything other than tiny thumbnails.
It is, I admit, possible that older teens, who are already interested in exploring their sexuality - and who may well be over the age of consent for sexual intercourse - might look for erotic content online, and find Dreams of Spanking. Realistically, this is unlikely to happen unless they're explicitly searching for "spanking". And if curious young people - perhaps wrestling, as I did, with the fear that because they fantasise about spanking there's something wrong with them - type "spanking" into a search engine and end up here, then at least they'll see a site that prioritises consent. They'll see interviews, behind the scenes videos, comments, and respectful copy that celebrates the whole personhood of our performers. They'll see body positivity, queer inclusivity, and gender equality.
If sexually curious teenagers are going to look for porn, I'd rather they found my porn than some of the other stuff that's out there, because at least then they'll be receiving healthy, positive messages about negotiation, communication, body image, gender, and consent.
Free previews are valuable to adult viewers too. I want kinky queer people, kinky fat people, and kinky people of colour to be able to see people in porn who look like them. No-one with a spanking fetish deserves to feel shame about their kink. I want as much of the site as possible to be public, because I want as many people as possible to become resilient to the sex-shaming and kink-shaming that are so prevalent in our culture - regardless of whether or not they can afford a membership.
If I was independently wealthy and could operate Dreams of Spanking as a free site, believe me, I would. Even as it is, the total pay I've drawn from the business over five years adds up to way less than a living wage.
So these core principles of transparency, visibility, and open dialogue about kink, diversity and consent, are absolutely fundamental to the Dreams of Spanking manifesto. And now, the age verification law will make it impossible for us to uphold them. Everything will be locked down, hidden away.
The legislation applies to audio and still images as well as video, so those won't be exempt. This blog will cease to be publically visible; all the discourse I have engaged in over the years about how to make porn in an ethical and feminist way will cease to be findable via Google. Years of careful tagging to make our scenes show up in searches will be destroyed in a single blow: you won't be able to find Dreams of Spanking via a search engine any more. It will be like a return to the secret libraries of Victorian England: only accessible to the wealthy, to those in the know, those with the privilege to not have anything to lose by sharing their identity or risking their privacy.
One of the many ways in which the internet has been a positive force for change is that it has opened up the discourse about sex and sexuality; made the topic more visible, invited more people to share experiences and insights, and helped all of us feel less alone. Now, just as we are really starting to see the benefits - in terms of better social understanding and acceptance of sex and gender diversity than ever before in our history - this law is going to shut that discourse down. Sex will become taboo again. You shouldn't talk about it, not in public spaces. It's dirty. You should be ashamed. Think of the children.
Actually, I do think of the children. I know that societies with more open attitudes towards porn have lower rates of sexual violence, STI transmission and teen pregnancy. I know that children growing up with marginalised sexualities - whether queer or kinky - often feel isolated, especially in rural communities. I know that this isolation can cause severe mental health issues, and even lead to suicide.
I know that young people need better sex education which is based around consent, pleasure and how to stay safe, provided by parents and teachers who aren't propagating their own sexual shame.
I know that humans are often sexual and often curious about it, and that if we don't talk to young people about porn they'll find it anyway, whether or not they have the resources or resilience to critically interpret what they're seeing. I know that shutting porn in a locked room and only giving keys to the rich is not the answer. It will not help our culture be healthier, or better informed, or more accepting or responsible about sex.
That's bad enough. But the problems with the Digital Economy Bill go deeper than that.
Even if I somehow manage to fully comply with the legislation: hide everything spanking-themed on the site behind age checks; find the money to check the ID of every non-paying visitor who wants to browse my free previews; survive the loss of traffic and Googleability - even if I can stomach the disappearing of this blog, the behind the scenes videos, the performer interviews, and the discourse about ethics and consent - the site still can't survive, because every scene that was criminalised by the AVMS regulations will be recriminalised by the Digital Economy Bill.
ATVOD found us in breach because they ruled that some of our videos depict corporal punishment that leaves 'lasting' marks. We won our appeal on the basis that the principle purpose of the site is not commercial, and it is not in competetition with mainstream broadcast media. That victory won us an exemption to the AVMS Regulations 2014. But the AVMS didn't invent the rules around what content is banned; it drew them from existing classification guidelines used by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) for films and TV.
The guidelines prohibit any depiction of pain play that leaves marks on the body beyond those deemed "transient and trifling" from classification even as R18, the highest classification category in the UK. Basically, under the current rules you can't show any act which would constitute assault or actual bodily harm, or any act which would risk injury to the viewer if it were imitated. So no caning, no belting, no welts, no bruises - and that's before we get into the bans on things like facesitting, breath play, fisting, squirting, watersports and "full" bondage, defined as the restraint of all four limbs plus a gag.
The AVMS regulations were the first instrument of UK law to apply those classification guidelines to material published on the internet. We've enjoyed a heady few months of official exemption from them: but now the Digital Economy Bill uses those same guidelines to control what can and can't be published online. If the Bill is passed it will be illegal to publish any 'prohibited content' even behind age checks. Let that sink in: even age-verified, consenting adults who have handed over their real names and addresses to prove their age won't be allowed to look at spanking videos that show marks.
So we're about to be recriminalised. And I can only assume that every other UK law affecting online pornography from now on will use the same prohibited content guidelines. If this law passes next March, as I'm told it will, then our victorious relaunch will barely have lasted longer than the enforced hiatus that preceded it.
What are our options? One thing is certain: stubbornly refusing to comply, incurring the wrath of the regulator, going through another investigation, another hiatus, another appeal - it's not an option. Either for me personally at an emotional level, or financially, from a business perspective.
I could try to comply with the age verification requirements: swallow my pride, compromise my core principles of transparency and visibility, and hope that I get away with there being prohibited content behind the age check. But it seems like a doomed proposition - even if I could afford age verification in practice, which seems unlikely. My public profile is too high, my reputation as a troublemaker too entrenched, for me to avoid scrutiny. And there's no way to avoid publishing prohibited content: under the current guidelines, nearly all our content is banned.
Moving the site overseas might seem my best remaining option - but the Digital Economy Bill applies to overseas sites as well as UK ones. The only way I could do it would be to install IP checks that made the site totally inaccessible from the UK. In effect, I would no longer legally be able to view my own website. I might be able to continue working for the site in some capacity, but I would no longer be able to own it, control it, or in fact see it.
As far as I can see, my best option is to challenge the problem at source, and push for a review of the classification guidelines - specifically the ceiling for R18 content - and of UK obscenity law more generally. So for the last couple of months I've been working with Backlash, Myles Jackman and other political allies towards this goal. We are challenging the Digital Economy Bill and pushing for a comprehensive review of the laws surrounding porn and BDSM in the UK.
If you want to support these efforts, you can pledge a dollar or whatever you can afford on Patreon, to help me pay my rent while I do this political work. You can sign and share the petition for personal privacy and sexual freedom. And if you can buy a site membership from time to time, even better.
But a comprehensive review of obscenity law is a long-term goal; and in the meantime, I have to accept that it's unlikely I'll be able to change the law in time to save Dreams of Spanking from being outlawed next spring.
The hard questions
All this has been going around my head since the Digital Economy Bill was published on the 5th July. Here are some hard truths, which I have come to admit only grudgingly:
- At best, no matter what I do, it's unlikely I can keep Dreams of Spanking open beyond the end of 2017.
- My political campaigning via Patreon, particularly my efforts to challenge UK obscenity law, is the most important and fullfilling work I am doing at present. Realistically, activism takes precedence over creating new Dreams of Spanking content for me right now, both emotionally (political work feels more urgent at the moment than making spanking videos) and strategically (Dreams of Spanking doesn't have a future unless I do this work, and do it well enough to succeed).
- After staff costs, bandwidth costs and other expenses, since relaunching Dreams of Spanking has only been able to pay me minimum wage for the time I've spent on it. It is therefore not possible for me to work fulltime on Dreams of Spanking at this point in my life: it doesn't pay me enough to live on, and my political work is both more urgent, and more important.
All these add up to a strong argument for putting the site on ice now; gracefully retiring Dreams of Spanking to focus on other goals, rather than suffering the humiliation of clinging on to the last possible moment before it's wrenched away again. But I haven't done this, and I don't intend to.
Perhaps it's just stubbornness - it wouldn't be the first time that attribute had made my life more difficult than necessary. But to counter the above, I have good, valid reasons for keeping going.
The first is, quite simply, closure. The worst aspect of the ATVOD verdict was not being able to publish the content I had already filmed; it was a brutal disruption of my creative process. Winning my appeal was a victory for my right to express myself. I've won the right to publish that content, and I want to damn well publish it. Not just because I can, but because appealing that verdict was a 'fuck you' to unjust laws and a prejudicial regulator. I held fast to my principles, I fought, and I won. I intend to continue in that spirit.
Giving up now would be letting them win after all; it would betray everything I've fought for. Not getting that closure would leave me feeling unsatisfied and incomplete. I'm willing to accept that it doesn't make sense to shoot much new content now, given I may not get a chance to publish it. But the work I've already done was created as a true self-expression, and my intention was always to share it with the world. I want closure on that creative process before I move on to the next phase. I want to finish what I've started.
Secondly, this decision doesn't only affect me. Another dreadful consequence of the ATVOD decision was that it wasn't just me who was affected - my team members lost out too, and with even less control over the situation than I had. I was prepared to pay the price for my stubbornness, but it also impacted everyone who works for me. I try my hardest to be a good boss, and that means not making my whole team redundant if I don't have to. Doing so mere months after giving them their jobs back would be particularly cruel.
I feel too ambivalent, too uncertain, and too conflicted to be confident about quitting when it won't just affect me, but will also directly affect the financial stability and wellbeing of people I care about. The Dreams of Spanking project is a complex ecosystem; my own self-care isn't the only relevant factor.
But it's an incredibly difficult situation. Do I continue updating Dreams of Spanking while I still can, try to make the best of it, promote it enough to cover costs while I keep it ticking over - all at the same time as trying to campaign against the laws that will otherwise inevitably kill it? Or do I stop spending time editing and promoting new videos, put the project back on ice, and free up more time for activism, to give myself the best possible chance of defeating this terrible law?
This question isn't going to go away. And it's an impossible bind.
I can tell you this much: for now, I've decided to keep Dreams of Spanking running. I have a content schedule mapped out until March next year. Before then, I'm going to run out of male submissive scenes, and at that point I need to decide whether to re-invest in a project that is already barely covering costs, and risk ending up with more content I can't publish; or whether to compromise another the core principle of the site, and stop maintaining the gender diversity of new updates.
I don't know the answer to that question. And even not changing my plan, continuing to reflect while maintaining the status quo, is a decision that has consequences. Every month I keep the site running, I'm spending time on Dreams of Spanking that I'm not spending challenging the law.
I've been trying to balance these conflicting priorities for five months already. You have probably noticed that the content going out each week is different than it used to be. To free up time for the political campaigning I'm doing, I've been publishing shorter updates, more solo videos, POV scenes, audio stories and photosets. There has been a new update every week, but I'm no longer committed to a new spanking video plus performer interview plus behind the scenes video plus photoset every week, because maintaining that schedule is a fulltime job, and if Dreams is my fulltime job, I'm not doing the political work that is its only chance of longterm survival.
Deciding how much time to spend on the site, how much to delegate, is an open question; one I revisit every week. So far, I've been feeling my way through these thorny issues as best I can, with a heart full of uncertainty.
I've tried to be open and transparent with the rest of the Dreams of Spanking team throughout the process, but when I sent them the draft of this blogpost it was the first time most of them fully realised how precarious the future of the site really is. And now you know, too.
Where do we go from here?
I wish I could end this post on a positive note. It would, perhaps, be good business practice to reassure you that for now I'm committed to keeping the site alive (I am), that we have hot new content lined up for this week (we do), and that I won't stop updating the site without giving all of you a decent amount of notice (I won't). I could urge you to join now while you still can. I could sing the praises of our archive, which is bursting at the seams with high-quality spanking films available for all members to both stream and download.
But the truth is, this is hard, and no amount of positivity or spin will make it less hard.
So instead I invite you to stand with me, in this undeniably difficult and demoralising situation. I invite you to understand, perhaps, why not every site update at the moment is as substantial as I would like it to be. And I invite you to share my anger at the injustice of criminalising consensual adult activities that do no harm and bring pleasure to so many. Your empathy and shared outrage has kept me going before, and it is always welcome.
I can promise you new erotic content every week: always spanking themed, always ethically produced, always the authentic expression of my kinky sexuality. I can promise you at least one fully-realised, action-packed spanking film every month, with a behind the scenes video and a photoset - and that if it is ever possible for me to publish more than one, I will. I can promise that I will continue to fight these terrible laws that tell us we should be ashamed of our kink. I can promise to devote as much time and energy as possible to political campaigning, lobbying and activism, challenging porn criminalisation and promoting sexual freedom.
And I can promise to be honest, genuine and heartfelt in my work on Dreams of Spanking - always.