Supporting Sex Workers: Poppy Firestarter Launch

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This is part six in a series detailing updates to our research which is grounded in the goal of supporting the safety and agency of sex workers. 

Design Team: Brittany SgaliardichLeah DiVito


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Poppy is a digital platform for sex workers to connect with each other, ask questions, and share stories, without censorship or stigma. The goal of this product is to create a communal space where women can share knowledge and build community on their terms.

For this phase of our project, we attempted to validate that a platform like Poppy is something that women in the industry are interested in using. While we plan to build something entirely new, our initial testing uses the private messaging platform, Slack. Access to our Slack channel is invite-only.

Summary – what we did

    • Service blueprint. We drafted a service blueprint of the Poppy platform that focuses on our initial pilot experience. This blueprint examines the touchpoints a user will have with Poppy and the interactions, both physical and digital, that support them. As part of this effort, we also created a content calendar to identify a schedule around discussion topics and facilitation strategies. 
    • Initial prototype. Using Slack, we finalized our initial prototype. We walked users through the steps required to create accounts, join channels, and respond to initial discussion prompts. We also create a poll to determine what discussion topics users were most interested in.
    • Landing page. We redesigned our landing page to more strongly correlate to the brand identity we are trying to create. This page will serve as an initial touchpoint in joining our Slack channel.
  • Firestarter. The Poppy firestarter served as a kickoff event for getting a core group of users onto the Slack platform. For this to happen, we created an agenda, sent informational emails, and implemented the launch. We ultimately accomplished the following:
    • Six invites, six sign-ups, two Firestarter attendees and began co-creating community guidelines
    • Discussed most valuable future channels
    • Provided next steps for users
  • Legal counsel. This project requires a close relationship with legal counsel. As part of this effort, we met with a lawyer who shared valuable insights but could not offer advice in writing. We also followed up with additional leads:
    • Through a friend, we contacted the Walters Law Group, a law firm that addresses issues related to the adult industry and sex workers.
    • Our studio instructor, Jonathan Lewis, connected us to Dr. Henderson, the Professor and Chair Department of Communication at Trinity University. We plan to chat with her on Tuesday.
    • We attended a networking event for national legal resources and received guidance for moving forward.
  • New users. We continued sourcing potential users. 
    • Strip clubs in Austin. We discussed our project goals with strip club management for entry into the club. While there, we approached women one-on-one to pitch Poppy and collect emails and invite to Poppy. 
    • Existing relationships. We also continued to tap into our existing relationships by encouraging women we have previously spoken with to invite friends and peers onto the platform.
    • Candy Girl podcast. We met with the creators of Candy Girl podcast, a show that explores the sex industry through interviews with sex workers in college. We plan to share our research and connect with women in the industry who are interested in co-creating with us. 

The challenge.

This week, our most important task was to launch the Poppy prototype through a firestarter or kickoff event. The challenge continues to lie in the legal constraints of our topic space and the acquisition of legal counsel necessary to responsibly launch the prototype and manage user experience.

The insights.

What new knowledge did we create this week?

  • We need to get legal advice in writing.

In order to create terms of service for Poppy, we will need consistent legal counsel to ensure that we are responsible creators of this platform. We must retain legal advice in writing in order to sufficiently protect both ourselves and our users.

  • How can we begin to promote active engagement outside of planned events?

While our kickoff event was successful, our team must continue to drive engagement onto Poppy. This effort will hopefully lead to self-sustaining growth and organic engagement. While we will continue to expand the platform and seek new users, we must simultaneously figure out how to facilitate discussion among users in a way that feels both natural and delightful. 

  • We must learn to vet users as quickly as we gain them.

As we continue to identify legal obstacles, we also realize the need to establish a reliable way for vetting new users that parallels the pace with which we acquire them. This will enable Poppy to grow with control, safety, and an informed strategy.

  • How can we screen users at scale?

We realize the need to address platform scale even now, in its infancy. We must be asking what it looks like to vet new users as our existing user ecosystem grows. The risk of a user-screening process, especially at scale, could be significant if not done in the right way. We want to make sure we focus on the safety and exclusivity of our users while creating a delightful experience with the platform – and these goals can feel at odds.

  • Flexible blueprint

As soon as we began building our blueprint, we realized that the future of our social platform requires a degree of flexibility that is difficult to predict. Given that this tool should evolve organically, we want to iterate on the blueprint as we work through new versions of the prototype and receive feedback from users.

Next steps.

  • Continue to seek new user base.
  • Continue to facilitate user events to continue co-creating the platform.
  • Continue pursuing existing and potential connections with legal help.
  • Develop and test vetting techniques for new users.
  • Create higher fidelity wireframes of “blue sky” platform to vet with current users.

Supporting Sex Workers: Prototyping Phase One

Prototyping Phase One – Leah DiVito + Brittany Sgaliardich



“Sometimes we arrive at good ideas before the law can support them.”

This notion, shared by an ac4d alumnus, stuck with our team as we developed concepts for future products and services that could promote the agency and safety of sex workers. 

While acknowledging the laws surrounding sex work, we also had to suspend disbelief in order to allow the richness of our ideas to rise to the surface.

This week, we began sharing our top-selected design concepts with potential users in order to vet the value and feasibility of ideas. In an opportunity space riddled by policing and stigma, the creativity and nuance of the feedback we received give our team forward momentum to challenge assumptions and further develop our design concepts.


Why it matters

Last week, we rapidly ideated 200 design ideas that were informed by our research insights. This week, we downselected to a top few ideas which we conceptualized through use of storyboards, lean canvases, and user interviews.

The process felt organic. And strangely specific, it felt like planting. We laid forth 200 seeds that allowed for a few budding plants to grow. By drawing, mapping, sharing, and challenging ideas, we began to breathe life into ideas that previously felt intangible.

This realization reinforces the idea that products and services, at any stage, are living and evolving. The design behind them is constantly examined, tested, and challenged. People are dynamic – so is the law. Products must be too.



What we did in FIVE steps:

  1. Strategically downselected our 200 design ideas by using a 2×2 framework where we compared the ideas’ Feasibility vs. its Potential Value
  2. Wrote ‘Madlibs’ style mission statements,  for our 10-12 most interesting ideas by grounding them in our insights. The formulaic verbal articulation of purpose, function and differentiation helped to intentionally continue to narrow our list.
  3. Built out ‘Lean Canvases’, or a visualized grounds-up tactical plans or blueprints, for our top four ideas to continue exploring the nuances that may affect follow-through of our ideas, and provide structure to the actualization of the idea.
  4. Storyboarded our top four ideas with multiple drafts and iterations as visual artifacts that articulate general functionality of the product or service.
  5. Finally, we interviewed five people – mostly contacts with which we already had established rapport and trust from previous interviews, with the addition of one person from a new craigslist ad – and asked questions. We presented our ideas and storyboards to vet their value with the real experts on the subject matter.


The ideas


  • Pink Matter – a one-stop digital information tool for women working in sex and sex-related industries

For sex workers who have little support and want to connect with other women working in the industry for informed guidance, our product encourages women to share stories and advice, and exchange medical, financial, and safety resources in order to create a trusted support network of sex professionals. Unlike existing services like Yelp, or forums like Reddit, our product aims to become a safe space specifically for connecting sex workers so they may 1) build industry knowledge, 2) share stories and support, and 3) exchange vital resources while maintaining anonymity as necessary.

  • Bridge – a “Hinge”-style dating tool grounded in matching similar expectations and preferences

For sex workers struggling to make safe connections online, our product provides a platform to anticipate service expectations and screen for client safety. Although this platform would operate as a space for people to meet verified safe customers, it would ultimately empower workers to create recurring clients and build greater trust with preferred clients. Unlike MeetMe, SeekingArrangement or other apps for sourcing and communicating with potential clients, our product suggests connections based on worker and client preferences and expectations – limiting the risks associated with misaligned service expectations.  

  • Money Diaries – a physical and digital tool for tracking finances, clients, goals and schedules in one connected platform 

For sex workers who struggle to feel in control of their finances and want to reach personal goals, our product serves as a money diary to document income and clients as well as visualize progress towards goals, both financial and personal. This platform encourages women to document their schedule and income as part of their daily routine while also providing encouragement by way of affirming notifications. Unlike other planning and calendar apps, our product has both physical and digital components that prioritize the unique needs of sex industry professionals while remaining highly customizable to each individual.

  • AirHaven – “Airbnb”-style service for helping women to escape domestic violence in moments of need

For women subject to domestic violence who are seeking safe shelter, our product creates a platform for other women to open their homes and offer temporary housing to women in need. Unlike shelters, our product has the potential to scale, allowing more women to find immediate relief and sleep somewhere outside of their dangerous home.


Main Takeaways

Highly personal. The ways in which our ideas manifest into products is contingent on individual needs, unique to different professions across the sex industry. There is no generalized ‘catch-all’ for sex work.

Insights are weighted. The way we translate our design ideas into prototypable concepts forces us to recognize the ‘value’ of an insight from a new perspective. Because many of our insights are so complex, based in the contradictions of the human experience, our product ideas often feel ill equipped to address the challenge. Design ideas therefore fail to feel as equally transformational.

Stigma and policing. Although we’ve acknowledged the reality of the law during research and synthesis, the concept development phase of design has perhaps felt the most legally confrontational. We continue to have conversations about designing around and with the law. It will ultimately be a serious consideration as to the final product we produce.

The creative value of suggestions from experts. It is apparent that the women we interviewed are the true experts of this work. We were presented with many ideas from our interviewees that we would have never come up with on our own. Their insights continue to offer impactful, nuanced adaptations to our design ideas.

Validation.  Ultimately, the feedback we received in user testing gave us a sense of validation. The positive reception and powerful conversation generated by our design ideas was an acknowledgment of the rigor of our research. While some ideas were misses, the ideas that landed were a source of promise. Positive reception felt rewarding and step forward in our journey to make something that might make lives better.



Next Steps

Next we will continue to narrow our focus and select our top two ideas for which we will build out ‘Definition Decks’ (similar to a sales deck) in order to eventually downselect the top idea that we will run with through the end of the project.



Timelapse – Downselection Process

the value of visuals: supporting sex workers

the value of visuals: supporting sex workers

Since October, Our team, Brittany and I, conducted design research to understand how the volatility and stigma, often associated with sex and sex-related work, affect the financial decision making of women in this industry. Moving into the second phase of our project, we have begun to transition from initial research and insights to design ideas and prototyping. Working towards this goal, we created concept models that visualize insights and explore areas of interest. These models ultimately serve as a tool for further sense-making and function as a translation between words and visuals to become a starting point for exploring design opportunities.

Our models captured the following ideas:

Sex Work: Exploded View. The goal of this concept model is to examine the direct and indirect value-offerings that constitute sex work. As part of our research, we believe sex and sex-related workers exchange just as much intimacy as they do sex. With this insight, we explore what sex workers are actually trading when they address the unique needs of clients. With an expanded understanding of what sex workers sell, this model produces opportunity for expanding job definitions and work descriptions.

Core Competencies. Our research led us to the insight that sex workers are actually small business owners, and that they, as well as society, should build them up as the small business owners that they really are. Typical organizations and businesses develop grounding statements that keep them in line with their internal values, mission and vision. Supposedly, having these statements built into their company brand gives them a competitive advantage over peers and contributes to their long-term success. In this spirit, we created a concept model (semantic zoom) that gathers and defines core competencies exhibited by the women we spoke with.

If we start with our most zoomed out phase, we will see the classic three pillars of a business model: Mission, Vision, and Values. We then zoom into Values, where we identify the four main values exhibited in sex-related work: Tenacity, Awareness, Determinism, and Entrepreneurialism. Next level deep, we zoom into each of these four values and get our breakdown of twelve core competencies of sex-related workers all of which came straight from the data. From there we zoomed in on one specific competency (creativity) and broke it down into a list of key qualities that define it.

Identity duality: All of the women we interviewed discussed the concept of creating a second identity or persona which they assume in their work. They must create these personas in order to establish a hard divide between their ‘real’ selves and the particular identity they perform for work. The existence of these personas is complex and nuanced but immediately helps keep the women safe by protecting their true identity and details of their real lives.

Our concept model showcases the internal experience of switching between the work persona and true identity. It shows that there is a massive loss of energy that occurs in the event of that switch. Going into a night of work, there is extensive mental and physical preparation that must take place in order to build confidence and set boundaries in inherently vulnerable circumstances. When women then come home from work and switch back into their true selves, they experience a quick and hard come-down which results in amplified negative consequences that are in polarization to the preparation stage (examples: shame, indulgence in spending or alcohol and drugs, and isolation).

Conventions of society: a mental model: Our research revealed self-reliant and nonconformist attitudes. With this mental model, we attempt to examine the relationship that sex and sex-related workers have with “the system” and conventional society. It navigates the different aspects of their lives that go unseen from conventional society. We identified and explored attitudes around government, finances, employment, and community, and believe that women in this work are both excluded from while living in defiance of certain norms in these categories.

Quick money: This concept model visualizes the relationship between quick money and financial emergencies. Our research exposed a cycle of quick cash that adopts an emotional identity leading to behavior that can trap women in financial emergencies. If we continue to isolate and study the different parts of this cycle, we may discover opportunity for support.

Sense of control in life and work throughout career: This temporal zoom compares one’s sex and sex-related work experience against their sense of control in life and work. The model visualizes levels of control at increasing levels of work experience: one day, three months, one year, three years, twenty-five years. We identify additional factors that influence levels of control including health, self-identified privilege, history of addiction, risk of violence, access to support, among other factors.

What did we learn? What was specific knowledge that we gained?

Scaling our work: By working through concept models before semantic and temporal zooms, we used them as play spaces and sources of inspiration for our zooms. This strategy ultimately deepened our knowledge by forcing us to break our own patterns of thought surrounding the data. The act of attempting to scale our insights was and continues to be a challenge, given the emotional qualities of our data. We continue to learn that because human-centered data is so qualitative, it is subject to being highly unreliable, and thus difficult to scale, in both meaning and time, while maintaining credibility and groundedness.

Grew industry knowledge: We gained knowledge about the scope of what “sex work” means throughout exploded concept map, and deepened our understanding of what the industry encompasses both in a physical setting and digitally.

Grew our understanding of the sex workers’ toolkit: Worked through a framework of ‘core competencies’ of sex work – Initially only had identified a few, but the process led to discovery of more hard skills that sex workers described as being in their toolbox.

Got intimate with intimacy: One of our core competencies of sex and sex-related workers that we dug into is a high level of intuition and empathy, which led us to zoom in on our insight related to the monetization of intimacy in sex work. This was one of our more mystifying areas of interest from the outset. We gained a significant amount of knowledge about the different types of roles sex-related workers embody when engaging in the sale of intimacy, which are different than simply selling the commodity of sex itself. We gained knowledge about how intimacy and the human condition manifest in this work for both the client and the provider.
Examples of roles: “girlfriend”, therapist, friend etc.

Creating more: Ultimately, we learned that creating more and creating fast leads to quicker clarity. We initially tried to confine ourselves to a strict plan of exactly what concepts we wanted to explore through this phase, but as we began to dig into them, other, potentially more relevant or on point areas of focus emerged. Like being an artist or songwriter, we learned that we have to create a lot of bad things before we can create one thing worth holding onto and working on. As we move forward with the work, we will continue to make more and more “bad” concept models in the search to find those little melodies worth playing out.

Progress: Did we accomplish what we intended to this week? Where did we fall short and why? What would we have done differently? What will we commit to doing differently next week?

In short, we started the week with a plan and largely executed what we set out to do.

If we were to do this work over again, perhaps we would have started digging into our temporal zoom earlier, which is rich with the potential for untapped insights. Additional synthesis can deepen our understanding of the relationships between experience, age, privilege, family circumstances, drug addiction, support systems, and degree of choice.
Next week, we will prioritize our areas of greatest interest and make more strategic use of time.

This week we also did not prioritize digitizing our concept models, which could be considered falling short. While this was an intentional choice, in the future we can do a better job at committing to work digitization into the initial plan of action.

Priorities & Commitments:

What are you committing to do this next week?

Learn how to use reframing and insight combination methods to generate new ideas.

Reinventing AT&T TV for 2020 – Initial Research

What’s the scoop?

In short, AT&T seems to be in a tight spot when attempting to offer a unique and appealing product given the current market of services available to consumers in 2020.

While there are a number of products that offer streaming services for a monthly fee, even if we are just looking at the ones that offer Live TV streaming, there is still hefty competition.

The Best Live TV Streaming Deals This Week*

Hulu: 7-day free trial of live sports, shows
SlingTV: $35 for your first month (includes ESPN, CNN, TNT, more)
Philo: 7-day free trial of live, on-demand TV
FuboTV: 7-day free trial of live streaming

– PC Mag –


The quick snapshot.

Upon reading some written reviews and Youtube reviews of AT&T’s streaming service, there are a few reasons that it seems to fall short of 2020 standards.

AT&T recently significantly increased the price of their service and also made a subscription to HBO a mandatory part of the package. They require upcharges or premiums in order to access popular channels such as CINEMAX, SHOWTIME, AND EXIX, as well as international packages. They have recently stopped supporting popular hardware such as Roku, which creates a barrier in the minds of consumers who do not want to have to invest in the installation and learning curve of new hardware. AT&T has also dropped a number of channels, which only decreases the overall appeal of their service.

My gut reaction to the information that I have gathered is that AT&T really needs to make some hard, and potentially sacrificial decisions about how to differentiate themselves from the crowd, especially given their less than shining reputation as a company in general. This statement also includes my personal bias as a long time AT&T customer who also pays for, or has dabbled in multiple other streaming services.

Other products are significantly more affordable than AT&T’s cheapest package. They offer a discount if you bundle with their internet service, but this seems to me like more more of a barrier to new customers (who may be happy with their internet provider) rather than an incentive.

With so many options out there, there doesn’t seem to be, at a glance, an obvious reason to go with AT&T for your streaming service unless you are already a very loyal AT&T customer. Even then, their website is confusing when disguising between three different services (I’m still not quite sure if they are separate services), AT&T TV, U-verse TV, and DIRECTV. Furthermore, the services is only available in the small area of the US at present.

Live TV alone feels like a dying service as a millennial consumer, who would never consider watching live TV unless it related to a very critical live event related to politics or sports.

The echoed positive review of AT&T TV seems to be their sleek and user friendly interface, which is fun and easy to use. However, users have been known to tolerate less than sleek interfaces in order to view the content that they really want to access.



After getting a basic lay of the land for streaming services as they exist right now, it is even more important to look towards the future of the services, and the trends that will likely emerge given what we know about human behavior and television consumption in the modern era.

Trends according to Kelton Tech:

  • Digital Originals are on the rise
  • Mobile is surpassing TV as Primary Content Consumption Channel
  • “Content Fragmentation” creates competition – forging strategic partnerships with networks and production companies etc in order to feature content exclusive to your service
  • Users devices are becoming congested with too many services and subscriptions

My simple personal brainstorm for AT&T:

  • Focusing on live sports television and optimizing the platform for sports consumers only with the interface and features that make watching live sporting events even more phenomenal
  • Offering as many channels as possible
  • Unlimited DVR Cloud Storage for as long as possible (ex: YoutubeTV offers 9 months of storage, where as AT&T currently only keeps for 30 days)
  • Definitely drop the necessity for their specific hardware, and instead make their product as easily accessible as possible to anyone who already owns hardware that allows streaming apps
  • Given that all other live TV streaming services seem to still have commercials, create a NO COMMERCIALS option (unsure of the legality of this)
  • Offline viewing as a priority as well as viewing content your phone or other devices
  • Multiple logins for family and friends plans


Main points:

  • Lack of channels is a key problem
  • Cloud storage also a key problem
  • Mandatory HBO seems to be unpopular
  • Requirement of AT&T’s hardware is inconvenient and outdated
  • Price does not match the service being provided
  • AT&T needs to look toward future trends and get ahead of their competitors in the changing landscape, rather than mimic current service providers

Other sources:

Wechat: Consequences of a Social Credit System


the context.


The “social credit system,” first announced in 2014, aims to reinforce the idea that “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful,” according to a government document.

Like private credit scores, a person’s social score can move up and down depending on their behavior. The exact methodology is a secret — but examples of infractions include bad driving, smoking in non-smoking zones, buying too many video games and posting fake news online.

WeChat has more than 1 billion users worldwide.

China’s internet is often referred to as “The Great Firewall,” because the Chinese government strictly regulates and monitors the content of the country’s roughly 800 million online citizens. WeChat has further strengthened that closed system; WeChat’s privacy policy makes it clear that information will be shared with the government when requested.

–   Business Insider

the exploration.


For this week’s ethical challenge, I decided to take the idea of the Wechat’s social currency system and make it feel tangible for my fellow students by asking them to give themselves social ranking numbers based on their likelyhood to parke in the following criteria. These criteria are based in real criteria that the Chinese government uses to rate their citizens.

-smoking in non smoking areas
-playing video games too long
-wasting money on frivolous purchases
-posting on social media
-spreading ‘fake news’
-refusing military service
-walking dog without a leash
-traffic violations

Based on the numbers that my classmates come up with, there will be an individual with a lowest score and highest score. The highest score is the highest number of social demerits. The lowest score is the cleanest record.

I will then reveal the real life consequences of a high vs. low score.

the challenge.


So, this all seems very risky and invasive, however, what if we attempted to see the positive impacts that a system like this may have on society. In order to challenge and solidify my own ethical framework, I wanted to take a stab at seeing how this may actually be a help.

“Despite the creepiness of the system — Human Rights Watch called it “chilling,” while Botsman called it “a futuristic vision of Big Brother out of control” — some citizens say it’s making them better people already.

“For example, when we drive, now we always stop in front of crosswalks. If you don’t stop, you will lose your points. At first, we just worried about losing points, but now we got used to it.”

In order to expand on the possibilities in class, I assigned each individual a random economic class. ‘Citizens’ with the lowest numbers are rewarded with real benefits that mirrors ones that exist within the current Chinese system. These benefits are varied, but all affect the financial mobility of the individual.

Over time, if those with good credit can continue to benefit from the financial bonuses, there is possibility for new kinds of mobility within their class current class system.

why is this important?


1. This is not hypothetical.

“WeChat, today, offers a combination of services available from several different companies in the West, including Facebook, Snapchat, Amazon, Google, PayPal, and Uber, to name a few. Its comprehensive nature has also made it one of the most powerful tools for government surveillance over Chinese citizens.

And apps and social networks in other parts of the world may soon be a lot more like it.” 

-Business Insider

This is not necessarily isolated to China. China is a growing power in our global society, and their influence is broad. The principles that are being enacted in Wechat’s social currency system are likely to be mimicked by other societies social apps.

2. Global trends are important.

Testing against your own ethical gut feeling is a good practice. If this is inevitable for Chinese citizens, as well as something that other societies will likely learn towards in the future (including American society), we need to consider how we should proceed and maintain our ethical framework as a society.

3. There is no way to opt out.

When we are thinking about the importance of privacy and the way our systems may change and adapt in the face of existing and emergent technologies, it is important to consider the power and influence of social systems as the consequences of using them begin to cross over into our non-digital lives.

my takeaway.

When certain trends are inevitable, even if I don’t like them or agree with them, it is important for me as a global thinking designer to test against my own bias in order to think more creatively surrounding how to build safe systems and products within our technology driven world.

Insights: Women Working in the Sex Industry in 2019

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continuing our exploration.

Following up on our last blog post recapping real stories from the field as told by women working in the sex industry in 2019 Austin, Brittany and I have continued our research and synthesis in the form of taking the themes that we have been working to create, and building design insights. An insight is a provocative statement based on blending what we already know with what we have heard to create bridges between the raw data and potential design criteria for our particular problem space. We have begun articulating our insights regarding womens experiences while working in the sex industry by diving deeply into the mass amounts of data and really immersing ourselves, and we are still in the process of ‘problem seeking’ as we continue to build themes and narratives while we draw out our insights.



insight 1|| Women fracture their identity and develop personas to deal with the emotional performance of their work; however, the money made as Person A influences the financial decisions of Person B. This duality causes inconsistent behavior and creates friction in their lives.

Sex work is work, and it is difficult work at that. Through our conversations with women, a theme shined across all age groups and personal experiences. Every woman discusses how they put on a different face in order to go to work, sometimes quite literally. Of course, we all put a certain face on to go into different dynamics in our lives, whether it be with family, with work, with school. However, the stakes for these women are so much higher than your typical nine to five.

All women working in the sex industry today rely on developing a deep fracture of their identity in order to, quite literally, survive. When a woman goes to work, she is expected to be a tantalizing performer, unreal and hyper-erotic, to please everyone and to know the right thing to do and say. However there is also a defensive wall that she learns to build around herself. She is always calculating and manipulating situations to make sure she gets what she wants while also staying true to her own safety and boundaries. Or she experiences those boundaries being broken, and she suffers greatly for that in an emotional, physical and spiritual realm. She takes the compounding of these experiences home with her at the end of the night, and the next day they are carried over into her home self. Her vanilla self. Her emotional exhaustion in jumping over that rift in self is jarring, and her decisions will tell that story.

insight 2|| Quick money justifies quick spending. Fast cash coupled with unpredictable incomes creates greater opportunity for financial emergencies which leave women at a greater risk of exploitation. Money also grants women the ability to advocate for themselves in exploitative environments.

Money is power, and that is perhaps more literal for these women working in the sex industry than most others will ever experience. The tangibility of a cash exchange is something pretty unique to this industry. Due to the amount of cash going through their hands on a daily basis, not only do these women have very unique relationships to money, but they also have very interesting ways they think about how the money that they have or don’t have translates into power. When they have it, they are in power. They have more room to make decisions and set hard boundaries within their work. That money comes quickly, and it’s cash in hand immediately, which comes with immediate satisfaction. However, when that quick cash gets quickly spent away, they don’t have as much of a net to catch them in an emergency. Many of these women have been in circumstances where because they are not financially stable, can’t say no, they break their own boundaries, and make less safe decisions. The dire financial straits they find themselves in affects their vulnerability.


 next steps.

In the coming weeks we will be meshing our insights with the rest of the class of 2020 teams in our design cohort in order to work together towards discovering universal human truths surrounding financial inclusivity and behavior surrounding money. As we move forward, we want to push ourselves on the question of why does any of this matter?

We want to find design criteria will help us, and our client, to spur less stress, more joy for our research groups. How will the results of this process help us to serve JUST and the populations JUST serves? JUST is currently supporting communities of independent women who are marginalized in our societal systems, and we are excited to continue working with them to discover ways to expand best expand their impact space.

As usual, we will continue to share our progress and process with you, and if you are interested in discussing our work further, we are available for conversation any time:

JUST Capstone- Themes: Women Working in the Sex Industry in 2019


research focus.

For the focus of our research capstone, Brittany Sgaliardich and I looks to better understand women working in the sex industry and how the particularities in the nature of their work affects mental slack and decision making outside their work.

While sex work and the world surrounding can be difficult to swallow at times, there are a number of reasons why this area of focus is important and relevant to focus on in 2019, especially as two young women entering careers as designers. When given the freedom to explore a topic of our choice for our research capstone, Brittany and I knew where we hoped we could help tackle some truly wicked problems that we found to be worth solving.


In 2018, two bills were signed into law that shook up the sex industry on and offline. FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) were inacted in an attempt to protect victims of sex trafficking by targeting well-known websites like Backpage which functioned as marketplaces for sex-related services.

FOSTA/SESTA gouges at Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a bedrock of American online freedoms. It states that,

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Under FOSTA/SESTA, this is no longer true in the case where third parties are found posting ads for prostitution –including consensual sex work– on their platforms. While the intention was that it would make policing online sex rings easier, in reality it has simply shut down these online marketplaces that provided a lot of safety and transparency for countless consensual sex workers. The effect rippled out across the internet, and many sites that had nothing to do with sex trafficking or sex work in general shut down because of the difficulty that censoring their users would entail. Now consensual sex workers are forced to start over and potentially enter back into riskier situations where they have less autonomy over their business operations, and safety in many aspects, including the client vetting process. FOSTA/SESTA raises issues for thousands of women online, but also for the larger issues of online free speech.

While these women have always deserved autonomy and safety, now more than ever is there a pressing need to help create security and legitimacy for women working online, but also those subjected to taboo and ridicule in our society and culture.


For the ac4d class of 2020 Capstone Research, our cohort is partnered with local non-profit JUST, who’s current mission it is to invest in female Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs in the Austin area coming from a low-income bracket. They seek to empower these women who are generally marginalized and excluded from other types of resources or support, and to provide a community and investment to help them accomplish their goals on their own watch.

JUST seeks to find new opportunity spaces in which to grow their mission with the ac4d class of 2020’s help. Brittany and I understand that our work with women in the sex industry falls in alignment with some of JUST’s current mission, in working with women who are marginalized and often excluded from financial services and instututions.


Our research methodology consists of first collecting real stories from real people. We have spoken so far with 12 participants in form of long form interviews where we discuss their life and work. We sourced these participants through personal networks, through visits to local strip clubs in Austin, but also through local ads on websites like Craigslist and Reddit, which helped us to collect a range of circumstances and experiences.

Due to the sensitive nature of our work, and potential risks for participants, we guarantee absolute anonymity for all the women we spoke with. Their real names and faces will not be disclosed in any of our published material.

Using their stories as our hard data, we are currently working to synthesize their experience into insights which will later become our design criteria for JUST.

As a part of this process we hope to have one to two participants come into the studio and work with us, hands-on, as we go through the material in order to continue to help us with their voice and experience.

emergent broad themes

Already we some broad themes have emerged across all of the experiences we have collected.

Power, Intimacy, and Identity are complex each in their own right, and the intersection of these three forces, especially in the presence of cash, is something that we will continue to explore as we work towards insights. Each of the following themes touches on one of these spheres.




THEME: Feelings surrounding the exchange of money influence how it is used.

Kaylee is a 22 year old woman from California. She has stripped there since she was 18, and is now working in Houston and Austin. Kaylee is all about creating community in her life with her support system of women outside the club, but she was lucky enough to find a community at the club that she worked at for many years in L.A. She says that they need to support each other because “no one cares about strippers”. She still experiences a lot of instability, often times living in her car, which is her prized possession, the way that she helps her friends when they need it,  and what she puts most of her planned money into.

Kaylee has a special way of relating to the cash that she makes as a stripper.

“When you appreciate your friends and you have a moment of gratitude, you hug them, right? It’s like there’s cotton candy everywhere and it’s just like, ‘Ugh, I love you, here have some’. We have this sort of notion of, I don’t know. That’s just a few dollars. That’s just money. Money means glitter. Money means a good night. Money means smiles. Smiles come and go. I’ll go back and I’ll make more. I feel like I don’t take it as seriously because of the way that it decorates this nighttime world.

The volatility and the playfulness of the money can create an ebb and flow that creates tension in her life.

“Because it’s also embarrassing to be the stripper, to be making good money – And I go to work and sometimes I come home and celebrate with my roommates if they’re still awake and throw my money around and they all laugh because I had such a good night. And then it’s like, ‘Oh shit, guys, I’m actually dicks poor and I don’t even know how to explain that to you because you saw me with all this money two weeks ago. You think that I can make all this money all the time.

Money comes and goes for Kaylee, but at the end of the day, as long as she can help someone in the way that she knows she can, its going to be okay.

“…My car doubles as my home. And like a security blanket, it’s everything to me. It’s how I get around. That’s how I help my friends. It’s how I picked that one up who doesn’t drive. It’s how I take care of myself and everyone around me and so that thing, having money in that thing’s wallet, is much more important than how this is running.”

THEME: My sense of self-worth is renegotiated each time I go to work.
Zooey is a woman in her 30’s currently working as a pole dancing instructor and burlesque dancer in Austin. She lives in a cute apartment with her siberian husky and her roommates. She works a vanilla 9-5 at a desk, and instructs on the side. Before instructing she was a stripper. She speaks to the complexities of boundary setting and emotional cost of going to work. She speaks about the front she puts up as she re-negotiates her boundaries with every interaction she has with a potential client.

When Zooey started, she endured a tough learning curve.

“I was really naive. I guess I was probably really naive and too much of a pushover like didn’t have a thick enough skin yet to deal with the clientele. Because clientele, try to push your limits and push you as far as they possibly can, like how much can I get for this amount of money.”

There is a learned balance between objectification and control.

“But I think both, both people think that they’re in control. But they’re really just using each other. It was sickening but I was naive and young at the time I didn’t know any better. But yeah, that’s when it really became obvious to me that I was being objectified that I wasn’t necessarily in control.

Zooey experiences that the friction that happens when you need to put up a concrete mask in order to perform that tasks at hand.

“It’s really easy to relate to people or interact with the world when you’re hiding behind the persona that you’ve built up in your mind. It’s a way to avoid intimacy. I feel like the lines get kind of blurred after a while and you’re not really sure who you are. Because you’re trying to protect yourself from yourself.



THEME: The perception of power is just as important as power itself.

Leila is a 42 years old woman with gorgeous flowing hair and a wide smile. She is a former escort, former porn-actress and current cam-girl. She has two children, one who is 18 now off on his own and one who is a 6 year old little girl with autism. She grew up in California, but also lived in Texas on and off because her dad lived there. When she was in high school she had a bad falling out with her mother and ended up moving in with her father, who was “not a very good dad”. She set out on her own, and by the time she was 17 and a half she was engaging in acts of prostitution.

Leila spoke about how money has given her the power to protect herself and her children when they needed it.

“Because if you can’t just go out and do something to protect yourself… If someone is harassing you and you have the power to put yourself in a motel for the night to be safe, that’s power.

She spoke about the power in creating a guise of glamor and power. Here she discusses how her clients saw her in the visual world she created around her work, versus her reality.

“I had a lot of power at that time because of the perception is reality. I lived in a mansion, my roommate was a goddess. They didn’t know it was in a court case fighting to get my kid back and that I had no money except for the money they were giving me…”

She understands how important it is to know you own power while doing this work.

“Let them think that. If you have any power cards, play them, because they surely do have power. They do. They can hurt you. They have the money that you need and a lot of guys are shady.”

next steps.

Our next presentation with JUST will be around the insights we develop out of these and other themes. What resonates with us, and what resonates with our client, will ultimately determine how those insights shape our design recommendations.

We will continue to share our progress and process with you and if you are interested in discussing our work further, we are available for conversation any time:

Sex and the Internet

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Last April, two massive events shook up the business of sex on the internet.

Firstly, the FBI shutdown a website called Backpage which is a prolific website for posting online personals that had become a mainstay for sex-workers to secure clientelle. Days after that, President Trump signed two new bills into law, the Stop Enabling Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). Together these two bills essentially make websites that knowingly allow sex trafficking to happen liable for hosting the illegal activity, meant to make it easier to go after proprietors of Backpage and similar sites. Both of these moves were meant to help the vulnerable people impacted by this internet economy: minors being trafficked by pimps who sought out customers online.

For my Studio Capstone project, I am interviewing women currently (and sometimes formerly) working in the sex industry in order to better understand their vulnerabilities, how their work impacts other areas of their lives and decision making, with the ultimate goal of applying design thinking to problem in their universal experiences. In doing this work, I am consistently thinking about issues of ethics surrounding this topic and my place in it. For the purposes of this assignment for my Ethics course, I wanted to dive into the ethics behind FOSTA/SESTA and the breach of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and the implications on our future as a society and government.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

This means that no online platform is liable to the information that is posted on the platform. Under FOSTA/SESTA, this liability is being chipped away. Sudden sites ARE liable if the activity is potentially related to sex trafficking. It is the site owners responsibility to make sure that their users aren’t allowing content that may be related to sex trafficking to exist on their platform.

Regardless of the fact that these laws are not working as they are intended to, and that they are, in fact, creating a more unsafe environment to consensual sex-workers and non-consensual sex workers alike, they also are creating a ripple effect into other places on the internet. Other sites are preemptively removing personal section of their pages in order to avoid liability charges.


In thinking about this in the context of our ethics work at ac4d, I can’t separate the work that I am doing in Studio from the ethical questions that we discuss in Ethics. There are implications to every decision that we make as designers, especially when working with vulnerable populations with whom we do not necessarily share similar life experience. I want to continue to be aware of, not only the decisions that I make on a daily basis while working with women in the sex industry, but also on the larger picture as it applies to all American citizens. While this law may not immediately affect my daily life, as I am not personally using webpages that have become part of this shut-down, the unintended consequences ripple out past just that issue. And if our governments are going to pass bills that limit freedoms surrounding this particular issue, who’s to say that they won’t slowly infringe on issues that are closer to home, or who’s ripples are closer to home?


As as phenomenon, if bills like this continue to be passed, we are at risk of losing on our online freedom of speech one chip at a time, and ultimately giving in to being heavily surveilled by law.

We are currently being surveilled by both corporations and government, and both spheres hold different consequential data on us, whether we wittingly consent to it or not. While there are reasons that this surveillance exists that is meant to help us, there are also severe risks to both types of surveillance. At this moment in time in a post 9/11, post Cambridge Analytica world, these two sphere become more and more inextricable.

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If it becomes common practice to be surveilled in the name of the law, and in combination with the power that comes with the amount of data that corporations hold on the nuance of our behaviors, we could end up in a hyper-dystopian society which takes advantage of our freedoms of speech, expression, and privacy.

Imagine, for example, if we began moving towards regulating our internet use around state level legislature. Imagine this in combination with the level of surveillance that we already allow by both corporations and government.


Casey is a woman living in Alabama, where abortion is essentially illegal. If the government can see not only her hard personal information like her social security number, address history, voting history, and then could also see her soft data collected by corporations like Facebook which could show her liberal political tendencies, the fact that she volunteers for the ACLU in Alabama, messages she sent her friends about an unwanted pregnancy, the fact that she recently bought a pregnancy test, and that she was Googling abortion clinics in Alabama etc. They could decide put her on a black list for individuals likely to have an abortion in their state.

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(In observing these and other current events) how should we, as a society and a government, approach the internet of free speech?


We ride a slippery slope when we consider dovetailing internet free speech and regulation. If we also consider how our data can be used against us in the face of new legislation, we could be faced with an online “big brother” similar to China or Russia, who are currently pioneering the way of internet censorship. We should tread lightly, and take seriously the future of our privacy in the face of government regulation.

A Dichotomy

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The past year of my life has been an exercise in extended exploration into being honest with myself. Last year at this time I found myself just having moved back to the States from a long time abroad, without a job, without a consistent place I was living, having just gone through a separation from my partner, a bunch of debt, shaky mental health, no clear sense of direction, and a lot of free time to stew on all of it.

I actually committed myself to consistent therapy and visits to the psychiatrist for the first time in my life (largely overdue, but still managing to take advantage of the the privilege I had of the remaining six months on my parents health insurance).

One of the activities one of my therapists had me do was a personal values activity where I highlighted 20 words from a long list that resonated most with me. From there I was meant to choose four that felt the most important at that time of my life.


Here was my list at the time:

Making a difference

Feeling that I wanted to dig into this exercise a bit more, I took it upon myself to, instead of just choosing four words, group these words into four categories that I identified as being overarching value buckets that emerged.

Connect – Cultivate – Constant – Change

These were things I already knew that I valued, but seeing them in writing, and with some process behind them was clarifying and validating. I felt, and often still feel, like I need validation for these values because I see them as being in direct contradiction with each other.

I value freedom, exploration, curiosity, diversity, independence — all of which change, agency and fluidity. However I also value consistency, stability, community, belonging — all of which require roots and intentionality.

How can one cultivate stability and community while also living a fluid life full of exploration and independence? It’s not impossible, but what I have learned is that it is a challenge and requires deliberate moments of sacrifice. My own duality manifests and different personas in my own mind and body, asking me to make important decisions.


There is an element of judgement that comes with this contradiction though. Often I find myself feeling broken or like I must be tricking myself. That there is no way I can be both of these things at once…that I should have to choose. That if I claim to be one way, I must be lying about the other. And lying is unethical…right?

Throughout the course of our coursework at ac4d, particularly in research, I find myself in situations where this dichotomy emerges. Because of the fluidity it implies, I find myself able to adapt to many situations, and to test my own ethical boundaries inch by inch. It’s in the afterthought that the self-judgement comes in. Does this ability and willingness to toe the line make me an unethical person?

In the work I’ve been doing, and somewhat through our discussions of ethics in class, I have been learning to pass these thoughts and situations through a few core questions:

  1. Don’t judge yourself.

Judging yourself and beating yourself up about the way that you are is a great way to have unstable footing going into any problem space. There is a way to be self aware and even self critical without being judgmental of one’s self.

2. Check in with yourself and ask every question twice.

Knowing that my values and my constitution is made up of an inherent dichotomy and ability to move fluidly between spaces, it’s important to ask myself the same question in a few ways. For example: Does not being fully transparent about the focus of my research to my interviewee make their consent to be interviewed null, and therefore unethical? First say – Yes, this was an unethical thing to do and here are the reasons why. Then say – No, this was not and unethical thing to do and here are the reasons why.

3. Don’t fight the tension, embrace the fluidity.

Rather than seeing this fluidity as something that I need to hide or fight against, I should embrace it as a part of me and as an actual asset to my abilities as a designer. Being more open to toeing the borders of ethical questions, being more open to things going wrong as a way of learning is all an asset. By checking in with myself, I can be in control of my fluidity and own it as a part of my process.

Which ultimately is my takeaway. This process of addressing the dichotomy inside myself is the base of my personal framework that I will be building on throughout the course of this ethics class. I look forward to continuing my work jumping off from this platform.

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Financial Inclusion and Women in the Sex Industry



For the next 8 weeks, our team (Leah DiVito and Brittany Sgaliardich) will be working with Austin-based nonprofit JUST and help them to find new design opportunity spaces within their business model.


JUST deeply understands the current community they serve. They focus on helping Spanish-speaking, female entrepreneurs by unlocking resources to help them thrive. They provide access to capital and coaching within a supportive community to build strong, trusting bonds which carry their clients through to their financial goals with peer-led groups. As JUST looks to expand their mission and future offerings, they want to better understand the financial behaviors of a wider audience. More specifically, JUST wants to understand how other underrepresented communities seek financial inclusion.

JUST has partnered with Austin Center for Design students to research new communities they can serve.


JUST’s mantra is Less Stress, More Joy. Our team resonates with this phrase.

Through interviews, activities, and observation, we hope to better understanding how women working in sex-related industries define and navigate their relationships to money.

Historically, barriers such as credit scores, collateral, and track record have excluded people from starting and growing a business. Similarly, women working in the sex industry face barriers which keep them excluded from financial resources and financial institutions. We were also inspired by the emphasis on trust and community as a core pillar of JUST’s mission. We understand our research moving forward will require an inherent level of trust from the women we speak to.

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We have set clear goals to guide us through the course of conducting our research.

1.  To build empathy with women so we can better understand what it’s like to work in an industry where sexuality is implied in monetary exchange.
2.  To understand how emotional and practical relationships with money affect financial decision making.
3.  To observe the formal and informal financial planning strategies of women in this industry.
4.  To understand the role community plays in navigating the benefits and challenges unique to this industry.

We are looking to speak with:

  • Full or part-time exotic dancers currently working in Austin or other cities in Texas
  • Women who are formal exotic dancers in Texas
  • Women currently working as for-hire dancers in the Austin area
  • Waitresses and bartenders working in women-only environments where their sexuality is implied in their role in Austin


We hope to spend 30-60 minutes with each woman we speak with, observing them at work (when possible), and then doing activities to dig further into their personal relationships with money and their financial decision-making. All interviews will be anonymized and this data will be used for research purposes only.

help us with our research.

We need help connecting with women participants. If you or someone you know may be interested in chatting with us, please reach out to to get in touch. Your perspective is incredibly valuable to better understanding and ultimately designing solutions for this unique group of workers.

As students working with a nonprofit, we appreciate your willingness to help both us and our community.

Austin Center for Design
Austin Center for Design (AC4D) is an educational program uniquely focused on applying design principles to address social and humanitarian problems. Explore more of our philosophy and approach here