What Was Sex Work Twitter

Ten years ago I was at this party taking this blurry photograph on my Nokia 7610 smartphone, because the iPhone, which had made its debut a few weeks before, hadn’t gone on the market yet:

That shirt was destined for SXSW. I year later I would be, too, and my phone would crash under the volume of Twitter messages (no, not fucking “tweets,” I still can’t) I had delivered to it by SMS. Were we ever so dumb and full of data plans.

I got an iPhone that week in Austin, after having to borrow another Gawker employee’s BlackBerry to watch Eliot Spitzer’s “fall” more or less live.

Wired.com’s Regina Lynn recorded “sex work twitter” c 2008 thusly:

The downfall of Spitzer, the New York governor who resigned after his private sex life unexpectedly became public, generated an enormous amount of interest in the escort industry and in Ashley Alexandra Dupré, the woman he had been seeing.

But the whirlwind didn’t catch sex workers and activists lying down. They organized a media blitz through blogs, Tumblr, Twitter and shared Google Docs. They kept tabs on which reporters approached the topic with respect and which didn’t. And perhaps for the first time, they made their voices heard in mainstream venues like Fox News and CNN — organizations that cannot be dismissed as fringe or adults-only media…

Gira says that after two years of concerted effort, the network is solid enough to enable sex workers to respond to breaking news almost as quickly as big organizations like Gawker Media.

“We’re not the mainstream media but now we have the tools to be as fast…. We had people doing video embeds all week,” Gira says. “Audacia Ray was tweeting media calls. Things we couldn’t say to the press, we could say behind the scenes, quasi-publicly. It was important to have those back channels to support each other. If not for Tumblr, Twitter and my iPhone, I couldn’t have done it.”

But what didn’t get published in Lynn’s story was how wrong I got sex work Twitter. How, when I joined Twitter in December 2006, it was never my goal to use the service to promote my work doing anything but writing. How that led me to believe that other sex workers at the time would make the same choices: after all, were clients really hanging out posting blurry photos of their highly-branded, tech-chasing lives? (They were.) And why would we want to spend off-the-clock time chatting with them there?

What drew me to sex work Twitter was the chance to meet other sex workers outside of work. I wanted to meet activists and, more than just read their papers and blogs, see how they unfurled their politics day-to-day. Twitter was and still is the perfect medium for that. Before social media, sex work activism was transmitted through a handful of photos and articles you were lucky if Carol Leigh scanned to her website. The archive was fixed in time. And, given the realities of web 1.0, unless you could build your own website, you were not part of it.

(Thanks, Carol.)

2008 was a turning point in the American sex worker rights’ scene, too. Two years before the Desiree Alliance conference brought together, for the first time, the generation of sex workers who grew up with and worked online. (We even had a liveblog.) Those same people formed the core of activists who turned to social media, and who by 2008 had successfully pulled mainstream media into their orbit.

What I’m saying is, in absence of other kinds of power, this was a kind of power sex workers had. Some sex workers. And not as sex workers per se but as activists for sex workers’ rights.

That power, now, today is flexed before a much, much wider audience. Back then, it was still novel that a celebrity would be on Twitter, let alone a senator. Now, sex work Twitter is a combination break room, hiring hall, and 24/7 political education symposium. (Which is what Twitter is, for a lot of people.) Researchers on sex work devote their energies to mining sex work Twitter. NGO’s and policymakers follow along with the clients and fans. And everyone can watch that go down as it does.

So when anti-sex worker rights’ activists wanted to smear Amnesty International for supporting sex work decriminalization, they turned to Twitter.

And when sex workers want public accountability for violence, they turn to Twitter.

We’ve hit another turning point, a decade on: that gigantic audience, that audience utterly disproportionate in size to sex workers’ rights activists political power, has hit a breaking point. It began, I would argue, with Amnesty International’s 2015 decision to create a framework for supporting sex workers’ rights, and their 2016 position in support for full decriminalization of sex work.

Amnesty, at the time, were very clear that they were merely following the lead of sex workers’ rights activists. But the huge global brand that is Amnesty? That, perhaps more than the policy itself, seemed to infuriate people who are used to dominating sex work policy debates by excluding sex workers, something our politics allows them to. But now they had to contend with what I called to a friend last night (at three in the morning, so –) “more or less the Apple of human rights.”

I don’t know where this ends up, but I wanted to, as a longtime participant and armchair historian, point to this moment. It’s the moment when there are finally stakes enough now to have something to really fight about. And fight out, because it is Twitter, in public.

Juno Mac, a sex worker and rights advocate in the UK, put the tensions this way: “In 2017, Twitter is a part of that policy environment. The advocacy espoused by escort personas w client-facing twitter accounts is bastardizing a strong movement based on labour rights and shared struggle. We don’t deserve decrim cos sex work is nice – we need it, because it’s fucking shit sometimes.”

Twitter is the place where all this coexists, in public, in a public most people have not had access to: sex workers’ shop talk, off the clock, which now amounts to public policy debate, in real time. It is a tool now far too overburdened, too significant for how easy it is to misuse. A huge follower count can, to some, look like evidence of your own significance. Meanwhile there are also many, many sex worker activists who will never use Twitter. (The last communication I had with Margo St. James, considered the foremother of the American movement? A letter delivered by post.)

This moment is a snapshot, one that is also moving and moving fast, capturing debates that have unfolded over a decade, now speeding up. The stakes all of a sudden are very different. There are stakes.

What I am saying is people fight with one another because now there is something, a voice and some power, to fight over.


Can a Feminist Be A Prohibitionist?

Part two in an ongoing series re-writing mainstream feminism.

In an alternate universe, Katha Pollitt asks:

Is there such a thing as prohibitionist feminism? In January, a reference to supporting sex workers’ rights was briefly removed from the website of the Women’s March on Washington.  “Intersectional feminism is the future of feminism and of this movement,” said Bob Bland, one of the event’s co-chairs. “We must not just talk about feminism as one issue…” Leaving aside the question of whether Bland understands what intersectionality means—sex work prohibitionism is a political stance, not an identity or a social position—can feminism, a social-justice movement for women’s equality and human rights, encompass the belief that women should be prohibited from engaging in sex work through the brute force of the criminal law, no matter the consequences?

Let’s also set aside the fact that the sex work prohibitionist movement’s leadership is heavy on conservative evangelical preachers, and that the movement is allied to Tony Perkins, who promotes the propaganda homosexuality and bisexuality are “unhealthy and destructive” and that families must be headed by one man and one woman, married. Hard to see the feminism there.

It is probably true that many women would support stricter anti-sex work laws than now exist on paper… It is probably also true that some of those women support other feminist goals, like equal pay, more women in political office, and stronger action against domestic violence and rape. But does that mean the women’s movement should soft-pedal or even drop its support for decriminalizing sex work?

Like it or not, sex workers’ rights are at tremendous risk right now. A political movement that doesn’t defend them and promotes instead some vague notion of “unity” is bound to be weak tea to the women who are the movement’s strongest activists. After all, nothing prevents prohibitionist women from being active in other feminist and progressive causes…

My own view is that people are complicated and mix up their politics in all kinds of ways. A woman can believe that women are equal to men and also that no woman should ever sell sex. She can be anti-sex work for herself, in other words, and many pro-sex workers’ rights women are. But rights and personal ethics are not the same. I just don’t see how restricting and criminalizing sex work, bullying women out of the business, and pushing lies—that sex work will always give you post-traumatic stress disorder, make you diseased, or lead to a life’s worth of misery—are compatible with respecting other women’s right to make their own moral decisions in an area where people disagree strongly and probably always will.

 

 


A Meditation From No Common Ground

Allow me this appropriation of Jessica Valenti’s column, who said it first re: abortion:

So you’ll excuse me for laughing off recent suggestions that feminists embrace “anti-sex work” women in the name of inclusivity. You don’t get to feel bad about being banned from the treehouse when you’re in the middle of setting the trunk on fire.

And let’s be clear: these political positions are not about reducing the number of women who sell sex. The anti-prostitution loyalty oath, for example, has been shown make sex workers lives more dangerous – especially where sex work is already illegal. The same is true for state level sex work bans; to the best of our knowledge, hundreds of thousands of women in the United States sell sex despite its illegal status. Anti-sex work policies don’t prevent women from selling sex, they just ensure that women do it dangerously.

If anti-sex work legislators or so-called “abolitionist” feminists were interested in decreasing the number of women who sell sex they’d be enthusiastically supporting worker organizing, living wage jobs (including legal access to work for undocumented women), and truly affordable housing and healthcare. They would fight to end the police profiling of women of color and transgender women. They’d be introducing legislation to protect women’s rights to work free from violence and exploitation no matter what job they do.

But they’re not. And they won’t. So let’s not fool ourselves – these next four years are about fighting for what’s right, not searching for the nonexistent distraction of common ground.

This is what real common ground could look like.


A Professionalized Body

So I’m startled by the possibilities for reading these two incisive modern labor stories against one another:

Inside the Million-Dollar Get-Rich Doula Clique (Katie J. M. Baker, BuzzFeed News)

The Peculiar Political Economics of Pro-Domming
(Lori Adorable, Tits and Sass)

Lori Adorable’s story speaks to something I have no inclination to report on myself, preferring to leave it to superior, expert observation and commentary: the rise of online domination, specifically the production of online personas in the service of marketing and branding BDSM services, not only those offered remotely through words and pictures.

Adorable: “[I] don’t see how a half dozen or so fin-dommes have transformed ‘fuck you, pay me’ dirty talk into a semi-coherent rhetoric of wealth redistribution on certain strains of social justice Twitter. It seems obvious to me that gamely paying $20 in Amazon gift cards for a carefully calibrated performance of sexualized bitchiness is not full communism. Where did everyone else get it twisted?”

This scene isn’t just about creating appealing content by which to attract and motivate potential customers over time. Selling domination on the internet has become somewhat intertwined in the same kind of empowerment politics that are a strong driver of traffic, emotion, and “engagement” outside the sex trade, too.

Katie Baker’s investigation of doulas reveals a prosperity cult on the rise within this rapidly professionalizing community, one that has gained in visibility in the past through explicitly political challenges to the birth status quo. Through Facebook groups, the new doulas have perfected the art of drama as business plan.

Baker: “Group members accuse volunteer doulas of ‘devaluing’ the profession, calling them selfish ‘oxytocin vampires’ for soaking up secondhand vibes at the expense of their colleagues’ paychecks (women release oxytocin, called the ‘love hormone,’ during labor). ‘Sure hope that birth high is worth taking the food out of my children’s mouths,’ an angry doula once wrote about a competitor advertising free services. Posts about whether doulas are a ‘necessity’ draw hundreds of impassioned comments. ‘Everyone deserves a doula is a catchy phrase,’ one doula recently wrote, ‘but so is “show me the money.”‘

This mix of excessive high self-esteem as marketing, while marketing excessive high self-esteem itself, is of course not limited to the doula scene. Every aspiring #GirlBoss, every #BossBitch trying to ascend from middle management, all those struggling on their way to #SHEntrepreneur status has come across such demands to just believe in herself and the cash will follow. If along the way she has to separate herself from all the less ambitious, less convinced-of-themselves, less resourced (to be honest) women, well, that’s just part of the process. That’s how she asserts her value: pulling away from the women she’s been told (by the people she has paid to tell her) are her lessers.

What the ProDoulas are selling is an aura of success: founders say they have made $1.25M in 2016 through their online seminars and social media consultations, along with conferences, web design services, and professional certifications. Baker interviews doulas who bought in, only to lose business. The rigid ProDoula line didn’t sell in their communities, who didn’t see doula services as the luxury product ProDoula has styled them into. But the ProDoulas broker no room for dissent in their online communities. One doula, who had been critical of ProDoula, told Baker she had been baited into a private conversation about ProDoula by an undercover ProDoula, who then published screenshots of their conversation. Betrayal! Controversy! And – profit. ProDoula execs noted their numbers only go up when they get “haters.”

In wedding their feel-good-but-not-too-feelingsy feminist scheme to a certain kind of passion for trolling as lead generation, have doulas really just discovered the 2010’s findom-inspired call sign, #GiveYourMoneyToWomen? Meant as much as a provocation as a business plan, the hashtag-as-demand moved quickly out of findom spaces and into the broader return to claiming women’s underpaid or unpaid emotional labor as a feminist – and this time, an entrepreneurial – mission.

Lori Adorable again, on dommes: “We spend an obscene amount of energy trying to distance ourselves from escorts, parlor workers, and other full-service providers, many of whom also do BDSM, and we hurt ourselves in the process. With a few notable exceptions like Terri-Jean Bedford, we are cut off from the movement. Other sex workers agitate for their rights, and we claim not to need those rights. They form social and professional networks and we isolate from their organizations. They establish health centers and we ignore our need for STI testing as if needle play were not a higher-risk activity than many forms of sex. They organize know-your-rights trainings, and they certainly don’t miss our holier-than-thou presence when we fail to show. We’re the ones who miss out on community, on services, and on knowledge that can protect us. We’ve done this to ourselves because it’s easier than fighting. We are, to borrow from Charlotte Shane, high off our own non-hooker fumes, enamored of our in-session personas and giving up the ghost of socioeconomic reality.”

Dommes are possibly some ways off from any kind of ProDoula-like scheme (though, of course, anywhere on social media one could be cooking right now). But as Adorable describes the current state of affairs in domme community, these are the precise socioeconomic conditions that could make such a domme-to-domme business profitable. Doula work and domme work are both forms of feminized, stigmatized labor; they don’t require credentials or degrees; they end up thriving at the margins of society for all those reasons, in turn attracting independent-minded workers.

As Adorable gestures to, these dynamics, borne partially of self-protection, also lead to policing behavior – of who is in and who is out. In a way, it is a system for transforming stigma (however temporarily, uneasily) into cash. But along with it, another stigmatizing hierarchy develops, one dividing women who “value” themselves from those who don’t measure up to the standards of whatever clique rules the day. This isn’t, by the way, necessarily an indication of who is most successful at business; it may be only whoever has enough time (therefore resources, which they may already have had) to enforce their vision of the rules.

With ProDoula, along with the rule-making, that high-on-her-fumes persona is in play, too. “I used to tell people that our most popular service was overnights before I’d ever sold a single overnight shift,” one ProDoula told Baker. It’s a persona marketed to pregnant people seeking birth support, and to other doulas seeking community and mentorship. As authentic as that persona might be, it is still primarily a tool developed for the practical work of attracting and maintaining customers.

None of this is intrinsic to doula work, it should be said, and it isn’t to sex work, either.

The women Baker meets in the ProDoula community revel in their business persona; they aspire to be edgy, tough alternatives to both doula conventions and mainstream women’s business. That, too, is supposed to be an expression of their commitment to “value their worth.” Yet what that means in practical terms, when you look at how they spend their days, is spending a lot of time on the internet instructing other doulas on how to overcome their failings. And for free.


The Guardian: ‘Secrets aren’t really a thing that I do’

stoya-the-guardian-melissa-gira-grant

On 28 November, she tweeted: “That thing where you log in to the internet for a second and see people idolizing the guy who raped you as a feminist. That thing sucks.” And then: “James Deen held me down and fucked me while I said no, stop, used my safeword. I just can’t nod and smile when people bring him up anymore.”

Then she logged off.

In what may have felt like Stoya’s silence, reporters, critics and fans wondered for her: what did this mean, this public rape story told in 55 words, involving two of the world’s most high-profile porn performers, who were once in a very public relationship with each other? (James Deen posted some tweets of his own, denying Stoya’s story. A request for comment from Deen was not returned by the time of publication.)

That silence was filled almost immediately by other porn performers, some with allegations similar to Stoya’s, and about the same man, and saying that, despite what the reporters and critics and fans might have been wondering, yes, no matter what you see on screen, a porn performer has a right to her boundaries, on-set and off – and that yes, they believed her. That chorus of voices that followed Stoya’s shook the porn industry. They reverberated, and now the public is hearing, perhaps as loudly as ever, about the particular structural problems the porn industry contends with, and the persistent and pernicious idea that sex workers are by definition unrapeable. So what change has Stoya’s intervention made – and what remains?

‘Secrets aren’t really a thing that I do,’” by Melissa Gira Grant for The Guardian


Announcing // w4m.club //

What is w4m.club?

A website. A one-woman research collective. An outlet for gathering and creating and working material for the long haul. A subscription service to my desk, my outboard brain.

An exploration into the infrastructure and displacement of sex, involving a number of bodies, cities, and what happens to us between rail stations, phone calls, and packet switches. Recorded from somewhere in America. Available by subscription, telephone and through correspondence.

Subscriptions available now.


RH Reality Check: How Sex Workers’ Rights Made the Mainstream

Rentboy was a website where men sought sex with men, and as such, media and advocacy groups who don’t typically bring a political analysis to sex work responded to the raid primarily as an anti-gay attack, while also calling for an end to the policing of sex workers. Some American LGBTQ organizations in particular have rallied around the political nature of the raid—in a way women’s rights groups in the United States, when women sex workers are targeted in similar raids, have not.

In fact, it might be the relative silence of women’s rights groups on the Rentboy raid that has provided space for sex workers’ rights to become the main focus of the story.

How Sex Workers’ Rights Made the Mainstream, by Melissa Gira Grant for RH Reality Check


VICE: How the Feds Took Down Rentboy.com

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents were there with the Rentboy defendants Tuesday afternoon at federal court in Brooklyn. The agents sat shoulder to shoulder, filling two front benches. They outnumbered the attorneys. They wore T-shirts and jeans, badges on their hips, looking relaxed and confident against the murmur of suits and ties. One agent stood and turned to us, the press and families and advocates in the back benches, and we could read the slogan on his shirt: “Vindicated—Justice Will Be Done.”

“You sure you brought enough guys?” one of the defense attorneys spoke into the air.

How the Feds Took Down Rentboy.com, by Melissa Gira Grant for VICE



On The Work of Sex Work

A little over eighteen months ago, I published a book entitled Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. In it, I relate the cultural fantasies we hold about sex work and who performs it. I call these collectively, the prostitute imaginary. I identify those people who most gain from these fantasies, and how they put them to work for themselves to marginalize, contain, and discipline sex workers’ livelihoods, bodies, and self-representations. In particular, I nod back to theorists of sex work like Jill Nagle and Gail Pheterson, who explained in the 1990’s how the character of “the prostitute” as narrated by outsiders is used to alienate any woman engaged in sex work from the production of her own image.

I have done, in these months, dozens of interviews in print, radio, television, and for online publication. I have written thousands of words in the service of advancing these ideas (that is, the sale of my own). My work has received international critical attention; I have given invited talks on the subject in half a dozen countries. I have used my platform to debate politicians and confront NGO’s, used my journalism to expose human rights violations, and I bring a deep and interdisciplinary knowledge of the current research to my criticism. I am one of the most recognized and original thinkers on the subject. On this, there is little dispute. I have also encountered – mostly from other journalists – all manner of presumptions about my own body, what it has done, and what it is capable of. I have had to defend my ability to do this work as I have carried it off masterfully.

Since I first published and was paid for a piece of writing on sex work more than ten years ago, I have performed these two jobs: the work of writing, and the work of carving out a space for that writing (and its sale). I have watched as, at least once each year, a news cycle winds up concerning sex work, for a time attaching a more recognizable name to an issue few value: the DC Madam, Eliot Spitzer, Craigslist, Backpage, the Secret Service, Nicholas Kristof and Somaly Mam, Amnesty International. Though I do this work daily, in these moments of media flash I am introduced to writers, journalists, and producers who are have only just arrived on the topic, and who I will never hear from again. I understand the paucity of newsroom resources these days – the disappearing of newsrooms themselves – and that any good reporter is going to sniff out those who have more to offer her than her colleagues close at hand, to turn and churn out copy before she is on to the next. I am sympathetic, though these days, I am unmoved.

I turn down more of these requests than I accept; the ratio is likely 5 to 1 in favor of no, a decision necessary to keep my time to myself to pursue my other research and writing interests. Perhaps my apparent success makes other writers and reporters think I have ample time to direct them to books (buy my own), related texts (bibliography appears in my own), subjects to interview (use the internet). Worse, sometimes they think I owe it to them. They are incorrect.

To the writer at the well-known web explainer outlet who asked me to offer critique of his article, after I declined to be interviewed, who told me “no one else” at his website had an interest in sex work, I would direct you to your own archives, which contain – among other things on the subject – an interview I gave several months ago.

To the young feminist making the Sunday show rounds, who emailed me less than twelve hours before her next appearance seeking to “pick my brain,” I didn’t reply to you, intentionally. If you didn’t take it on yourself to read the stories I had sent you earlier in the week, I am not going to make time for you by phone.

To the network television producer who wanted me to introduce her to sex workers from Craigslist so she could tell their stories, and who told me “It’s not work I’m asking you to do, it’s an introduction, and a way to shed light on an important and under-reported issue,” I know it is important and under-reported; that’s why I do my job. The time has come for you to do yours.

Not only from these three incidents, but from what they say about this moment in this media economy: I am on my own kind of strike from doing anyone else’s work on sex work. I will not answer your requests. I will not give you interviews. I will not be a token on your program. I will not direct you to resources. I will not introduce you to subjects. I will not do work you are paid to do. I will not do work which has value to those who employ you. I will not do work which has value to those who place advertisements around your work. I will not, and if you ask me to more than once, I will direct you to the following, now published for you to refer to in the future and to share with your colleagues, too:

To acquire my time from my own writing, research, and public speaking, my consulting fees on the subject of sex work begin at $1000.

Best of luck in this business,
Melissa

Previously: Dear Producer
Follow-up: Reactions to My Strike Notice