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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
After the strong reception my strike notice received – I will no longer speak to other members of the media about sex work unless it is a paying project or assignment – I thought I’d gather some of the conversation here.
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.
KCRW 89.9 | KCRW.COM
I’m curious — why didn’t you ask me in our pre-interview about being a former sex worker? Did you know it was because I would likely have canceled the interview?
I was under the impression you booked me as one of the few journalists who covers this issue. Not to challenge a “happy hooker” quip.
(In fact, I have already done so. In an essay. Unrelated to the labor conditions of my cunt.)
This is what I do for a living, and why you are writing to me in the first place: because you read something, that I wrote, and was paid for.
I do not need to be reminded, while doing my job, that I used to do another one.
It is my job to research, report, and write. I speak for no one. I speak from my work, now – the thousands of hours of tape and years of building relationships with human rights advocates, attorneys, and researchers; the days I have spent talking to women who have been through our prisons and courts; the stories of family members grieving for their daughters, who tell me other reporters called them “prostitutes” or “junkies” and moved on.
Are there other guests you ambush with the demand to speak from their own experience? Are there other guests you don’t discuss this with first in a pre-interview? Are there other guests with whom you assume this is acceptable?
Must a reporter who comes on to talk about migration be asked first if they are undocumented, if they mentioned it once before? How often do you ask reporters covering Title IX to answer questions about rape based on their own experience, if they have also written about their own sexual assault? Are all guests on shows about police violence asked about their arrests? When Prop 8 passed in California, did you ask any out queer reporters what they would say to anti-queer bigots who said no happy queers existed?
Who is asked to report from the conditions of their own body? A body that is, in these cases, already disbelieved? A body that is, in these cases, already suspect?
Who is asked to be a body that is already disbelieved, and who just gets to report what they see and learned from the world around them?
When I interview people, I know that no one is just one thing; no one is defined by their work; no one can speak for anyone.
Do not misread me: I don’t refuse your questions because I don’t want to speak from my own experience in sex work. I refuse them because I don’t want to speak from my own experience in sex work as mediated by you.
I am not grateful for the invitation. I am sick that this surprises you, that you now want to “apologize if [I] felt mislead or felt that the questions were inappropriate.” I am tired of having to do my job while defending my ability to do my job.
Amnesty’s announcement refers to sex workers as “one of the most marginalized groups in the world,” but today it is especially worth underscoring the resistance of sex workers. Sex workers have organized against police violence, HIV/AIDS, and punitive laws for decades—and did so while facing exclusion from feminist and human rights organizations.