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