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.

Speaking at Eyebeam on New Topics in Social Computing: “Online Abuser Dynamics”

On Thursday, November 20, I’ll be speaking at Eyebeam in Brooklyn as part of Joanne McNeil’s series, “New Topics in Social Computing.” Our topic is Online Abuser Dynamics.

In this discussion we will review the dynamics and patterns of online abuse on social networks. How does a minor scuffle so quickly become an avalanche of online harassment? Why are women, people of color, and the queer and trans community disproportionately targeted? What are steps we can take to build safe spaces on the internet? A killfile or block button is no longer a sufficient tool to prevent abuse and the common advice “don’t feed the troll” ignores the contemporary climate of online abuse. We will discuss tactics to minimize online abuse and the potential for structural change.

Space is limited so please RSVP here.

Doors: 7:00PM
Panel begins: 7:30PM

34 35th St., Brooklyn, NY 11232

tl;dr feminism

(adapted from something that started like this)

Finally, I’m reading books again by other people that have nothing to do with my book, my work, or anything else but what I want to give five minutes on a bench, and that’s where and how I found myself with enough space to rattle out the following after reading exactly one and one-half pages of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, which by my recollection could be the first New York Times bestselling feminist book of the Internet feminist age. And if that’s true, then one of the bestselling books right now opens with an acknowledgment that feminism is painfully dominated by those with the biggest platforms. Of all the things about books that have thrilled (and pissed me off) this year, that this is the book on feminism dominating now is amazing.

I got online in 1994. Made a website in 1996. Added a diary in 1998. Feminism, trust, was alive on that Internet. Blogging – let’s see, I remember installing MovableType in 2003. “Real blogging.” We were getting the sense that what all we were getting up to on LiveJournal was girly, unserious. Probably we were getting that sense from elevated profiles of the handful of men who were getting known from blogging c. early 2000’s.

By the time “feminist blogging” happened, I had been online ten years. New gloss on an old convo. More people raised their profiles.

Some of us oldsters started getting jobs. I mean, my first writing job was online, in 1999, reviewing goth clubs for a porn site. (A porn site. With a hyphen in the URL. In 1999. I know.)

I got a steady writing job from Valleywag in 2008. Blogging was so grown up it was something we argued about being over. (Twitter, at that time, was two.)

What was then crystallizing as “feminist blogging” was just the tippest top of the iceberg. Very white, fresh out of college. The issues that rapidly-crystallized slice of feminist blogging drove soon became mainstream lingo: rape culture, slut shaming, “the war on women.” Not so much sex or reproductive justice. A bit of branding was going on. Rough edges were hewn off, if ever posted in the first place.

(Quick pause to remember the Xeroxed underground paper and zines where I published my first feminist writing in 1993…)

I was a feminist writing for a living on the internet, mostly for men, about technology and sex. (Not gender. Fucking.) As I found my place, I saw mainstream media found places for more of us outside weirdo bloggers. And predictably, shit got less weird.

That white, recently-graduated slice of Internet writing about rape culture & slut shaming? Soon became synonymous with “feminism” in media.

I miss the bigger, broader, messier online feminism I owe my analysis and desire to write from. Even as media has shrunk it down. (Ok, not just “media” shrunk it down. Patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism shrunk it down.)

So now we have outlets who never would hire bloggers let alone feminists five-or-even-seven years ago scrambling to get a feminist blogger on staff. Yet the thing they are hiring when they are hiring a “feminist blogger” is that white, millenialish grad. Who can hot take with blogger speed.

I don’t think I’m an old lady when I crave the days when even the Internet moved slower. Email lists. Usenet. LJ threads over months. Losing the slow, incremental crawl of ideas over weeks and months online is structural. Tweets decay too fast.

Meanwhile, “feminism” is enjoying a brand revival, just as the web content maw cannot be satisfied by any number of tragic sexist tales.

I was having a drink w a fab radical lawyer this week. Talking about journalism. The “abortion law shit show of the day” beat. I was saying, as someone who covers a similar shit show on sex work, as depressing as it is on abortion, it’s almost worse. If you cover abortion law, you have the Guttmacher Institute. Planned Parenthood and NARAL. Communicationss staff at their desks and phones. Press releases. Quick quotes. If you cover sex work law, chances are there is no one seeking you out, let alone returning your call on deadline. There’s simply no comparative infrastructure. You have to build it.

So part of what defines a “feminist writer” or beat is shaped by those resources: this is how some issues are mainstream or are considered whole beats.

You do work with a gender lens outside the “feminist issue” mainstream? You have to compensate for all those deficits, these systemic disinvestments in our culture, politics, and media. You cover women & labor, the drug war, women’s prisons, queer women’s issues, transmisogyny in law? You are doing triple work. You are building sources outside the usual feminist suspects you see quoted again and again, outside and in absence of organizations. You are convincing editors it is a story. You are educating a newly cohering audience.

(And you know, being posi. Supporting ladies.) (Only slight sarcasm.)

None of us does this alone. So who made my job with me? Audacia Ray, a deeply principled sex worker rights’ advocate and media maker, over a long time and with many hats. Sarah Jaffe, a hardworking labor journalist and old friend, who made space for me in her networks. Joanne McNeil, the most human of tech and culture minds, always for the longview.

I wouldn’t be here without their late nights, networks, messy convos, shit-stirring. I’m hyperaware how hard it is to get anywhere right now. And hyperaware how limited this space is, how easy it is to fall off, fall out, claw in only to be pushed out.

It’s why I always look back.

tl;dr I’m a feminist writer, who feels desperately constrained by what’s regarded right now as feminist writing, and so all hail Roxane’s book kicking ass, and wish me luck finding a few minutes to get more than a dozen pages in some time soon.

“w4m: The End of the American Red Light District” at the Berkman Center

A video archive of my July 2014 talk at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society:

The history of the American red light district is quite brief – from railroad signal lights to hotel bathroom selfies – and clouded in myth. Soon it may be lost. In this talk, journalist Melissa Gira Grant (author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work) will reconsider how communication technologies shape sex-for-sale, proposing that sex work has merged with the network. We’ll surveil the police, missionaries, media, and politicians who created and command this space, and discuss what we can learn from how sex workers have remained a step ahead.

Speaking at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society

On July 8, I’ll be speaking at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. My talk is called w4m: The End of the American Red Light District:

The history of the American red light district is quite brief – from railroad signal lights to hotel bathroom selfies – and clouded in myth. Soon it may be lost. In this talk, I will reconsider how communication technologies shape sex-for-sale, proposing that sex work has merged with the network. We’ll surveil the police, missionaries, media, and politicians who created and command this space, and discuss what we can learn from how sex workers have remained a step ahead.

The talk is at capacity, but will be livestreamed beginning at 12:30 PM EDT.

Reading at An Evening for Chelsea Manning

Manning Event

On Thursday, June 19 in New York, join OR Books and Chelsea Manning’s supporters to mark one year since she went on trial for leaking the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs to WikiLeaks.

At TheaterLab (357 W 36th St, 3rd Floor, NYC) journalists, activists and artists who attended the trial will read from a new graphic book published this month, The United States vs Private Chelsea Manning: A Graphic Account From Inside the Courtroom.

Readings by:

Chase Madar
Clark Stoeckley
Melissa Gira Grant
Max Thorn
Adam Klasfeld
+ more

Wine will be served, and we will be collecting donations for Chelsea Manning’s appeal fund.

Doors open at 7pm
Readings begin promptly at 7.30pm

An OR Books event

Co-sponsored by
The Chelsea Manning Support Network
The World Can’t Wait

RSVP to: events@orbooks.com

New series on sex work and policing for The Atlantic’s CityLab

CityLab, The Atlantic

The Atlantic’s CityLab is publishing a series I reported while on book tour, on sex work and policing in America. From the series introduction:

I spent the spring between a handful of U.S. cities toting around a bag printed in gold with BIG BROTHEL IS WATCHING YOU. In TSA lines and hotels, I turned the words toward my chest. As wedded as I was to my gear, I couldn’t risk a hassle. I didn’t know how much those guards and attendants were accustomed to what they’d consider the sexual underclass – even though the people who inhabit it move about those same spaces, too. I didn’t know how long I’d be afforded a moment to explain: I was on business, but not that kind, and if I was, what does it matter?

What will follow over the coming days are a series of stories from the American cities whose sex work economies, laws, and human rights advocates I detail in my new book, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work. There is no sex work without the city, though you aren’t likely to see much overt evidence of that today. Unless you’re a potential customer or a member of law enforcement – men whose business it is to look – people who sell sex might be invisible to you. But even in a state of crackdown, sex workers have always been able to find one another.

Theorizing the Web

Theorizing the Web
As part of Theorizing the Web, I’ll be moderating a keynote panel on Sex Work and the Web on Friday, April 25th at 6pm (EDT) in Brooklyn, NY. You can join us live or on the livestream.

Panelists are: Emma Caterine, community organizer at the Red Umbrella Project (@EmmaCaterine), Hawk Kinkaid, founder and current president of HOOK ONLINE (@hawkkinkaid), N’jaila Rhee, co-host of TWIB After Dark (@BlasianBytch), and Stoya, adult film performer and writer (@stoya).

A porn of her own

(Valerie Solanas referring to the text)

The Feminist Porn Book has been one of the more fun books to take along on the subway. With this hanging out in my purse over the last few weeks and Kink.com back in the headlines for unfair labor practices, I took the chance to interview some porn performers and producers about porn as women’s work, and how feminist porn can be a feminist labor issue. That’s up at the Guardian.

Maxine Holloway and Bella Vendetta had way more to say than I could fit in print, and I wasn’t able to get in one of my favorite excerpts from the book, from an essay by Clarissa Smith and Feona Attwood, on the resurgence of anti-porn feminism and its’ complicated relationship with the internet:

“…the current wave of antipornography campaigning draws on the arguments of the 1970s and 1980s antiporn feminists but do so in interesting ways – for example, although they build on the central tenets of Andrea Dworkin’s analysis of the misogyny and cruelty of pornographers, they posit this as a prescient account but one that could never have envisaged the ‘juggernaut’ of the Internet… this complex narrative of nostalgia and futurology is a central theme in these accounts where pornography is acknowledged as an already exisiting feature of the landscape, but one that has developed outside the knowledge of ‘ordinary’ adults and needs urgent redress.”

There’s also been some fascinating conversation on Susie Bright’s blog, about how the book positions the current sex positive community with or possibly against the late 1970s and early 1980s contributions of feminists, particularly those who identified as sex radical feminists.

In an open letter to the editors of The Feminist Porn Book, Gayle Rubin (whose “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” is an essential text) writes that in both the introduction to their book and in media surrounding it, the editors seem to be proposing a “middle ground” between what could be read as “extreme” ideologies held by both sex positive and anti-porn camps. “This way of framing the history of debate over pornography within feminism is not uncommon,” writes Rubin, “but it is dead wrong.” She continues:

“This version of the story requires mischaracterizing most of us who were involved in the early arguments by casting us as unreasonable extremists who celebrated pornography without qualifications. It fails to recognize that we– essentially the first generation of feminist critics of the antiporn movement– made most of these so-called “reasonable middle” points in the late 1970s and early 1980s, back at the time when the porn debates first ignited.”

Responding to Rubin, the editors write:

“While noting this tremendous diversity and productive potential [in porn], sex positive feminist critics have not yet fully analyzed the tremendous production of feminist pornographies that has emerged in the past fifteen years. When we say these pornographies have been “lost in the middle,” we mean that critical work on emerging forms of feminist pornography needs to be engaged if we want to continue to advance the cause of sex positive feminism. That’s what our book is intended to do.”

It’s true – most writing about the sex industry in the last fifteen years (not that I just did a lit review, but I did) focuses on first-person storytelling about workplace experiences. Porn performers are often under-represented in this literature, and porn producers (even if they are also performers themselves) are often not represented because they occupy a management role. There’s comparatively less work exploring the production or business side of any sex industry. (There’s also a whole other conversation to be had, about whether or not producers or managers are sex workers, or should be part of sex workers’ spaces (and literature), but it’s somewhere The Feminist Porn Book does shine, in bringing together people who both perform in and produce (and study) feminist pornographies, in the same space, even if they aren’t on quite even footing.)

I wonder if this is why Tristan Taormino responded to my piece, which concerned feminist porn as labor, by saying she didn’t think the performers I spoke with were “representative,” which I disagree with. I’ve heard one of the frustrations I wrote about – that feminist porn doesn’t pay what “mainstream” porn pays – quite a bit, both from colleagues in porn at the time I was working, and from those who still work in feminist porn. This issue of pay deferential isn’t just about what an individual producer can or chooses to pay; it’s about resources, and how under-resourced women’s work and women’s own businesses are. It’s something I’d love to read more about, from performers’ perspectives. (Here’s one take on the question, of how to pay and pay fairly, from a feminist porn producer, Ms. Naughty.)

Back to Rubin, though. Her generation of feminist porn thinkers brought a class politics to their porn politics, one of the most important contributions of the early sex radical feminists, and one that has almost been lost. It’s one of the more challenging things to me about explaining “sex positivity” to those who have no idea what it means (most people), because I find myself digging for a politics of sex positivity, and to find it, I end up back quoting Rubin, Carole Vance, Amber Hollibaugh, Ellen Willis – women who were producing a theory of sexuality and feminism thirty years ago. (In fact, the legendary Barnard Conference on Sexuality was held here in New York in 1982. I wish was had thought to produce a reunion or tribute. I’d love to be in that room.)

In this early sex radical writing and thinking about sexuality and feminism, the actual production of feminist porn might not yet be present (it can’t really yet be), but what is much more upfront is a grounding of this whole enterprise, of sex and gender, in questions about power and class and inequality. Talking about compulsory heterosexuality and motherhood, the uncompensated labor of sex and sexual reproduction, and all the connections between the devaluation of women’s labor and women’s sexuality are what sex radical feminists used to destabilize anti-porn feminism’s recapitulation of female virtue (whether within straight or lesbian monogamy).

These women are the roots of this work, and more urgently, they are the roots I don’t know that my generation (X-ish? Y-ish?) has yet to fully add our own analysis to – of what the questions of power and inequality raised by sex radicals thirty years ago mean to sex positive feminists today. This book is one step in that direction, but it leaves me wanting more, and a more that will require reincorporating the analyses of labor and class that (honestly, most) feminism has sheared off since the 1980s. In trying to understand this gap in analysis and shared history (which is I think what we see in these two open letters), I want to better understand where “sex radical” and “sex positive” feminisms converge and split off from one another. I don’t think they are the same thing, and I think we lost something when “sex radical” (mostly) dropped off the radar. If this transition, from sex radical giving way to sex positive, mirrors anything like the parallel changes in queer and women’s movements, it follows a time, moving from the 80s to the 90s, of an underclass getting more visible, and later, getting more respectable, while still preserving an underclass within the people just barely formerly known as the underclass.

I know it might be hard to to conceive of “sex positivity” as respectable in anyone’s eyes. But just as when Pride went corporate and when feminism becomes a corporate slogan, when “sex positivity” became closely identified (if not entirely identified) by sex toy stores and sex positive porn, where did our ways of talking about inequality go? (Fave exploration of this I’ve ever read is this 1999 piece by Mimi Thi Nguyen, for Punk Planet.) Where are those analyses being developed (over a coffee counts, I’m not just talking classrooms) and where can others find them? The ground work has been done; it’s just a matter of reaching back and asking new questions. (And I’d love to hear your questions, about feminisms, sex positivity, and inequalities, here.)