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.
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.
— FrenchFem (@FrenchFem) January 26, 2014
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.