Good Girls Go On Facebook, Bad Girls Go Everywhere


Of all the tech hijinx I covered while writing for Valleywag (missu), Facebook’s always felt the least inspired. Even in 2006, when Valleywag launched and when Facebook had just barely made itself available to anyone outside an Ivy, there was something antiseptic about it that felt so fundamentally disconnected, like whoever had built it had forgot that their business was actually on the wild, wooly internet.

Of course, it wasn’t. Facebook was in the business of our offline lives, and “frictionless” (right) sharing thereof: the business of generating wealth from and never really for its users.

Except. Except the users under its own roof. In the most recent Dissent, I look at Katherine Losse’s The Boy Kings, her excellent memoir of her time working as one of the first women at Facebook, as a way back into understanding that time, grafted onto my own overlapping years spent in San Francisco, and pointed at the question of, what really makes Facebook go and yet who is still least valued by Facebook but women?

Facebook, we know now, was never meant to be the product; we, its users were. Without us, the “product” would be worthless. Zuckerberg understood this in 2003, when he created the proto-Facebook site Facemash, built from photos of Harvard University women—Zuckerberg’s classmates and peers—and presented to users—presumed to be Harvard men—to vote on their attractiveness. In a Harvard Crimson story published after Zuckerberg beat an expulsion rap for violating students’ privacy in launching Facemash, two campus groups are reported to have opposed the site publicly: Fuerza Latina and the Association of Harvard Black Women. Zuckerberg changed course slightly, creating a site where he would not need to scrape photos off a server. We’d give them to him.

Losse herself was an early Facebook adopter, during the fall of her last year at Johns Hopkins when Facebook launched on her campus. Prior to using Facebook, she never associated her online activities with her legal name. “For women,” she writes, “there is no value in putting yourself online and offering yourself to strangers.” But women have long found ways to reap this worth for themselves, whether as fashion bloggers, porn stars, or attractive TED speakers. In performing some version of themselves online, pseudonymous or not, these women have earned their reputations and their rent.

Bonus extended mix if you want to time machine with me: the two Valleywag stories referenced in the essay, on photo-sharing site Zivity and the perils of “Girl Geek” networking.

Thanks to Sarah Leonard, the excellent editor on this, which appears as part of a feature section, The New Feminism, in the magazine and online. You can read her essay on gendered labor and Marissa Mayer in the new Jacobin. Another great pairing for the piece is Sarah Jaffe’s “Cost to Connect,” at Rhizome, which we were writing over the same weeks, and I dig the overlaps in all these very much. You should also see some influence from Sarah Jaffe’s piece in this same issue of Dissent, on being on strike from feminism:

Whether it’s City Council speaker Christine Quinn in New York City blocking paid sick days or Marissa Mayer taking the helm at Yahoo or Shannon Eastin taking the job of a locked-out worker for less money, we have to recognize that some first steps are taken on the backs of workers, many of whom are also women.

And so we are at this point, where all too many feminists see “saving” sex workers as an appropriately feminist activity but not walking a picket line with striking teachers or nurses or hotel housekeepers. When Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of raping Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel housekeeper, feminists rallied to her defense, but that support hasn’t led to increased support for hotel worker unions even as Hyatt hotel workers engage in a nationwide boycott, even though UNITE HERE, the hotel workers’ union, supported Diallo and protects workers like her from being fired for speaking out against abuse. Instead, it led to too many swoons over Christine Lagarde, who took Strauss-Kahn’s place at the International Monetary Fund.

As long as feminists are lauding the ascension of women to boardrooms for equality’s sake and not questioning what happens in those boardrooms, true liberation is a long way off.

The biggest thanks of all, of course, go to Kate Losse for her very sharp book. Besides the tech and boys and fame she made me want to write about San Francisco again, the barely bygone years between 2005 and 2009 – which she absolutely nails, cameras in the air and all.

How much for your “binders full of women”?

Screen-shot-2012-10-17-at-1.37.03-PMI skipped the debate last night – I was working, and then watching the second season of the The Wire (for the first time), which so far revolves around the discovery of the bodies of thirteen (or fourteen) “Jane Does,” who maybe (I’m only on the second episode, don’t wreck it) were trying to get into the US or were smuggled into the US for sex work.

I was working late because I was up until 3 the night before finishing a review (will tell you when it’s out) of Katherine Losse’s memoir about her time at Facebook, The Boy Kings, in which she makes a compelling argument for Facebook building their value on the digital photographs (if not actual leadership, or fair compensation) of women.

I woke up yesterday to a phone call from an old friend in San Francisco worried that if Proposition 35 passes with California voters, she’ll have to register as a sex offender and surrender to internet monitoring for the rest of her life – all because she was arrested for prostitution as a teenager. That’s thanks to provisions in Prop 35 that its proponents (like lead funder and former Facebook privacy officer Chris Kelly) claim will help with prosecutions for human trafficking: she’ll be forced to give her name, her address, her online profiles, and her photo to their database, or could face further penalties herself.

I got an invitation to a discussion of Prop 35, where a friend who attended told me a pro-Prop 35 organizer who works as a Silicon Valley HR consultant pled with the folks there to vote yes on the bill because she was scared her teenage daughter would be trafficked over Facebook.

I had a client years ago who told me a long and questionable yarn about the old escort agencies he once favored, where even after escorts moved on to the internet to advertise, the madams would still bring you – once you wrote a check to prove that you were a serious customer – a photo book of all the women who worked with them, so you could still make your hire in private. getting into the anti-Backpage game


Sent this Monday under the subject line, Village Voice: Stop child prostitution, is now leaning on their lists to pressure Backpage off the internet. The email reads in part:

Dear MoveOn member,

My name is Victoria, and I’m 13 years old. I recently found out that girls as young as me are being sold for sex by people using a classifieds website called

You can buy and sell stuff on, look for an apartment, or find a job. That is all cool. But pimps are using to advertise girls my age to men twice their age and older, and that’s not okay.

It makes me so upset to think that every night while I sleep safely in my bed, there are other girls who are spending the night being raped and abused. is owned by Village Voice Media. They read the news—they know that pimps have advertised girls for sex in the adult section of their website, but so far Village Voice Media has refused to take down the section. That’s why, with the help of my mom, I started a petition on to tell to close the adult section so that girls aren’t bought and sold for sex by sick people using the site.

Click here to tell Village Voice Media to stop allowing young girls to be sold for sex on

I recently became friends with a girl who was advertised by her pimp on She’s 13 years old just like me. What happened to her is so scary. I don’t want any other girl to experience that.

Kids deserve to play, to be free, and to go to bed each night and have sweet dreams. Let’s help them do that.

This email came out just as the anti-prostitution organization FAIR Girls (stands for: FREE AWARE INSPIRED RESTORED) released a new PSA.

In it, an actress plays a young woman, and graphically describes her experience of sexual and domestic violence, ending with two points: “[my boyfriend] sold me on” and “I’m thirteen.”

What this young woman experienced is horrific. But does putting the blame on Backpage help us end this abuse? As Emi Koyama points out, reflecting on interventions to prevent violence, much of what is described as “domestic minor sex trafficking” overlaps with and might be more accurately understood as domestic or partner violence. How might our responses to the violence this young woman and young women like her experience be different if we took Backpage out of the equation? I’m sure some of the anti-Backpage campaigners would argue that Backpage fosters rape culture, but I don’t buy that, and I certainly don’t buy that alone. It’s an argument built on feelings and gut reactions, and wholly dependent on myths about prostitution (which is, and I can’t believe I need to say this, not rape).

We are told a story about rape and Backpage, and then told it’s a story about prostitution – not an individual piece of a very big puzzle through which, if we worked to understand it, we actually could end gender-based violence and economic inequality.

What do they say in the slacktivist email petition world, about choosing your targets based on who can actually make some change? This email might be better titled, “Village Voice, stop making us feel bad about not having a reasonable analysis of sex, class, and the law for so many years that we went in for this sensational mess.” The click-throughs would suffer. But people economically dependent on Backpage might suffer less.

But you know, click here.

The problem with “The Other Problem with Sex Trafficking”

Kudos to nearly anyone who wishes to raise an issue like commercial sex among liberal changemakers.

In a talk at Personal Democracy Forum this week, Julie Ruvolo laid out the problems with online crusades against “sex trafficking” (I’m putting it in quotes, as I don’t have space to define and unpack the term here; take for a given that it has multiple meanings, emerges from a complicated framing of both commercial and criminal concerns, and appears so often in glossed-over media accounts of its “reality” as to be almost meaningless).

Ruvolo isn’t a researcher, sex worker (that I know of), or a Kristof type: she works at the Museum of Sex, and her bio points to her involvement in a few tech start-up ventures. Maybe it’s because she’s positioned somewhat outside the usual venues of the tech/trafficking debate that opened up some space for her at a conference like PDF. She doesn’t appear, whether she does or doesn’t, to have much skin in the game.

The talk opens awkwardly with Micah Sifry (probably unnecessary disclosure: I’ve written for his website, TechPresident) [corrected 06.17.2012 to:] Andrew Rasiej saying to the audience, “Let’s talk about sex!” We should probably watch the talk in full (or check out the crib) before going further:

Are you back?

To break it down, it appears (from the Twitter responses, anyway) that you can get a room of left-leaning people who want to make the world a better place to consider adopting a slightly less kneejerk response to “ending trafficking” than removing websites from the internet, if you:

  • • compare sex work to suicide;
  • • uncritically cite government data (NCMEC);
  • • use explicit language to describe sex acts (that might not often be uttered in a Microsoft-funded gathering);
  • • uncritically cite NGO data (Polaris Project) to support your claims (and then go on to attack that NGO, who honestly, does deserve attack);
  • • cite Kristof’s campaign to get Goldman Sachs to dump their Village Voice Media shares, without also acknowledging that he did that as part of his long campaign against Backpage and commercial sex (again, like Polaris, confusing and strange);
  • • and at no point include the voices and expertise of people involved in the sex trade.

There are, in there, some good points: calling out Google for their support of anti-trafficking NGO’s, for one, in a room of the tech-inclined. Also, calling out Equality Now and their executive director Taina Bien-Amie for her conflation of sex work and trafficking.

Considering this talk was presented before a room that I hope still contains a few internet history nerds and policy wonks, I’m surprised that Ruvolo didn’t include at least a nod to some of the structural factors behind why so many sex ads have moved to the internet in the first place, how this is nothing new in the nearly twenty years of the web, and how much of the fear-mongering on the part of so-called “anti-trafficking” experts has nothing to do with providing alternatives or opportunities for people who are coerced into the sex trade, but is a superficial internet clean-up campaign.

Likewise, their campaigns against commercial sex ignore any policy or social change that could benefit people in the sex trade right now, whether or not Backpage exists: like public education campaigns to reduce the stigma associated with being involved in the sex trade; or advocacy to fund legal services for people in the sex trade to ensure they don’t lose housing, their children, or work opportunities for having a criminal record; involving people in the sex trade in homeless services and youth services oversight to ensure their needs are being met; supporting training for medical providers and others in social services to offer non-judgmental health care to people in the sex trade; or removing the criminal penalties associated with prostitution that are themselves the largest barrier to identifying people coerced into the sex trade and who need outside support to get out.

It’s these laws – not the structure of the internet sex trade – that deter people who come into contact with someone forced into the sex trade from seeking help. In some states, like Illinois, laws against trafficking are written so broadly that buying a MetroCard or a meal for someone in the sex trade could make you vulnerable to arrest or prosecution yourself, as someone “involved” in trafficking. It’s in this climate of increased policing and penalties, of the mass incarceration of youth of color and low-income youth, that trafficking can go “unidentified.”

But to accept that “the problem with sex trafficking” is merely one of identifying victims is falling in line with the anti-prostitution campaigners’ frame. It also prevents us from calling their bluff: along with taking down websites like craigslist and Backpage, they want more money for more cops, even though sex workers and trafficking survivors alike report that cops are likely to be violent towards them in the course of “protecting” them.

Today’s so-called anti-trafficking activists (the anti-Backpage campaigners among them) have proven, in a decade of advocating for laws like the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, that their primary concern is putting more power in the hands of police to arrest people involved in the sex trade, to drag a wide net and just sort out who is a “victim” (in their understanding) and who is a “perpetrator” later. They aren’t interested in adopting new technologies to better identify victims; they don’t make such a distinction, and why would they, when their endgame is to abolish any evidence of the sex trade?

By their own metrics, the anti-Backpage set are winning. They can’t end prostitution, pornography, or other forms of commercial sex, but they can make the sex trade more invisible, and much more dangerous.

Which is exactly why it’s critically important to raise this issue.

But to do so without including people in the sex trade – the people who actually use Backpage – you might miss the real problem.