“It took me six years in and out of strip clubs and fetish parties to search Google for “sex worker support group.” I used the word “support,” but I really meant “shame.” I wanted whomever I found to tell me that I was lazy and selfish for failing to hold down a straight job during daylight hours. I hoped for horror stories that would scare me into quitting, served with enough guilt so that I could leave the sex industry entirely in my past.
Instead, I found a group of mostly women who work online and off to build communities focused on removing the shame and stigma of erotic labour. There was room for humour, friendship, and for sharing values despite disparate experiences and politics. Community formation is vital across numerous subsections of the sex trade, from street-based workers to cam girls, escorts, and dommes. From collectives in the Global South to loose online networks in Europe and North America, sex worker communities remove the isolation of a highly stigmatized industry. Community communication has prevented transmissions of sexually transmitted infection among sex workers, and it has been a tool for sharing stories, opinions, and best practices on 100-percent sex worker-written and managed websites. It comes in the form of organized protests and informal exchanges on Twitter. Unlike the institutions that so often fail to adequately serve sex workers, these communities are often made powerful by the ease and anonymity of joining. But the same ease with which these communities are located makes it possible for non-sex workers to find them too, making them targets for the curious, the perverse, and some well-intentioned but ultimately misguided people who hope to gain some hip cachet but none of the pesky stigma by association. This access to sex workers presents non-workers with an opportunity to learn how to be good allies, but, in too many cases it is just turning them into the worst kind of clients. The bad ally, like the bad client, is characterized by a sense of personal exemption from respecting boundaries because they feel entitled to know the interior lives of sex workers by virtue of some flimsy lip service to their humanity.
Melissa Gira Grant is a journalist and writer whose work has covered the constant requests for unpaid emotional labor from sex workers and the violation of boundaries at play in these demands. Because sex workers professionally perform the emotional labors of attraction, understanding, and patience with clients, it is presumed that they’re more willing to do this labor off the clock for the purpose of sharing knowledge of their misunderstood and scandalous work. On her website’s section about sources, there is a note that reads:
If you are reporting a story about sex work that requires sex workers as sources, and you find yourself blindly emailing escorts on the Internet for quotes? Stop. You don’t have sources and you probably don’t have a story. You have what your readers already have – the Internet.
The last line is a choice zinger, but it gets at an upsetting truth. Contacting sex workers used to be a habit mostly of journalists covering the sex industry, but it has now become a regular pastime for people casually surfing the Internet, where a number of sex workers can be readily found on Twitter and Tumblr. Anyone can enter these digital spaces with what they think is a spirit of friendship and understanding but is too often a sense of entitlement.
In mid-April, I watched a Twitter user interject himself repeatedly into sex worker Busty Bruiser’s timeline to ask why she didn’t like 69ing. He claimed he wanted to become a better client to the sex workers from whom he bought services. When she noted that he was interrupting an existing conversation with friends and that he was not entitled to know her sexual preferences if he wasn’t paying for her time, he became incredulous at what he perceived as her lack of gratitude for his selfless quest to better understand female pleasure. “The best thing sex work taught me was that men will take every opportunity to demand things they feel entitled to,” Bruiser told me in a direct message on Twitter. “I literally owe them exactly nothing.” Rather than slink away in shame at having the rudeness of these demands explained, he wandered over to another worker’s page and whined: “Excuse me Miss [handle redacted], other ladies are being mean to me on the Twitter. Please reassure me that I am a person of value.” This particular pest expressed an especially grating self-pity, but he is not unlike the many who gracelessly insert their commentary and questions about the private experiences of sex workers into public spaces. Though we’ve retired as a public woman as a euphemism for a woman in the sex trade, the idea that sex workers are available for public scrutiny, consumption, and inquiry at all times persists both on and offline. Sex workers’ identities enter public space in a variety of ways, ranging from entirely anonymous Tumblr accounts run by escorts in undisclosed locations to proud dominatrices at the dungeons in their respective cities. Many sex workers seeking community online select a space in between the two, with social media profiles where they obscure their legal identities but speak more freely as themselves than as their sex work personas. While some amount of posturing goes into any online conversation, these accounts are not client facing, so the need to be sexually titillating is eliminated and something closer to their authentic personalities comes through. Others use social media accounts exclusively to market their erotic services and build up their client rosters. Some sex worker personas online are genius hybrids of both advertising and activism. Observing the dynamics between these various accounts and listening to both the problems they face and the solutions they present is a way of centring the sex worker's voice instead of the ally’s benevolence for acknowledging them. But to intrusive and unscrupulous new “friends” and “allies,” boundaries mean very little. The conversation below a Tumblr post highlighting a call from Ashe Maree, a well-known webcam performer, to not out sex workers indicates how little regard people have for the well-being of anyone involved in the sex trade. The extensive back and forth is littered with claims that even a single act of sexual labor is cause for the forfeiture of any expectation of respect for humanity or rights under the law.
In November of 2014, I published an essay here at Pacific Standard that was the first time I publicly acknowledged my work as a stripper under my legal name. Three Facebook acquaintances with whom I hadn’t been in contact sent me variations on underhanded comments like, “Never woulda guessed it about you!” or the non-starter, “So, you were a stripper?” when it was plainly written on the page. These remarks would have been unremarkable if the story was about stripping. It wasn’t. My strip club job was mentioned in passing. The story was about mental illness, mortality, and the ways I’ve interacted with death in my digital life since I was a child. None of these inquisitors asked about the section of the story where I described a stint at Bellevue Hospital for suicidal behaviour.
Gira Grant notes that the eagerness of many to be an audience and amplifier for sex workers’ stories indicates an unchecked level of self-importance. “Why do you assume you're the one they want to tell? Why do you assume you're the one to tell it for them?” she says in an email, positing hypothetical questions to the many story-seeking, boundary crossers that sex workers encounter both on and offline. “The fascination you feel is not unique. Or useful. That fascination will keep you in the realm of fantasy if you don't interrogate it.” But why self interrogate when there are sex workers on the Internet to interrogate under the guise of seeking “authentic” understanding?
Because I’ve covered the sex industry as both a participant and as a journalist, I’ve come to pre-emptively disclose my background early on in meeting people so that I can introduce the information on my terms rather than on Google’s. But disclosing this is not my consent to being introduced to new people as “my stripper friend I told you about,” particularly when it is no longer my job. Writing about these experiences for pay requires that I consent to perform this emotional labour wherein I set the boundaries of the conversation rather than having them violated by the frothing hordes of alleged allies. While it would not occur to most people to approach a Burger King worker during a smoke break and ask if she feels empowered by her work, sex workers are regularly called upon to defend every facet of the massive and amorphous industry in which they work. It wouldn’t occur to most people to ask the Burger King worker if she likes the burgers, but many have no problem asking a sex worker about her stance on 69ing.
Juniper Fitzgerald, a sex worker and academic, writes about how colleagues in academia make constant demands of her to validate her experiences in sex work in a way that other professions are exempt from. “On the one hand, sex workers want recognition as agential labourers, in which case, asking detailed questions about our work shouldn’t be any more invasive than questions pertaining to, say, the details of being a bee keeper,” Fitzgerald says in an email. “But therein lies the problem—sex work is special inasmuch as it is sexy stuff taking place within a system completely paralyzed by sexual anxieties.” It is not the job of sex workers to do pro bono work un-paralyzing society’s hang-ups about sex, commerce, and the space where the two meet. After already spending so many working hours doing the exhausting emotional and erotic labour of feigning patience and attraction, the last thing sex workers need is a demand that they not only explain themselves but that they be grateful for the opportunity to have an audience for these disclosures.
Sex workers don’t need to be studied by amateur sociologists on social media as a “population” rather than engaged as people with limitations on their time, labour, and privacy. They don’t need friends who use them as scandalous pops to add flavour to their blog posts. And sex workers certainly don’t need to send “Thank You” cards for the kindness of having their humanity acknowledged by a stranger attempting to bolster a journalism career. Some will insist that this attitude is the result of a lazy and selfish refusal to share the inner workings of an industry these allies simply want to understand and help. They are more than welcome to partake in the incredulous personal outrage, it would just be great if they could keep that shameful business to themselves.”