When Lexi, a 20-year-old sex worker from Texas, first started talking to Mike* online, she says he seemed caring; “super normal,” in fact. But three months into their exchange, Mike grew obsessive and told Lexi he was selling her nudes and personal information to other men. He then found Lexi's mother’s phone number and started sending explicit pictures of her daughter.
“One day, he just sent me my address. I don’t know how he found out where I live,” Lexi says. Mike would show up at her house unannounced, sometimes sitting outside and watching her. He threatened to rape her, to have her killed, and if she was seeing another guy, he would sometimes follow them home. Mike manipulated Lexi with money, often threatening to cut her off. “He thought I was using him and was mad that I wouldn’t be with him.”
Doxxing – the publication of private information about an individual on the internet – is a growing concern for many sex workers. As in Lexi's case, the perpetrator might even attempt to stalk and out the sex worker to their friends and family by sending their nudes.
There are whole websites devoted to harassing and revealing the identity of sex workers, and social media platforms that facilitate doxing. On Facebook’s “People You May Know” section, for example, people’s separate accounts for their sex work persona are sometimes recommended to relatives and friends they know in their “vanilla” lives.
Doxxing often stems from deep-rooted misogyny and is an extension of the discrimination faced by sex workers. “They see women profiting off their sexuality and it makes them angry,” says Lana, a 24-year-old sex worker from the US. “They want to try and control them because they hate powerful women.”
The practice is so widespread that when PornHub released data revealing women’s most popular searches last year, it showed that women were searching for their own locations as a way of trying to track revenge porn of themselves. In 2019, VICE reported that PornHub enabled doxxing by sharing Girls Do Porn videos without performers’ permission. It led to women facing harassment, leading victims to depression and even suicidal thoughts.
With reports that revenge porn is surging over lockdown, some sex workers say they’ve already seen an increase in doxxing and abuse more widely online. "It's always something we've dealt with before, but now it's more than ever, and far more violent," says Lana.
This could come down to the more competitive online landscape created by COVID-19, as sex workers now unable to meet clients in-person are forced to go digital with their business. This only exacerbates the damage already inflicted by FOSTA-SESTA, a law signed in by then-US president Donald Trump that was originally intended to curb internet sex trafficking.
Post FOSTA-SESTA, most sites that sex workers use now require an ID to verify their age. This, coupled with the fact sex workers are often denied access to more stable digital platforms that have invested more in privacy and security measures, increases the leak potential of private information, and with it the threat of doxxing.
Heather Berg, an assistant professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Washington University in St Louis, says that changes to the way sex workers operate could be fuelling some of this vitriol. “Clients’ awareness of the glutted market and workers' reliance on a narrower range of income streams can create pressures to offer more for less,” she explains.
When sex workers push back against clients, this could well lead to “retaliatory doxxing,” Berg says. Compounding this, "economic pressures can make it harder to maintain boundaries that protect against doxing. Not showing one's face in photos, for example, is a privilege many workers can't afford”.
The impact of doxxing on a sex worker’s mental health can be severe. Although Lexi recently managed to cut Mike off by blocking his number, she describes living with extreme anxiety, and says she is “still scared he’s going to do something to me”.
Another sex worker, Tara*, 30, is still recovering from the mental toll of doxxing. “Fear, anxiety, stress, no sleep, feelings of guilt and self-blaming, anger to confusion as to why he is this way” is how she describes her thoughts, adding, “I feel uncomfortable in my own home, like I’m constantly watching over my own shoulder.”
Tara only sold her nudes online, but was forced to out herself as a sex worker on Facebook when a man she was speaking to virtually threatened to reveal her identity. He made additional threats of rape and said that her kids were “mutual ammo for mutual destruction”.
As is often the case for sex workers seeking justice, Tara was pretty much dismissed when she contacted the police about the threat. "The police officer said that my nudes being shared was ‘voluntary’,” she recalls. “At this point, I was so mortified and humiliated I was trying not to cry. It just made me realise I’m nothing to them.”
Sex work is technically legal in the UK, but certain related activities, like curb crawling, are not. This makes sex workers vulnerable if they report abuse. In most US states, where prostitution is illegal, “outing sex workers and exposing them to violence under the guise of anti-sex work moralism is literally built into the law,” explains Berg. “So, it's no surprise that police and courts are largely unbothered when civilians perpetrate these harms.”
Another factor impeding justice is that revenge porn threats are not yet regarded as a crime in both the US and the UK, despite revenge porn itself being banned in 46 US states and outlawed in the UK in 2015.
Not only does the law fail to protect sex workers from doxxing, government surveillance actively fuels it. Facial recognition, in particular, is a real cause of concern, with clients now using this technology to discover the identity of sex workers.
Berg says that government anti-sex worker monitoring is “co-dependent” with client doxxing, because law enforcement agencies fund and work with facial recognition companies. In the past, facial recognition databases have even been trained on escort ads. “Anti-sex worker discourse encourages private citizens to police each other,” says Berg. “There have been several recent incidents in which abusers framed doxxing as a kind of anti-sex work vigilantism.”
Sex workers face discrimination wherever they go – not just from the clients that abuse and dox them, but from the wider institutions and legislation that hurts their livelihoods. Doxxing is just one of many urgent threats sex workers face – it’s time they were offered the protection they need.
* Name has been changed