Sex workers—including porn performers, cam girls, strippers, escorts, and many more—have formed such a vibrant, vocal part of the internet that it's hard to imagine an online world without them. And with that visibility has come a reduction in the stigma related to sex work. After all, it's a lot harder to assume that sex workers are mindless, manipulated fuckbots when they're tweeting thoughts on feminism, racial justice, or the newest Star Wars film.
I've pretty much always been pro-sex work, but I haven't always been well-informed about the sex industry. Growing up, my main exposure to sex work was Pretty Woman and Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series (which, if you haven't read the books, features a storyline set in a Nevada brothel), neither of which offer the most detailed understanding of sex worker rights.
But in my teens and twenties, I began to develop a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be a sex worker: Why people enter into the industry, what keeps them there, and what kind of political fights they prioritize. The source of my sex work awakening? The internet, where I was able to connect firsthand with actual, working sex workers, who handily dismantled the myths and misconceptions that pop culture had fed me over the years.
"We're not going anywhere"
For many years, I felt a bit alone in my sex work wokeness. Most of my friends, even the most thoughtful of liberals, seemed to harbor rather antiquated views about the lives and legal rights of sex workers, adopting a kind of "hate the sin, love the sinner" attitude that inherently sees sex work as abuse rather than legitimate employment.
But lately it's felt like something has changed. Over the course of 2015, sex workers have repeatedly been in the media, with names like Zola, Stoya, and Christy Mack featured by outlets everywhere, and not in some pitying, Nicholas Kristof-style way, either. In fact, when millennial icon Lena Dunham came out against Amnesty International's support for the decriminalization of sex work, she was excoriated in the media—the same media that, several years earlier, might have applauded her for that very stance.
So what's changed? It's certainly possible that our more libertine era, where app-enabled casual sex is de rigeur and pornography's become a topic appropriate for polite conversation, has helped create an environment more open to the idea that sex work is work as legitimate as any other field. But equally important is the way sex workers are using social media to make their voices—and their unvarnished message—heard. In the same way that LiveJournal opened my eyes to the world of sex workers, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook are helping a whole new generation learn about the ins and outs of the world's oldest industry.
Sex worker turned writer Charlotte Shane, who's gained fans both for her (now defunct) newsletter Prostitute Laundry and her Twitter account, joined Twitter after a fellow sex worker told her it was a great way to connect with other women in the industry. Since joining in 2009, she's noticed something of a snowball effect: as sex workers gain visibility online, they encourage other sex workers to create an online presence, which in turn amplifies the voice of the sex worker community This, of course, is strengthened by the relationships that sex workers have formed with their social media peers.
Over six years since since Shane opened her Twitter account, sex workers have reached a social media critical mass. "We're not going anywhere," says Shane. "I feel like we're a big part of [social media]."
And Shane's definitely felt a reduction in the stigma associated with her work. "I've met some people through social media who are not sex workers… who know what I do," says Shane. "And at no point did they make a big deal out of it, they didn't ask me a lot of weird questions about it, they didn't treat me differently… I was really encouraged by that."But for all the benefits that social media has brought to sex workers, it's important to recognize that not every sex worker benefits to the same degree, and that there's a very specific type of sex worker who tends to gain the most visibility, and, by extension, the most respect. As Shane explains, "Black sex workers are almost entirely invisible for a lot of people, even though… they are on social media." Shane notes that many of the most outspoken supporters of sex work would be hard-pressed to name even a single sex worker of color who they follow online.
N'jaila Rhee, a cam girl, phone sex operator, former stripper, and journalist who tweets as @blasianbytch, has seen this effect as well.
"The voice that we thought we gained on social media to speak for ourselves is routinely ignored for those that are seen as more respectable," she said. (For instance, sex workers who appear to be white, cisgender, and able bodied.) Complicating matters further is the fact that the negatives of being active online can also hit more marginalized sex workers the hardest.
Rhee, who was initially hesitant to connect her online life to her sex work, notes that though being active on social media can mean increased revenue and advertising opportunities, it can also mean increased harassment, not just from anti-sex work feminists and misogynists, but also racists and people of color who consider sex workers to be "playing into stereotypes of black/Asian women's hypersexuality."
That harassment isn't just limited to online snark. For some sex workers, it's had serious, IRL effects. Rhee notes that a group of anti-sex work activists responded to the #notyourrescueproject campaign by identifying women of color sex workers and reporting them to the police as "exploited." Fear of this kind of backlash, which predominantly targets the most vulnerable members of the sex work community, has led to a chilling effect.
As Rhee explains, "The voices that need to be heard the most—low income outdoor workers—aren't going to be as visible when law enforcement can use tweets, phones and ads to put people in jail."
Yet despite its many failings, it's undeniable that social media has been instrumental in creating and connecting a diverse, global network of sex work and sex work activists, one that many activists hope will dismantle the whorearchy that privileges more "respectable" sex workers over their marginalized peers.
Anti-sex work activists have long exploited this schism by arguing that the tales told by high-priced escorts mask the much more bleak experiences of their lower-income peers. Though a small number of women may choose sex work, the argument goes, the vast majority fall under the trafficked, pimped, and abused stereotype—and as far as anti-sex work activists are concerned, the decriminalization that sex work advocates fight for is only beneficial to the minority of privileged sex workers who work by choice.
But as sex workers bond together online, they're more easily able to dismantle that argument. As Winnipeg Working Group for Sex Workers' Rights member Anlina Sheng notes, "You take a lot of steam out of the 'not representative' argument that the antis make when you have $300/hr escorts in North America fighting the same fight and advocating the same message as devadasi sex workers in India or bar hostesses in Kenya."
And that is where the true power of social media lies for sex workers. Far more than any networking, financial, or personal benefit seen by any individual sex worker, it's the ability of online platforms to connect workers across the world and unite them in the fight for change that truly has the ability to alter the way that the world, both online and IRL, sees the women and men who make a living from sex.