Sex Work in the Digital Age
Imagine walking down the street to your local college bar and being stopped by police. Before you know it, you are being asked incriminating questions based off of your appearance and perceived identity. These questions escalate, assumptions are made and all of this leads to your arrest. This scenario may sound absurd, but it was the harsh reality for Monica Jones and has been the experience for many other sex workers. This event occurred May 2013 when the black, transgender sex worker and advocate was walking to her favorite bar and was approached without reason by an undercover police officer in Phoenix, Arizona. The police profiled her as soliciting sex work and she was arrested on the spot for “manifestation with the intent to prostitute.” This was not the first time that a situation like this arose for the Arizona State University student. (Strangio).
The word of Monica’s arrest spread like wildfire, and activists across the nation were enraged with the conditions that were brought upon Ms. Jones. Within hours, the hashtag “#StandwithMonica” was trending on Twitter and a petition calling for the charges against her to be dropped was circulating online. Leading up to the trial the previously mentioned hashtag “#StandwithMonica” was used more than 2000 times, with prominent trans activists and celebrities such as Laverne Cox and Janet Mock participating. The petition, created by Change.org (SWOP Phoenix), collected almost 3,000 supporters. The support and advocacy that rallied around Monica’s case wouldn’t have been possible without the attention brought to it through social media (Netizens #StandwithMonica).
Despite the negative misconceptions that surround the culture of sex work, Monica’s example is one of the reasons why the phenomenon of social media in today’s society is essential to the culture of sex work. For this essay, three essential ways that social media can and is being used to impact the culture of sex work will be discussed. For one, social media allows sex workers to connect with one another to craft a support system and provide each other with the resources and connections they may need. Secondly, social media gives the opportunity to sex workers to connect beyond the society of sex work to share their stories, like the case of Monica Jones, or receive external resources such as contraceptives and information on safe sex practices. Finally, social media allows sex workers to solicit their services through a safe interface that provides them with the power to determine the terms of the transaction. In all, social media connects fellow sex workers, protects them in their line of business, and battles the misconceptions of the industry through an ever-growing interface that can reach large populations in impeccable amounts of time.
The Mechanics of Social Media:
Social media has become the modus operandi or the way of doing things in today’s society. Over the past decade, social media and its plethora of platforms have permeated deeply into the mechanics of day-to-day life. “Social media can be defined as ‘a group of Internet based
applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allows the creation and exchange of User Generated Content”’ (Haenlein). This being said, it does not only have an impact on the personal lives of those who use it, but it also effects the way institutions spread their message and businesses market their product.
The way we view the law and those who enforce it is changing with the popularity of social media. “Facebook and Twitter with millions of active users are rapidly penetrating public communication, affecting the operational and institutional power balance of media systems” (Poell). This also rings true for platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. Users can spread a message in record time. For those soliciting services, whether this is for a small business, large corporations, or someone just offering their service to their network, users can create a “brand” for themselves and promote these services.
Connecting back to the purpose of this essay, three mechanics of social media will be explored: 1) how social media lets people who know each other (or exist within the same network) communicate with one another, 2) its capability to allow people of different networks to connect as well as spread a message across networks, and 3) the rising popularity of its ability to exchange and share goods and services through a screen.
Social Media within the Sex Work Community:
One of the main ways that social media cultivates the modern culture of sex work, is how readily available it is to answer questions and provide resources for any individual who may need it. These resources can be material, such as housing, food, and health care; as well as non-material such as information on healthy sexual practices as well as how to locate the best and most local clinic in the area.
The use of navigating material resources through social media is extremely beneficial given the stark statistics on homelessness and health disparities among the sex work community. In a research project conducted by Putu Duff for the Bio Medical Central Journal, Duff discovered that out of her 252 participants, 43% reported that they had been homeless for a period of time during the 18-month research window. When observing lifetime prevalence of absolute homelessness (amount of sex workers found themselves homeless at any point in their lifetime) the statistic came in to be a strikingly high 88% (Duff). This research signals to individuals that homelessness among the sex worker community is at an extreme peak. Duff’s research also reveals that homelessness is particularly high among younger sex workers and adolescents. What that tells me is that young sex workers who are new to the industry lack connections to find safe housing. Social media can provide the tools to create those connections. No one says this better than popular Australian sex worker Grace Bellavue. In an interview with New Statesman, Grace Bellavue beautifully said: “platforms like Twitter can provide a global support network for the sex work industry, aiding the spread of information and, when the need calls for it, act as a warning bell” (Parker).
Those said “warning bells” were a topic of discussion at a recent event in New York City. At a panel concerning the use social media in today’s realm of sex work, the previously mentioned Monica Jones, discussed how she used social media to bring a sex worker at risk in Ghana to New York. The panel took place at the United Nations 62nd Conference on the Status of Women in early March 2018. The story Monica told explained that the Ghanaian woman she helped was providing services when the police raided the customer’s home. Many other workers who were caught that night were killed or harmed by the police, but luckily this woman wasn’t. While she was recovering from the night’s terrifying events, the woman was able to Facebook message Monica, a “famous” sex worker she knew about through social media. At the panel, Monica expressed how thankful she was for the 24/7 nature and accessibility of Facebook, for it allowed her to get this woman to a consulate and bring her to the United States (Jones).
While some may say Monica’s example provided at the United Nation’s panel is on the extreme side, it explicitly proves one way that social media can be used to connect individuals in need within the sex work community. One can apply this example to a wide range of cases, i.e. sex workers living in the same city, or country.
As mentioned earlier, in tandem with the lack of housing sex workers are prone to, there are also barriers to health and social services for street based workers. In a study conducted by Steven Kurtz for the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, results showed that women who were working as “street girls” (those who solicit services on the street without a scheduling system in place) have statistically lower access to health care than those who do not engage in sex work. “Many women were unaware of their true health status However, of 120 women who showed positive results for HIV on tests administered as a part of the study, only 66 (55%) had already known they were infected” (Kurtz). This statistic becomes even more significant when the study explores that “few clients had any sort of health insurance plan; all those who had coverage were under a public assistance arrangement” (Kurtz). The article suggests that the level of isolation that street based workers experience could contribute to this lack of health care access and overall poor health quality. Connecting back to the sense of community social media can provide within the realm of sex work, workers can potentially minimize these disparities and isolation by finding a network of other sex workers to assist them in the physical, mental and emotional help they may need.
Another way that social media benefits the sex work community internally is by providing previously stated non-material resources. These non-material resources include, but are not limited to, information on safe sex practices, harm-reduction information, and ways to locate the nearest clinic or health care provider if necessary. When sex workers are using their social media, whether that be Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, they come across advertisements pertaining to the topics they interact with the most. For sex workers that are using social media to solicit their service, they are likely to come across advertisements and messages pertaining to sex, safe sex practices, and the safe sex campaigns occurring near them.
In a study conducted by Robin Stevens for the Journal for Nursing research, it was found that “youth that were exposed to sexual health messages in social media were 2.69 times more likely to have used contraception or condom at last intercourse” (Stevens). What this result indicates is that when a message of safe sex is administered through the means of social media to an individual age 13-25, they are more likely to engage in safe sex practices. For youth ages 18-25 involved in the sex work community Steven’s research is especially important because they are the population at the highest risk for unsafe sex practices, and any measures that can be made to reduce those risks can be highly impactful. To further the validity of social media’s ability to permeate the content sex workers interact with while on social media, a research project by Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou showed that “social media is penetrating the US population independent of education, race/ethnicity, or health care access” (Chou). What this shows is that social media has an impact on health communication, in this case safe sex communication, no matter what the sex worker’s background is.
Social Media and External Communities:
Social media also has a large impact on how sex workers interact with communities outside of their own. This can be observed through two main ways: the use of social media to decrease the stigma surrounding sex work and to bring awareness to the issues sex workers are facing.
Previously mentioned Australian sex worker, Grace Bellavue discusses how she uses social media to find clientele, but also spread awareness and de-stigmatize the culture of sex work.
Many of them already know her intretimately: with more than 9,000 Twitter followers, almost 70 per cent of her bookings now come through social media. She tweets about politics, gives advice on blowjobs and encourages other sex workers to get online. Her willingness to discuss the more sobering aspects of her job and her ongoing campaign to improve the rights of Australian sex workers – she’s a regular contributor to Australian women’s blog Mamamia, and last year presented a talk at TEDxAdelaide about the future of sex work – has turned her into the unofficial spokesperson the sex work industry never had (Parker).
Bellavue’s use of her social media is one of the ways sex workers can market themselves to an external population. She says that there still is a lot of stigma to combat within the sex work community, but “social media has given sex workers a real opportunity to be heard” (Parker). One of Bellavue’s favorite uses of her twitter is to advocate for the decriminalization of sex work in her home country, Australia.
On the other side of the world, the same fight for sex work decriminalization is occurring. In the United States sex workers and activists have taken to social media to express their views that sex work shouldn’t be criminalized. The list of people who have spoken out against this criminalization is extensive with participants ranging from everyday people, to celebrities such as trending rapper Cardi B.
This use of social media has proven to be beneficial as it makes a wider population aware of an issue that normally wouldn’t be on their radar or pertain to them. In sociologist Angela Jones’ research she states that “sociologists of social movements have investigated the ways activists use the Internet in collective action” and that recent literature suggests that the internet has political benefits for sex workers (Jones).
As mentioned earlier with the case of Monica Jones, social media played a pivotal role in bringing awareness to the issues surrounding the criminalization of sex work and the legal injustices sex worker Jones was facing. Individuals that were outraged about Monica’s arrest were able to take to platforms like twitter and Instagram to share the message that they #StandwithMonica and against the injustices sex workers endure.
Social Media and Safe Sex Work:
The most essential and well know ways that sex workers use social media for their line of work is to solicit customers and to plan for their meeting. In Jones’ research for the Sociology Compass, she outlines a few ways that the digital interface impacts sex workers in the industry. Those ways include but are not limited to: reduced risk of bodily harm, better wages, greater advertising and the ability to create a strong reputation with clientele (Jones).
The use of social media by sex workers decreases the risk of bodily harm and physical violence as risk exposure and victimization is decreased. “The online process of screening and scheduling fosters anonymity and safeguards workers” (Jones). When workers have this extra time to contemplate the meet up, they also have more room to negotiate with their customers. These negotiations can be for higher pay, the conditions of the service or the quality of the clientele. Elizabeth Bernstein in the book Temporarily Yours, writes: “For many indoor sex workers, it has become easier to work without third party management, to conduct one’s business with minimal interference from the criminal justice system, and to reap greater profits by honing one’s sales pitch to a more elite and specialized audience” (Bernstein). Through internet sites and social media, sex workers have the opportunity to be more aggressive and upfront about their terms, and have an overall higher level of authority is given to the worker.
The greater advertising and stronger reputation with clientele comes with social media’s ability to reach larger populations of people in the user’s area. Workers can follow and reach out to groups of people that may be of interest, and customers can essentially have customers give reviews on the services they received. Regular customers can also post “testimonials” that will help with the worker’s business.
All of these benefits meshed together provide a more comfortable and safe experience for sex workers. A common narrative exists against sex work due to its dangerous possible outcomes. The same dangers that make individuals advocate for the criminalization of sex work, are the same dangers workers are actively avoiding by using social media for their business.
Misconceptions About Sex Work:
Some may say that sex work should be criminalized because it is a public health and gender equality issue. Jimmy Carter, former president of the United States was actily against sex work because he felt that it materialized women, and did not show their proper worth. In a speech during his presidency former President Jimmy Carter said:
Some assert that this “profession” can be empowering and that legalizing and regulating all aspects of prostitution will mitigate the harm that accompanies it. But I cannot accept a policy prescription that codifies such a pernicious form of violence against women. Normalizing the act of buying sex also debases men by assuming that they are entitled to access women’s bodies for sexual gratification. If paying for sex is normalized, then every young boy will learn that women and girls are commodities to be bought and sold (Carter).
These narratives are common, and when someone as prominent as the president of the united states utters those words, populations of uniformed people follow suit. Those who advocate for the criminalization of sex work may say that it is anti-woman, or not feminist, but when analyzing it from the feminist definition, the opposite tends to be true. Many people carry a misconception that individuals (typically women) who perform sex work perform it due to necessity (lack of resources) or coercion (force from a pimp). This is not the case. These misconceptions among individuals has led to a negative connotation of sex work in our society. Societal aspect such as This negative connotation has manifested itself to the point that law makers have developed policies that will end the ability to use social media to solicit sex work.
Laws Restricting the Use of Social Media for Sex Work:
The previously mentioned laws that would inhibit the use of social media within the realm of sex work are the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, commonly known as SESTA (Portman), and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA (Wagner). The Fight Online Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 became public law on April 11th, 2018. The new law was made in attempt to reverse section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934, expressing that the Act was not made with the intention of providing legal protection to websites that provide and promote unlawful sex acts. The act frames itself as defending the women of sex work from sex trafficking. It is made clear through the language of the law that for law makers, sex work is synonymous with sex trafficking, as it defines the law to be applicable to those soliciting sex work through coercion, force or fraud. Referring back to the misconceptions that surrounds sex work, individuals perceive most, if not all sex work to be out of force or necessity. In reality, laws like FOSTA and SESTA will harm a larger population of women who consensually perform sex work, than those who are brought upon it through force. Experts including the ACLU and Center for Democracy and Technology say it would do little to help the actual victims of trafficking. This anti-sex trafficking measure will continue to wreak havoc on the lives of sex workers both internally in the United States and those who live abroad.
The Future of Sex Work:
With the previously mentioned bills being put into effect as laws, the future of sex work is being rapidly effected. Websites that sex workers have adopted as a safe platform to solicit their business have closed, and their digital footprint on social media outlets like Twitter has been limited. Many websites are taking action against this by publishing articles in attempt to educate the public on how dangerous FOSTA can be. “Following the passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), platforms where sex workers advertise and operate began tightening their terms of service around explicit content or shut down altogether” (Cole).
Those websites include Backpage and Craigslist, which closed its “personals section” in preparation for the law to be signed. To address the closing, Craigslist issued this statement:
US Congress just passed HR 1865, “FOSTA”, seeking to subject websites to criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully.
Any tool or service can be misused. We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day. To the millions of spouses, partners, and couples who met through craigslist, we wish you every happiness (Craigslist)!
Niche dating websites that were clearly for sex work were removed as well. Social media sites like Twitter and Instagram who have always had a grey area when it came to explicit content, are tightening restrictions by suspending, banning or “shadow banning” sex workers.
But sex workers and activists refuse to back down. They are continuing to use their social media to solicit services despite the risk of deleting posts and losing access to their account. Additionally, Instagrams like “@ethicalstripper” post sex work positive messages and information to spread awareness to their followers. These posts, including everyday images of strippers and sex workers, normalizes the culture of sex work.
Although this topic seems like it exclusively pertains to the sex work industry and those who interact with it, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The way an entire community utilizes social media, such an important part of today’s culture, tells us a lot about how we interact as a society. More and more individuals are turning to social media to have a voice and reach a larger population in general, regardless of intent.
This being said, the ways newly implemented laws effect how social interaction among a community occurs; is also crucial to the way we allow our society to exist. If we allow laws to restrict the affordances of one community, what will the next law restrict and how will the facets that we communicate from be effected? It will be interesting to see the extent to which FOSTA and SESTA limit the sex work community, and terrifying to see the ways it negatively impacts the safety and health of the sex workers. To sum up the effects this stigma fed laws may have, Lorelei Lee, an adult performer said it best: “The last thing we need is to create an even more hostile climate for those acts,” she said. “Make no mistake, if these bills pass, sex workers will die. I need you to know that is not hyperbole” (Cole). Hopefully, in the case of Monica Jones, this is not the end. If the activist society takes the course it has taken in the past and resists the restrictive nature that comes with the laws implemented through misinformation and stigma, those restrictions won’t remain around for long.
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