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When Will the Tech World Finally Start Listening to Sex Workers?

When Will the Tech World Finally Start Listening to Sex Workers?

. 8 min read

In the mid 2000s, I was drawn to grad school, wanting to explore how the Internet was changing the way people interacted. Facebook and Twitter were new and exciting. The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street both contributed to a feeling that these technologies had a radical utopian potential; we just needed to figure out how to use them for good.

At the time, most academic research on social media was already dated—often focusing on Myspace, which had already been largely abandoned by its former userbase. The biggest challenge for young scholars was convincing our older colleagues outside the narrow subfield of “Internet Studies” that what happened online was “real” and not merely an irrelevant niche interest. To those of us who were extremely online at the time (including an existing generation of internet scholars), it was already clear that digital technologies were reweaving the social fabric. Seeing this motivated me to co-found the Theorizing the Web conference and a blog called Cyborgology as spaces to discuss digital technology’s impact on society.

Though we felt a sense of optimism, this was tempered by the realization that social media platforms were controlled by increasingly powerful corporations and that people carried their racist, classist, ableist, misogynistic, transphobic, and whorephobic baggage online with them. Still, we worked earnestly to put social and legal pressure on Silicon Valley to design an inclusive digital media ecosystem that made space for the voices left off of traditional broadcast media.*

You know what happened in the years that followed: Though popular social media platforms have shown modest potential for mobilizing progressive movements, white supremacist ethnonationalists—bolstered by former president Trump—have demonstrated that these platforms are often more effective at fueling the spread of misinformation and at inciting reactionary violence. Gamergate and QAnon proved that the same is true for misogyny and conspiratorial disinformation. Scholarship and activism aimed at influencing digital design practices now feel more like an exercise in harm reduction than an effort to bring about positive social transformation. We could have—and some of us eventually did—see it coming.

My own wake-up call came when I started camming and doing other forms of sex work to pay the bills during grad school. Sex work would teach me more about the Internet than the classes it paid for.

I quickly learned that social media terms of service are written in an intentionally ambiguous way to enable discrimination. Photographers can post an erotic photo of a sex worker as “art” and fans can share that same photo as “hot,” but when a model posts these same photos to advertise, they suddenly became obscene and are flagged as a violation. A similar double-standard exists for “respectable” models whose photos remain up despite being more explicit than content from sex workers. I learned that these decisions were made with little transparency and without meaningful options to appeal.

I learned that the recommendation algorithms employed by these companies unwittingly doxxed sex workers to their clients, practically holding the door open for potential stalkers.

I watched Patreon speak a big game about protecting the sex workers and other erotic creators who helped build the site, only to cast us aside and strip us of our livelihoods in order to appease payment processors and investors. OnlyFans would later follow suit before abruptly reversing its decision.

I learned that, under the guise of sex trafficking prevention, universities and companies are designing apps that dox sex workers to cops by linking sex work ads to real-name social media. I also learned that cops are increasingly using our digital footprints to feed facial recognition technology that identifies us at the border, and even in the streets.

I watched as lawmakers only exacerbated these problems, throwing sex workers under the bus for their own political gain and making it difficult to even discuss the conditions we face online.

Above all, I learned that big tech was broken and unaccountable.

“Sex workers are the canaries in the digital coal mine”—a line I distinctly remember hearing for the first time when sex worker and activist Maggie Mayhem at Theorizing the Web 2014, and one I’ve heard repeated many times since. Society fashions sex workers as “canaries” by making us the first targets of so many new technologies of surveillance and exclusion. This occurs because sex workers are perpetually treated as a problem to be solved—we are simultaneously seen as dangerous (especially to children†) and as in need of saving. And because sex workers are a highly stigmatized and criminalized population, we seldom garner the sympathies of the broader public who could mobilize to stop the use of technology to police, erase, and discriminate against us (and against the queer, disabled, neurodivergent, poor, undocumented, and PoC folks who tend to be overrepresented in our community.)

This event was the only time that I ever recall seeing sex worker voices embraced and put at the heart of a multi-day tech event. Yet, again and again, I would see that sex workers had their finger on the pulse of tech trends and threats months or years before so-called tech analysts.

One of the clearest examples of this was when sex workers raised the alarm that shadowbanning was becoming increasingly pervasive on social media. (This was particularly notable on Twitter, following their transition to algorithmically sorted feeds.) At the time, I was moving between tech conferences, where shadowbanning was being dismissed as a myth, and porn conventions, where attendees had begun to use paper business cards again because we were all unsearchable on Twitter and Instagram.

Even in my own social-justice-oriented tech networks, I realized that sex workers are viewed as marginal. As I attempted to organize panel discussions and other efforts to highlight policy and design practices that were harming sex workers, I again encountered the term “niche”—now being mobilized to shut down conversations about the political relevance of sex workers to the internet. The implication here is that, because sex workers are a relatively small population, we are of relatively little concern to a general audience. This perspective, however, lacks a meaningful analysis of power or social location.

The argument for centering sex workers in our analysis of digital technology is not grounded in a claim that sex workers constitute a large proportion of users. (Though, with the pandemic-fueled rise of OnlyFans, virtually all my students now report knowing someone who slings nudes.) Instead, the real argument for centering sex workers in our analysis of digital technology is twofold: 1.) that stigmatization and criminalization of sex workers (in conjunction with danger-focused discourses around sexual content) results in sex workers being the first targets of many new techniques of digital surveillance and erasure (techniques that are eventually extended to other marginalized groups as well), and 2.) that justice is most important for the most oppressed.

But, will the tech community listen?

Kaytlin Bailey, in her one-woman play Whore’s Eye View, likens the position of sex workers to Cassandra of Troy, who was gifted with the ability to see the future by the god Apollo. But, after refusing to have sex with (or remain celibate for) Apollo, he cursed her so that no one would believe the truth of her prophecies. (This culminated in her city’s failure to heed her warnings regarding the famous Trojan horse.)

Extending this metaphor to the internet is almost too easy; instead of a burning city, we get our modern-day digital dumpster fire with sex workers left saying “we told you so.”

This is a cultural problem more than a tech problem.

As with virtually all facets of society, whore stigma limits the tech sectors’ willingness to listen. Gail Pheterson once noted that “adult women who work as prostitutes are not deemed capable enough to speak for themselves or to determine their own lives (they are treated like wayward children).” More recently, Lorelei Lee observed that for “civilians […] the knowledge that you’ve been naked for money will be a kind of flattening—a thing they cannot see around.” This despite the relatively open secret that Silicon Valley bros are some of the sex industry’s biggest spenders.

The easy money myth around sex work also undermines sex workers’ position as legitimate knowledge holders. Rather than being seen for what we are—intrepid entrepreneurs deftly navigating an ever-changing digital landscape while creating a mutual safety net to protect against a society that constantly fails us—sex workers are framed as unskilled laborers who sell our bodies without engaging the mind.‡

The easy money myth shares its roots with the misogynist ideologies of themanosphere” that frame women as privileged holders of sexual capital and men as victims who either reject women (incels), learn to exploit them (pick-up artists), or are exploited by them (simps, betas). Misogyny also more broadly buttresses the tech community’s dismissive attitude toward sex workers’ accounts of harm being done by new technologies. Sex work, after all, is feminized labor, and sex workers are mostly women.§ And, Silicon Valley remains a “brotopia,” where women are still thought of as inferior and are even violently driven out.

Returning to the Cassandra myth, in some tellings, she ultimately shared her power of prophecy with her twin brother Helenus. Only by passing her wisdom to a man could she finally be believed. Like Cassandra, women and femme tech users’ voices are often dismissed as “hysterical” until men encounter similar problems—exactly what I heard from the tech community when models first recognized that they were being shadowbanned.

But it’s not just overt discrimination that marginalizes women and femmes in Silicon Valley’s bro culture. Feminists have long observed that women (and other marginalized groups) have different approaches to knowledge than white cis-men, both in terms of valuing the expertise that comes through lived experience and in terms of valuing the role of communities in building knowledge.

In contrast to this feminist approach to knowledge, Silicon Valley’s focuses almost obsessively on individual achievement (as reflected in the overuse of the terms “guru” and “genius”). Conveniently for tech firms, framing knowledge production in these individualistic terms also helps to justify their claims of ownership. More insidiously, this individualistic culture encourages savior-minded solutionism (by imagining that progress is driven by the imaginations of brilliant outsiders—preferably with big grants or investors—rather than as a result of long-term community collaborations).

Whorephobia, misogyny, and hyper-individualism all converge in a mire of toxic bro-think, making it nearly impossible for sex workers to have a voice, even in ostensibly progressive tech spaces.** Ironically, the people being silenced and excluded in these spaces are some of the best equipped to remedy Silicon Valley’s cultural problems. Sex work, in particular, often demands and teaches the kind of emotional intelligence that is so crucial to closing the empathy/awareness gap between designers and marginalized populations.

For these reasons, tech organizations need to do more than merely assert that they aren’t purposefully engaging in discrimination. (Though, sex workers are rarely afforded even this basic dignity being told they have a right to exist). It is the consequences, not the intent, of technologies that matter. The only effective way to avoid systemic harm is to integrate all affected communities into design and regulation processes. This is particularly true for sex workers, who, like Cassandra, are uniquely positioned to recognize dangers built into shiny new things that come rolling into town. As the legend goes, everyone may suffer if those in power chose not to listen.

* Conversations around social-justice-oriented web design have grown more mainstream recently with books like Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression, Virginia Eubank’s Automating Inequality, Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction, and Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice as well as the Shalini Kantayya’s Coded Bias documentary.

† Renowned sexualities studies scholar Gayle Rubin observed that “for over a century, no tactic for stirring up erotic hysteria has been as reliable as the appeal to protect children.”

Tech critic Virginia Eubanks notes, the novel that coined the term “cyberspace”—and served as inspiration for a generation of brogrammers in the 80s and 90s—stripped women and sex workers of nearly all agency, imagining the lead woman as a prostitute with a reprogrammable mind.

§ I certainly don’t mean to erase the experiences of those who don’t cleanly fit this mold—myself included—but on a collective scale, the silencing of sex workers is undoubtedly shaped by gender politics.

** All this is only exacerbated for PoC sex workers who are often dismissed as having an angry or aggressive disposition and neurodivergent and disabled sex workers who are often dismissed as lazy or lacking competence.