A smartphone running Facebook. Photo: Johan Larsson / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
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Sex workers on Facebook are not a sexualised peep show available at all hours

The default assumption when it comes to sex workers on Facebook is that their lives are an open book.

My ex-boyfriend ran a little program on his computer. It was a cartoon of a beautiful, scantily-dressed woman who would strut, pose and dance in the corner of his screen. For a few pounds he could order new outfits and poses, or even a different woman; he could switch her off and back on, and there she would be, waiting and eager. The other day, I remembered this little program for the first time in years, when I realised how much it resembles the way that a sex worker is likely to be treated on Facebook.

I joined Facebook to promote myself, sharing sexy photos and entertaining snippets from my busy kink life. I saw this as a part of my job, as a way of meeting potential clients and colleagues and learning about trends in the kink scene. I also have quite a few real-world friends on my list; I'm active in the community of kinksters, and many of those who are more open online have been happy to add an out dominatrix. My Facebook life could have stopped there, but I realised that I wished to engage in politics specifically as a sex worker; for that work, Facebook is a powerful tool. Soon, I was posting about Palestine or France's rejection of the Nordic Model as often as I posted about shiny boots.

For the most part, this has worked out well. My feed is full of my two favourite things, kink and politics, and my kink friends regularly engage in lively discussions with the activists. But by being open about my politics, my kink, and my job, I am exposed to attack from several angles. Much of kink is transgressive and triggering; I, and others, have shared images and ideas that have sparked off difficult and necessary debates about the politics of kink. Acting from an outmoded type of feminism that ultimately deprives women (and all genders) of sexual agency, some on the left have also opposed my campaigning for sex worker rights. A few have even questioned my legitimacy as an activist on any issue, not just on sex work.

Then, there are my kink scene friends, whose politics range from anarchist to Tory. They are often my most stalwart personal cheerleaders, but even those who know me well are sometimes surprised upon discovering just how political I am. Finally, there are the admirers, shadowy figures who share nothing of themselves, who see me as a fetish delivery service. They just want me to stop talking politics and to show off my latex covered arse.

These are potentially the most problematic. Being a woman online carries a risk of harassment, stalking, and violence, and sex workers are even more vulnerable to these threats. Even the most benign fan is likely to sap my time and energy; as in the rest of the world, the default assumption of sex workers on Facebook is that our lives are an open book, a sexualised peep show.

This assumption affects every aspect of how I use the site. Consider friend requests from strangers. Sometimes a new contact becomes a fruitful connection; I have met many fellow activists from across the world this way, and I have been honoured to help people find their feet in the worlds of kink or politics. Sometimes, though, what begins as a respectful conversation turns into a discourse on how much my interlocutor likes anal play, or how much he would like me to use that cane I'm flexing in my latest shot on his thighs, or how I should give him a free session, or at least talk dirty to him, because he is so stressed out and his wife just doesn't understand him.

It's getting to the point where I am wary of accepting the friend request of anyone with a male-sounding name. That's quite a loss. Without adding male strangers, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to counsel a young male sex worker though the ups and downs of our trade. If I hadn't accepted another out-of-the-blue request, I would never have gotten to know a man who has become a wise mentor and a good friend. Sadly, I am at a loss for solutions to the constant microaggressions of men who presume that I am available for dirty chat whenever I am online – even if I have taken my phone to the loo at 3am for company and a torch – except for locking my profile down.

In my research, I spoke to several sex workers who were out and active on Facebook, and who were subsequently stalked, outed or blackmailed. I wanted to make this story about these women, but each was understandably wary about encouraging further abuse. They reminded me that anything I might reveal about myself on Facebook, from my politics to my mood to my location, might make me vulnerable.

Unfortunately, some of these women have had to leave Facebook, and those who have stayed are on constant alert. I have considered leaving for my own sanity, or, at least, cutting out all sense of life from my profile, leaving a safe, shiny, paper doll. For now, I will stay. For all its dangers and betrayals, despite the unsettling implications of its awful omniscience, Facebook is a transformative tool and is fast becoming a crucial part of public life. Some of today's most innovative and disruptive social movements, like Spain's Podemos, were born on Facebook, and the essential debates of our times take place as much on social media as in the halls of parliament. Sex workers are finding our voices in these debates, and can be found on Facebook any day, holding forth on news, and shoes. We are claiming our space, and we shall not be moved.

This piece forms part of our Social Media Week. Click here to read the introduction, and here to see the other pieces in the series.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times