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.

Flickr: M.o.B 68 / New Statesman
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“I begged him to come home”: Breaking the taboo around texting the dead

Many people text dead loved ones to cope with their grief – but trouble arises when they get an unexpected reply. 

A month after Haley Silvestri’s dad died from a heart attack, she texted him begging him to come home. In the middle of the night Silvestri’s 14-year-old sister had found their father, with his lips and mouth blue, lying on the kitchen floor. “There was nothing there anymore, just a dead body,” Silvestri says. “My father had his first heart attack months before and seemed to be doing OK. Then, this happened.”

In the very first episode of CSI Miami’s seventh season, the protagonist – Horatio Caine – fakes his death. For the first 15 minutes of the episode, the viewer believes the character is truly dead, as the camera lingers on Horatio’s body face down on the tarmac.

Silvestri and her father used to enjoy watching the show together. After he had passed and she realised she would never see her “best friend” again, she picked up her phone. “I texted my dad begging him to come home,” she says. “I begged my dad to please be ‘pulling a Horatio’.”

"My heart was broken and I was bawling as I texted her over and over" 

In texting her father after he had died, Silvestri is by no means unusual. No official figures exist for the number of people who use technology to message their deceased loved ones, but Sara Lindsay, a professional counsellor, clinical supervisor, and trainer, says it is “more common than we think”.

“I see it as a modern and contemporary part of the grieving process,” she says. “I think in a way it's very similar to visiting a graveside, in that the bereaved are reaching out, particularly in the early days, because it takes a long time for people to process the reality that this person has now gone.”

Karlie Jensen, 18, texted her friend immediately after she found out she had died in a car accident. “I texted her as soon as I woke up to the news from my mom that she had passed. My heart was broken and I was bawling as I texted her over and over waiting for a text saying it wasn't her, that my mom didn't know all the facts, and maybe she was just hurt.” Jensen also called her friend and begged her to respond. “I did it because I couldn't let go and couldn't accept she was gone from my life forever,” she says. Karlie continued to text her friend while also calling her voicemail in order to hear the sound of her speaking again. 

Karlie (right) and her friend

After her first text to her deceased father, Silversti also began texting him once a week. She fell into depression, and on her worst days messaged the number. “I think it helped initially because it felt like I was personally writing a note to him, that I knew he only was gonna see,” she says. “I did it because it was my attempt at pretending he was still here and could text me back.”

Lindsay, who has over a decade’s experience of bereavement counselling, emphasises that this behaviour is in no way unhealthy. “I think on the whole it's a very healthy part of grieving, particularly in the first year where the bereaved faces agonising days without their loved ones,” she says. “There is just so much loss and change in their life that’s out of their control, I see this aspect of texting as a small way of being able to reach out and alleviate that pain. That person is suddenly now not there but how they feel about that person hasn't changed.”

"I was going through my phone and I saw his number – I wanted to delete it, but I hesitated I thought maybe I could send a text"

Despite being normal, however, using technology to talk to the dead is a behaviour we rarely – if ever – hear anything about. If the words “texting the dead” make it into the media, they are usually followed by a far more sensationalist “and then they text back!!!!”. Yet although messaging the deceased is popularly seen as the stuff of horror movies and trashy headlines, in reality it is simply a new, modern way to grieve.

Via Mirror.co.uk

“The first time I texted him I was on my bus on the way to school,” says now-20-year-old Dylan Campbell about his cousin Josh, who passed away from leukaemia. “I didn't have many friends so I had no one to talk to. I was going through my phone and I saw his number – I wanted to delete it, but I hesitated I thought maybe I could send a text and someone would reply or I would get something out of it.”

Campbell continued to send his cousin texts for a few weeks, “kind of like a diary”. He says he did so because he regretted not seeing Josh more up until his death, and “had a lot of things to say” that he’d never had the chance to. Linsday says texting in this way is a very healthy way of completing unfinished business. “There might have been something they've never said to their loved one that they want to be able to say and texting is a very normal place to do that.”

"Begging for a dead person to reply to you hurts since you won't ever get what you want in return"

Nonetheless, Lindsay notes that texting the dead can become unhealthy if grief becomes “stuck”, and the texting replaces normal communication or becomes a long term compulsion. Unlike Silvestri and Campbell, Jensen continued to text her friend in the hopes she would text back. She admits now that she was in denial about her death. “Begging for a dead person to reply to you hurts since you won't ever get what you want in return” she says. “I don't know if it helped trying to contact her or hurt worse because I knew I'd never get a reply. I wanted a reply.”

Quite frequently, however, this reply does come. After a few months – but sometimes in as little as 30 days – phone companies will reallocate a deceased person’s phone number. If someone is texting this number to “talk” to their dead loved one, this can be difficult for everyone involved.

“This story doesn't have a happy ending,” says Campbell. “After a few months someone from that number called me and yelled at me to stop bothering them – it was really heart breaking.” When Silvestri texted her father to wish him a happy birthday (“Saying I hoped he was having a great party up in heaven”) someone replied telling her to never text the number again. “I was pissed off,” she says. “Just block my number if it was that serious. This was a form of therapy I needed and it got taken away because someone couldn’t understand my hurt.”

Indeed, behind the sensationalist tabloid headlines of "texting back" is a more mundane - and cruel - reality of pranksters pretending to be the dead relatives come back to life.

"Visiting a grave is a clear recognition that the person visited does not exist in the normal day-to-day state of life, whereas texting allows for a suspension of that reality"

Silvestri, Jensen, and Campbell have never spoken to anyone else about the fact they texted their dead loved ones. Lindsay says that a fear of seeming “mad” combined with cultural phenomena – like the British stiff upper lip – might make people reluctant to speak about it. There is also a stigma around the way much of our modern technology is used in daily life, let alone in death.

This stigma often arises because of the newness of technology, but Christopher Moreman, a philosophy professor and expert on death and dying, emphasises that texting the dead is simply a modern iteration of many historical grieving practices – such as writing letters to the dead or talking to them at their graves. “I don't think the process of grieving is much changed, even if new modes of grieving come about due to new technologies,” he says. In fact, if anything, the differences between old and new ways of grieving can be positive.

“One important difference is in the sense of proximity,” explains Moreman. “I can text a loved one from anywhere in the world, but I can only visit their grave in one specific location. In another way, texting has the same structure whether I am texting someone who is alive or dead, so a sense of proximity also exists in the experience itself.

“Visiting a grave is a clear recognition that the person visited does not exist in the normal day-to-day state of life, whereas texting allows for a suspension of that reality. Some people may complain that new technologies allow us to ignore the reality of death, but there isn't any evidence that one way of grieving is more or less healthy than another.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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