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.

Azeem Ward
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Living the Meme: What happened to Azeem Ward and his flute?

In the first of a new series investigating what happens to people after they become memes, we speak to Azeem Ward, whose flute recital went viral in 2015.

The Sixties had Woodstock. The Nineties had Lollapalooza. The Tens – and, if we’re being honest, just a single year of them – had Azeem's Senior Flute Recital.

If you were inactive on the internet between 12 and 16 May 2015, you’ll be forgiven for not knowing who Azeem Ward is. After setting up a Facebook page for his end of year flute performance, the University of California student was inundated with over 100,000 RSVPs from the United Kindom, along with multiple requests to fly to England and play (for no apparent reason) Darude’s “Sandstorm” in Nando’s. After international news coverage, Ward – as all memes inevitably do – appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to discuss his newfound fame. On 16 May, he had to turn hordes of people away from the 500 seat recital hall, and over 55,000 individuals tuned into a livestream of the event. Then, Ward disappeared. Not from social media, and not from the world, but from the internet’s collective consciousness.

Search interest in "Azeem Ward" over time

“I’d say no,” answers Ward, when I ask him whether, one and a half years later, he still receives any special attention or has any fan interactions. “I’m just regular Azeem now, and I’m okay with that. Regular me is a more focussed person that is not reacting to things that are happening around me.”

Ward is Skyping me from his home in Iowa, where he is getting his master’s degree in flute performance. He spends his time composing flute beatbox songs, learning how to produce music, and teaching a class on flute fundamentals at the university. “A lot of [the students] here in Iowa know what happened but they don’t go like: ‘Oh my God! It’s Azeem!’. It’s just like, ‘Hey, what’s up man? I saw that one thing about you on Jimmy Kimmel’.”  

The original Facebook event page

Ward regained his anonymity when he moved to Iowa, as many of his fellow undergraduate students in California recognised him because he was on the local news. “But the whole viral thing was a UK thing,” he explains, “It wasn’t really around the whole US.”

An Azeem meme

Four months after his famed flute recital, Ward did come to the UK and toured the country to perform as part of various university freshers’ weeks. “That was a crazy time,” he says, “I was over there for five weeks and played 22 shows in 12 different cities, all the way from London to Scotland.” His concerts were popular, though most people came to take a selfie or ask about how the recital happened, and only a few wanted to talk to him about music. Still, Ward profited from the events. “We did make some pretty good money," he says, admitting he earnt around $5,000. 

Despite clearly enjoying this time, Ward seems unfazed that his viral fame is now over. His only regrets, he says, are that he didn’t make any connections in the music business while in the UK, and that he didn’t have any social media accounts set up before he went viral, so there was nowhere for people to go to listen to his music. “When you go viral people hold onto that rather than taking you seriously as a musician,” he says. “Sometimes it annoyed me but sometimes I realised that I wouldn’t be there in the first place if it wasn’t for going viral.”

Azeem now, photo courtesy of Azeem Ward

So what advice would Ward give to the next person who finds themselves, unwittingly, the object of the internet’s affection?

“I'd say don't lose sight of what you've already been doing in your life, like keep your focus. I'd say that sometimes in your head you're like ‘Oh man, I have to do this now’, but you've just got to stay focussed on your goals. When you have your own path and you go viral you have a lot of people asking you to do all these different things. It was pretty intense – I’m not used to having a lot of people look at me and my actions, so I was pretty anxious at first. In the end I realised that I came to do what I came to do, and I had to go do it.”

Although Ward doesn’t miss being internet-famous, it is clear that going viral had an impact on him. He recalls the peak of the madness with telling clarity, sharing specific details such as "256 people” clicked attending in "four hours", and “then 512”, before 12,000 people RSVP’d overnight. Mostly, however, he seems very grounded, though he acknowledges it was “out of control” and “really crazy”.

Perhaps Ward feels this way because he received little in the way of negativity or hate. He fondly discusses memes that were created and art that was drawn about him, and the support of his family and friends. “Even though there were a lot of silly things going on, I managed to make it positive for the school,” he says. “I had no haters. Everyone was like ‘Damn, Azeem. Good job, man’.”

One day, Ward hopes to come back to London, although he is wary of returning. Not because of his viral fame, nor the number of selfies he might have to take with Nando's customers, but because of Brexit. Our conversation, like all post-June conversations, turns swiftly to the topic, and Ward asks me about the economy. “I was thinking about trying to do a doctorate over in London, but if things aren't going to be so good in a few years...” 

Ward admits he wouldn’t be bothered if he never went viral again. “When I think of something going viral, I think it has a point in time where there’s so much interest and then it goes away. I’d like to produce material and the attention to keep going up.” So do you want to be famous, I ask? “Do I really want to be famous?” he ponders. “Being famous is okay, I guess. But I want to be is respected and appreciated.”

To listen to Azeem’s music visit soundcloud.com/azeem-ward or Like his Facebook page.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, reach out to Amelia on Twitter.

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