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.

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Why the philosophy of people-rating app Peeple is fundamentally flawed

The app claims that “character is destiny”, and that we should be constantly judged based on our past interactions with others. But do we really believe that? 

Yesterday, you were probably one of the millions around the world who recoiled from their screen in blank-eyed horror at the news: Peeple, an app to be launched in November, will let others rate you, publicly, on the internet, and there's nothing you can do about it. You can't opt out, and you don't need to join in order to be rated on a scale of one to five by colleagues, friends, and romantic partners. That boy whose girlfriend you stole? He can review you. The boss you swore at as you quit? Her, too. Those people in your life who think you're just a bit average? Expect a lukewarm three stars from them.

Of all the online rage at the app's announcement, perhaps the most was directed at the fact that you can't remove your own profile. Other users need only submit your mobile number and name to create your page, and you have no control about who posts on there. Reviews of two stars or less are invisible to the public for 48 hours, and you have the chance to review them and try to "work it out" with the rater. Once that time is up, though, the negative reviews appear for all to see. You can comment on them to defend your corner, but unless they break the app's rules, you can't delete them.

There are all kinds of problems with Peeple's premise. Despite its founders' promises that bullying and harassment won't be tolerated (helped slightly by the fact that users must be over 21 and use their full name and Facebook profile to comment), it seems impossible that they'll be able to moderate this effectively. And as we've learned from sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp, the majority of reviews are from those seeking to boost the company's reputation, rivals, or angry customers - it's rare to see one that's balanced and helpful.

Yet the biggest flaw of all is the assumption that public rating and shaming has a place, or is even acceptable, in our society. There's something fundamentally broken in the app's presmise, which is summarised in its tagline, "character is destiny".  As western society has moved on from earlier ages where people were fundamentally changed in the eyes of the law and public into "criminals" by virtue of their deeds, or a time where a woman was utterly defined by her sexual acts, we've ceased to accept this as truth. The app's whole set-up assumes that someone who has offended a co-worker is likely to do it again, or a positive review from a partner makes it likely you'll enjoy a good relationship with them. As a society, we accept that some violent criminals are likely to re-offend, but we also see the value of rehabilitation, and can accept that people make mistakes they're unlikely to repeat. 

The dark side of social media is that it moves us backwards on this front. It allows permanent imprints of our online lives to be seen by everyone, to the extent where they seem to represent us. Victims of cyberbullying terrified that naked photos of them will be released, or people who make public gaffes on social media, become reduced to and defined by single acts. The mental health deterioration (and sometimes  suicide) that follows these shamings hints at how unnatural it is for single actions to change lives in such disproportionate ways. 

Jon Ronson, author of So you've been publicly shamed, which cleverly links the current culture of internet shaming with a legal past where criminals were shamed indefinitely as criminals for a single illegal act, seems chilled by the prospect of Peeple:

As one review of Ronson's book noted:

As Ronson makes patently clear, all these people’s punishments by far outweighed the gravity of their so-called crimes. In fact, having researched the history of public shaming in America in the Massachusetts Archives, he can only conclude that Lehrer, for one, was humiliated to a degree that would have been thought excessive even in the 18th century, the Puritans of New England having seemingly worked out that to ruin a person in front of his fellows is also to refuse him a second chance in life.

As Ronson explores in his book, extreme public shaming doesn't make us better people, or encourage us not to repeat offend: it shuts us down and exiles us from society in a way that benefits no one. (This makes Peeple's URL – forthepeeple.com – seem grimly ironic). What Ronson calls "chronic shame" occurs when our regretted actions harden into something far greater, something we allow to become part of ourselves. As Gershen Kaufman, a scholar of shame, notes:  "Shame is the most disturbing experience individuals ever have about themselves; no other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within."

We also shouldn't be forever defined by a clutch of "good" actions, or people who see some benefit in leaving us gushing reviews. Those who measure their worth through social media come to rely on the endorphins sparked by small online interactions and boosts to their confidence, at the expense of the more slow-burning satisfaction of real life. A single person's thoughts about us are relatively inconsequential, whether positive or negative - but they're given far greater weight on the internet  by virtue of their permanence and publicity.

In Mary Gordon's novella The Rest of Life, a character wishes that someone had told her earlier that "the world is large and will absorb the errors you innocently make". If we're to avoid tearing each other to pieces, we need to make sure that this remains the case. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.