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.