Sex Work 2.0

Sex workers have been using technology both to enhance their work lives and to organize as a movement. For example, sex workers used listservs, blogs, and online video to address the scandal involving Randall Tobias. The administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Tobias had enforced the policy requiring that U.S.-based groups working to fight trafficking and HIV/AIDS overseas denounce prostitution in order to receive funding. But in 2007 news broke of Tobias’ own personal association with an escort service. Although he denied ever having sex with the women he hired, he resigned.

While the mainstream press focused on the scandal, activists used technology to point out the troubling policies that Tobias enforced, which jeopardized programs targeted to assist and support people whose rights are almost always ignored. The Sex Workers Project released press statements to blogs, radio, and other media outlets that then gave substantial coverage to the Anti-Prostitution Pledge policy created under President Bush. Sex workers organized via listservs to have screening and education parties to watch media coverage, and they viewed online videos about the policy impact of Tobias’ work. They also started a blog to talk about sex workers’ rights issues. Using this kind of technology, they were able to get their own voices out to the world without compromising confidentiality and safety.

Over the last decade technology in its many forms has changed the ways that people interact, work, and engage in collective action. Sexuality has been a major focal point for online connections since the inception of the Internet and email—whether it is porn, casual hookups, prostitution, sexual and erotic services, or old fashioned searches for romance. Activism is another area that has benefited from online communication. It has enabled like minded people and groups to educate, organize, and speak with a collective voice.

Like other groups who come together because of shared work and interests or out of shared political concerns, sex workers have created thriving online communities beyond those that relate directly to their work. Due to the ever decreasing cost of laptops and wireless access, along with cell phones that come equipped with fancy cameras and texting options, technology has empowered many sex workers to organize online. Sex workers are rallying around technology to create collective political voices, using a broad array of tools: the ubiquitous listservs that crowd everyone’s in-boxes, blogs, podcasts, texting, video, and MySpace pages.

For example, at the Sex Workers Project, we engage in street outreach with sex workers who are often not part of mainstream organizing efforts, including youth, immigrants, and transgender women. In addition to handing out legal rights cards, condoms, and lube, we have also started interviewing sex workers with digital recorders to get their thoughts on life, work, and the police. We are putting the interviews on our website as a podcast, giving people a platform to speak on important issues while remaining anonymous. Another example of sex workers mobilizing via new technology is the global Network of Sex Work Projects, which convened a working group on HIV and sex work policy. The group, comprised largely of sex workers, produced a guide on UNAIDS policies and created a dedicated website that allows for activists around the world to comment on the document and offer support.

These tools have helped breakdown some of the basic barriers to organizing that sex workers normally face. Not only is a great deal of sex work criminalized in most parts of the United States, sex work also carries a social stigma that makes it difficult for activists to simply meet and discuss common fears and concerns. The underground nature of the work lends itself to underground organizing. For example, the fear that a new member of an activist group is an undercover police officer is a real threat—it is almost impossible to engage in political organizing without outing yourself as a sex worker and admitting to have engaged in unlawful activity. Online organizing allows people to share information and “meet” without sharing their faces, their real names, or other identifying information.

There are other factors that are spurring sex workers to organize online. Many activist sex workers are also artists who fund their art through sex work. They therefore possess a general level of media savvy not only to obtain clients through online ads and websites, but also to promote their creative work.

In addition to offering more cohesive opportunities to organize, technology has also increased the quality and amount of information that is available to sex workers. There has been a burst of information sharing through listservs and websites, which provide sex workers, activists, and allies with centrally located places where they can find information, be it legal, health related, or political in nature. Many sex worker listservs have been utilized to plan strategies for responding to the media, international AIDS conferences, and U.N. policies on sex worker health and rights.

In 2003, SWOP-USA, a group of U.S.-based sex workers and activists who are organized around rights and violence issues, introduced and promoted the December 17th International Day Against Violence Against Sex Workers completely through a website and email campaign. It has since turned into an important day to highlight problems relating to violence and sex work. Meanwhile, across the globe in India, some sex workers have begun to share information about police activity via texting. Though many may not have access to a computer or the Internet, cell phone technology is filling critical gaps in this kind of immediate and on-the-ground information sharing.

Despite these positive developments, there are still gaps in online organizing for sex workers, and dangers as well. Ultimately, the voices of sex workers who organize online represent those who have time to give to activism, rather than those who cannot afford to spend time on politics or who do not have the interest. They have regular access to computers and strong Internet connections. Unfortunately, this is not the case for all sex workers. While sex worker organizing online does have input from people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, immigrants, transgender persons, and people of color have lagged in participation. While part of this is about money and access, it also relates to the fact that sex workers from immigrant or minority backgrounds may have different political priorities and may not identify as an activist.

There are also financial barriers. Donors rarely offer their resources to sex worker organizations, creating a situation where there are few funds available to create organized and sustained online actions and campaigns. Sex worker activists have traditionally been proud of their ability to organize without institutionalized support, and many sex workers speak of supporting their activism through their sex work, but this does not mitigate the need for funders to increase their commitment to sex workers groups that seek to address the human rights abuses faced by their members.

For sex workers, organizing online is still risky business. Technology often creates a false sense of security and a feeling of invisibility or safety. However, privacy on listservs is limited, and the same dangers that exist in outing yourself as a sex worker in in-person activist settings exist online. In some ways, it might be more dangerous because another person can forward an email without your consent or knowledge. There is also the reality that listservs often grow in size so that the people on the lists no longer know who else is on the list. It really is important that sex worker activists be careful about sharing information about their identity and work history. Online organizing can and does lead to surveillance by law enforcement. This in many ways parallels working online. Technology creates opportunities to connect in much safer ways, but that sense of being invisible to law enforcement is not always rooted in reality.

Sex worker activists organizing online or through new technologies are better positioned to capitalize on political opportunities—however, it is critical that they remember to act with the same caution with which they approach their jobs.


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