A few years ago in a Black feminist Facebook group, a conversation about mothering and the inconveniences of breastfeeding came up. Without context, I mentioned that working from home was a result of my decision to nurse my baby and unschool my older son. I don’t like to disclose being a sex worker in feminist spaces, so I left that out. Later, underneath my comment, I was confronted by one of the group members about the “privilege” of working from home. I explained that, although I “chose” to work from home, I was a single parent who lived below the poverty line. She went on about how most people aren’t able to make that decision. “I’m a sex worker, a camgirl,” I finally told her. She relented, only to add, “Well, we’re all privileged because having internet access is a privilege.”
A recent wave* of sex work discourse and activism follows a similar pattern. Some of the main topics of discussion are the dissimilarity between indoor and outdoor markets—how being indoors is inherently safer. But when we make these comparisons, we do so without crucial information. One recent analysis suggests that 85% of “the American prostitution market has shifted from a primarily outdoor (street-based) to indoor market (massage parlors, escort agencies, and much of the online market).”† Yet, in contrast to the numerous studies about outdoor sex workers, there hasn’t been a comprehensive demographic study of indoor sex workers that includes cyber sex workers. Assumptions of privilege tend to center a “homogenized portrait of digital sex work and neglect the diversity of labor performed by sex workers.” It is also commonly assumed that all cyber sex workers have equal access to urban amenities by virtue of living in metropolitan areas. Articles and essays tend to lean toward glamorization and focus on the empowering aspects of the work, emphasizing “tech-savvy prostitutes,” while discussions of digital labor politics tend not to mention cyber sex workers at all.
The use of the internet has also taken center stage in many of these conversations, where having internet access and the “luxury” of working from home is seen to be low risk and more elite—after all, home is thought to be a safe haven. Online erotic laborers,‡ in particular, are thought to be safer and more privileged than those who see clients face-to-face (F2F). I want to problematize these simplistic safe/unsafe and privileged/oppressed dichotomies when it comes to internet access and working from home.
Picture it: The year is 2020. Coronavirus has descended upon the masses; people with disabilities are being denied ventilators; internet access has become more and more integral to a wide variety of economic and social needs. Yet, people have continued to frame cell phones and high-speed internet as a “treat,” allowing companies to charge customers whatever they want, and even engage in “digital redlining.”§
Given the need to isolate and quarantine people during COVID many people have come to realize—at least those who hadn’t already figured this out—that the internet is a utility. In the same sense that people have a right to water, sewerage, gas, and electricity, we need internet access in order to compete for jobs, work, attend appointments, and procure other basic necessities. Understanding the internet as a utility, rather than a privilege, complicates the narrative that anyone who works online/indoors is privileged. Though some sex workers might be relatively privileged, internet access is a necessity—not a luxury.
Negative socialization, sexism, and internalized lupephobia/pornephobia all contribute to the pressure sex workers feel to differentiate among ourselves. Yet these distinctions make no difference in the political, public, or academic realm: a sex worker is a prostitute, whether face-to-face, street-based, or in cyberspace. What varies is how we mitigate risk. The kinds of risks we take depend on race, gender, sex, ability, and who we care for or support financially. Because sex workers’ social location varies greatly—and because we tend to be multiply marginalized—it is hard to make blanket statements about any one profession without considering systemic oppression. Discussions of privilege tend to be reductive, measuring and weighing specific privileges, and centering individual microaggressions. It’s not that it’s not important—it’s that it’s a never-ending, simplistic view of what is ultimately a complex structure of domination.
Generalizing cyber sex workers as privileged individualizes what is a complicated political struggle; it erases race, class, gender, place, and ability, in favor of reducing the debate down to non-intersectional hierarchical models of who is most and least imperiled. Moreover, it assumes that cyber sex workers have been completely unaffected by the closure of Backpage and Craigslist personals, heightened media attention, a global pandemic, poverty and socioeconomic inequality, or changes in internet policies over alarmist claims of rampant child sex trafficking. Ronald Weitzer’s concept of the “polymorphous paradigm” (also employed by Angela Jones) correctly points out that within sex work, “there is a constellation of occupational arrangements, power relations, and worker experiences.”
The notion that cyber sex workers live solely in the virtual world, detached from a world of court cases, employer-enforced clauses against moonlighting as a sex worker, discrimination by banks and financial services, and increased social inequality is absurd. Nathan Jurgenson uses the phrase “digital dualism” to describe the flawed assumption that the “real” world and cyberspace are separate and distinct. He argues that the idea of a cybersphere disconnected from the highly fetishized offline/analog world fails to capture the complexities of our modern world. In Jurgenson’s words, “We live in an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off and the online.” Porn is no longer confined to private theaters, or even VHS and DVD, it is in the world, and if you are a (former) performer or actor, it follows you everywhere.
“After you have made pornography, it will be viewed as a part of you forever, and because it is viewed this way it will be a part of you forever,” wrote Lorelei Lee. There is no escape from a past of cyber whoredom; no true privacy. Anyone could find out, and there will be public consequences. Pornephobia specifically describes a distaste for or dislike of (those who have) filmed transactional sex or who publicly display erotic behavior, or for pornography itself.‖ It informs attempts to ban porn and online sex work and is fundamental to promoting neoliberal surveillance laws backed by Democrats, Republicans, and feminists alike. Those associated with pornography experience the negative consequences of what Dan Allman calls “exclusion society,” a society that seeks “to separate and compound the favored from the disfavored, and the hygenic from the dirty”— categories which it “use[s] as justifications for forms of social cleansing.”
Exclusion society doesn’t stop at the borders of the internet, nor does its mission to purge all those it deems as undesirable. Sex workers have been the initial targets of so many of these efforts.
Of course, social cleansing isn’t anything new. Disabled people, for example, have long been criminalized or subject to exclusionary biopolitics and are often rendered asexual, particularly those with “nonnormative bodies” and bodies that defy the conception of “normate sex.” As Abby Wilkerson observes, the idea of normate sex privatizes sex, effectively marginalizing and regulating those whose bodies, behaviors, race, identities, and class deviate from sociocultural norms. State legislation, such as the loss of SS(D)I if you marry, the discriminatory marriage contract and all its benefits and tax laws, and mainstream culture which promotes “healthy sex” as between two cis-gender, heterosexual, monogamous, normate (nondisabled) people. Any departure from these standards results in pathologization, stigmatization, and attempts to expel, kill, control, or end the deviant population’s reproductive abilities (eugenics).
New technologies are put to work erasing those who are most vulnerable: beyond disabled/nonnormative people and sex workers, this included transgender people, non-white people, bisexuals, children and youth, and any combination of these identities. It seems like the actual goal is that we cease to exist. For us to move forward, we need to stop comparing apples and oranges and start realizing we’re all fruit.
In “Disability and sex work: developing affinities through decriminalization,” the authors write: “Eugenic legacies continue to remain operative in many respects, in relation to both sex work and disability.” The connection between disability and sex work should be evident, as both embody elements of non-normativity and sex workers and the disabled both have their bodies intensely regulated—even more so when they intersect with other identities. But disability also complicates the blanket assumption that cyber sex workers are privileged over street-based workers. Part of the attraction of online work is that it can be more accommodating of disability (even though the pay is often less). For many sex workers, the choice isn’t between online work and offline work, but between online work and no work. In spite of this fact, disabled sex workers are curiously absent from analyses of cyber eroticism and anarchist or socialist labor narratives discussing nonwork/antiwork.
Many cyber sex workers are disabled, many are parents, and many have (chosen) family they support. If their children are back in school, they may be risking exposure to Coronavirus. If their children have been out of school for an extended period of time, they may not be able to do (sex) work at home. This is my situation. Because my child is homeschooled, I rely on the ability to send him to summer camp. During the summer, while he is away from the house, I record clips. I might leave and meet with a client because I’m not comfortable taking F2F clients in-home. I can no longer do this safely. I have the “advantage” of being able to make that choice, but I am working myself ragged taking on writing gigs to make ends meet while sex work is inaccessible to me. Still, I have a roof over my head. There are cyber sex workers who are facing homelessness or housing insecurity, and who are isolated from networks of support. Some F2F erotic laborers, such as erotic dancers/strippers, have transitioned to online work (OnlyFans), which involves a financial investment and the ability to work long hours to create content, market oneself, and build an entirely new clientele.
Zora Neale Hurston once wrote that Negroes have an absence of privacy. My childhood ears were full of vulgar songs about good love-making, fussing and fighting, revenge and forgiveness. In a white-dominant, hetero-normative culture, it is our alternative Black way of being that makes us deviant. Black people’s bodies have long been constructed as nonnormative: our genitals gossiped about, our hair and styles derided and stolen, our voices and mannerisms mocked and appropriated. Poor Black people who embody the “freak,” who are disabled or have non-normative bodies, who dare to reproduce, are shunned. We have always been a highly surveilled people. Our so-described “absence of privacy” and love of drama and exaggeration are integral to our “low” culture. As we moved into the public, partially integrating the white realm, many of us began to drop our accents. Suddenly there was an urge toward privacy: white people is watching, the state is watching. “Better” people than us are watching us have too many children, and they are judging our poverty, ghettoness, and hoeisms. The internet has only further exposed non-white and non-normative people to the white normative gaze. Data collection is huge now. The state is abusing the emergency status we are in to increase surveillance on every level—just like they did after 9/11 and virtually every other disaster.
Surveillance of citizens’ personal and public lives has become commonplace. Cameras are always on, always watching. From the streets to the sheets, we have become exposed to exposure, and for cyber sex workers this manifests in a plethora of dangerous ways. Doxxing, cyberbullying and harassment, and threats of contacting child service based on the assumption that sex workers are inadequate parents affect our daily lives. After being doxxed in 2019, I filed a police report and trekked up to the courthouse, hoping for a solution. What I found is that the laws surrounding cyber harassment are woefully inadequate; there was nothing I could do. Without a lawyer to pursue the issue, I was stuck. The best I can do is try to protect my information as best as I can.
Being Black and disabled makes the claim “sex working online is safer” extremely vacuous and myopic. Black people in America are highly surveilled, and disabled Black people are doubly vulnerable to police violence. I am not property, I am a person, and police do not protect people. In the paper Gender, Race, and Risk: Intersectional Risk Management in the Sale of Sex Online, the authors found that transgender and Black sex workers had the highest average use of risk management messages in their online profiles. They found the phrase “no law enforcement” at higher rates than in Black gendered-female sex workers’ profiles. Numerous papers I’ve read state that it is difficult to get adequate research and data on online sex workers. But all were clear that risk-management strategies and experiences of risk vary based on race and gender. During the COVID-19 pandemic, responses to marginalized people’s and sex workers plight were limited or outright unsympathetic. Because sex workers are not eligible for economic relief, many have had to choose between engaging in risky F2F work or forgoing basic necessities. In theorizing safety practices around (cyber) sex work, we must consider the impact of access (to the internet, equipment, and privacy), social location and immigrant status, healthcare, and racialization/racism on cyber sex workers entering or competing for mostly white cis male clients in a newly saturated online market. Focusing on individual hegemonic constructions of privilege will likely not lead us to the truths we seek about the impact of structural violence on cyberwhores.
* Since the ratification of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), a drive to decriminalize sex work has been organizing in earnest.# A second wave of the sex worker rights’ movement has begun to take action, picking up where our foremothers left off after the feminist “sex wars” of the 1970s and 1980s, sprinkling social media and internet forums with proheaux discourse and “fourth-wave” feminist, socialist, and anarchist interpretations of issues affecting various marginalized communities.
† The above-mentioned article is solely discussing indoor prostitution in the context of “penetrative sex for money/compensation.” However, I define prostitution to include on-camera sex, camming, and pornography (from amateur to studio).
‡ I use “erotic labor” as an umbrella term that encompasses phone sex operation, the sale of erotic items and periodicals, erotica writers, sexting for profit, selling nude photos, financial domming, domination and submission that doesn’t involve “sex,” and sex work. Sex work, imo, is less vague and is more centered on the sexual/body aspect of erotic labor, and is what most people would call “prostitution,” i.e. the combined sale of one’s body/sex and intimacy for compensation. I define prostitution as the public offering or display of erotic and/or sexual behavior intended to elicit sexual excitement, whether in-person or via cyberspace.
§ Digital redlining is a systemic issue that involves internet providers deciding not to provide services to low-income areas because they are not seen as profitable. Although “digital divide” discourse tends to center urban/rural dualism, poor whites actually have better internet access than nonwhite poor people. Digital redlining affects tribal, “minority,” and rural communities the most.
‖ This definition does not include non-consensual public displays or inappropriate exhibitionism. It specifically refers to adult content creators who perform in or film their own pornography to be consumed by other adults in an appropriate setting. “Greek porne “prostitute” is related to pernemi “sell,” with an original notion probably of a female slave sold for prostitution.” I made it up.
moses moon, better known on Twitter as thotscholar (formerly femi babylon) is a sex intellectual, guerilla eroticist, hoodoo-American conjurer, and low-end theorist. She is a co-founder of the Disabled Sex Workers Coalition and a board member at SWOP-USA. Her writing has been featured in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review (Spring 2021), We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival (Feminist Press), VICE, Autostraddle, Afropunk, Wear Your Voice, and Yale University’s Law and Political Economy (LPE) Blog. She is currently at work on her second book, Low-End Theory.