“A bath and a glass of red cures all,” tweeted @SavannahStone_ last week. Trite, but relatable. Savannah is a Melbourne woman whom I encountered on Twitter when a retweet by a music festival’s account made me think we had similar taste in music. Her Twitter bio describes her as a “nerd”, so we had that in common as well. The similarities end there: she likes the gym, she’s going by a fake name, her display picture is a bare bottom, and she’s a sex worker.
Sex workers have had PR problems for at least the last few centuries. Their occupation is a metaphor for shame; often criminalised, always stigmatised. The media use ‘prostitutes’ as a juicy hook to spice up a melodrama, to add intrigue to a plot already involving crime, money or sex. Take the Australian article of last week: ‘Killer of Melbourne prostitute Johanna ‘Jazzy O’ Martin jailed for at least 20 years’. Or this stunner from the Herald on July 31: ‘ICAC, Macdonald and a prostitute called Tiffanie: ICAC finds former minister acted corruptly’. These aren’t unusual, and are emblematic of sex workers’ status as exotic social pariahs. Sex workers’ own voices are silenced in the media, and our collective imagination fills in the gaps.
Social media, particularly Twitter, are proving to be useful tools in fighting this silencing and stigma. Jules Kim, acting CEO of advocacy group the Scarlet Alliance, says that Twitter has been embraced by social media advocates: “the more that people actually hear opinions and voices from sex workers that are ordinarily not heard the better”, she says, and that’s Twitter’s allure. Cameron Cox was a law student at USYD when he started working at a heterosexual BDSM house whenever they needed a male. Thirty years later he’s a full-time sex worker and activist, tweeting at @CamCoxSyd. For him, the advantages of Twitter are the immediate access to prominent figures and the development of a virtual community of sex workers. He opposes the criminalisation of sex work in states like South Australia and is concerned about language, especially the use of the word ‘prostitute’. “It’s laden with values and those don’t describe what we do or emphasise the fact that it’s work,” he says.
To illustrate the real outcomes Twitter activism can lead to, Cox cites the example of a well-known presenter on ABC television who used the word ‘prostitute’. “It happened to be on a Monday night when most sex workers are tweeting about Q&A so there were loads online,” he explains. “[The presenter] was basically Twitter-bombed by sex workers all around Australia who explained why he shouldn’t use that word. We explained to him that we considered it hate speech.” He eventually agreed, and his program hasn’t used the word ‘prostitute’ since. “For us, those sorts of things are hugely important – just that changing and framing of language,” Cox says.
The language and law are symptoms of the broader problem – that sex workers aren’t seen as real people. Here Twitter accommodates more than explicit activism. Sex workers like Stone combat the dominant discourse by the pure ordinariness of their tweets. On August 30, she wrote: “Off to see Cyndi Lauper tonight. She’s playing one of my fav albums from my childhood. Yup, #mega80sdork”. Merely by tweeting about day-to-day subjects (admin days, weather, love of tea, music), Stone undermines the image of the ‘prostitute’ as someone who is defined solely by their profession, whose activities are secretive or illicit, and who is there just for sexual pleasure. Her work isn’t whitewashed from her feed: she often tweets topless pictures, and she recently described her first experience squirting. But references to sex and work trips are weaved easily into a broader patchwork of experiences.
In this light, it is saddening that other social media platforms have sought to exclude sex workers and that the media has reacted to their social media presence with fear or something like it. Facebook removes pages that appear to offer sexual services. LinkedIn also wants nothing to do with sex workers: it forbids the advertising of illegal activities and relied on this to shut down sex workers’ profiles. But, Kim says, when it was brought to the site’s attention that sex work is decriminalised in places like NSW, LinkedIn put in a caveat to their policy, banning “illegal activity or sex work”. And when sex workers slip through the cracks and make it onto social media and the mainstream media finds out, the response is sensationalist. In a standard example, The Times in the UK reported in January that children are “put at risk” as “prostitutes use Facebook to sell their wares”. The usually liberal Gawker also reported on the phenomenon in language that recalled a plague: “Prostitutes All Over Twitter, Naturally”. This is consistent with Stone’s view on what everyday people think about her job: “From the negativity I have experienced, it just seems the general population have a general distain of disgust and sadness for a world they know absolutely nothing about.”
It’s possible to be sceptical of accounts like Stone’s. Is it just a canny way of marketing herself as a ‘normal’ girl, just the way she can pretend to be your girlfriend when you purchase her Dinner Date Special (for $1200)? None of her followers are friends or family. “I like to keep that separate even though they know what I do,” she says, and “I don’t fill my personal friends feeds up with naked self photos”. The nature of her work means that most of the people she interacts with are either potential clients or other sex workers: the segregation of real life is imitated on Twitter. But Stone denies that she has manufactured a persona, describing it as a “spot on representation of the real me”, and to any e-passer-by she would seem genuinely funny and intelligent.
“As much as there are sleazy people on Twitter who probably jerk off to my nudey self pics, there are also really lovely people who genuinely care to check in to see how I am doing,” she says. “I really never imagined the sex industry would be as ‘normal’ as it is.”
Cox agrees. “It’s fairly ordinary. And it’s work.”
Hannah Ryan is on Twitter.