Word TravelsThe Social Network Sex Workers Built

Alliance, 2017 (Illustration by Laura Berger)

This article was published in Travel Issue #79 | Summer 2018

“This fall I was on the corner and some of the girls told me about a guy who’d been threatening trans girls with a knife. They gave me his description and what his car looked like. A few days later, I was finishing outreach and the same assailant approached me, threatened to hurt me, and brandished a knife,” says Monica Forrester, executive director of Trans Pride Toronto and longtime sex-work advocate. “I debated calling the police due to their stance on trans people and sex workers, but I was shaken up and thought, I’m tired of this shit, so I decided to call them. Security cameras caught the whole thing, but the cops are saying that they can’t do anything about it. The threat might get more serious—next time he might stab or kill someone—but the police don’t protect populations they don’t deem important. So I’ve warned the community on my own Facebook page and on Trans Pride Toronto’s page, including a video I took of this guy’s building. I’ve demanded a copy of the police report so we can keep pushing them.” 

Sex workers are always organizing outside the system—largely by providing each other with critical information that flows between friends and colleagues online, in the club, and on the street. They use private Facebook groups, online advertising platforms, and peer-run organizations. Increasingly on social media (“ho Twitter”), sex workers share everything from references for clients, tips on good or bad workplaces (like agencies and clubs), referrals for safe business contacts (like non-rapey taxi drivers), advice on safety when seeing a new client—and, of course, thoughts on how to make more money. They check in on each other, warn the community if there’s a predator in the area, and create “bad-date lists” that report everything from sketchy or inappropriate behavior to scams, harassment, or assault.

When sex workers travel, they gather local information about clients and cops to watch out for; if they are racialized migrants, they also need to know how to deal with border-patrol officials intent on keeping them out. As Elene Lam, director of Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, explains, “The immigration process effectively screens out everyone but white people with money, and some policies specifically target racialized migrant sex workers. They need extra information so that they can make their own decisions about where they want to live and work.” 

Sex workers do this even though almost all information sharing about sex work is illegal, and the sharer will face especially harsh punishment when that information helps a sex worker cross a border. In every jurisdiction, at both the state and federal levels, there are laws that make communication about sex work (between sex workers, between sex workers and third parties such as bosses, and between sex workers and clients) illegal. Increasingly, laws call this “aiding trafficking.” And sex workers do it anyway because they know that when information travels, they get to make their own decisions about how to move about, while staying safe and getting paid. 

Sex workers aren’t the only ones who need this kind of information. Remember last fall’s “Shitty Media Men” list? It was a simple spreadsheet, a private crowdsourced document that named men in media who had allegedly committed sexual misconduct and abuse. It relied on anonymous contributions (to avoid retaliation), didn’t require action from a judge or cops, and identified behaviors ranging from “inappropriate/uncomfortable” to “repeated assault” so women could avoid men who might escalate into more serious abuse. The list was only active for about 12 hours before its creator, Moira Donegan, took it down, and it still caused an uproar. Donegan lost friends and her job, and preemptively outed herself rather than letting others shape her story. The Shitty Media Men document was just a bad-date list for women in media and journalism—what’s so scandalous about that? 

The scandal is that women of privilege like Donegan are having a moment. As writer Kristi Coulter asked in an essay about misogyny and alcohol: “Is it really that hard, being a First World woman?” Increasingly, the answer is yes. Because while power, money, and privilege do reduce the risks of victimization to women and femmes, they aren’t enough. There is always the groper on the subway, the boss who exposes himself, the coworker whose texts go from simply inappropriate to overtly threatening. And then there are the husbands. About a third of married women have been coerced into sex by their male partner, and 13 percent have been raped by their current partner. Women are finding out that even the mightiest among them are not protected. The Shitty Media Men list is abutted by the names of all the corporations, boards of directors, and HR departments that looked the other way while men abused their power.

Sex workers know that when information travels, they get to make their own decisions about how to move about, while staying safe and getting paid.

What would our lives look like if we abandoned the persistent sexist myth that men and masculine people only direct their abuse at those who provoke it—that our safety can be assured through our sexual respectability? What if instead we recognized sexual violence as a collective problem and started organizing our own sexual safety like sex workers? This would require refusing one of the central tenets of patriarchy: the idea that men are safe and that sexual abuse is exceptional, reserved only for “bad girls” who provoke it. This poisonous idea is why when women and femme sex workers are assaulted or killed, police often refer to them as living “high-risk lifestyles.” And for the most part, everyone nods, thinking, Well, what did she expect? But as some women are just discovering, mere existence is what’s “high risk” for women and femmes.

So what happens now that, for so many women, this illusion of conditional safety has been shattered? Many “respectable” women are discovering the strategies that sex workers use—which are actually the same ones used by all women outside the charmed circle of privilege. It’s not like domestic workers who are being sexually harassed or assaulted can just go to HR: Sex workers and other marginalized women—migrants, women of color, Indigenous women, and trans women—do not labor under the fantasy that their employer, government, law enforcement, or any other institution will protect them. Donegan created her list for the same reason sex workers do: In an unequal society, everyone needs information about those who abuse their power.

On its own, it isn’t enough—communicating information places little to no responsibility on abusers, and there is no enforcement mechanism—but it is practical. Currently, all institutions designed to protect us from abuse (especially the police) often cause more harm to survivors than abusers do. So why was the Shitty Media Men list lauded as a revolutionary feminist act while sex workers’ bad-date lists are a crime? In nearly 15 years of sex-work advocacy, I have never heard a mainstream feminist call a bad-date list “explosive, radical, and productively dangerous for women,” as Donegan described hers. Instead, feminist faves such as Kamala Harris, Rashida Jones, and Gloria Steinem have all backed measures that shut down the online venues sex workers use to swap information and screen customers.

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In the name of “stopping trafficking,” sex workers’ screening lists are raided, seized as evidence, and shut down; their owners are sued and charged with trafficking or prostitution offenses (as though those were the same). In February, the U.S. Congress voted to pass the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), two pieces of legislation that make anyone running a website that contains communication about sex work—including screening tools—subject to up to 10 years in prison. The police (and their feminist stans) insist that they are the rightful protectors of sex workers. 

It’s a cruel irony. The courts want to shut down sex-work websites to try to force sex workers to rely on police for their safety. Without their self-managed communication tools, sex workers face a choice: take the risk seeing clients with no information or make no money. It’s a problem that all women and femmes face—and not just at work. Years ago, I started dating someone new to town. Shortly thereafter, a femme acquaintance warned me that my date was reportedly abusive in his last city. I didn’t know much about his history, but when I brought it up to him he took it seriously and used all the right language about justice, healing, and transforming trauma. I believed him because what I wasn’t warned about is how skillfully he wielded feminist and activist language as a weapon.

So I embraced the story he told: We were creating the world we wanted to see, one in which we break cycles of abuse. But it didn’t work out that way. He punched out his best friend. His ex said he had stolen her academic work. He became controlling and physically intimidating. He put me down, and told me that I was crazy and imagining things while he lied to me. I finally left him, but two women he dated afterward told me similar stories. After our relationship ended, I felt ashamed. How could have I have been so weak? A few people cautioned me that I needed to be stronger next time and learn to set better boundaries. But I realized that the solution to abuse isn’t individual, it’s collective.

I’d seen how sex workers create a community that explicitly trades information, in a nonjudgmental and confidential way, and how that information travels and follows those bad dates when they relocate. What if all the information about my ex had come with him when he relocated? I would have made different decisions, and sooner. I don’t want my safety to be dependent on becoming a superwoman with perfect intuition and boundaries. I need help from others.

Alone Together, 2017 (Illustration by Laura Berger)

My story is not unique. The majority of women will experience some sort of sexual or intimate abuse in their lives. Domestic violence is still the leading cause of injury to women. Murder is the number-one cause of (non-accidental) death among African American women, and most of those murders are committed by current or former intimate partners. Turning down a man’s sexual advances can mean immediate retaliation, especially for working-class women of color and trans women. We all need a community that knows how to responsibly share information so that even when we move around, we have the right information to protect ourselves. But this isn’t our reality yet.

Why don’t more people outside the sex industry organize against the dangers of sexual or intimate abuse in the way that sex workers do? It’s not because sex workers have more resources or support. In part, it’s because so many women outside the sex industry still believe that survivors are responsible for the abuses committed against them because they stepped outside of respectable behavior and “should have known better.” Sex-work communities are often more resilient against these messages. “Straight white cis guys are really the ones who lead the crusade that women lie and sex workers lie, but sex-work communities don’t really have those men in them,” Linda Tsang, former executive director of Maggie’s: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, explains. “The men who are in the sex-work community are also sex workers so they understand—they know that men are not safe. The rhetoric and bullshit of straight cis men doesn’t infiltrate to the same extent. It’s not that men are the only perpetrators or that women don’t disbelieve women sometimes, but that layer of oppression doesn’t exist in our community in the same way.” 

It’s why sex workers believe survivors. “I’ve never questioned a worker about a bad date,” Tsang adds. “There’s no reason to lie about an assault. The reasons people doubt survivors don’t exist in the sex-work community. Most of us just don’t believe the myths about men and safety.” Sex-worker feminism shows us that our safety and freedom should never be conditional, and that we have to come together—on the corner, online, at marches, and beyond—to prevent sexual abuse and resist its insidious effects on us. As Forrester puts it, “It’s really weird how we look at sexual assault and what is deemed acceptable and who is deemed to deserve justice. Women are too critical of themselves and how sexual assault happened. The sex-work community—with its support and information—is what has let me see that sexual assault is not our fault, and that no woman deserves violence.” 

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect that Linda Tsang is no longer the executive director of Maggie’s: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project. (12/20/18, 5:22 pm)

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by Chanelle Gallant
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Chanelle Gallant is a longtime community organizer and writer with a focus on sex work and racial justice. Her writing has been published in MTV News, HuffPost, The Rumpus, Hip Mama and multiple anthologies. Based in Toronto, she is working on her first book—an exploration of sex as labor.