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Shadowbans: Secret Policies Depriving Sex Workers of Income and Community

Written collaboratively by Juniper Fitzgerald and Jessie Sage

Several months ago, we attended the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, which included the Adult Video Network (AVN awards). The problematic aspects of such conventions notwithstanding—for example, a panel of “industry leaders” at the Expo admitted to never hearing of FOSTA—it is an event many sex workers count on for networking. This year, one thing stood out at the various parties and meetups: none of the people in attendance, from well-known porn stars to newly minted cam girls, could find each other on social media platforms. So we—your very much alive and visible authors—decided to search for one another. Sure enough, even typing our exact handles into Twitter’s search bar yielded “no results.”

Since AEE/AVN, other sex workers have publicly addressed shadowbanning. The day after International Whores’ Day on June 2, NYC-based Dominatrix Mistress Blunt tweeted, “It’s really upsetting that when I go to tweet about #IWD everyone is #shadowbanned and I can’t find them to tag and I can’t livestream important speeches because I’ve been banned from that feature too.” Sex workers are finding that Twitter and other platforms have shadowbanned a significant portion of our community. Shadowbanning is the increasingly common practice of social media platforms silently censoring a user’s content without either the user or her potential followers knowing. In the The Economist, the anonymous writer G.F. describes Twitter shadowbanning:

Shadowbanned users are not told that they have been affected. They can continue to post messages, add new followers and comment on or reply to other posts. But their messages may not appear in the feed, their replies may be suppressed and they may not show up in searches for their usernames. The only hint that such a thing is happening would be a dip in likes, favourites or retweets—or an ally alerting them to their disappearance.

In the year since The Economist column was published, shadowban testers have been created. Shadowban testers are able to determine whether a Twitter user is banned in search suggestions, general searches, and/or in their thread. Essentially, the test detects whether a user’s Twitter handle is suggested to others, whether their handle pops up in a general search, and/or if the user’s entire thread is invisible to other users.

In the column, G.F. further maintains that “the currency of social networks is attention.” While there may be some truth in this statement, for sex workers, the currency of social networks is also, well, currency. Accessing community and clients translates to income for people like us who are marginalized, stigmatized, and criminalized. So, when sex workers lose access to social media, we lose access to income. Shadowbanning, then, is an opaque practice that effectively denies sex workers their livelihood. Sex worker Leana Lane tells us over Twitter DM, “I suspect that fewer clients are seeing and booking me than they would otherwise [because of it].”

Realizing how pervasive shadowbanning had become, we began to ask questions: What exactly is shadowbanning? How do sex workers on Twitter know that they’ve been shadowbanned? What have sex workers tried to do to get around shadowbanning? And, perhaps most importantly, how has it impacted their businesses and their community?

Bonding (2019)

“It’s your life story!” a friend texted me on April 24th along with a screenshot of Netflix’s new show Bonding. It was one of five or six texts I received that day from friends and clients making sure I’d heard about this new program that follows a dominatrix/grad student in and out of the dungeon. As a dominatrix/grad student myself, friends were sure I’d be interested in the show. I’d already heard about it on social media, where opinions were pretty starkly divided between sex workers and non-sex workers. I wasn’t exactly interested in this show so much as I was morbidly curious, because I could tell from these reviews and from the show’s own promos that Bonding was not made for someone like me.

Hell, Bonding isn’t really even about someone like me; it’s really about the dominatrix’s best friend, Pete (Brendan Scannell). An audience surrogate, Pete starts the series as a vanilla naïf knocking on a dungeon door, summoned there to be Mistress May (aka Tiff)’s (Zoe Levin) bodyguard, or, as I shrieked while watching the promo, “a FUCKING body guard!” No domme I know can afford to pay twenty percent (later in the series, forty percent) of her income to a bodyguard, as Mistress May inexplicably decides to do. We don’t really need to, either; we often work in incall spaces with receptionists and other dommes. But a story about two women sex workers working together for safety wouldn’t allow us an audience surrogate, and if there’s one thing a non-sex working show runner like Bonding’s Rightor Doyle wouldn’t abide, it would be throwing the audience in head-first into a world populated mostly by sex workers.

The Massage Parlor Means Survival Here: Red Canary Song On Robert Kraft

Sonya, a representative from the MinKwon Center for Community Action, holds a memorial sign for Yang Song, a migrant parlor worker driven to jump out a window during a brutal police raid in 2017, after being pressured by the cops to serve as an informant. (Photo by Emma Whitford)

As we gathered on the busy street corner in front of the Queens Public Library in Flushing on Friday March 29th, over one hundred community members heard our cry: “性工作是真工作!” Sex work is work!

The police had blockaded Red Canary Song members from the library steps, protecting the carceral narratives that were being pushed inside by City Council Member Peter Koo and the NYPD—CM Koo, the NYPD, and a slew of other City initiatives were hosting a “How to Spot and Combat Human Trafficking” seminar inside the library behind us. Regardless of the heavy police presence, we continued our teach-in, passing out Know-Your-Rights trainings in English, Spanish and Mandarin to community members and passerby. Direct services providers and advocates spoke, dispelling myths and misconceptions that surround migrant massage and sex work. One of the main myths that we sought to challenge is the perspective both the police and Polaris favor: that all Asian massage workers are perpetrators or victims of sex trafficking. Many speakers and some community members referenced the recent case of Robert Kraft directly. Through the almost three hour long teach-in, we distributed upwards of one thousand pieces of print materials to participants and passersby.

The public is fed the racist myth that all Chinese massage parlors are involved in human trafficking. In fact, most Chinese workers do this work because it is the most sensible work for them to do, especially when they are new immigrants to the country and do not have access to other opportunities or employment training. For many, it is simply the fastest way to send money home, and it makes the most practical sense at this time of their lives.

“The massage parlor is a platform for our survival [here] when there are not [a lot] of other services to help immigrants transition into the country,” explains Elle, a veteran Flushing massage parlor worker.

(Im)migration, as it relates to Asian and specifically Chinese women, as well as feminine and gender non-conforming sex workers, is far more complicated than most people realize.

The Chinese hukou system, which restricts people to living in the rural area where they are born, making workers illegal in their own country, is a huge driver of internal “migrant sex workers” with no working rights in China. It is also a huge driver of migration out of China under Deng Xiaoping’s policies, which actively promoted rural migration out of China rather than overcrowding Chinese cities. These migrant sex workers often end up in Hong Kong, where our comrade Elene Lam met them as Director of Zi Teng, a sex worker rights organization in Hong Kong. By way of Hong Kong, these same workers often end up in Flushing or Toronto.

It’s an incredibly global network, connected through newly possible digital networks. Elene has literally met the same workers she has done outreach with in Canton, then Hong Kong, and then Toronto. This sequence of migration is driven by government policies that restrict the labor rights of Chinese workers who are made illegal in their own country, due to an internal caste system of rural vs. urban workers. Yet these migrant sex workers also do much to support Chinese economic development by sending a large portion of their money home.

It’s ironic and laughable in the darkest sense when Christian charities in “international development” work travel to countries like Cambodia and Thailand to convert sex workers into garment workers. Do they recognize how much “international development” these sex workers are already doing? Much more than a charity promoting the sale of handmade trinkets could ever manage.

Leave Cardi Alone

Like, I had to go strip. I had to go, ‘Oh yeah, you want to fuck me? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s go to this hotel,’ and I’d drug ni**as up, and I’d rob them. That’s what I used to do! Nothing was motherfucking handed to me, my ni**a. Nothing.

Full disclosure: I don’t actually care about Cardi B. Nothing that she does or creates is essential to my life and her behavior consistently irritates me. Yes, I’ve bopped along to Bickenhead (a certifiable summertime bop) and her verse on G-Eazy’s No Limit speaks to my shriveled hooker heart, but beyond the music, I don’t care about Cardi B. I didn’t watch her on Love and Hip-Hop (because I don’t acknowledge Mona Scott, unless it’s L&HH: Miami), I didn’t listen to her mixtapes, and I wasn’t actually aware of her existence until Bodak Yellow’s release became a massive cultural event. Since then, I’ve made note of particularly compelling moments in her career as they appear on twitter: past colorist and racist comments, blatant transphobia, defence of her then boyfriend Offset’s homophobia, mockery of a mother with a dead child, constant feuding with Nicki Minaj, etc. Now, I’ve written before about the prevalence of bigotry in the hood and how being “ghetto” is not an excuse for ignorance, so it would be disingenuous of me to defend her past behavior. I won’t do it. So, when I say “leave Cardi B alone”, it’s not about that. It’s about how local jagoffs on the internet took the issue of a sex worker operating on the edges of what’s considered socially acceptable to survive and turned it into a crusade against her which likened her to R.Kelly and Bill Cosby.

On Sunday, March 24, 2019, an old video of the rapper surfaced on twitter, where all discourse goes to die. In the video, Cardi can be heard responding to accusations that she doesn’t deserve her fame or success because she didn’t “work for it.” It’s a filthy lie that sex workers don’t work as hard as or harder than anyone else, and yet that lie lives on because of misogyny, whorephobia, and general stupidity. We don’t get days off. “Down time” is spent in the gym, coding websites, designing ads, engaging in advocacy, and freestyling. We function as surrogate spouses, therapists, and friends. We have to work on our bad days, our bloated days, and our heavy flow days. All we do is work, so kill that lie.

In the video, Cardi starts by saying, “Ni**as must have forgotten the shit that I did to motherfucking survive.” Now, Cardi has a thick accent, clearly influenced by her New York and Latinx roots, so some of the words are difficult to identify with 100% certainty. But it sounds like—and this is the story the internet has decided to run with—she goes on to say that men would approach her at work, ask her to (most likely) break club rules and have sex with them, and go home with her where she would drug them and then rob them. “Like, I had to go strip. I had to go, ‘Oh yeah, you want to fuck me? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s go to this hotel,’ and I’d drug ni**as up, and I’d rob them. That’s what I used to do! Nothing was motherfucking handed to me, my ni**a. Nothing.”

I firmly believe that robbing men is just taking reparations for the unending misogynistic and patriarchal bullshit we’re subjected to on a regular basis. I also believe that sex workers should be compensated for their time at all times if you’re asking them to provide labor of any kind. So I don’t care about her lightening the pockets of these men. If we’re being pedantic and dumb, we can acknowledge that drugging and robbing men, either as separate acts or in concert, is illegal. It’s “objectively” wrong. But I still don’t care. To quote MsGizelleMarie, “There’s no rules to survival sex work.” Encouraging clients to drink a little bit more or do another line, taking an extra $20 for cab fare when a john is in the bathroom, calling the police when a client gets too aggressive—we all do what we have to do to stay safe, pay rent, feed our kids, buy our meds, and take care of our parents. Cardi B became a stripper after the loss of her civilian job forced her to live with an abusive ex and drop out of college. That is survival sex work.

When your literal life is on the line, the boundaries between the available options and the acceptable options start to blur. If you have never had to choose between food and paying a bill, this is not the place for you to clutch your pearls. This conversation is not the place for you to make yourself heard at the expense of poor, survival sex workers. If you can leave sex work today and find employment tomorrow without having to explain the gaps in your CV because of your education or connections, this is not the time for you to talk about your anecdotal experiences. You don’t have the range or the right to derail this discussion. If you can call the police when a client gets out of line without worrying about being railroaded by ICE, I don’t care about your opinion. I don’t want to know what you women who can openly talk about your sex work careers without losing jobs, respect, or your lives would do in Cardi’s place. Because you have never been in Cardi’s place.

The Racism of Decriminalization

“Place of Power.” (Painting by author from her finite gestures series)

Since I began writing this piece, both Scarlet Alliance and SWOP NSW have issued an apology to migrant sex workers for their part in the SEXHUM research. This is an unprecedented move in the right direction for peer organizations. I hope that there will be more attempts in the future to empower migrants and POC, including Aboriginal sex workers, toward self-advocacy. I also hope that in the future, such a statement and its denunciation of non-peer-led research will be initiated by organizations without the need for heavy internal and external pressure from migrant sex workers first. Indeed, I hope that no statements like this are necessary in the future because this complicity with typically unethical outsider-led research will cease to occur in the first place.

As sex worker activists we love pointing fingers at the anti-trafficking industry, whorephobic art and media, and researchers with save-the-whore complexes. Yet, the sex worker activist movement itself is similarly stigmatizing towards migrant POC sex workers. Our movement has promoted the New Zealand decriminalization model for decades without being critical of New Zealand’s criminalization of migrant workers. The global sex workers’ rights movement heralds decriminalization at all costs, while often overlooking the racism involved in its partial implementation. The argument is that decriminalization of sex work will end stigma and benefit all workers equally. However, POC migrant sex workers (PMSW) still experience stigma, raids, and racism within the purported decriminalized sex worker heavens of New South Wales, Australia and New Zealand.