Invisible Men and Blind Curation

by Estelle Lucas on April 29, 2014 · 15 comments

in Prostitution, Reviews

tumblr_n3b9i3QnoZ1sn3as5o1_500The Invisible Men Project, a tumblr-turned-Glasgow-art exhibition, supposedly reveals the previously unknown attitudes of men who engage the services of sex workers. The project was launched by the Glasgow Violence Against Women Partnership who come off as bonafide in their intention and achieve poor results. They do this by constructing a poorly designed mask (a faceless one, because sex workers are faceless, right?) and plucking quotes from the worst reviews written by clients. They paint this in the same manner an artist might paint a mask for a masquerade—with the idea of presenting cryptic truth through ambiguous art.

The Invisible Men Project is a propaganda project that fails as a creative project. They have painted the “faceless” sex workers with the words their clients use for them. As if the client’s opinion even matters. As if the sex worker’s worth weighs solely on their clients opinion about them. They haven’t even thought to use the words of the sex worker in question, they just assumed that the client’s opinion about their work resonates similarly.

Bravo to the Invisible Men Project for creating a space to glorify the misogynist attitudes of these men. And they are glorified. Highlighting their words does nothing but promote their behavior. They’re not ashamed—if they were, they would never had posted their reviews in the first place. The curators are completely aware that attaching a price tag to each piece will further shock their audience, especially if that price seems low. They don’t bother to put the prices in a context that allows for regional or socioeconomic differences.

The sex industry is competitive in its very nature. It’s not odd for fake reviews to be written, especially from the direct competition. Or for them to be exaggerated by a disgruntled client. This often happens because these business dealings are not in the economic mainstream (depending on the type of legal framework the country functions under). Every sex worker and every punter knows to take reviews with a grain of salt. The public doesn’t always know this, and the Invisible Men Project doesn’t bother to mention this.

The only thing transparent in this project is its lack of care for currently operating sex workers. The project incites indignation towards the clients of sex workers as a whole. It’s been created to antagonize the public about the experiences of some workers. This insincere effort is thought to battle willful blindness to the sex industry, especially to our clientele—but only to the difficulties the curators choose to highlight. Things that THEY think are aghast. Not the things that WE are currently struggling to overcome. Not the things that WE actually want to address. Actual sex workers in the area, speaking through Scot-Pep, called the exhibition “exploitative, non-consensual, silencing.”

Canadian sex workers are fighting for their freedom to work. They are put down and intellectually bullied by feminists. Americans are running up a down escalator to get a sliver of respect for their industry. Sex workers are incarcerated for trying to make a living. Australians are trying to follow New Zealand’s fine example of decriminalization but find themselves caught in a media-incited moral panic at every opportunity. We are discriminated, dismissed and put down. It doesn’t matter in which tier of the industry you workpublic stigma affects every single sex worker more consistently and effectively than reviews from clients.

And this is what ultimately makes this project tremendously unhelpful.

“Uncovering” the truth about punters by presenting carefully selected quotes from punting forums does not raise awareness about the things that really matter. When one “exposes” something, it suggests something was covered up. Invisible men are on the internet, in a public space, where anyone can access their content. They have let themselves be known for years. Compiling online testimonies that they themselves have written is not shedding light. This is not groundbreaking detective work. They have not captured a criminal on the run. They haven’t even wrung confessions from them. These men have taken time out of their day to report on their activities. The people who run this project literally copy and paste their words. A seven-year-old could do it. So what does this achieve?

Obviously they don’t actually care about the sex worker in question. If a client could find this sex worker and write out her location, physical description, name, and pricing, surely it wouldn’t take much effort to find her, call her up and say “Hey, you ok?” But that’s too hard for the Invisible Men Project.  Instead they use the experiences of these sex worker without their permission for their own agenda. The exact same way, I’m sure, the reviewers have not asked permission to review the sex worker. Why? Because the worker is irrelevant.

What really matters to the creators of the project is the degrading attitude in these reviews—thought of as transferable to the whole female gender. That’s the real concern. Revealing the disgusting nature of men is apparently news nowadays (feminism, have you taken a break?). Apparently this is more important than contacting the men in question or the workers they’ve seen.

We’ve established that they don’t help the workers in question, so what about other sex workers? By carefully selecting the worst content to be found, what does this achieve? Rancour and revulsion? The language of some punters is shocking, everyone cringes at the sight of it. But this isn’t a project that presents its content and says, “How shocking are men, right?” They present the content and say, “How shocking are the men who use this industry, right?” It’s very specific. Rather than individually shaming the man in question and punishing that person, they shame the whole spectrum of clients.

unmasked-008To an outsider it looks like this is what is normal, expected or tolerable in the sex industry. It isn’t. It doesn’t provide context and within the sex industry, context is everything. The context might be that the sex worker might think her client has bad breath and turn away at every opportunity. Maybe there is a child at home waiting to be fed and the sex worker is trying to finish her job as quickly as possible. Maybe the sex worker refused a service and so the client wrote a bad review. Maybe the sex worker didn’t get along with the client very well and they’ve taken it very personally and responded aggressively in a review. Maybe the sex worker doesn’t even care about the review, they just want to finish their job and get on with their lives.

The fact of the matter is, you don’t know the context so you can’t print these reviews as factual or validate them.

The sex industry is used as a scapegoat regularly. I don’t want to accept this anymore from feminists, religious groups, rescue projects or anyone who uses the sex industry in their ultimate battle against males. The difficulties of our industry increase with projects like these. It offends current sex workers when outsiders pick their battles for them. It offends me when someone spends x amount of hours making a tumblr when there are so many other things to focus on. It offends me when someone thinks this is going to make a great art exhibition. It offends me when someone thinks it’s innovative and progressive. It offends me more than all the awful reviews I’ve ever read combined.

We, the sex workers, saw the Invisible Men very visibly before anyone else did. And we have already discussed their behavior. We communicate with the men in question. We are the ones trying to actively sway their attitudes. This project has not shined a spotlight into a previously shadowed space of society. Activists have it on their radar. It’s awful, yes, but it’s on the bottom half of the list of things that need to be done to improve conditions in the sex industry. There’s a whole lot more that deserves attention before the misogynist language in reviews from clients. But anyone who’s not a sex worker does not care about these needs because they cannot relate. All that they can relate to and fear is that somehow these attitudes will apply to them.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Scarlet Heart April 30, 2014 at 5:32 am

Let me preface this by adding my utter contempt for the IMP project. I remember them popping up ages ago on social media and being like “Oh god, here we go.”
But the thing is I’ve known other SWs who’ve quit or moved workplaces because of these awful reviews. I know that for more seasoned workers we can just laugh it off but I know younger girls who’ve been really affected by the denizens of these review boards. OF COURSE decriminalisation and ending stigma towards sex workers comes first, but it would be remiss to say that these reviews are of trivial concern to us when the men on these websites are known to bully, stalk and harass workers, and give out the real names and details of providers thus compromising their safety and privacy.
I think IMP did deserve to have a TaS article on it’s failings(actually “failings” is an inappropriate word because it’s just one giant fail)…but this one falls short, I’m afraid. To be blunt, this whole post comes off as quite dismissive of the toxic culture of hobbyists in general. If it’s such an insignificant thing for workers then why were there a cluster of articles decrying hobbyists on this very website in 2013?


Estelle Lucas May 1, 2014 at 6:01 am

Those sex worker who rely or even bother to look at review websites I’m going to assume (and yes this is a completely unfounded assumption) are those sex workers who have the freedom to really choose the circumstances and context in which they engage in sex work.

With that in mind, organisations such as Scarlett Alliance (the leading body here in Australia, which is not government founded and has limited recourses) focus on the dire needs of sex workers. The needs of migrant workers, things like education, community support, contacts, sexual health awareness, avenues for sex workers who suffer abuse, harassment or even coercion within their workplace. I wouldn’t want them to bother with the needs of a worker like myself who is merely irritated by review culture and who has the means to set up shop if it all goes bad online. Other workers like me suffer a cyber bulliness through the review culture – but given the circumstances and the needs of others, I’m happy for them to do what they’re doing because they are doing a pretty good job for those who need it more.

With that all considered, yes I agree and fair point, male driven review culture needs some filters. But that’s a battle that we can do engage in by writing and raising awareness . This is a battle that we pick as sex workers, as individual sex workers, it’s not a battle I would insist we persist as a whole.

I wouldn’t expect the leading organisations to bother with something like this, not when we have the means to discuss it ourselves. And we especially don’t need outsiders to assume our position as a whole or to vilify us in the same manner as our clients. Being degraded once doesn’t mean it’s fair game for others especially when it’s to their own agenda.


Miss Margo April 30, 2014 at 12:48 pm

I have very complex feelings about this article and the IMP. I haven’t sorted them out yet, so this comment is probably going to be disorganized.

The first time I read the IMP tumblr, it fuckin broke my heart. I agree with Ms. Lucas that the IMP is propaganda…and it is effective. It is political art designed specifically to provoke a reaction in the viewer. But it does not “fail as a creative project.” The IMP is an artistic success because it accomplishes the goal of the artist/writer. The IMP conveys what she wanted it to convey.

This article is great in that it re-focused my perspective. It made me think: Who gives a damn what these asshole clients think? Really? The SWs they hired shouldn’t care about their opinions. These pathetic men don’t merit attention.

At the same time, though…these clients are out there, and they’re part of the dark side of the industry. The IMP doesn’t “glorify (their) misogynist attitudes about women.” The men themselves are responsible for that. What these guys do, an what they think about SWs, and their entitlement, is vile, and these awful fucking fucktards live all around us, and it is perfectly natural to be taken aback by that, and to wonder what to do about men having these ghastly attitudes. That is a feminist issue, even if it’s an Anti SW one. The IMP tumblr asks “What do you think about HIS choice?”

Yeah, what about his choice…? Not to see a sex worker, but his choice to be a totally abusive asshole?

I have to go back to work now, so I can’t finish this, but I hope to when I come back


Caty Simon April 30, 2014 at 1:38 pm

But I feel like the IMP gives the impression that it’s MEN WHO USE THE SEX INDUSTRY that are misogynist, not, you know, all men. As if these men prob aren’t nearly as fucked up in relation to other women in their lives, and whore stigma added to sexism plus the anonymity of the internet just gives them freer reign to act out. As if men who aren’t clients can’t be just as degrading. And the fact that these men’s words are written all over these blank masks made to represent sex workers–I agree with this post’s author in that the artist’s choice to do that here is just as dehumanizing, ultimately, as these clients’ abusive language. They aren’t interested in sex workers’ input about the boards and their clients at all.


Caty Simon April 30, 2014 at 1:39 pm

Like, if they care so much, how about they read the posts from TAS’ board theme week and help sex workers start new, sex worker controlled forms of verification sites for clients and workers? Naw, they just want to squawk, PROSTITUTION BAD PATRIARCHY BAAAD without actually having to interact with the objects of their benevolent concern.


Scarlet Heart April 30, 2014 at 10:32 pm

Caty, nobody is disagreeing that IMP is a thoroughly sensationalist and ineffective way of trying to raise awareness about sex-workers. It is frustrating because the idiots on these review websites make the public think that all our clients are assholes, when we know that isn’t true. And yes, there’s no difference between these guys and obnoxious turds on youtube comments sections and reddit – vile misogyny isn’t a trait particular to johns. It’s more that the article underplays the nastiness of these reviewers and tries to focus on “feminists” as the cause of all our troubles when the reality is SO much more complex than that.
I think we should be free to discuss aspects of the industry which enrage us(such as hobbyists), I feel like we are all wary that our words will be twisted and used against us by prohibitionists trying to prove how “AWFUL” the industry is. Well I say fuck that, if we’ve let ourselves be gagged by anti’s (such as the people who run the IMP tumblr)then we’ve let them win.


Caty Simon April 30, 2014 at 10:46 pm

Yeah, I agree that perhaps saying that misogynist reviewers are a “trivial” problem may have been a dangerous understatement.


nada May 1, 2014 at 6:04 am

Was that deliberate to use Michelle Tea’s paragraph picture ? It’s like a knife on the side of my stomach everytime I think about this.


Robin D May 2, 2014 at 2:43 pm

What’s this about organizations and the Scarlet Alliance? That is so confusing. Like TAS is an organization? It’s a blog. Or did the author mean IMP, which is an org but not a sex worker one? Anyway in the U.S. the sex workers who rely on reviews are more like the “middle class” – not the bottom nor the top tier. However people in most all strata can wind up with reviews anyway, whether they’re aware or not or become aware of them later or become so when they move strata or whatever else. But that’s way beside the point as far as orgs because they aren’t involved. This website could surely use some more viewpoint diversity and diversity of gender, race, trans status, orientation, experience, etc. but I’ve watched that keep getting better. And WTF with the Michelle Tea quote? Michelle Tea is not an anti by any stretch? Is that what nada was talking about? Michelle Tea is famous for “Rent Girl” and “Valencia.”


Bubbles May 2, 2014 at 2:45 pm

I noticed that Michelle Tea quote, too, and I suspect the curators just decided to post it on the wall free of context.


Caty Simon May 2, 2014 at 3:46 pm

Yeah, it’s from Rent Girl, and it’s absolutely out of context. I wonder if Tea knows about this–wouldn’t it be a copyright violation?


Robin D May 2, 2014 at 3:51 pm

I just didn’t get where the “orgs” thing came from, I don’t know of any sw orgs that concern themselves with review culture since yeah there’s a lot that should and rightly does get priority.


Iamcuriousblue May 27, 2014 at 1:35 am

I noticed this as well. Actually, Melissa Farley has been quote-mining ‘Rent Girl’ for years now, and I’m pretty sure that’s where they got it from. I have no idea whether MT knows about it, but even given that her jaundiced view of clients, I doubt she’s approve of this use of her words to justify the kind of legislation these people are pushing.


Kathleen Treubig May 3, 2014 at 6:39 am

There are all kinds of clients. I’ve had wonderful clients who appreciate the woman, the woman’s body and actually giving her pleasure too. I’ve had clients who were greedy misogynists who wanted their pound of flesh for their penny to the nth degree and wanted sex multiple times for the same dollar and got nasty when they were reminded that wasn’t the arrangement. As in any business, there are all types of clients. However, I resent the mask of the “Invisible Man” … how dare anyone assume the “john” is an invisible man or a victim … you get what you give. If you treat the woman with the consideration, you get the same thing back. The person who is really “Invisible” is the sex worker. The sex worker is only visible as an object of social indecency and not as a person with feelings, a brain, constitutional rights. The sex worker deserves decency. The “Invisible Man” is b.s. and they/he should take off the mask.


Charlie May 19, 2014 at 10:03 pm

IMP is not art in any instructional or uplifting sense and is the lazy “exposure” of sociopathic feminism. Anyone can bully and harass sexworkers and many cowards do. What judgemental non sexworkers have to remember is that the patriarchy they so hate will come for them once they have removed their sexworker sisters. Hatred only begets more hatred. We need decriminalisation and respect for people’s life choices and if rad fems are so righteous lets sponsor their field trips to Saudi Arabia to experience absolute patriarchy and see how many women they can save.


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