Social Media, Zola, and the Sex Worker Horror Story

by Josephine on October 29, 2015 · 3 comments

in News, This Time, It's Personal

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The headline at Jezebel.

By now, you’ve probably heard the story of Zola and her fabled strip trip to Florida with her new friend, Jess. If you haven’t, the story was told in a series of dramatic tweets by Zola, AKA twitter user _zolarmoon. In it, she spins a story that’s so intense and absurd that it’s hard to believe. In sum: she reluctantly agrees to take a work trip with her new pal, Jess, to Florida. Things immediately go wrong in a variety of terrifying ways. Zola’s narration of the journey is flippant and casual. She saw a lot of humor in the events that allegedly occurred.

The series of tweets were so flagrantly wild that they exploded on Twitter—at one point her story was (and still may be) trending worldwide. The story was picked up and regurgitated by your typical new media blogs: Fader, Buzzfeed, Complex, and, Jezebel (the list is still growing). It’s not surprising that Zola’s narrative was embraced so thoughtlessly. It contained the trappings of a good story that the new media elite thrive on, a perverted version of the who-what-where-when-why-how I learned about in journalism school: sexy pictures, nefarious and criminal doings, content that could be quickly mined and embedded, and, uh, Florida.

Sex worker Twitter did not appreciate the Jezebel piece. It triggered a familiar dialogue about the intersection of social media and journalism. What, ethically, is public record? Is Zola’s Twitter account public record? Jia Tolentino, the author of the story, argued that YES, it is. And further, the original tweets themselves had been shared hundreds of timesso who cares? The story went viral. Deal with it.

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The headline at Buzzfeed.

Zola presented the story in a flip tone, but in reality the events were anything but funny. It was a horror story in the truest sense, which Jezebel glibly filed under “I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD HOS”. (Interestingly, Jezebel didn’t tag Peechington Marie’s T&S repost about Maya Angelou this way—I wonder why.) In case you missed it, here are the gory Cliffs Notes: Zola goes to Florida with her new stripper friend, they end up in the company of a violent pimp, someone gets raped, someone gets kidnapped, someone gets outed, someone attempts suicide, and someone gets shot in the face. Zola even posted pictures of the victim. As the story gained momentum, its minor players were also outed. But hey, like it says in the Jez headline, Zola deserves a Pulitzer!

Every sex worker has a horror story. We get robbed, arrested, beaten, humiliated. The majority of our horror stories blur the line between “awful” and “hilarious.” At least, mine do. I’ll share one. Earlier in my career I was working an off brand nightI think it was New Year’s Eve? I got dosed. I remember the night vaguely, bits and pieces mostly. A set on stage, a kiss from a coworker, a moment of disassociation, being carried into the dressing room, cracking my head on the floor, a whole lot of barfing, and then finally the relief of blackout.

The headline at Fader.

The headline at Fader.

I tell that story much more vividly in person. It’s my go-to anecdote when a civilian solicits me for a “funny story” about my job. It was a crazy night, I’ll explain. I can’t believe how much fun I had, I’ll say. I wish I could remember it. I present the story as a one-off night that resulted in some harmless, embarrassing moments. There’s also the story about a customer who was convinced I ripped him off and spent the entire night calling my bar, threatening to get me. Boy, that guy was a weirdo! I’ve had things thrown at me on stage, I’ve been followed home, my money has been stolen. After ten or so years in the industry I can say that yeah, I’ve seen some shit. The truth is I don’t think any of those things are funny. The truth is I’ve had a few moments in my career where I almost got hurt, or I did get hurt, where I could have died. The truth is, I file those events away in memory as shit happens because the alternative is too depressing. If I want to tell those stories in public—on a medium like Twitter, for exampleI have to manufacture the humor in all of it. God forbid I admit that a few times in my career I’ve been terrified, that I’ve been hurt. Stories with those kinds of truths immediately get weaponized against sex workers. So, shit happens.

Maybe that’s what Zola was doing: defusing the horror of her experience with humor. I certainly hope that’s the case, though it’s hard not to read some contempt in the way she describes the characters in her story. I reached out to her via Twitter; she didn’t respond. It was irresponsible of her to post pictures of the other people involved in her narrative, but I don’t think her intent was malicious. That said, Zola is one person. Megasites like Buzzfeed, Fader and Jezebel have entire editorial staffs, tenured media professionals who should have known better. Journalists have a responsibility to consider the fall-out of what they publish, to consider if an otherwise private individual could get hurt. That consideration wasn’t made here. It seems that consideration is often absent when it comes to sex workers. 

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cecilia Dahl October 30, 2015 at 11:51 am

It’s true you cannot control how people or society react to your stories. What you can control is how you present yourself to the world. If you want to be taken seriously, perhaps cease presenting your traumas and tragedies to the world as a joke. At the very least, stop complaining about being misunderstood when you’re admittedly misrepresenting yourself.

We all want perceptions to change, and while it should’ve happened long ago, it never will until sex workers learn to be authentic with the public and themselves. You are responsible for how you present yourself and your stories to the world. You’re excusing your stated policy of misrepresentation with some nebulous fear that the truth will be used against you, when in fact, turning your painful experiences into jokes has done exactly that!

Again, you’re responsible for how you present your truth. How people react is out of your control. It’s both pointless and disingenuous to react to their reaction before it’s even happened. There is nothing honorable or courageous about cowering in fear by catering to sex worker stereotypes. I’d say the opposite is true and your jokes do more harm than good. Isn’t Zola’s story a perfect example of that?


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