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Social Media, Zola, and the Sex Worker Horror Story

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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.

I Think I Just Figured Out SlutWalk

By Man Alive! on flickr

It was Sunday night at the club where I dance, near the end of my shift, when my friend and bartender introduced me to five of her childhood friends. They were all male of course; she’s such a tomboy that I wouldn’t expect anything else. I politely did my rounds, shook hands and made introductions. Hello, Wes, friend since kindergarten. Hi, Brian, friend since sixth grade. How is Arizona? Welcome to Portland, Oregon. My bartender pulled me aside quickly and whispered in my ear how she had brought them here to see me dance. “I told them all, ‘You’re gonna fall in love with this girl Elle.’” I was flattered and thanked her and squeezed her hand as I continued onto the small stage.

The rack was full. There were three young women who looked like newbies, the owner and his date, and the bartender’s male friends at the end of the row. Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” began.

I’ve danced to that song dozens of times, and I allowed the beat and lyrics to direct my movements and maintained eye contact with each member of my audience as the dancing would allow. The truth is, I was exhausted. Money had been horrible that evening and I was simply relieved to be nearly finished for the night.

I’m The Sex Worker Who Was Outed As Hugo Schwyzer’s Sexting Partner

This post was removed at the author’s request.

Both A Mother And A Whore

Happy Mothers' Day. (image via Flickr user owly9)
Happy Mothers’ Day. (image via Flickr user owly9)

The illusion of “common sense” and its alleged empirical certainties is one of the the most steadfast means by which we collectively propagate whore stigma. As a recent example, critics lampoon Imtiaz Ali’s short film, Indian Tomorrow, for portraying an economically savvy sex worker. “Prostitutes who rattle off sensex [India’s stock market] figures during sex,” proclaims one critic, “exist only in the world of fantasy art.”

Tacitly deferring to “common sense” as a barometer of a sex workers’ intellect is not only deeply paternalistic, but it also acts as a censor for the kinds of stories we tell as a society. Surprising no sex worker rights advocate, it seems like the only acceptable cultural depictions of sex workers are those that fall in-line with the “common sense” stereotype of harlots as intellectually inferior. Art allows us to envision a better world. If artists are deterred from producing nuanced depictions of sex workers as agents of their own lives, even if these depictions are utopic fantasies, our culture will likewise be deterred from envisioning better circumstances for sex workers.

But this cultural imperative to tell one dimensional stories is limited to the stories of marginalized people like sex workers. Stories that transcend the simplistic theme of victimization are critiqued as dangerous and sexist. This is in spite of Standpoint Feminists themselves claiming that the moral obligation of any society is to tell more stories, not fewer. 

Selling Sex Sort of Ruined My Life—All The More Reason I Support Sex Worker Rights

Do I have a target on my head?

When I first came out in print as a sex worker, it was pretty much decided by everyone that I was an idiot. That, or an opportunist and/or an attention whore—a fact one feminist blog called “disgusting.” In the comments sections of articles I have written, it is widely accepted that no one would pay to have sex with me and that I ought to shut the fuck up. I am frequently accused of making it all up. I’ve been insulted and undermined in every way and yet, amidst the hate mail, the most damaging criticism I’ve ever received came not from a New York Post reader or even a radical feminist (although I got hate mail from them, too) but from another advocate, a sex worker, someone I knew.

“Hi Melissa:

I hope you’re well. I read your Salon.com article. I appreciate that you’re sharing your story and advocating for sex workers’ rights. And I sympathize with your struggles.

I want to share a concern with you. In this article you make a statement about sex work, particularly prostitution being work that relies on dishonesty. In [an article published on Huffington Post] you similarly made a statement that the industry is “soul bankrupting.”

I can see how this may have been true for you, but it’s certainly not the case for all of us. For someone who is out of the business I can see how these statements would seem harmless. But for those of us still working, these are exactly the concepts that we’re trying hard to dismantle—the idea that we are somehow emotionally or intellectually compromised because we do this work.

I would never ask you not to speak your own truth. But I do think it would be helpful if these statements were framed in such a way that it’s clear this was only your experience, and not broad-sweeping truths about the business. Many of us come to this work honestly and operate from a place of truth and compassion. We deserve respect for this work. It’s problematic for an “expert” to portray us as liars with bankrupted souls. It’s especially hurtful when a colleague who presents herself as a dedicated advocate takes this stance.

Respectfully,

[redacted]