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Saving Face

Has anonymity in the sex industry become a luxury few of us can afford?

He was the perfect client. Well dressed and freshly showered, he brought me a small gift in which my precious dollar bills were discreetly enclosed, and our session finished before I was even fully undressed.

“How did you find me?” I asked him over cacio e peppe. I needed to recreate whatever marketing techniques scooped this guy for the rest of my career.

“I’ve been following your Twitter for years,” he replied.

My whore brain, which is really just a saloon girl holding an abacus after seven years of doing this job, quickly ran a rough estimation of every dollar I had lost by somehow failing to convince Mr. Right to get in touch sooner. He sensed the twinge of disappointment in my surprise. “Your photos are great!” he corrected, “I just…never understood the whole ‘hiding the face’ thing.”

My heart sank. There’s simply nothing that competes with the magnetism of the human gaze in a sea of faceless profiles, and it’s something I’ve heard from clients before. In sad contrast to a warm smile, my feeble Photoshop techniques for obscuring my identity can give my images the uncanny valley effect of an alien shapeshifter caught briefly between corporeal forms. While my areolas are available to the world in high resolution, my face is just something I can’t—or won’t—expose.

Industry professionals who do online advertising are noticing that an increasing number of their colleagues have forgone the usual online security measure of hiding identifying features like faces and tattoos, opting to share all of the above plus apartments, city views, and even cameos from their dogs. In a city of millions, I’ve unintentionally run into workers who I can identify only from their online profiles. This trend that unquestionably puts workers at greater risk is troubling for many. It’s a phenomenon that coincides with ever-more-restrictive criminal laws on prostitution, a lack of reliable advertising options, and an unrelenting global media culture that frames privacy as a puritanical, outdated value. Historically unprecedented invasions into our private lives are now commonplace and increasing, and the pressure to truly ‘bare it all’ in order to compete is palpable. The repercussions for sex workers, though, reach far beyond what regular civilians face.

The consequences of being exposed in this line of work often go undocumented. It’s difficult to recognize the full impact of stigma on our community, because, while it’s sometimes physically violent (we face high rates of sexual assault, harassment, and stalking) and occasionally public (Melissa Petro who lost her job as a teacher, Sarah Tressler fired from the Houston Chronicle for her former work as a dancer, this domme in The Netherlands, this teacher in Michigan who “never anticipated the backlash”), it is also smooth and silent in what I suspect are the majority of cases. Its victims often slink away, hoping the quieter they are, the less fallout there will be. Sex workers are not a protected group under any human rights code, so discrimination isn’t recorded in any formal capacity.

But it happens. A lot. Noted sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein reported that in her field—which is the literal study of sex work itself—it is practically unheard of to see a colleague disclose their sex work history publicly. In her rapidly growing discipline, the only two writers she’d seen self-identify left academia with little fanfare shortly after publishing (see her seminal book Temporarily Yours, 2007). Even her colleagues who engaged in one-time acts of prostitution for the sake of their research saw their work far more harshly criticized than men who partook in similar ethnographic practices (the male researchers were seen as adventurous gonzo journalists). There was no Monica Lewinsky-style sex-tinged outrage for these women; just a slow and steady constructed dismissal.

Countless women lose access to their children because their abusive partners manipulate the judicial system’s sexist biases, like one I spoke with whose ex-partner used screenshots of her website in his custody case. I heard stories about a worker’s newcomer Chinese family who had worked their way out of poverty to finally find happiness in middle-class life. She wouldn’t dream of hurting their livelihood, even if she despises that such severe stigma still exists around her job.

For escorts on social media, it can be easy to forget that we’re still creatures of the demimonde when we’re tweeting beside muggles in the full light of day. The individual accounts that engage with our marketing are, by and large, very supportive there. The worst comment I’ve seen on an escort post recently was an embittered “you must really love yourself,” but it was a blip in a sea of enthusiastic compliments. Unfortunately, this bubble of anonymous online attention has not resulted in a greater level of acceptance in the real world, and it might just be luring us into a false sense of security. The men who give us hundreds of likes on our nudes fetishize our private lives and reward us for exposing more and more. But they’re not putting their mouths where their money is. They’re not voting in our favor, they’re not encouraging their companies to support sex worker-led causes, and they sure as hell aren’t the one whose lives might come crashing down if their secret leaks. After all, in the rare instance that the outing of a sex worker even makes headlines, nobody ever asks who the former girl for hire was being hired by.

As baffling as it might seem to put yourself out there in a highly stigmatized profession like this one, the factors necessitating the decision are many. Sex workers report a noticeable increase in business after they stepped out from behind the curtain. On a very basic level, providers are selling a service of which their face and body are part, and clients are excited to see the entirety of what they’re paying for. This is someone they want to have a sexual encounter with, so understandably seeing the whole package influences attraction.

From an evolutionary perspective, human beings simply like faces. We find them even when they’re not there, in a desperate, reptilian brain attempt to recognize a fellow sentient creature at any cost. It’s why we can’t help but identify a set of eyes and a nose in the taps and nozzle of a bathtub. When clients are inundated with thousands of options in any given city, it makes scientific sense that they might vibe a little more with a woman who—if she’s good—is staring directly into their souls.

But we’re complex social animals and science only ever tells a tiny facet of the truth about our behaviors. The social factors are far more important to consider—because they change us; or rather, we can change them. The impacts of the law FOSTA/SESTA in the U.S. have been far reaching. Options for workers there and abroad have been severely reduced with the closure of Backpage and other popular sites. As always, the most marginalized workers have been the worst affected. Scarlett Johnson’s Tits and Sass tips on advertising on Craigslist today is an elaborate guide of code words, warnings, and good luck wishes that only begin to illuminate how god damn hard it is out there for some of us right now. Imagine a newly graduated RMT receiving the following advice:

As far as vetting goes, I recommend letting them know that a donation or tribute is necessary within the first three emails, using some kind of euphemism to indicate that this is pay to play. The flakes will ghost you—it scares them off. Stay incredibly engaging over your email correspondence, but do not send any face pictures or pictures with distinguishing tattoos. (Worker with tattoos here! Trust me, these guys can be reverse image search detectives).

Every other industry would find these working conditions deplorable, and yet they’re a sex worker’s status quo. Nordic-inspired prohibitionist laws in many countries have put a chill on business as well, with good clients too scared of prosecution to visit us or too scared to follow our screening protocols, and bad clients emboldened by our desperation. When popular ad site Eros began requiring passports as proof of identification, many workers around the world rejected this strange violation and lost a major source of income. When Homeland Security subsequently raided Eros, they told advertisers that their information was safe in Swiss offshore data banks. We now suspect that the San Francisco-based company released our sensitive data to US border officials, resulting in masses of lifetime travel bans.

A BBW escort friend told me that the expectations for her niche are more demanding than they are for thin women: she can market a curvy body that transgresses mainstream beauty standards, with the caveat that she must be conventionally pretty to do well. For women of color in an industry widely known to reflect society’s racialized wage gap, any attempt to stand out from the crowd might be reflected in their bottom lines. And really, every single sex worker suffers from the whorephobic assumptions that she is ashamed of her work, hiding from her family, or beholden to what some tight ass future boyfriend might think of her unsavory past. When an escort who shows her face is regarded as more trustworthy, more open-minded, more beautiful, and less ashamed, it makes sense that some of us decide it’s the best strategy to pay the rent and put food on the table.

But “more beautiful” and “less ashamed” than whom? Well, less ashamed than the rest of us no doubt ugly face-hiders, that’s who! Because these advantages only exist in relative terms. At this point in time, when a minority of workers show their faces, their candidness only exists if it’s placed alongside the withholding of their colleagues. The sad truth about this practice lies in the pressure it compounds on fellow workers to follow suit, the unspoken messages it sends about escorts who blur their faces, and the dangerous new precedent it can set for the industry.

While it may seem impossible to imagine escort malls where full face photos are the rule and not the exception, you don’t need to look far back in our history to see that this type of exploitation of sex worker online autonomy is not new. In the late 90s, back when people probably said “the Interweb” unironically, escorts generally placed print ads in newspapers dedicated to adult content. The papers offered a layer of protection and even shared bad date information between workers.

Enter Eros, the first platform to exhibit sex ads online, in plain view of the general public. Blogger SFmistress describes the decline of worker control in her post “Bye Bye Eros Guide.” According to her, in the beginning, Eros offered free ads and promised to treat workers with respect. As ad numbers grew, though, they pressured us to hire professional photographers, pose more graphically, and even to show our faces. They introduced the “stats” box in each profile which demanded the height, weight, and breast size of every poster. Whereas advertisers began by “making bank off of generic five line text ads for minimal costs”, the site was expensive to use and promoted a culture of price undercutting, so workers’ rates dropped across the board. “Many of us would voice our concerns individually to the Eros Guide as well as privately amongst ourselves as they instituted each change,” SFmistress recounts, ”but we as the worker community never accessed our collective voice to gain control over our own advertising with businesses like the Eros Guide. This is still our reality as a worker community.”

For workers who started recently, it might come as a surprise that BBBJ was not the norm before the 2008 global financial crisis. Due to our economic struggles at this time, clients gained a newfound power to dictate our services. That industry precedent still applies ten years later and providers who exclusively offer CBJ experience serious pushback—a pretty significant blow to our health, safety, and choice at work.

One worker I know was forcibly outed by a pathetic misogynist blogger and covering herself up after that seemed like admitting he had won. Luckily, she was gorgeous and tough and had long dedicated her adult life to “the underworld”, as she puts it. But the most perplexing example I ran across while writing this piece was the worker I spoke to who unmasked herself willingly, despite all the known risks and despite having a thriving business already. This high-end escort had already been banned by United States Customs and Immigration, a major factor for workers outside of the U.S. in protecting their identities. She was financially stable enough to risk eviction, didn’t have children or precarious citizenship, and felt ready to bear the burden of public backlash or private hate mail. Banishing “the blur” felt like relief washing over her body, she told me, because she was “tired of hiding.” She didn’t have to be afraid of posting a selfie with an accidental reflection in the bathroom mirror, a sort of “you can’t fire me, I quit!” ethos to potential shamers and doxxers who would now be foolish to imagine they had the upper hand. When they call us sluts, they lose their power when we reply, “So what?”, right?

That this worker found some freedom from fear is a success for her—it only cost her her privacy and perhaps a future that she didn’t even know she wanted yet in a world we can’t even fathom at this point in time. As one extremely private worker put it, “Young people are cows at the bottom of a very tall hill—we don’t know what’s on the other side yet.”

We are living in precarious times, when the potential to brand and sell every aspect of our existence beckons ever louder with every billion dollars Jeff Bezos ferrets away from employees who are denied bathroom breaks. Using facial recognition technology, biometrics, and Big Data, the Amazons of the world are tracking our every move and cashing in on every square inch that we offer up. We are all at the bottom of a hill, with a technologically advanced police state on the horizon.

The refrain “It’s not a problem if you have nothing to hide,” urges us to absorb violations of our inherent right to privacy.

Well, this is a problem, and sex workers obviously do have something to hide.

Accommodating boundary pushers is something femmes are taught to be good at from birth; it’s something sex workers excel at.

Physically, our bodies register these invasions even if our minds consciously shield us from the pain when our boundaries are overridden. Burnout sneaks up on us despite our schedules and so does disease—there is a growing field of medical research that links the stress of long term emotional repression with rare cancers, multiple sclerosis, and ALS.

Spiritually, what will happen to the joy of serendipity, the excitement of having a great secret, the allowance to make unrecorded mistakes, or the freedom to change who we are?We might only appreciate the intangible benefits of privacy after they’re irretrievably lost.

As bad laws deplete our safe money-making options, and straight employment looks ever bleaker, we have increasingly lost control over how we work and live, and the repercussions to our wellbeing are enormous. That is, if we don’t find a way to resist this new normal as a community. Sex worker labor history has many victories: workers on my city streets militantly resist price cutting to keep their rates moving upwards; indoor workers steadfastly enforce a system of reference-sharing that clients have no choice but to comply with. But can we recover the important losses we’ve suffered in the recent past? Will clients ever be allies in this struggle? Can we restructure sex worker culture to recognize the primacy of privacy again?

The future feels as unclear as our faces should be.

8 COMMENTS

  1. I was thinking about the misogynist blogger and US Customs as I started this piece. Glad to see those examples included. I’ve never really been anonymous or discreet (I found it exhausting), but I’ve definitely balked at the number of clients asking for my real name and face pics to go with my home address and top-notch dick-sucking. What a fucking nightmare the sex industry is! What a fucking nightmare the world is!

  2. Sadly, I suspect, privacy and fixing the problems faced by people in the industry are mutually exclusive. As long as its hidden and invisible, and the general public has nothing but the lies and stereo types to fall back on when considering their votes and other actions, there can be no reform. If you are invisible, you can be ignored. If you are hidden, those apposed to you can say anything they like to the majority about what they “want” the truth to be. There has been no insistence, that I know of, in history, in which an oppressed group has ever broken that oppression, without public outcry. And, unfortunately, people whose numbers are unknown, are faceless, whose struggles the general public doesn’t know, or want to know, and which the public *is* being told are a menace, by people that claim to be making moral choices when telling the lies, are not likely to see justice done.

    I badly wish this was otherwise. There is almost nothing (other than maybe trying to be a client) where I would, in my life, have to choose between the risk of doing what I feel is perfectly sensible, and not at all wrong, and what society “allows”. Even something like nudism, one is merely confronted with the choice of denying the impulse, and living with everyone else, or giving up conveniences, in trade for being some place where its allowed. And.. ironically, I see the trend actually **changing** in that, such that, maybe even in my own lifetime, it will be acceptable to the point where the laws that allow it, some places, are not just “You could do it in theory.”, but actually, “You can do it in fact, and no one will call the cops on you.” But.. there is no “safe zone”. No place, for sex work, that doesn’t come with costs, like travel bans, when it doesn’t come with the cost of outright destroying lives.

    Still.. Invisible may not be something that can be afforded, when the goal of whole nations is to turn “invisibility” into “non-existence”. I don’t, at all, envy the position this puts all of you in, but at least I can be a single voice in the storm in opposition of the madness, as much as I am able.

  3. I have said for years that clients who act like they don’t “get” why some providers don’t show their faces are being disingenuous. Would they want to be listed on a verification website visible to the public with THEIR face photo available for all to see? For most of them, the answer is no. They know that there is stigma & real danger attached to being a sex worker, but they believe that wanting to know exactly what we look like before hiring us is more important than our privacy & safety. These clients are terrible people.

  4. Great piece! Eloquent and on point. It’s refreshing to read the words of another industry professional who cares about our future as a whole. Being 25, I’m
    no newbie but not yet a veteran. I had the pleasure of discussing these issues with a much younger girl and a veteran at work the other day. The newbie was much more passionate and inclined to share her opinion than her counterpart. I enjoy both women’s company and value them equally, however, it was inspiring to see someone younger than me CARE….and actually CARE. She was gorgeous, young, and self educated. Her well spoken demenour towards these topics startled me since she typically kept to herself at work. What I’m saying, it that there is hope. Newbies and those in between care and we are starting the dialogue that is needed for change. We are an industry of bad bitches, feminists who define odds, and we aren’t gonna let anyone get in our way…trick or congressman…or both. 😉

  5. Well done Vanessa, I appreciate this writing and how well it defines the risks for sex workers and their identity. It is unacceptable to me that a person must risk their well being every time they do their job. As a society that asks us to slow down in work zones on the highway, why can’t we respect a person’s own decision on their job choices?
    I am a client and I understand the need to suppress your identity. Too much about our privacy is taken for granted even as a “muggle”. Now there are shopping malls using facial recognition? WTF are we doing.
    Last point I would add, I was found out by my wife, now ex. Although she publicized my “lifestyle” to friends and family, it only affected relationships, it never affected my ability to generate income. I can’t even imagine the devastating effects to an escort if she/he is outed. We (clients) need to find a way to convince our lawmakers that changes must occur, hopefully a new generation of voters that are socially responsible can be the change agent we need.

  6. This article has been at the back of my mind since I read it last week. My arc has been slightly different. When I started stripping, I was pretty out and allowed myself to be photographed, topless, for one of my club’s websites (back when the Internet was indeed tubes that connected computers using gerbils and string). They never removed the picture despite repeated requests, even after I left stripping and began escorting.

    When I first began escorting 16yrs ago, I was full face, no tattoo-photoshop. No one ever popped up in public to identify me. I was extremely open about it to friends, family, and nowhere near as discreet as I usually am now. I knew it wasn’t harmless, I recognized that review culture was toxic, that I had to screen to avoid cops and bad clients. But I never felt unsafe with my face online at that time.

    But the more I’ve experienced and seen and heard, the more I keep my head down and do what I can to be a mystery to potential clients (and how to keep it vague in person with almost everyone). I can’t say I experience much backlash for hiding my face and other details escorts often share on their sites or social media. I reveal other things instead that are of no matter to me but act as fodder for those who want “more.” (A similar concept to my fake real name when I was a stripper.) I also screen like hell because the risk has just gotten worse. I get way more backlash for my screening requirements than my photos or social media gaps. I practice personal privacy assiduously in my real life too, though laws are making it tougher in that realm as well.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that a microscope has been turned on us now, both as sex workers and citizens living in the US. You have to be able and willing to cultivate double and triple lives/facades in order to be safe, IMO. No, clients often have little clue of the value of what they’re asking for and yes, young sex workers often have little clue in the value of what they’re giving away. I wish more sex workers would shout from all their social media that they’re not going to reveal (whatever privacy lines they decide) and why. For more pieces like this to encourage sex workers to cultivate the age-old sense of mystery the profession usually has. It’s seductive, sure, but it’s also such an important part of harm reduction these days.

    PS: BBBJ was extremely common in Texas, and most cities I toured, well before 2008. Ironically, most of the ladies who offered it charged less than I did, who did not. I always thought that the greater the risk, the more you charge. I see sex workers monetizing their social media, probably with that maxim in their head. I never think they charge enough.

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