Twitter, iPhones Let Sex Workers Spread Their Gospel

By Regina Lynn 03.28.08

When the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal heated up headlines earlier this month, every media outlet in the country suddenly began scrambling to talk to a sex worker.

The downfall of Spitzer, the New York governor who resigned after his private sex life unexpectedly became public, generated an enormous amount of interest in the escort industry and in Ashley Alexandra Dupré, the woman he had been seeing.

But the whirlwind didn’t catch sex workers and activists lying down. They organized a media blitz through blogs, Tumblr, Twitter and shared Google Docs. They kept tabs on which reporters approached the topic with respect and which didn’t. And perhaps for the first time, they made their voices heard in mainstream venues like Fox News and CNN — organizations that cannot be dismissed as fringe or adults-only media.

Using mobile gadgets and Web 2.0 apps, sex workers mounted an internet-enabled campaign to spin the story. Smartphones, RSS feeds and mobile social networks enabled them to pounce on stories as soon as they appeared in the mainstream media, posting comments on news websites and blogging the good, the bad and the even worse coverage as it appeared.

Their message should not be a surprise, and yet it has been surprisingly difficult to get it out when reporters are more interested in how much an escort charges or what her most perverted client wanted.

“Sex workers are sentient beings and we are very capable of speaking for ourselves,” says Audacia Ray, sex worker advocate and author of Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads and Cashing In on Internet Sexploration. “We are organizing politically and we do have opinions about the ways that sex work could be responded to differently by government and media.”

Melissa Gira is a founding member of the Desiree Alliance, a network that’s pushing for human, labor and civil rights for sex workers. She has worked in the sex industry and currently works as a freelance reporter in addition to being a sex-worker activist.

Gira was attending the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, when she found herself thrust into the media spotlight during the Spitzer meltdown. (She was covering the conference for Valleywag.)

“The only way to survive the barrage of reporters and questions from the sex-worker organizations was to buy an iPhone,” she says. “South by Southwest was so horrible for iPhone peer pressure — I was hardly the only person to leave with one.”

Activists developed a list of current and former sex workers willing to talk about the escort industry, along with what types of media they could and couldn’t do, and whether they would give out their real names.

“Lots of people were at South by Southwest [when the Spitzer story broke] and didn’t have time to check e-mail every five minutes,” says Amber Rhea, organizer of the upcoming Sex 2.0 conference in Atlanta. “It didn’t matter. They used Twitter, text messaging — they did interviews with hardly any advance notice.”

Rhea says that for the first time, there’s a critical mass of people putting forth a concerted effort to make sure the media can’t ignore sex workers. Building on a foundation built by former sex workers of the past 30 or so years, many of whom went public with books, articles and speaking engagements after they retired, modern sex workers have the message — and the means to get it out.

Mobile connectivity makes it possible to channel the collective wisdom of a broad, geographically diverse group directly to a smaller number of public faces, almost instantly. Sex workers across the country could share their thoughts on the subject without outing themselves, while those who could put their real names and faces forward in the media could speak with a strong peer-support network.

And they needed it. Most of the incoming media queries had nothing to do with the political, social, legal or economic issues associated with sex work, says Ray. Several journalistic outfits just wanted to know how to find an escort online, while Fox News’ intrepid reporter Geraldo Rivera wanted to talk about sex slavery. MSNBC started the conversation with, “Were you a whore?”

Still, “pieces of thoughtful dialogue seeped through,” Rhea says. “Maybe we can really start to talk about sex work without all the hyperbole.”

“But it’s a conundrum,” she says. “How do you balance getting that much-needed perspective out there, while understanding that sex workers can’t just have their pictures and real names flashed all over? It’s not a risk that a lot of people can take.”

Desiree Alliance’s Gira says that after two years of concerted effort, the network is solid enough to enable sex workers to respond to breaking news almost as quickly as big organizations like Gawker Media.

“We’re not the mainstream media but now we have the tools to be as fast…. We had people doing video embeds all week,” Gira says. “Audacia Ray was tweeting media calls. Things we couldn’t say to the press, we could say behind the scenes, quasi-publicly. It was important to have those back channels to support each other. If not for Tumblr, Twitter and my iPhone, I couldn’t have done it.”

See you in a fortnight,

Regina Lynn

Link to original on Wired

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