Feminists in Tech: Please Stop Treating Sex Work as a Contagion

We love to talk about diversity and bringing marginalized women into tech. But our biases against sex work are biases against the very marginalized women we wish to include.

by Eva Gantz on April 6th, 2015

During this year’s GDC, a picture of a dancer at the Nvidia afterparty (co-sponsored by Twitch and Yahoo) appeared on Twitter. Feminists in tech immediately responded with critiques of having a stripper (who turned out to be a burlesque dancer) at a work party, sparking heated conversation about sexism in tech more generally.

Let me be clear: I absolutely agree that Nvidia made an extremely poor choice. Sexualized entertainment necessitates explicit consent from every attendee, whether the function is work-related or not. However, the ways well-meaning feminists in tech responded to the mistake were misguided and problematic.

This response is hardly unique to Nvidia’s snafu. Tech and sex work have an uneasy relationship that traces back through decades of women’s attempts to combat tech’s endemic sexism. Sex work is seen as something to be kept as far away from women in tech as possible. Why do we assume that the two must be separate, and what sorts of problems arise when we do?

Tech’s Quarantine of Sex Work

A miniature of a hazmat zone, with small figures dressed in containment suits investigating a spill.

Photo CC-BY HaPe_Gera, filtered.

I recently attended a meetup for women in digital currency. I work at a digital money nonprofit, so this was mainly a professional networking event for me. I was excited for this space carved out especially for me. The crypto space has a gender gap that makes the rest of tech look almost equitable. Bitcoin boasts only 4-6% female users, so a place for women to gather was a welcome respite. After the main talk I chatted with a woman who’d been in tech for the past decade. The topic of sexism in tech came up, as it’s wont to do. She told me casually, as if it were the most obvious conclusion in the world, “the underlying reason for gender discrimination in tech is porn. That’s the root of it all.” My face must have given me away, because she prompted, “don’t you agree?”

No. No, I don’t agree in the slightest. For one, the assessment reduces the incredibly complex issues of meritocracy, privilege, and misogyny into an oversimplified sound bite. This view is every bit as reactionary as a conservative desire to regulate female sexuality. It places the blame squarely on porn performers, and removes any responsibility from men in tech. I received a clear message: sex work apparently undermines everything that women in tech are fighting for.

Anita Sarkeesian produced a similarly myopic Feminist Frequency video centered around critiquing the portrayal of street-based full service sex workers in various video games. She repeatedly refers to them as “prostitutes” and even “prostituted women.” I strongly suspect that Sarkeesian didn’t realize that “prostitute” isn’t the preferred term for full service sex work prior to publishing the video. But responses began pouring in from actual sex worker gamers, saying they found her video reductionist and problematic. Sarkeesian has yet to respond to a single one, nor has she revised her language. When people who belong to the marginalized group you’re speaking about come to you with concerns, to ignore them is to further their oppression. Sarkeesian of all people should understand the importance of narrative, of words, of media in defining marginalized people.

Even just the proximity of association with sex workers is too much to be borne. A popular article detailed Ann Winblad’s experiences of being a woman in tech a few decades ago. She mentions that one conference she attended had so few female attendees that she was forced to room with the stripper. Can you imagine? The stripper. I hear the intended message about her isolation from her male peers. But to treat a stripper a some sort of pariah is to push her down in an effort to be respected. If she’d been roomed with a woman in a different career path—say, food prep—she would hardly have been so outraged. The true discomfort in Winblad’s story stems from the idea that sex workers are dirty, unimportant, and worlds away from a respectable woman like herself.

A chain-link fence.

Photo CC-BY Kristin Wall.

A similar sentiment is echoed in Liz Keogh’s “I am not a Pr0n Star: avoiding unavoidable associations.” Keogh’s piece responds to the infamous CouchDB presentation “Perform like a Pr0n star,” which featured (you guessed it) softcore porn. In no way do I feel the presentation’s inclusion of nude women was warranted, and I agree that it had no bearing on the subject matter of the conference (Ruby). But Keogh’s argument rests on the idea that if women in tech are viewed even in the same space as porn performers men will instantly see them as porn stars, too. Not only does this insult the intelligence of men, but it also furthers the idea of sex work as contagion. “Don’t get too close, or it might rub off on you.”

Last year’s TechCrunch Disrupt exemplified the misguided attempt to make women comfortable by removing any mention of sex work from the conference. Since they’d been criticized for their failure to include women the previous year, they added a code of conduct (potentially helpful) and quietly removed a presentation about a “Bitcoin for strippers” app (not actually helpful). How does removing an app that could change the way strippers handle money — an app that could make transactions safer and easier for a marginalized group — show support for women in tech? TechCrunch made the all-too-common mistake of attempting to include one marginalized group by excluding another.

A 2010 Activision afterparty with dancers drew the headline “GDC is for developers, not strippers.” Again, a legitimate critique (discomfort with a sexualized work environment) was expressed as an exclusionary dichotomy. A stripper could never be a dev, and a dev could never be a stripper. It’s akin to the binary thinking that could allow a statement like “GDC is for developers, not for girlfriends,” which I have no doubt would trigger (justified) outrage from the author of the piece.

“But I support sex work!”

Feminists in tech trip over themselves in their haste to qualify their critiques of sex work. “I have no problem with sex work but…” They’re ever so careful to clarify that they’re completely open to sex work. No, of course, the problem is simply with the “context,” or with that “particular instance.” But it reads to me with the same cheap defensiveness as “I have no problem with female gamers, but…” Simply stating that you’re supportive of sex workers does not make it so.

These responses speak volumes to the mindset that sex workers and women in tech must of necessity be distinct classes. I have fierce admiration for so many of the women in tech who’ve paved the way for me. I’m willing to bet that they would never intentionally throw other women under the bus. Regardless of intent, there’s an underlying message in their commentary that bespeaks a desire to distance women in tech from the sex industry. I can understand this impetus, especially in a time when all of us are fighting just to exist in the tech world. But as we struggle to be respected, it’s crucial that we not inadvertently step on already-marginalized women. Women who may wish to seek careers in technology, or already be in the sector. Plenty of sex workers are simply subsidizing their higher education. The fields are not necessarily separate.

The price of exclusion

A sign that reads 'No Pornography: It is an offense to bring, possess, supply, sell or transport.'

Photo CC-BY Michael Coghlan, filtered.

The industry’s bias against sex workers, however unconscious, influences our products and policies. Almost every social media network bans or quietly suppresses adult content. Google’s Blogger recently attempted to purge the platform of all such content, but quickly reversed their decision when users responded with outrage. LinkedIn even censors job titles of folks in the adult industry, literally erasing their experiences. Twitter’s anti-porn policies are far clearer than its anti-harassment ones. It’s evidently fine for a user to tell me that all sex workers deserve to be raped, but terms like “porn” no longer appear in top search results.

When every major player in the industry agrees to censor content that pertains to, is written by, or depicts sex workers, it creates a stifling effect on creative, non-hegemonic content. We miss the perspectives of folks from different backgrounds, folks who aren’t typically “heard” in mainstream media.

These systematic exclusions are perhaps most visible in the payments industry. Nearly every crowdfunding site and payments processor explicitly forbids transactions pertaining to adult content or services. Many freeze accounts and reverse payments if they’re suspected to belong to sex workers.

One such instance is adult performer Eden Alexander’s crowdfunding campaign for her medical expenses. When WePay (the backend processor of the crowdfunding site) discovered that an outside party had offered worn panties as a reward for donating, they shut down the campaign. Keep in mind that this was not an official backing reward, and the offer took place on Twitter. WePay’s surveillance extended beyond the official page, scouring Eden’s personal social activity. Since monitoring each and every campaign’s external social presence would be far too resource-intensive, we must assume that this already-marginalized woman was placed under special observation. Even legal funds that touch sex work are subject to this stringent policy.

We must recognize that we’re denying service to—and even taking money from—a marginalized group. To my mind, tech stands for possibility of innovation. Tech is supposed to be about disrupting existing systems, but it seems we’ve only repeated old patterns.

We love to talk about diversity and bringing marginalized women into tech. But our biases against sex work are biases against the very marginalized women we wish to include. Sex work has a high tendency to attract folks who need money quickly, or need to work a second job that doesn’t conflict with their regular hours. To exclude sex workers is to exclude a category that is mostly lower-class women. Diversity efforts mean nothing when they only include a certain kind of woman, a certain kind of non-rich-white-man.

Going forward

Unless we wish to tell sex workers that they are not welcome in tech, we must change the conversation:

  • Be mindful of language and try to avoid us-vs-them dichotomies. GDC afterparties should only hire dancers when they’ve gotten consent from attendees, but strippers who also happen to be gamers should be welcome. Porn shouldn’t have a place in Ruby presentations without a content warning, but simply viewing porn won’t make men believe that every woman in the room is a porn performer.
  • Remember that sex work is neither contagious nor a pathology.
  • Pay attention to critique or concerns from the people you’re talking about. If a sex worker asks you to rethink your language, listen and respond.
  • Above all, remember that for tech to include women, it must also include women whose career paths may look different from your own.