Sex Work and Surveillance

Sex workers live at some of the most complicated intersections of surveillance and its many threats.

by Hexe on October 6th, 2014

Discussion about surveillance is everywhere. Talking heads discussing the impact of spying and data collection and the NSA and what the fuck is metadata and holy crap our freeeedoms! (Did we have Freedoms before? Many of us didn’t. How many Freedoms? Can you count them? ) Most of the people in the conversation are cisgender white men. Watching them only now discuss things that have been a source of fear in my life for many, many years induces a confusing mix of boredom and rage.

I am not a terrorist, or violent. I am a sex worker and an activist; my activism is intrinsically linked to my survival. A lot of people who are not cisgender white men lived for decades and continue to live under surveillance. Sex workers, activists, and communities of color have long histories of being surveilled by police and government, and activists have long adopted cultures and tactics against it.

Sex workers particularly live at some of the most complicated intersections of surveillance and its many threats. As a sex worker who worked in the United States, I constantly worried about law enforcement, powerful men, nosy neighbors, anti-sex work feminists, my clients and the government that creates the laws that limit our safety and livelihoods. And that’s just the beginning. Sometimes it feels like I worry about pretty much everything except terrorists, because I would rather focus on realistic threat vectors.

A sign in a window that reads These Premises Are Under Surveillance.

Photo CC-BY Kelly Bumford, cropped and filtered.

The interesting (and by interesting I mean frustrating and dangerous) thing about being a sex worker who cares about their safety and privacy in the US is that many of the tools commonly used by activists are useless. I don’t know about other sex workers, but I can’t use PGP encryption with my clients, or any other kind of email or chat encryption. I have to use easily identifiable email services with relatable brands, which are all very surveilled and often insecure. The options for more secure communication often have really cool names thought up by people who enjoy security or activism but those names sound dangerous or threatening to a middle or upper class person just looking for an experience. I’m too poor to run my own server or host my own website, so I have other people do it for me… other people and companies that may or may not suddenly change their terms of service regarding sex work or adult services, and may or may not give a fuck about my data being private or secure in the first place.

Let me be perfectly clear: My personal information — legal name, location data, private phone numbers — is kept private because it is a risk to my life if they are made public. Men stalk and kill sex workers. A lot.

Different sex workers have different ways they protect themselves and different threat models. A cam performer, stripper, or porn star will worry about different things than someone like me, who didn’t show their face in ads for years and does not do porn. I’ve done my time in a peep show, and I’ve spent a few shitty shifts in traditional strip clubs, but for the most part my work was in some of the darker corners of the grey areas of legality.

One thing we all have in common is a worry about our pseudonyms being not enough, because sometimes that is all we have to protect ourselves. In a world where people who enter domestic violence shelters have to go through digital quarantine because abusers use off-the-shelf surveillance tools to track and control their victims, a world where the United States and other governments do the exact same thing, albeit with more finesse, I can only conclude that surveillance is an act of abuse, mostly used by cisgender white men to control people with less power.

Abuse is always about power and fear. Surveillance is as well.

I worry about discussing tactics and topics surrounding surveillance and privacy. In some cases even talking about it can be a risk, like whispering Voldemort’s name. Even writing this is breaking one of my oldest rules: that I don’t talk about the internet, or surveillance on the internet, because it draws attention from trolls and government alike.

The ways abusive power structures of the US government and heteropatriarchy have hurt sex workers, queers, trans folk, activists, poor people, and people of color are similar, but not always to the same degree. White middle class sex workers have the luxury of a veneer of respectability and sometimes legality that is much more fragile than they would like to admit. I had the privilege of advertising as an upper-middle class white cisgender woman, when I am none of those things. My white privilege separates me from my darker skinned cousins who do the same work, giving me the opportunity to do sex work from a different place than where I came from.

Yet despite all the precautions I take, hiding my face, my legal name, using prepaid gift cards to pay for internet advertising, I know that at any moment if the wrong person takes interest in me, my life would be over. My only real protection is to hope I am insignificant enough that nobody will notice what I am doing to survive isn’t exactly legal.

I often look at the few tools and platforms we do have for communication and organizing, and get really angry at the people who built them. I have to ask myself if these people are malicious or simply incompetent. Tools, technology, and social media platforms designed by white men for white men have inherent security issues for women and people on the trans* spectrums.

Cars on a highway at night.

Photo CC-BY Alex Holyoake, filtered.

As a sex worker, an activist, and a person who dislikes abusive power structures, I would appreciate not having to live in fear. I have had strange men walk past me in order to shoot photographs from the hip, I have had friends followed by police and government agents, I have had other sex workers follow me in their car to find out where I lived because information is power, I have worried about ex lovers and clients knowing where I live and my legal name, and I have had friends afraid of using privacy and encryption tools because it might bring them to the attention of the FBI or NSA.

As a sex worker, who has so little power in the world, I have to live in constant tension, I have to think like a criminal in order to keep myself safe. Living, thinking, being a criminal has taken a toll on me despite the occasional amazing solidarity and the incredible experiences of doing sex work. I shouldn’t have to worry about my life being ruined simply for trying to survive in a late capitalist society, and neither should you.

If I was a rich banker instead of a whore I would never have to worry about the police, but honestly I would rather suck dick for money than destroy the lives of poor people.