Or, When Batting Your Eyelashes Doesn’t Work

I was recently asked to run a “Sex School” seminar on dirty talk at a sex club in Toronto. This invitation came by way of Twitter, in large part because of the profile I maintain in part to advertise my phone sex services. Toronto is half a day’s drive from where I live, so I drove up on the morning of the event. For this reason, I primped at home beforehand, which included full makeup appropriate for the role I was playing as sexpert at a club (read: heavy eyeliner and fake eyelashes – sexy for the club, a bit over the top for daylight).

What I didn’t anticipate was the way that my appearance (in conjunction with my role as a paid speaker in a sex club) was going to read to the Border Patrol. Indeed, while they didn’t say it explicitly, they flagged me as a sex worker, and detained my husband and I under that suspicion.

The line of questioning went something like this: Where are you speaking? What do you do to get such speaking gigs? Is there money involved? How much? Did you bring a contract? How will they pay you? I told the Canadian Border Patrol agent that this was all negotiated on Twitter, and she asked for my phone, making sure the social media apps were accessible. We were told to return to our seats, where we watched her comb through my phone from a distance.

I was surprised to receive this level of scrutiny, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Just a few months earlier, I was at an industry event in Miami where several sex cam models on the Canadian side of the boarder were denied entry into the United States after they had their social media profiles examined, which outed them as cam models. They had to forfeit their tickets and hotel accommodations, not to mention presence at an event that was meant to help bolster their careers. So, I suppose it shouldn’t have been too much of a shock that this sort of scrutiny would also flow in the other direction.

More and more, these social media examination policies are a major problem for sex workers who want to freely cross the US/Canadian border. Though there has been an increase in phone seizures since Trump’s Executive Order banning entry for people from seven Muslim-majority countries, this practice did not start with President Trump. Both US and Canadian Customs officers have been scrutinizing certain flagged visitors’ cell phone content and social media presence since George W. Bush’s presidency. And, it is not just in leaving one’s country that this is an issue. Journalist Erin Rock explains that “While US citizens will ultimately be allowed to enter, their phones and electronic devices are still subject to search and seizure at the border.”

It might seem like the easiest solution to this problem would be for sex workers to opt out of social media, or at least any non-vanilla social media presence. This may be possible for strippers and other sex workers who work locally. However, for many sex workers, social media presence is a necessity for the recruitment and retention of clients, and thus for a functional business. High end escorts, traveling models and strippers, and almost by definition all online sex workers, including cam models and phone sex operators (my forte) all depend on social media to develop and legitimate their brand. This is so much the case that Sherri’s Brothel—one of the few legal brothels in Nevada—offers classes on how to maintain a Twitter profile, underling how essential social media has become in the sex industry.

The last two years data has proven that Twitter is a powerful lead generator for Sheri’s Ranch,” the guide reads. “A courtesan’s tweets add another dimension to her personality and enhances her brand.

In a milieu where carefully crafted branding on social media is a large part of the work of being a sex worker—but where that very social media presence is often used as a weapon against us, restricting our mobility—we are in a bind. Suggesting that we just cease using social media altogether is to suggest that we give up the possibility of actually having a sustainable work model. Further, it doesn’t take into consideration the fact that for those of us who have already had our social media accounts flagged, the upkeep of these accounts may border on compulsory in that the conspicuous absence of them in future trips could raise red flags. Indeed, this happened to a gay Vancouver man who was detailed at the US border for (false) suspicion of sex work due to a dating site. In trying to avoid the same treatment he deleted his accounts before border crossing and was told by the officer, “Next time you come through here, don’t have your phone cleared.”

All this is further complicated because social media presence is thought to be a reflection of who we are as people; just as sex work in life sex work trumps other facets of a woman’s identity, so too on social media does its presence trump all else.

For most people crossing the border, the question, “Are you traveling for business or pleasure,” is a benign cliché. Sex workers, however, are not afforded the luxury of this distinction. Part of whore stigma is the inherent assumption that sex workers are always working—that we are one-dimensional. The cam models who were trying to cross the border to go to the convention were not doing so with any specific intent to cam in the United States. Instead, they were coming for an award ceremony. Yet, they were denied entry because of a failure of imagination: officers, and the system writ large, could not imagine sex workers’ lives beyond their sexuality. The irony is that the multi-dimensionality of our lives is all documented there in our phones. The officers could have just as easily read the many banal interactions with my mom about our dogs, or the groceries lists I send to my husband as they could view promo pictures for my work. But sex work casts a shadow on all else.

Ultimately, given that the sex work I do in the US is legal and that there was no concrete evidence that I planned to do any sex work in Canada, she let us cross the border. However, this wasn’t a given. We overheard her and her superior’s conversation where he told her it was up to her discretion, but that she could turn us away if she wanted. We made it that time, but we’ve presumably been flagged, so this may continue to be an issue.

Is there a way out of this seemingly closed loop in which I cannot do my work without maintaining a social media presence, but that very social media presence can be used to thwart my professional efforts (and perhaps my personal travel)? There are several suggestions online addressed to sex workers specifically: downplay your appearance when crossing the border, maintain a work phone that is separate from your personal one that you leave at home, wipe your devices, etc. While these are all good suggestions, I would like to add one more to the mix (perhaps an overly idealistic one): That we use our social media platforms to raise awareness of the issue, to fight for protection of ourselves, to seek solidarity with each other, and to work toward political and social change in regard to both social media privacy and sex work.

Jessie Sage (@sapiotextual) is an online sex worker, writer, and former academic. Her interests include embodiment, intimacy, the politics of sex and sex work, and reproductive justice. She is co-host of The Peepshow Podcast.


I have a confession to make. I am an outsider. I never saw the original Blade Runner, and I don’t particularly even like sci-fi. Going in, I also didn’t have a clear idea about what the movie was going to be about, though my partner did give me an excruciatingly long history of the movie’s relationship to noir/sci-fi/western films on the way to the theater. (I literally had to check to see if my ears were bleeding).

Perhaps this makes me unqualified to speak about the merits or faults of the film. On the other hand, for this reason—and reasons of my own personal history—I may have related to this movie differently than other reviewers.

I write this reflecting as an online sex worker—someone who professionally plays the role of virtual girlfriend. Someone who, despite the fact that I am a living breathing human being with my own life and agency, takes on a role in my work that looks strikingly similar to Joi—the holographic AI girlfriend of K, the protagonist.

The majority of my work takes the form of phone sex (which, yes, is still a thriving industry). Part of this job is relating to my regulars as though we know each other IRL, even if we don’t. I ask them about their day as if it has consequences for my own life, I talk to them about their work stress, I pretend to share a drink or a meal with them, I rehearse conversations and negotiations that they want to have with their “real life” lovers as a proxy fill-in, and I sometimes even fight with them to urge them to express feelings that they otherwise resist acknowledging.

For this reason, I felt an odd and surprising kinship with Joi. We meet her when K comes home and is out of sorts after a difficult assignment to kill a fellow replicant. She first appears as a post-war housewife who prepared a meal for him, and when that doesn’t do the trick she moves to a sportier version of herself, and then to a more glamorous one—all in an attempt to give him the girlfriend experience that he needs. While I don’t typically do this within the same interaction with a client, I have often felt this sort of whiplash from call to call. My job, like Joi’s, is to create for my clients the sort of relational experience that they desire or need at a given moment, which often means selectively revealing dimensions of myself (MILF, sexpot, intellectual companion, caring partner). In other words, Joi, the AI “pleasure model,” serves a function that is deeply resonant with my own.

It is no surprise, then, that I feel somewhat implicated in the two dominant critiques of her. Let me look at both of these in turn.

It is a common trope in sci-fi and speculative fiction to view AI as a threat to our humanity. I will refer to this as the technophobic critique. Those who hold this seem afraid that this technology is so seductive that we will be unable to transition from AI back to human interactions. Or in other words, we will be so enamored by AI’s ability to give us exactly what we want without asking for anything in return that we will reject the reciprocity required of human relationships. For example, when speculating about a future where AI can spontaneously interact with us, Daniel H. Wilson suggests that it will cloud our judgment. He says, we will be “completely unable… to defend ourselves, at least for a little while, and that may involve people buying a lot of products because they’re in love – because they are literally in love – and that scares the shit out of me.”

Who is Wilson afraid of us being in love with? Well, with the machines. The fear runs something like this: because machines have no agency of their own and can instead be programed to meet our every need, we will be unwilling or unable to recognize the fruitfulness of less immediately gratifying human interaction (I do not choose the term “fruitful” accidentally, given that reproduction is an ongoing theme of the movie).

Related to this is what I will call the feminist critique (of the second wave variety), which is leveled against sex workers at large, and not just AI ones. In this critique, sex workers who participate in fantasy production bow to the desires of cis men within hetero-patriarchy, ultimately alienating both men and women from themselves and each other. In this conception Joi offers no “real” connection. More pointedly, this critique pictures men as lonely, sad, and incapable of connection, and sex workers as those who are either forced into meeting men’s needs in an exploitative system, or as capitalizing on their loneliness. Pornography is often brought up in this conversation, and not surprisingly, it also features in Blade Runner reviews. For GQ, Scott Meslow asks: “Isn’t this a plausible evolution of pornography? That a company might develop an artificial intelligence that is explicitly designed to treat a sad, lonely man as the tragically misunderstood hero in his own life?”

This reading always poses the question: what agency do sex workers have in their work? If they train themselves to explicitly cater to male desire as a mode of livelihood, do they not both give men unrealistic expectations of romantic and/or sexual relationships, and lose a sense of self in the process, forging a double alienation. Is their work, in other words, not directly antithetical to healthy and flourishing human relationships?

This is a large question, which the movie is incapable of answering. However, real intimacy in relationships comes up again and again, so perhaps we should explore what the movie may be trying to suggest, even if it doesn’t neatly wrap this all up for us. In K and Joi’s relationship there is a constant tension between real and artificial intimacy. Though K has a lot of affection for Joi, he questions hers, particularly when she tells him that being with him makes her happy. He responds, “You don’t have to say that.” The viewer is left feeling his distrust and his wonder as to how to take compliments from someone whose job it is to make them. More pointedly, we can ask what we are to make of a relationship that is built on the production of fantasy.

While they only hint at this problem in the movie and do nothing to resolve it, they do give us an analogue with which to understand it: that of the memory producer.

As a replicant, K knows that he did not have a childhood hence he is confused by a reoccurring memory of childhood that seems very real. At one point, he has an interaction with Dr. Ana Stelline, the  most cherished “memory maker” who produces a large number of the memories that are then implanted into the replicants. Out of concern for reality, he asks the Ana if his specific memory is real. She emotionally responds that it is in fact a memory that happened to a real person, while tears run down her eyes. The astute viewer can infer that these are in fact her memories, particularly when she tells K that “there is always a bit of the artist in all of their creations.”

They proceed to have a meta conversation about how she feels about her work producing memories and she displays a rather sophisticated ethic. Indeed, she says that giving people memories ties them to other people in a way that makes them more empathetic and hopeful. That is to say, she understands the service that she provides to be one that allows for humanity to flourish within those who carry her memories. What this implies it that the ontological status of the memory—it’s realness or authenticity—is less important than their very real consequences in the lives who hold them.

What then, does this tell us about K’s relationship to Joi? While Ana produces memories, Joi produces fantasies. If there is an ethic that can be attached to the production of memories, why not the production of fantasies? Do not fantasies also have the ability to be real in their consequences? And, even if they are not a sui generis manifestation of a particular relationship, does this mean that they don’t have a real referent or experiential meaning?

While Joi is a robot who is programmed to respond in a particularly way to K, she is obviously a stand in for a human sex worker, or in other words for a transactional romantic or sexual relationship. I cannot help to think of my own work. Is there an ethic to pretending to be someone’s girlfriend? Does this set up an unrealistic expectation of what a girlfriend is or how one should respond? I ask myself this question in particular when I know that I am standing in for a IRL wife or girlfriend and rehearsing conversations a client hopes to one day have. So often I have thought of my clients’ wives and wondered how they would respond to certain situations, and wondered if I was helping or hurting their relationship. (The fact that outside of sex work I am also a wife makes this all the more pointed to me.)

Emotional labor is morally complicated and there are not simple, universal principles. One positive aspect of this movie is that is doesn’t sugar coat or try to offer easy answers. By writing-off Joi and the relationship that K has with her as artificial, technophobic or feminist critics miss the film’s nuanced eschewal of real/artificial as meaningful or morally significant categories. These boundaries never hold up in practice. Replicants consistently transcend their purpose and go off “baseline.” Similarly, memory makers, fantasy producers, and sex workers all do work that is real in their consequences, even if it is different than the intimacy experienced in non-transactional relationships.

I am able to do this job because, while I do not have established or deep relationships with my clients, I do have them in my personal life. I create fantasies out of the reality of my lived experience, in the way that Ana creates memories out of her history. My clients do the same. Far from being alienating, it is a playspace that allows for new possibilities in our personal lives, once the call is over. While the movie isn’t perfect, many interpretations have failed to appreciate the value of the production of fantasy, or the agency that Joi eventually exerts as a fantasy producer. The movie pushes us to toil with this ambiguity between reality and fantasy, lived and created memory. It invites us, in other words, into an imaginative playscape in which intimacy of different kinds can open new possibilities.

Jessie Sage (@sapiotextual) is an online sex worker, writer, and former academic. Her interests include embodiment, intimacy, the politics of sex and sex work, and reproductive justice. She is co-host of The Peepshow Podcast.

Exxxotica, a large adult-themed expo that started in 2006, was held in Chicago last weekend. While the event is broad and claims to be a “love and sex” catch-all event (including seminars and presentations related to BDSM, swing lifestyle, sexual health, toys, etc.), it is largely focused on the adult industry. Indeed, since its inception Exxxotica has hosted large name porn stars like Jenna Jameson and Ron Jeremy, and it promises to connect fans with their favorite stars.

In its 11th year, changes in the expo have reflected changes in the industry itself. Most notably, there has been a huge shift away from mainstream studio porn production to that of decentralized sex camming. J. Handy, the director of Exxxotica, recalled that the first year that MyFreeCams (one of the leading webcam sites) was present was in 2012 with a 10×30’ booth and 8-10 cam girls.in contrast, the same site exhibited with a 50×60’ booth and over 200 cam models in Chicago last weekend. In addition to MyFreeCams, other cam sites such as Chaturbate, Cam4, and LiveJasmine were present.  

The massive influx of webcam models at the event points to a shift in the industry; a shift from studios once concentrated in Los Angeles to private production in models’ own bedrooms. When asked on Twitter how much money is in the porn industry, mainstream porn actress turned webcam model Shawna Leneé (who attended) said:

Unlike the mainstream industry where centralized production companies have control over both production and distribution, cam models produce and distribute their own content on the above mentioned sites, which are more akin to social media platforms than they are to film studios. Being a webcam model, then, assumes a fluency in social media and digital technology that was not expected of previous generations of porn performers. Such savvy in the hands of models has the ability to radically change the conditions and culture of the industry, as the events of this weekend demonstrate.

The three day event began Friday. Hundreds of models representing all of the major platforms were there both live broadcasting and interfacing with fans. One of the most visible models, Vera Sky (XBIZ 2017 Cam Girl of the Year) kicked off a heated Twitter discussion on Friday (6/23/17) when she said that she would not return for the second day of the event because fans had assaulted her. In a tweet that was later deleted, she said that she had been groped and that someone pulled her top down and licked her breast. I, too, was at the event and saw that Vera was not alone. I saw numerous models groped by fans seeking pictures without interference from security. Frustrated by the behavior of fans, some models began to discuss whether enough was being done by the event managers, pointed out a lack of clear signage about consent and harassment, then uncovered shocking statements by the Exxxotica owner that seemed to implicitly encourage such behavior.

Response by Exxxotica owner to the revelation of offensive statements from years past

 

Another important conversation that developed on this Twitter conversation was the presence of Ron Jeremy at the event. Ginger Banks, a cam model, began a thread of women speaking publicly about Jeremy’s assaults against them at Exxxotica events and other events. For example:

As these stories piled up, a spirit of collective action and solidarity emerged. This particular thread was retweeted 198 times (as of this morning), pushing both the owner of Exxxotica and the industry as a whole to account for its treatment of the women who create content. In fact, many performers, including mainstream performers such as Jessica Drake, demanded a response to the concerns that models were expressing online:

J. Handy did, eventually, issue a lengthy statement in response. However,  myself and others found it to be weak. He claims to not be responsible for the actions of Ron Jeremy or anyone else. He says, “We are not the judge and jury. We are an impartial forum for conversation and discussion about love and sex.” (found on @gingerbanks1, 27 June 2017).

While established figures in the mainstream porn industry brushed off the complaints or dug their heels in, at least one site was quick to respond to models’ concerns: ManyVids, the leading website for clip sales by independent cam models, chimed in with the following: “We had no idea this was happening and we are not okay with this. We will not be working with [Ron Jeremy] going forward and appreciate everyone for coming forward.”

In other words, while the owner of Exxxotica failed to take the webcam models seriously, their protests motivated action by other leaders in the industry. Moreover, it is probably more than coincidence that platforms depending on contributions from independent models are more responsible than figures accustomed to a small group of men deciding what gets produced and distributed.

Today’s sex worker is not only skilled in erotic performance, but tech savvy as well. The use of social media as part of professional practice has merged with social media as a political tool. Tech savvy performers use the platform to very publically and instantaneously critique major industry forces and demand change. While rape culture and the conventional porn industry aren’t going to be dismantled overnight, sex workers (who have always been on the front lines of feminist causes) are using the tools of their trade to organize quicker, more collectively, and more effectively than before.

Jessie Sage @sapiotextual  is a current cam model and former academic. Her interests include female embodiment, intimacy, the politics of sex and sex work, and reproductive justice.

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