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Blunt and Stardust's “Automating whorephobia: sex, technology and the violence of deplatforming. An interview with Hacking//Hustling” (2021)

“Automating whorephobia: sex, technology and the violence of deplatforming. An interview with Hacking//Hustling”

From Stardust's introduction:

Despite the proactive role of sexual commerce in building the capacity and infrastructure of the internet (Grenzfurthner, Friesinger, and Fabry 2007), whore stigma is now coded into algorithms, community standards, and terms of service (Garcia 2020). In consequence, these operate to gentrify and sanitize online space, excluding sexual expression, communication, and representation, at the same time as extracting maximum value by monetizing the data and content of sex worker users. Indeed, as Gabriella Garcia has argued, ‘to Big Tech, the sex worker is as indispensable as they are disposable’ (Stardust, Garcia, and Egwuatu 2020).

Sex workers – treated on the one hand as a source of profit and data, and on the other as collateral damage in an online gentrification project – face isolation, barriers to access and the closure of vital spaces for peer education, safety information, and community support ...

In this interview with Hacking//Hustling co-founder Danielle Blunt, we argue that internet studies scholars engaged in the field of platform governance ought to actively listen to the voices and experiences of sex workers. We outline some of the cornerstones of genuine and meaningful engagement, including hiring and paying sex workers as research partners, and illustrate how current debates on internet regulation miss opportunities to learn from the security and safety concerns of sex workers.

Our conversation begins with a herstory of Hacking//Hustling, outlining their motivations and missions for ending state violence and surveillance. We then discuss their ethics, strategies, and activities, including distributing funds, producing community resources and intervening in academic institutions. We showcase some of their community research on the impacts of deplatforming and raise foundational problems with current law reform efforts. Finally, we argue for integrating sex on social media platforms and make provocations for holding Big Tech accountable for whorephobia.

Some of Blunt's comments:

[W]e did our first digital security trainings. We had been trying to find peer-led digital security trainers for the workshop. It was an important reminder to see who is already doing the work, build relationships, and collaborate. The feedback we got was: “I’ve taken trainings like this a few times before, and I could never seem to learn from a cis white tech bro who wasn’t understanding what my needs or concerns were. Or what barriers I might face to using some of these technologies. Or whose threat model is just nowhere near my threat model.”

[O]ur research found that people who held both a sex worker and an AOP [Activists, Organisers and Protesters] identity experienced the negative impacts of platform policing more intensely and more frequently. In our study, 30.77% of sex workers and 51.28% of sex workers and AOP reported being shadowbanned on social media. Sex worker reliance on online spaces as a harm reduction tool has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic as more sex workers turn to online work. Among our participants, 71.14% of sex workers started doing more online work due to the pandemic.

[W]e continue to see legislation that reduces people’s options rather than a focus on increasing resources like healthcare and housing. We continue to see legislation passed to ostensibly stop labour exploitation and trafficking, but what it actually does is push marginalized communities into increased vulnerability, labour exploitation, and harm. Working online is a harm reduction tool that sex workers who have access to the internet are able to use to create more space between ourselves and a client to negotiate the terms of our interaction. Losing access to these platforms and advertisement services means that sex workers are forced to forgo these harm reduction tools and take more risk in their work. Just like criminalization, losing access to online spaces pushes sex work further underground, where there is less time and space to discuss the terms of a transaction. When people are not able to connect with their customer base, they are not able to make money. And if people are relying on the income of sex work to take care of themselves, their families, and their communities, taking away their ability to do so will put them into more vulnerable situations, increase economic precarity, and increase exposure to violence.

After FOSTA-SESTA and the FBI seizure of Backpage, a popular global advertisement platform, many sex workers lost access to online tools used to advertise, build community, and find harm reduction tools. Hacking//Hustling’s research ‘Erased’ found that losing access to these online spaces played a role in increased economic instability for 72.45% of the online participants of this survey, with 33.8% reporting an increase of violence from clients. A total of 23.71% of online workers reported that their housing situation has changed since April 2018 and 80.61% of participants who took the online survey say they are now facing difficulties advertising their services. This is likely because deplatforming of sex workers disrupts the ability for sex workers to grow their businesses.

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