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Hide the Husbands, Prostitution’s on the Interwebs

It seems that every few years, some intrepid reporter feels the need to make the game-changing discovery that a lot of people use the Internet to conduct their business. Though this sounds like an absolute non-story, when the people in question are sex workers and their business is sex, otherwise-discerning editors are bound to green-light a variety of stories that all essentially reveal the non-breaking news that sex workers advertise and network online.

While it would be nice to think that the recent slew of stories covering the topic of sex workers online is just another example of lazy journalism, the conclusions many of these stories draw have much more damaging implications for an already marginalized community.

Some of the stories appear to just be comically out-of-touch. A thorough report on sex workers online in an August issue of The Economist comes complete with what appears to be a piece of speculative fiction masquerading as the history of sex work before the Internet. Here’s an excerpt:

Prostitutes and punters have always struggled to find each other, and to find out what they want to know before pairing off…. Customers knew little about the nature and quality of the services on offer. Personal recommendations, though helpful, were awkward to come by. Sex workers did not know what risks they were taking on with clients.

Now specialist websites and apps are allowing information to flow between buyer and seller, making it easier to strike mutually satisfactory deals.

It is beyond the scope of this post to point out all of the ways that this narrative is a misrepresentation of how sex workers and clients operated before widespread Internet access. It is not beyond the scope of this post to say that the subtext of many such non-stories perpetuate the myth that sex workers are coming for civilians where they least suspect it! They browse among us! They’ve got the WiFi password, better hide the husbands!

Among the most recent batch of stories of online sex workers is a subset of pieces on the alleged infiltration of sex workers into dating sites and social media. In a Washington Post article entitled “Do dating apps have a prostitution problem,” several interviews reveal a generation of hapless and chivalrous men using Tinder who find themselves under constant online attack by prostitutes attempting to lure them into their sordid web of commercial sex. Australian writer Al Kalyck was even denied his god-given right to follow his sex worker date to work. “I begged her to let me come in and sit in the corner and watch the process…but she told me I’d have to pay,” he writes. The demands of these digital sirens apparently know no bounds.

A more salacious tale of sex-worker-as-online-predator is that of Alix Tichelman, a woman who faces manslaughter and prostitution charges in California after injecting a fatal dose of heroin into Google executive Forrest Timothy Hayes on his yacht. Tichelman and Hayes met on, a site more heavily cloaked in euphemisms for commercial sex than even the upscale parts of the sex-work advertising world like Eros and Slixa. An NBC News story starts with the melodramatic lede, “Dead men appear to play a big role in Alix Tichelman’s life.” It then proceeds with journalistic liberties that imbue surveillance footage of the incident with criminal intent:

Santa Cruz police told NBC News that Tichelman, who was arrested July 4, injected the heroin into Hayes and can be seen on the yacht’s own security video calmly collecting her drugs and her needles, closing a blind to conceal the body from view, and leaving.

“She steps over the body, reaches over the table and finishes a glass of wine and then goes back about her business,” Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark said.

The narrative about an executive of one of the world’s most powerful corporations who has a predilection for injectable opiates being a hapless victim in this story would be ludicrous were he accompanied by anyone but a paid female companion. For anyone who knows what heroin use looks like, a user nodding off and an onlooker going about their business is hardly irregular. But the public loves a good bad hooker story, and the added sordidness of online strangers and yachts make these stories a media goldmine, obscuring the very real targeting that sex workers themselves experience.

Whatever happened in the Tichelman case, the reality of sex work is that workers are far more often prey than they are predators. Street-based workers face the greatest threat of police interaction, as evidenced by a report by the Sex Worker’s Project revealing that unwelcome and unwarranted interactions with police are a daily occurrence for 70 percent of street-based sex workers in New York City (PDF). But online stings are very much a part of the fabric of anti-prostitution law enforcement. The June 2014 seizure of free advertising site by the FBI and the frequent online stings by Arizona police to coerce sex workers into diversion programs are among the most notable national examples of online targeting that can often lead to violent encounters.

Nor is the targeting of sex workers exclusive to law enforcement. The marginalization of sex workers and the unreliability of law enforcement to protect them make online sex workers frequent targets of violence from criminals posing as clients. A serial killer targeting women on Craigslist made headlines in 2011—not just for the grisliness of his crimes but for how long it took law enforcement to care. This summer, a paid sexual exchange arranged on Craigslist ended in the double murder of a pregnant woman and her boyfriend in the city of Wyoming, Michigan.[*] The list of violent crimes perpetuated against sex workers because of their vulnerability could be best described as “infinite.”

While nefarious plotting hookers make for good pulp fiction, this fiction is a dangerous one when disseminated by respectable media outlets. Such depictions obscure the reality of sex worker marginalization, and add nothing to meaningful discourse about their lives and work. The hard work of reporting that would illuminate those stories might be less titillating, but would be closer to worthwhile journalism than the vulgar fantasies so often produced under its guise.  


[*] [A previous version of this post stated that the double murder took place in Wyoming; language has been added to specify that it was in the city of Wyoming, Michigan, and not the state of Wyoming.]