Reading online about being online, you can start to wonder why anyone wants to be online. Think pieces about social media and online interactions often focus on issues of sexism, abuse, bullying, and toxicity, painting a collective picture of the Internet as a virtual Hobbesian nightmare of all against all, sprinkled with bytes red in claw and tooth.
The Internet, like the world outside the Internet, can certainly be awful. But it can also have a positive role in building community and facilitating activism, especially for groups who have traditionally been marginalized. Sex workers, for example, have used the Internet and social media to connect, to organize, and to help each other in difficult times.
The murder of two young women recently shows how important access to that kind of community can be. Tjhisha Ball, 18, and Angelia Magnum, 19, were found murdered last week in Duval County, Florida. The two women were black, and they worked as strippers—facts which, as Jamilah Lemieux wrote at Ebony, makes it easy for the public and the media to dismiss their fate as irrelevant or uninteresting. "We shouldn't need for them to have been 'good girls'—or White girls, or, perhaps good White girls—for this to be cause for national concern," Lemieux observed.
Whether the nation is concerned or not, Peechington Marie was. Marie is a former sex worker who is very active online, and committed to the sex worker community. When she saw Lemieux's story warning that the murders would be ignored, she was determined, as she said on Twitter, "to make sure that isn't the case here with these babies." She contacted the Jacksonville sheriffs department, the church performing Tjhish's funeral service, and the funeral home, and learned that the family had no money for the services. So in consultation with the funeral home, she set up an online fundraising campaign to raise $17,000 to cover the costs, so the women could be buried with dignity and without bankrupting their families. Marie and sex workers online have been promoting the campaign, and it's been picked up by a number of media sources, including Lemieux (who updated her original post), and The Root. As of this writing, the campaign has raised more than $7500; it runs through October 23rd.
When I spoke to Marie, she emphasized that sex workers had "always been a community-centric sort of thing. We've always survived on the acceptance of each other, because nobody else accepts sex workers." But she said, as with other groups and other causes, sex workers have found that online tools can help greatly with organizing and fund-raising. Marie added, "I am in love with Twitter and in love with tumblr, because isolation really is a part of this business".
Melisandre (@MeliMachiavelli), an administrator at the sex worker collective Everyday Whorephobia (to which Marie also belongs) agreed. "Sex work is an isolating profession because of stigma and whorephobia itself. Most people make derogatory comments about exotic dancers, escorts, phone sex operators without even realizing it." In response, Everyday Whorephobia has been focused on using social media, especially Twitter, to try to raise awareness of, and reduce stigma against, sex workers. "The speed that people can reach one another and discuss virtually anything allows us to really talk with people about something that is still seem as taboo and unclean by mainstream society," Melisandra said. She added that Twitter allows for anonymity; Everyday Whorephobia often invites guests to tweet through its account. The anonymity is important given that many kinds of sex work are illegal, and that workers often aren't out to family and friends. "You can't go around openly saying I break the law to pay the rent," Marie said. "Being able to be secure in knowing you're not going to be out, and you can still talk about what's happening, it's a big deal."
Much of Everyday Whorephobia's work on Twitter involves hashtag activism (#StigmaKills is one recent example.) Sneering at hashtag activism is a popular online sport in some circles. Arielle Pardis takes a typical line at Vice, for example, when she asserts that hashtag activism means that "instead of actually doing something, you can just pretend like you're doing something by posting things all over your Facebook." Audacia Ray, on the other hand, director of the peer-led sex work advocacy Red Umbrella Project, told me that offline activism and online activism are complementary, not opposed. "Although the way advocacy and law change typically works is through doing local focused, place specific activism," she said, "I think that particularly for communities that are stigmatized, discriminated against, or whose work is illegal, it's really important to have the Internet as the space to do that work. So there's a really high value to hashtag activism." RedUP uses the Internet and social media as well, mostly for calls to action which focus on fundraising campaigns like the one Marie has set up, or lobbying officials to ban the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution.
One issue often raised with online activism, and especially with online activism by sex workers, is that the people who most need help, or who most require community support, may not have the money or the funds to be online. Trisha Baptie, the founder of EVE (Exploited Voices Now Educating) and a survivor of prostitution, argues that "Twitter simply isn't accessible to everyone and it happens that the people it is not accessible to are some are the most marginalized. There are a whole lot of people missing from that conversation." That's an important point—but at the same time, Marie's campaign for Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Magnum also shows that even people who are not online, or who are unfamiliar with social media, can benefit from online community. Marie said that the people she's talked to in Florida have "been totally unfamiliar with Twitter and social media and crowd-funding. You can hear the blank drawn when you say 'crowd-funding.'" By the same token, Marie wouldn't have known on her own what or how much the families needed. Part of the benefit of community is that you don't need to know everything, or have access to every resource yourself: Folks can help each other. And one of the ways the sex work community helps each other is by organizing online.