Whoreburbia: The digital gentrification of ‘sex work’

From an Agent Provocateur "Stepford Wives"-styledcampaign.

Back in 2014, I co-authored an academic paper published in a graduate journal that sought to discuss the delineation of women in prostitution into mythologized categories: social pariah, abject, and shamed victim — or empowered (glamorized) social companion. At the time I was somewhat ambivalent about my own aims as they collided with the wider, academic debate — after having worked in the industry for nearing a decade, I was quietly adopting a deep discomfort about what I was realizing was the “gentrification” or idealization of the industry. New medias, such as the Internet and accessible digital photography, had scattered those telephone box cards and those back-of-the-paper adverts into the bin, and the prostitution business had fast gained itself an Image. The paper looked at how these issues impacted independent “sex workers” (a term I used, now with some regret) within a contemporary neoliberal culture.

If I rewind back some six or seven years, I am reminded of the time I first twinkled my toes into “independent” prostitution. I had worked for several years in small, local brothels and escort agencies (having mostly avoided those larger, 24-hour inner city places) and had become deeply dissatisfied with the lack of control I had over which punters I saw, for how long, and for how much. The low prices and high customer footfalls were physically demanding and thoroughly demeaning, and to add to physical complaint, some brothel “Madame” also took half of my money.

The global websophere had obviously been kicking around in most people’s homes for a few years by then, and “independent escorts” were already some basic feature of that landscape. I viewed them with a degree of foolhardy appreciation — personalized websites like winning shop fronts, drenched in photoshopped images and paragraphs of chutzpah. More often that not, these women charged higher prices to coincide with their presumed “elite status” and used their websites as platforms for arguing why this should be the case. However, as the creation of a personal website and the access to decent cheap or free photography steamrolled on, more of these “elite” websites and “elite” escorts popped up like molehills. I popped up too.

It wasn’t until one place I had worked in for about two years was closed by the police that I realized it would be relatively easy for me “go it alone.” I had to take on a fairly unremarkable apartment due to the high rents in the middle class city I lived in and, from there, I cultivated a zealous website, featuring burnished photographs of me bent like a coat hanger atop of chaise loungers, and accompanied by affirmations of my enjoyment of “fine living” and “fine gentlemen.” Indeed, I was able to present myself with some grandiloquence due to my thirst to escape the humble sleaze of the brothel world. But, while the practical experience of working as an independent was an improvement in the specific sense that I needed to see fewer punters to make the same money, my enthusiasm for this changing culture was myopic and short-lived.

So, my new engagement was presided over by a slight improvement in my material comfort and an assumption of my improved status — an assumption that the industry was becoming gentrified, civilized, and normalized, and that this was good for us working girls.

Contemporary gentrification is of course the process by which richer folks move in on poorer folks’ districts, attracted as they are to whatever bohemian or counter-cultural ethos is in the air. In doing so they effectively dilute said air, (ironically) altering the textures of the place itself. It’s the audience taking over the play — to its halt.

I am somewhat bastardizing the terminology: the shallow “gentrification” of the prostitution business means the displacement of the underground of sex trade (behind closed doors, in bordellos, sneaking into cars), as a culture not available to the ordinary voyeur or the gossiping class, into an online image and set of depictions available for consumption by casual surfers or extraction for documentaries, newspaper articles, and social media duals. This shiny new imagery was readily available to prop up TV debates or illustrate various confessional potboilers, soon to find themselves stacked up in the chicken baskets, littering charity shops and bargain book basements. What was considered “interesting” for the prurient was the prostitution trade’s expected discretion — just how many times can it be expounded, unmasked, explained, or developed?

The Internet may have begun as frontier for new ideas, but it was quickly tamed by big business. Prostitution was no different — brothels began to struggle to get women to work for them (a loss I did not mourn) as many prostitutes migrated and savvy new directories saw a way to exploit these women’s newfound “independence.” The independent websites themselves were less important (and often unable to compete with the SEO practices of the large directories in the ranks) and new, huge, multimedia platforms that sold “sexual services” became like social media sites — places you had to be in order to make a crust. In the UK, one website in particular has a near monopoly on the business. Bye bye local, Marlboro cigarette-smoking Madame; hello Internet Behemoth.

In order to compete in this new environment, exposition became a necessity for many. Against the new cacophony of like-structured profiles, prostitutes had to start pushing themselves to “stand out from the crowd.” We needed to post endless photographs of ourselves on our online profiles, write blogs, conduct webcam sessions, or phone chat to bloat out our “brand.” Heck, some women even began to sell print photographs, calendars, and other merchandise. Because porn stars often worked as prostitutes, this also worked in reverse: friends who had previously panicked if they were seen going in to a brothel began posting short porn clips of themselves to earn extra cash and to encourage punters. Indeed, forums grew in popularity wherein the punters would engage in discussions about prostitutes they had encountered in person or seen online, forensically adjudicating on their “merit.” I don’t know a single woman in the business that hasn’t been ripped apart by these techno wolves for being too fat, too old, too ugly, too expensive, or too tame.

Make no mistake — these developments benefit the punters and the businesses far more than they benefit the workers. Older women I met who had been in prostitution for decades quietly mourned the days when they had to give much less of themselves away — when it was understood that to have sex for money was something most people would rather not do. When having to kiss and cuddle or offer porn star style acrobatics would be considered ridiculous, and when you let the punter get only as close as necessary in order to get “the job done” and get him “over and out.” This is, of course, just testimony I am relating, so I cannot be certain of its definiteness, but I had heard the same tune sung on many occasions.

In my naivety, I had convinced myself that being a “prostitute what kisses” would benefit me somehow. When I hear women in the business indulge themselves by saying they don’t just offer sex, but intimacy and companionship, I am reminded of my former delusions. Of course it isn’t possible to buy intimacy, and I’m not even convinced that many punters are looking for it, regardless… What kind of contortion of the intellect is required to believe it is empowering to have to offer someone more of yourself?

Women already conduct the majority of the world’s unpaid labour and are less likely to have access to wealth and power. I can understand how we might be convinced that a liberation for prostitutes could come through freedom from having to hide ourselves or cover up violences against us, but how did this basic principle become convoluted and deformed into a cultural zeitgeist, wherein prostitutes have to expose themselves for the consumption, gratification, and arbitration of the still relatively hidden punter (and indeed the wider culture)? How is it empowering to have to offer more “up close and personal” services? To have to show more photographs and images of our even more primped, preened, and modified bodies? To be more willing, more gratifying, more available? Often for not even much more money?

How were we tricked into this?

I could blame it on the neofeminist culture so brilliantly mapped by Hillary Radner in Neo-Feminist Cinema: Girly Films, Chick Films and Consumer Culture, wherein she details the phenomenon behind the successes of films such as Pretty Woman and Sex and the City. She rightly argues that feminism has been hijacked by consumer capitalism, creating a newfound popularity for perpetual “girlishness.”

This “girlishness” is about a constant state of “becoming,” of “reinventing,” and of managing one’s “image” through fashion and other forms of consumerism (and later of course, through social media). Prostitution then, has reflected a wider society that has, in some respects, convinced women to give more of themselves — to be more attractive, more attentive, more capable, more industrious, and more able to gratify others. The housewife as a paradigm of idealized femininity may have perished, but the always manicured, ever young, ever available “sex kitten” took over. Despite all the labour that goes into fulfilling such a position, we were convinced it was to our ultimate benefit. As Radner argues:

“The effects of the ‘sexual revolution’ might be termed liberating in the sense that this public discourse produced new norms of behaviour. Chastity was no longer the gauge of women’s value. These new norms, however, also produced the foundation of new forms of social regulation grounded in ‘the sexual fix’… The rights and duties of citizenship came to revolve paradoxically around the pursuit of pleasure, producing an environment in which sexuality itself became compulsory, the sine qua non of human existence.”

Internet prostitution has distorted this idealized femininity — a form of gratification for men — in a way that looks like female empowerment, though exposure, manufacture, and branding. The Internet has become a realm wherein individual prostitutes can persuade punters of their own specific “brand,” manufacturing their image to appeal to what they imagine to be their own “audience.” In this case, it is not pornography that is the theory, but pop music.

Towards the end of my work as an “escort” I was thoroughly exhausted. The brothel work had been brutal on my body, but the “independent escort” work had exhausted my spirit. Whereas once I just ran the gamut of garden-variety sexual activities with, at best, a distant smile and a “good day to you,” I now had been obsessing over my appearance, my apartment, my advertising, and my “image” as well. I’d been made to adopt the most insidious of all contracts: The Girlfriend Experience — winsome, involved, overly nurturing, and available. Intelligent enough to understand but never enough to contradict. Lying to “clients” about my background, my views, and my habits in order to demonstrate a pleasing personhood for the paying male ego.

Friends had also left brothels in droves and began to navigate this landscape of pretense for themselves. According to “clients,” we didn’t drink heavily, smoke, do drugs, swear, speak coarsely (other than at appropriate sexual moments) argue, have opinions, or refuse to gratify. In truth, most of the women I knew had problems with drink, drugs, eating disorders, mental health problems, and anger issues. We may not have been routinely beaten by punters or raped (although it does happen), but our self-esteem and self-assurance was as paper thin as our digital platforms.

A friend who, like me, left the business due to exhaustion, jokingly calls us “The Stepford Whores.” I called the culture “Whoreburbia.”

We pretended to be happy, empowered, sexy, and comfortable in our roles as sponges for immediate male satisfaction while pushing our maladies and distresses down the sides of the sofa… just like those women detailed by Betty Friedan: isolated housewives, secretly quaffing vodka and pills to deal with their controlled misery. In each of our separate apartments, the “high class escorts” I knew were indeed like those housewives, only now it was more than one “husband” we served to keep a roof over our heads.

Rae Story is a part time freelance writer living in the UK. She describes herself as “sex industry critical”  after having worked industry for over 10 years, in various capacities and countries. She completed her Masters in Film Studies from the University of Exeter. As well as prostitution, she has interests in feminist film theory, socialist feminism, and women and addiction.
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  • Sine FourEx

    Rae, read your blog some months ago. Did you delete it?

    “This is, of course, just testimony I am relating, so I cannot be certain of its definiteness, but I had heard the same tune sung on many occasions.” You might be interested in this research from Australia (NSW) in the early 1990s.
    http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/previous%20series/lcj/1-20/working/chapter%204%20the%20working%20lives%20of%20prostitutes.html

    This research was done before prostitution became a global, politicised issue. These respondents did not seem to feel the need to lie to the researcher. The research and analysis seems quite reasonable and believable compared to what is pumped out today.

    Table 4.7 in particular lists services offered/rejected. Oral sex was rejected in the 1950’s, anal sex was rejected in the 1980’s. Women preferred straight sex without the pretence in the 1990’s. The girlfriend experience hadn’t been invented yet. So your older friends are right, citable research to back it up.

  • corvid

    Thank you for this heart-breaking piece. The strenuously contrived facade you had to adopt reminded me of the “customer service” rhetoric I’ve witnessed in my life as a low-wage worker. Applied to a woman’s body as both product and “service”, its true monstrous nature becomes all too clear. Is this what you wanted, neoliberals? The complete absorption of human bodies, minds and souls in a cruel simulacrum of your desires? This culture is rotten to the core.

    • Sally Hansen

      To answer your question, I think it is what they wanted.

  • oneclickboedicea

    Controlled misery – isnt that the lot of females in every part of the world?

  • Sally Hansen

    Thank you for your perspective. It was very enlightening to read about the historical roots of the transition from the brothel to the internet. Very interesting how technology changes things (and can often make things worse).

  • will

    Thank you so much for this insightful and informative piece.

    The comparison you draw to Friedan’s Mystique is a revelation and it’s profoundly important to articulate this at this moment in history. The big picture, between the ever-deepening invasions of prostitution “services” and what you eloquently call neofeminist culture, is one of a horrifying slight-of-hand wherein we’ve gone from being outright property to providing the same exact foundational support for male narcissism and supremacy.

    I look forward to reading the paper you co-authored as well.

  • Jem Leav

    Such a spot on article.