I am full of sighs today, as one of my very fav radio hosts, Nora Young, has fallen prey to sex industry propagandists. Young, for those who don’t know (or aren’t Canadian) is the longtime host of Spark, CBC Radio’s tech show. She is a vibrant and intelligent host with a great radio voice. The CBC was the background noise to my childhood and, between her and Anna Maria Tremonte, they’ve kept me listening well into adulthood.
Unfortunately, this week’s episode threw me for a loop. Titled, “The impact of technology on sex work,” Young seemed eager to support industry advocate Lux Alptraum’s efforts to frame websites that help men buy sex as progressive and, more broadly, the global problem of prostitution as simply an interesting and engaging “tech” issue.
Described by Spark as “a writer who focuses on issues related to technology and sex,” Alptraum is, in fact, more than that. She was the CEO, owner, and editor of porn blog, Fleshbot (not gonna link to it, Google at your own risk) until she sold the site to SK Intertainment in 2014. That is to say, the porn industry paid her bills. It still does in many ways, as she continues to focus much of her work on the normalization and promotion of the sex industry.
Now, this episode was not just disturbing in that it featured Alptraum as a guest or in that it promoted the legalization of the sex industry — that kind of thing may be objectionable to those of us who don’t agree that prostitution is harmless or something we must accept as part of life, for all eternity, but it’s not uncommon. But Spark is a cheery tech show. Young goes after topics with a curious, but upbeat approach; meaning that her friendly tone felt decidedly inappropriate considering the topic at hand.
She intros the issue of selling sex online as just another tech matter — a simple way for “sex workers” (a term Young apparently accepts unequivocally, without acknowledgement that most prostituted women and girls worldwide don’t have the privilege of identifying with this sanitized and misleading term) to better their lives and increase “safety.” Not once is it mentioned, during the segment, that the majority of trafficking and exploitation happens online today. Nor is it acknowledged that girls and women are sold, against their will, day in and day out, through the very sites Young and Alptraum present as cute, convenient ways for business-savvy “sex workers” to sell their wares.
Her first question is immediately leading: “In general, how does the internet enable sex workers to pursue their work?” Considering that a massive investigation into sex trafficking in Toronto recently found that every single one of the hundreds of women and girls being sold by pimps (who Alptraum frames as “protectors”), to johns, were being advertised on sites like Backpage, and that Craigslist has played a huge role in enabling child trafficking, it seems strange to pretend as though the roles of sites that help johns find women and girls to buy are simply helpful tech tools independent women use to better their lives… Alptraum responds to Young by saying, “It’s really interesting because the internet has dramatically changed sex work… ” Right. It has! Now it’s easier than every before for men to sell the women and girls they’ve prostituted and easier than ever before for men to set up appointments to rape these women! So interesting!
Alptraum is also fond of presenting Twitter as the Real Truth About Prostitution. (As we all know, the world’s most marginalized populations make Tweeting a top priority!) In an article published at Motherboard last month called “Twitter has made it impossible to ignore the reality of sex work,” she makes her bias clear, saying that she has “pretty much always been pro-sex work.” But while Alptraum claims to have a “nuanced” understanding of the sex industry, she also admits that most of what she knows about prostitution, she learned on the internet. Which, actually, makes a lot of sense.
While Twitter was once seen as something that would democratize communication, allowing all people an equal “voice” in public discourse, that dream never came to fruition. Twitter amplifies the voices of those who already have a voice. To break it down crudely: if you have thousands and thousands of followers, your words hold a hell of a lot more weight on Twitter — and therefore in public discourse — than the vast majority of users, who tend to have under 100 followers. In fact, an Atlantic article published in 2013 pointed out that data shows the median Twitter user has only 61 followers… Jon Bruner, the data journalist who algorithmically queried the service told The Atlantic that “If you’ve got a thousand followers, you’re at the 96th percentile of active Twitter users.”
What this means is that if you’re using Twitter to hear from marginalized individuals, you’re unlikely to get anything resembling “nuance” — rather, you’re going to hear a lot from what is actually a very small minority of people.
When Young asks Alptraum “how the use of Twitter and social media has changed the perception about people who do sex work,” she fails to take into account a couple of things:
1) Twitter is not “reality” nor is it representative. (This is not to say that Twitter is incapable of presenting a version of reality or that it is always unhelpful, in terms of representing people’s ideas or activism, but it is not, by any means, the end all be all. Most people in the world are not active Twitter users and if you want “reality,” you still have to go offline.)
2) Twitter, for women who work in the sex industry and use the platform for work purposes, serves as an advertising platform. Why would anyone trying to promote/sell prostitution give the industry anything but glowing reviews?
There are very obvious ways Twitter has changed the conversation about prostitution, but those ways have little to do with the day-to-day reality of prostituted women and girls and a lot to do with the way relatively privileged people and those who profit from the industry have intentionally manipulated discourse. The fact that Young opted to speak with a young, well-off, white, American, Ivy-league graduate, whose career has been financed, in large part, by the sex industry about “the reality” of prostitution, speaks to this very clearly.
These are the people changing the conversation, dictating language and discourse, and, apparently, brought on our public radio broadcaster to normalize the sex industry for a Canadian audience. Never mind the Indigenous women sold (and disappeared) off of ships in Thunder Bay. Never mind the girls locked up in motel rooms, expected to service men all day and night, across Ontario. Never mind the endless stream of women and girls, living with mental illness and addiction, who have no choice but to allow men to abuse them for a few dollars, standing along the Kingsway corridor or the Downtown Eastside. No. We want to hear from rich New Yorkers who think “Internet!” is the solution to the ongoing racist, misogynist abuse faced daily by hundreds of thousands of females around the globe.
To call the segment an “interview” is inaccurate — every single one of Young’s questions to Alptraum are framed in a way that both decontextualizes and sanitizes the reality of prostitution, but also in a way one might if, say, you were a night show host, offering your guest an opportunity to promote their new action flick: “How great is this movie?!” “Should people pay to see it??” Young’s questions challenge nothing; they are intended only to offer a platform for industry propaganda.
Not only do women deserve better, but the Canadian public deserves better. The CBC belongs to all of us, and we love it because it provides us with good, ethical journalism — not so we can listen to 10-minute-long advertisements for a multi-billion dollar industry whose existence rests on the kind of exploitation and deep inequalities few Canadians (I would hope) support.