By Alex Tigchelaar
Wish You Would Hear is a multimedia project that draws from traditional analog and contemporary digital sex worker advertising methods. In doing so, it reveals the many ways in which sex workers must continuously resignify their services in order to elude multimodal and persistent forms of criminal surveillance. It demonstrates how quickly sex workers adapt, very often by using skills gleaned through the perpetual surveillance of their labour tools and labour sites. This includes one-day-to-the-next website creation or redesign, rapid hosting transfer, efficient and safety-based digital and real-life community building, and sophisticated personal branding.
Sex workers have a lot to teach the increasingly surveilled civilian population about the material reality of occupying a body that is universally and arbitrarily defined as requiring state-led and -funded detection and containment. Full service sex workers traveling to the United States who have a digital presence often find themselves stopped at the border, detained and questioned for up to twelve hours, handcuffed and paraded through airports, and banned for five to ten years. The charge for being a sex worker simply entering the United States is moral turpitude, a crime that encompasses what is called “intentional indecency”, and includes rape and robbery. According to the United States, sex workers are depraved on purpose. And the United States does not want people who are depraved on purpose penetrating its pristine borders.
Canada is no better. Laws analogous to FOSTA/SESTA were put in place in 2014, when the Nordic Model was implemented (known here as the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act), and included the additional bonus of the complete criminalization of third-party advertising. In the months leading up to PCEPA, sex work advertising platforms online migrated their hosting to offshore platforms to avoid Section 286.4 of the Canadian Criminal Code. On the ground, migrant and Asian sex workers report an increase in surveillance of their workspaces since 2014 by the police and bylaw officers, with costly fines for minor issues such as small rips in massage table fabric and so-called unprofessional work attire (Lam, 2018).
In both digital and real-life spaces, sex workers must work diligently to avoid what I call the Canopticon: laws are not always applied, but they can be. There is not one single panoptic gaze that keeps us self-policing, rather a network of different but similar laws around certain bodies and where they are tolerated. Adherence to the Canopticon might involve, for example, hours of unpaid labour scrubbing the internet of identifiable self-promotion before travelling to the United States, just in case your Twitter feed, online ads, or personal website have been flagged. Have you been personally associated to your work name by that guy in Ottawa who was outing escorts on his website? Is your real name/sex work name still on there or did that lawyer another girl hired manage to have it all taken down? And what about any interactions you’ve had with other digitally visible sex workers? You are Facebook friends with that woman who was most recently banned. Have you been linked to her through your positive comments on her pretty new lingerie set?
We are so filthy, we are even filthy by digital association.
Unsurprisingly, this interminable surveillance has produced a global tradition of sex workers lampooning their asymmetrical and grinding relationships with law enforcement. The Thai sex worker rights organization Empower Foundation’s short film Last Rescue in Siam takes on paternalistic constructs of victimization and exonymic colonial violence by using the American stock silent film character of the bungling Keystone cop and applying it to the many foreign NGOs and corrupt local law enforcement that collude to “save” Thai sex workers. The saviour complex narrative is ripe for vaudevillian race and class satire, as it cultivates an environment of constant evasion, false respect for authority, and slapdash cover-up. The film shows police officers (played with great hilarity by members of Empower) out on a brothel raid, coolly passing many legitimate crime scenes in their prurient quest to “rescue victims.” My cabaret theatre company Operation Snatch made a film in 2011 called Creative Trafficking which took the transcript of a Toronto newscast that misrepresented sex trafficking in Toronto and we applied it to what we call “creative trafficking”—the many ways in which artists’ lives resemble those of sex workers (shared profits with “representation”, increasingly steep rental fees for space, belittling notions about racialized workers) without all the diversionary neo-social hygiene narratives and pearl-clutching hullaballoo.
Wish You Would Hear follows in this longstanding tradition.
The Clean Bea Postcard Advertisement Campaign
Sex workers in and out of the digital space have long used cryptography, the concealment of information using codes, and steganography, the use of common information to hide a secret message, to throw off those who surveil them.
After making an investigation into the history of sex work advertising and activism in postcards, I created a set of crypto-steganographic postcards to explore new ways of circumventing the most current digital surveillance of sex workers through FOSTA/SESTA. The postcards created for my project are inspired by all forms of sex worker postcards: the Delphic irreverence of tart cards, the political messaging of sex work as labour, and the possibility of an unpredictable adventure.
The potential for postcards reappearing as an advertising tool due to these most recent proscriptive online laws is something the project looks at. Will sex workers be inspired to move their service ads back to the analog world? Conversely, in Canada, print papers such as Now Magazine in Toronto have stopped running print ads and kept their digital ads (presumably using offshore hosting platforms) to avoid 286.4. Many sex workers in both small and large towns rely on the print ads in weeklies. Will the new lack of access inspire women to create their own print ads? And how, given the combination of surveillance issues faced by sex workers both in the digital and analog space, will these ads have to look?
Using what I call palimpsestic digital collage, I challenge the master status of sex work as one that is forever polluting, while simultaneously taking a cue from the language of police raids on sex work spaces, which often adopts decontaminating analogies such as “sweeps”, “be gone” and “exposure”. Will The Clean Bea’s role as a cleaning person provide a purifying cover while still signalling to potential sex work clients her added intentions? Does the text, deliberately separated, “must pay” (there is a fee for service) “strict attention to all” (domination services for a variety of fetishes) “your filthy crevices” (including penetration on you), catch the right eye without incurring incrimination?
Ceci N’est Pas un Sex Work Ad: Sex Worker Perceptibility in the Virtual Space
On the website, “The Clean Bea” (formerly The Queen Bea) I explore “interpretation” in the tradition of Mae West: “It’s not what she had said but how she said it.” (Watts, 231, 2003). As the American actor Edgar Bergen stated, “If she says ‘I’ve got appendicitis,’ it sounds like sex” (ibid). Once again, adopting the disinfecting language of law enforcement and its multimodal surveillance and eradication of sex work visibility on- and offline, I tidied up Bea’s virtual stroll.
On The Clean Bea, I have devised a crypto-steganographic methodology that reaches beyond the usual industry acronyms known to law enforcement and algorithms. I do not simply avoid industry vernacular I know to be commonly flagged by law enforcement, but I cipher one job through another, leaving traces and covering them at once.
Under surveillance, sex workers have always been forced to speak what Derrida calls a “ciphered language” (7, 1987). My language is intended to be obvious while at the same time vexing—a satire of cryptography: “camouflage through banalization,” as Derrida would say (ibid). I like to imagine the Deeply Important Conversations those tasked with keeping an eye on me have around such ambivalent matters. How many state resources earmarked to “fight” corruption will once again be squandered through attempts to identify dangerous (anti)bodies? Will anti-sex work advocates and law enforcement be discomfited by the possibility that The Clean Bea is selling cleaning services rather than sex and what a disgrace it would be to publicly accuse this hard-working housekeeper with selling sex? (This sort of thing has happened before). Wait, what if she is selling both? (She is. Diversification is the key to surviving in the gig economy). How can a whore be more than just a whore? More troubling, how can a whore be clean enough to clean?
Like so many middle-aged women who have come of age in the North American body-as-site-of-economic-potential-except-if-you’re-using-it-for-sex-work fostered by four decades of neoliberalism, I have grown regrettably accustomed to a lack of job security. Though a less structured work environment was a conscious choice, its uncertainty is almost always exacerbated by indiscriminate surveillance from a collection of finicky interchangeable administrators. Sex work is but one of the labour choices I have made that is precarious, in large part because of conventions around women and propriety and surveillance. This is the very nature of work to me. This is what work means. It means being constantly assessed. Can you relate?
Perhaps you are wondering if the elucidation of my intentions in this space will impact my business. If my website, which I altered rather than re-platformed, will be shut down as a result of this declaration. You don’t have to worry about me. I’m well into my next hustle: a Precarious Ho Down.
Derrida, J. (1987). The Postcard from Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Lam, E. (2018). Survey on Toronto Holistic Practitioners’ Experiences with Bylaw Enforcement and Police. Butterflysw.org.
Watts, J. (2003). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford: Oxford University Press.