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Cyberwhores of late capitalism

By Tamara MacLeod.

I have three bedrooms and they all occupy the same space. It’s like inter-dimensional travel; it’s amazing what a little domesticity can do.

The first is the one I don’t bother to dress up. My blankets stay creased, at least three books I’m working through stay in bed with me, as does this bowl of tangerines. Clothes are thrown on the floor, I sit and write in my unsexy underwear, and I don’t hide the diazepam.

The second is the one where my lovers stay. I make it perfect at the start of the week and by the end it’s their signature in luggage on the floor, his phone light bouncing off my walls while he snores, her lipstick on the sheets.

The third isn’t really my room at all, it’s an office, a waiting room, a salon, a hotel, a brothel. I become the maid. I change all the bedding, hide my belongings, make it bare, remove any trace of who I might actually be. I disappear. The room undergoes a series of transitions, I have repeated them so often I could do it blind. One day I fucked up and left the door to the rest of my home wide open. Upon his exit, I realised my client had used a visit to the bathroom to take a long hard look right into the centre of me. My chest exploded. That trespass hurt more than any physical violation I have suffered at the hands of a man.

Is my bedroom part of my home or is it a place of work? Well, it’s both, which puts me in a legal minefield, but that’s a separate story. In a metropolis of today, with a fast and fickle gig economy, atomised urban isolation, extortionate rents, and a job market which is leaving a generation just out of university wondering what the hell they studied for, why should I have to make the distinction? In a generation of freelance nomads, thirty-somethings in house-shares working multiple jobs while they hone their craft for free, why have we not yet dismantled the separation between workplace and home? The reality of work has accelerated into decentralised territory, out of what we used to understand as the workplace, into cyberspace, and an awful lot of unpaid labour leaves the boundaries of work and leisure unclear. It is important to consider both why and what we consider ‘the workplace’, because where one works—especially for a sex worker—is vital to thinking about liberty.

The work I do in my home is not strictly illegal, but I would lose my home if my landlord found out. There’s a clause in my contract, “These premises must not be used as a place of work.” Who defines the workplace? What do these definitions mean for the worker? According to Federici, the fifteenth century was significant when, following the defeat of peasant revolts against oppressive feudal systems, there began an active process of separation between the home and the workplace, housework and ‘real work’: men’s work and women’s work.[1] The delegitimisation of work done at home continues to benefit everyone who profits from a foundation of unpaid labour, and state interference in every opportunity a working class person might have to bolster their income means that social mobility is made harder. These structures ensure that we remain dependent on an under-waged job market, frustrated, and forever in debt.

In her book Caliban and the Witch, Federici points out a recurring increase in sex workers following major economic depressions and resource scarcity.[2] Throughout history, sex work—with its anarchic cash flow, minimal start-up capital and entry-level requirements— has been a rational mode of survival for people at the economic margins. The separation of the home and the workplace, she argues, coincided with European enclosures of public space, which established capitalism as the descendent of feudalism, and sex work as a form of labour which buttressed this economic exclusion.[3] To bar the working class from all the possibilities of organisation, innovation, and liberty which access to public land allowed, it was also necessary to bar women from public life and the workplace, as newly defined under capitalist terms.[4] Women were integral to many peasant revolts, and oppressing women meant oppressing the possibility of another revolt while the last of the land was privatised. Forced into cramped workhouses or destitution, many women opted for sex work during the worst years of poverty in European history. The response of the church and state was simple and draconian, with laws against raping prostitutes repealed, public humiliation encouraged, and torture frequent.[2]

The picture which emerges is one of sequential enclosures. The working class is barred from the land, then barred from much of the job market due to their exclusion from education and basic resources. Women specifically are barred from accumulating their own wealth, especially women who are working class. Sex work is a good place to start in any discussion about economic oppression, because it has intersecting demographical qualities. People of all classes, ethnicities, and genders enter sex work as a means to acquire wealth that they are otherwise excluded from. Each demographic has its own profile, which changes the experience of the individual as they navigate the world as a sex worker; I have chosen to refer to the emergence of an average European, working class, sex working woman, if such a woman can be said to exist. This is for two reasons: I am a European sex working woman from a working class background; and I believe the history of the European working class woman’s exclusion from economic independence and the increase in sex work has something to say about the nature of work in today’s economy for marginalised people of all kinds. Dialectically speaking, economic history can be traced as a pattern of exploitation, revolt and innovation, and oppression. For example, to return to Europe of the fifteenth century, working class women had been forced into extreme poverty; they resorted to soliciting on the streets, the only access to wealth they had, and so their work was criminalised. This pattern has repeated throughout history, it is occurring now, and I believe the nature of the space of labour, how it is understood in philosophical terms and how it is legislated, is integral to a discussion of the politics of liberation.

For this reason, we must jump ahead to the Twentieth Century; the internet has entered the home and the imagination. Most importantly it has done something revolutionary: for the first time in history, physical space has been rendered relatively unimportant to commerce and social organisation. Dreamers began to dream. The notion of the internet as a liberating technology could not have anticipated just how much the world would be changed, but something sometimes taken for granted is the matter of cyberspace as place: a place of work and a place of liberation from the limitations of physical space. It is because of these qualities that cyberspace has had such potential as a space for revolution.[5]

The nature of cyberspace is an ongoing debate, strongly contingent on economic and political discourse. As Adam Curtis points out in his documentary series All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace [6], early integration of the internet ‘into’ the home was subject to a spectrum of fears and wishful thinking. Amongst the optimists were anti-establishment thinkers who believed cyberspace would liberate us from authoritarianism by virtue of establishing something outside of physical space, where people could share ideas and, with speculation about the possibilities of virtual reality, even experience life free from the eyes of big government and corporate power. It would be land, so to speak, which would not, could not, be enclosed. Strides have been made. Since its population, litigation over everything from human interaction to property rights in the (loosely termed) game Second Life* have been landmarks in the establishment of cyberspace as actual space, subject to the same philosophical treatment as physical space. But where civilisation goes, so corporatism follows. The more stuff of civilisation we move into cyberspace, seemingly the more it is monopolised. The history of cyberspace is an echo of the American Dream. It began with immigrants, criminals and idealists wandering into the desert, and ended with the construction of casinos and prisons decorating the perimeter of a monolithic Walmart.

In the 1980s it was not uncommon to believe it was possible to engineer a future in which a harmonious society could be sustained by deferring managerial decisions to AI. Cyberlibertarianism emerged as a serious, if not overambitious, discourse. AI would, however, have to be programmed by people, and people who operate in service of corporatism tend to programme AI to operate in service of corporatism.[7] The cyberlibertarian dream has undoubtedly not been realised, but the tech industry didn’t dissipate, it merely adapted to corporate models and global surveillance. The hopeful dreamers of the 1980s became kowtowing neoliberal executives and the smiling, smart-casual ethicists in board rooms in Silicon Valley. The people dreaming of cyberspace’s radical event horizon back then had to make a living, and they did so in policy making while any possibility of liberation on the internet was sold to the highest bidders.[8]

As it turns out, cyberspace can be enclosed. In April 2018 I did something impossible: I tried to hand-write a list of methods for advertising sex which exist entirely offline. I didn’t get far. SESTA/FOSTA had been written into law, which makes soliciting (and sometimes even speaking about) sex on US servers very difficult. Simply put, the law makes web hosts responsible for sexual content on websites, with the intention of making them police solicitation and trafficking (terms which are often conflated). Much anti-trafficking legislation of late is reactionary politics to answer the hystericised question of sex trafficking, with the bonus of giving the State carte blanche to raid brothels and deport workers with little to no judicial process.[9,10] It is obviously much worse for migrant workers. Personally, I prepared myself for figurative exile into the desert, and the future looked bleak. I discovered just how much I had taken for granted. I believed, living in the UK, that I was safe from the tyranny of US legislation, but the laws of distance don’t apply in cyberspace. Suddenly my activist community was scrambling to recreate the networks we had formed on particular platforms in more anarchic web spaces; we discussed pirate servers and began to move databases of dangerous clients to encrypted instant messaging services. We considered our futures…barred to the outer-rim of the internet, how would we make money? How would we communicate across geographical borders and stay safe? Most of us remember living without it at all, and now we’re not entirely sure how to survive if we are banished.

This Autumn, I found hundreds of calling cards scattered on the ground of deep industrial East London. They were simple, effective in their sadness: just cheap white printer-paper with her pseudonym and number on them, all cut to the wrong dimensions and dumped as if by accident. London’s obsolete phonebooths are ubiquitous with little cards like this, but this form of advertising seems as anachronistic as the public phones. Seeing these little slips of paper trampled underfoot alarmed me; I wondered who she was, the woman at the end of the line.

E-commerce is of particular importance to sex workers. As we have established, women and people with marginalised identities tend to have their bodies barred from public space, policed, and excluded from the job market. Sex workers are a significant example of this form of oppression. Current UK law effectively necessitates us being restricted to cyberspace: we cannot solicit in public space and encounter difficulties merely existing in it due to legal complexities and stigma. In countries which criminalise sex work, the internet has been revolutionary for sex workers in two fundamental ways: It has allowed us to establish commerce in a space free of persecution and with easy accessibility (it is easier for a poor person to make money with an internet connection than without one); and it has supported the development of international communities, providing solidarity, safety and access to resources. We often roll our eyes at alarmist media coverage featuring the iconic fishnet-donning street worker leaning into a shadowy car window, since a more representational image would be a woman in a dressing gown, snack in one hand, the other on her keyboard. As Stoya has written, efforts to cleanse cyberspace of deviant content never stops the bad guys. Huge websites have the monopoly to dodge prohibition; it is independent creators who suffer.[11] The same logic applies to the effort to cleanse cyberspace of sex work, which is an extension of cleansing public space of sex work, which in itself is really about solving the problem of sex workers by pretending we don’t exist.

Facing a future offline was like anticipating survival in a world with no running water or electricity. I realised I didn’t know what work was without the internet; I made my career in cyberspace. I could scatter my name and number on some city pavement and risk arrest, but I like the safety of working indoors, the freedom to extend to the outer-rims of cyberspace. Sex workers originally sought sanctuary in the disembodiment of cyberspace because our bodies were criminalised in physical space – a movement of exile echoing the legislation of marginalised bodies throughout history. This combination of criminalization and tacit worthlessness, both in terms of lack of capital and societal power, found many poor people seeking recourse in sex work. What happens when this final recourse is taken away from you? Whatever the stated intention of SESTA/FOSTA, it has not resulted in an increase in the conviction of sex traffickers, whilst simultaneously harming sex workers with undue strictures of penalization.[12] It is a stark example of what can happen when the social mobility of a working class which had access to anarchic space is prohibited by the carceral state; a microcosm of the larger problem of the expanding dominion of surveillance and corporatism into what was once fertile land; it is the most recent enclosure of anarchic space.

If the rise and fall of Second Life has taught us anything, it is that space is defined by its occupants. Far from its anarchic origins as a place where people could exist in any body they choose, build infrastructure they could only dream of, marry someone they had never touched and defy gravity, it exists now as a dismal projection of our world. Subject to the same laws and lack of human imagination, Second Life is evidence that without real reverence for public space and its boundless possibilities, without organisation, planning and safeguarding, even cyberspace will do nothing but replicate the worst of human ingenuity. Wealth inequality, intractable bureaucracy and environmental damage has all emerged in cyberspace as it did on terra firma. Rather than being an accident of human activity, the corruption of cyberspace is a capitalist design. The internet has been a refuge for the economically marginalised as workplaces have become increasingly enclosed by the growth of global capitalism, whose very structure depends on there being a class excluded from wealth accumulation.

Any discussion about labour is a discussion about space: where is it done, and what does the nature of the space mean for the worker? The enclosures under feudalism, the entrapment of women in workhouses and the home; these were deliberate responses to disruptions of class oppression. To liberate the worker from the boundaries of embodiment, time and space – this stood to be the most promising disruption in human history, and therefore meant that cyberspace had to be colonised by the same ideas that make systemic change so difficult in our immediate environments.

Where does this leave a sex worker under late capitalism? I post images of my naked avatar online while I sit, snack in hand, my body guarded by the walls of my bedroom, my privacy guarded by a VPN. I transcend the boundaries of geography and my own physicality and I achieve the impossible: I project an image of another version ahead of myself to forage; I defy the determinations of my economic destiny. So easily do strange things get normalised, that we can forget the marvel of them; these digital borderlands, this being-here-but-not-here possesses amazing potential. Barred from public space, I scramble for freedom at the fringes and find myself in cyberspace. It was a wild and wonderful thing, which I am increasingly aware has become just as territorialised by corporate monopolies as any other prime real estate. My naked body makes money eight hundred miles away and it runs the risk of alerting the authorities. The very infrastructure through which we reach out beyond our own limitations, form new networks and dream of new things becomes private property, and we begin to forget it was ever any different.

I write this as a sex worker because I can do no different, but the encroachment of Capital into this liminal space, this workspace and no-space, threatens us all. Sex workers are some of the first targets of these enclosures because we have historically been a scapegoat for state sanctioned social cleansing efforts. We are some of the first to make noise about our barring from cyberspace because it is a resource we need so very much, having been prevented from generating business the ways we used to. This issue is a matter of survival for me, but beyond me it amounts to the landscape of our future. It is no longer enough to speak about the world as nations, borders and the people enclosed within. We are all those things, and we are disembodied subjects of cyberspace. More than merely being an extension of the world, containing more data than I can conceive of, cyberspace is the world, and the world is cyberspace. It originated with the potential to disrupt a stagnation of ideas about who we are, how we could interact, invent, escape the confines of our birthplaces and really change things. Somewhere along the way we lost sight of its potentiality and made concessions to monopolies. Those monopolies have transformed it into one expansive panopticon, while we scroll away in complacency because we outsourced ethical oversight to smiling Silicon Valley men. It’s time we shift the focus of decolonisation to the last land we lost before we forget we ever ventured here, bright eyed and full of wonder.

Tamara MacLeod is the pseudonym of a freelance writer, sex worker and activist based in England. She invites hate mail to hitamaramacleod@gmail.com and on Twitter @HiTamaraMacLeod

1 Federici, S (2004). “Caliban and the Witch” Automedia. pg.95 ‘The devaluation of women’s labor was the campaign that craft workers mounted, starting in the late 15th century, to exclude female workers…’
2 Ibid. ‘combined with land dispossession, this loss of power with regard to wage employment led to the massification of prostitution.’
3 Ibid. pg.95 ‘Federici identifies a connection between ‘the banning of prostitution and the expulsion of women from the organised workplace with the creation of the housewife and the reconstruction of the family as the locus for the production of labor-power.’
4 Ibid. ‘Those who dared to work out of the home, in a public space and for the market, were portrayed as sexually aggressive shrews or even as “whores” and “witches” … attempt to drive women from the workplace.’
5 Alhindi, W. et al (2012) “The Role of Modern Technology in Arab Spring” Archives des sciences 1661-464X. 65. 1661-464.
6 Curtis, A (2011). “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace”: BBC
7 Penn J (2018) “AI thinks like a corporation—and that’s worrying” The Economist
8 Dahlberg L (2009) “Libertarian Cyber-Utopianism and Global Digital Networks” Globalization and Utopia pp 176-189
9 Fedorkó B (2019) “‘Send them back’: migrant sex workers deported from Europe” Open Democracy
10 Mohdin A. (2018) “Chinese women trafficked to UK ‘being failed by Home Office’” The Guardian
11 Stoya (2018) “Can there be good porn?” The New York Times
12 Markowicz K (2019) “Congress’ awful anti-sex-trafficking law has only put sex workers in danger and wasted taxpayer money” Business Insider

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 9th, 2019.