The Soapbox: What Online Prostitution Taught Me About Racism
Racism is a covert agent in our lives. Some claim that it is invisible to them; completely hidden. It is very infrequent that racism openly reveals itself for long enough to be identified, before disappearing, cloaked in discussions about “culture,” “socio-economics,” “sensitivity,” or “history.” Online prostitution is one venue where structural racism can be seen in plain sight.
That’s why I researched online prostitution in New York City for my college thesis. With the help of websites like Backpage.com and Craigslist.com, I became acquainted with the underground sex industry, where the value of a woman is in plain sight. Her worth is advertised without a hint of political correctness. No excuses are made about class, schooling or occupation. Every woman is simply a scantily-clad commodity who, with the click of a mouse, is deemed wanted or unwanted for purchase.
Although the playing field is leveled in that regard, race manages to be the biggest dividing line between the women who are highly prized and those who are practically worthless. I learned that online men are willing to pay the highest premium for “whiteness.” This is evident in the word choices white women use to self-advertise. The sex workers who charge the highest fees describe themselves as “blue-eyed,” “blonde,” “brunette,” “the girl next door,” “the Playboy-type,” or simply a “white girl.” Occasionally, white women refer to themselves as “hot” or “busty,” but more often they are “All-American.” These are the Barbies: perfect by definition and valuable.
Women of color, on the other hand, know that being black offers them very little bargaining power in the market. To compete in the online sex industry, black women use references to their assets to distinguish themselves from other minority women by describing themselves as having a “big booty,” being a “freak,” “exotic,” “mixed,” “curvy,” a “video-vixen,” “Caribbean,” “juicy,” “delicious” or “nasty.” I searched for descriptions that read anything along the lines of “All-American, black girl next door.” I didn’t find a single one in my research, nor do I expect to.
A Craigslist ad I found, “Applying to an Escort Agency (Tips/Suggestions),” illustrates this divide between white and black sex workers perfectly. It reads:
“When applying to an *upscale* agency – research other *upscale* agencies and *upscale* independent escorts – note their body types, age, race. If you are not like them or close to them, don’t apply. It’s simple business – fat, err, I mean thick girls cannot command upscale rates - black girls are RARELY considered upscale (unless you are a legitimate 10 and have caramel complexion). Again, simple business – supply & demand.”
Women of color may not be blonde, or brunette playmates, but we are upscale, we are classy and we are girls next door. Many of us are even born and raised “All-American.” Many believe that we have crested a post-racial wave in American history, but even a cursory visit to the Craigslist’s Casual Encounters section reveals a very different reality. Just as prostitution was criminalized and relegated to the dark underworld, racism has been sanitized with “colorblindness,” shielding us from the realities of what it means to be “colored” in this country.
Just like these minority sex workers, women of color are attuned to a heart-breaking truth that they are valued less than their white counterparts. This reality doesn’t only exist online. It’s reflected in the music industry’s divide between the All-American sweetheart, Taylor Swift, and the curvaceous, queen bee, Nicki Minaj. It’s evident in the constant references to Serena William’s “big booty” while Maria Sharapova shows off her “bikini supermodel” body on the cover of women’s magazines. It becomes apparent at the awe over Lupita Nyong’o because she is a beautiful, dark-skinned black woman who somehow made it onto a red carpet looking like a princess (obviously as astonishing as the first black president), while Jennifer Lawrence is readily accepted as a sexy “body-positive” role model. It does not take a critical eye to see that the bodies of black women are devalued not only in the sex industry but in almost every aspect of mainstream culture.
Of course, I expect rebuttal to this claim. There will be discussions about “culture”, “socio-economic status,” the fact that racism is a thing of the past and about my “sensitivity.” Perhaps there will be an argument that the sex industry is not a true reflection of our country at large. There are always “reasons” that circumvent the simple truth: America has a deeply-rooted, racist past, present and future if we do nothing to change.
To me, racism is never hidden, it never goes unseen. It’s my reality. It is the discrimination the black sex workers face as much as it is Jennifer Lawrence being put on a pedestal. It is the millions of black women and girls who feel no sense of self worth.
We must not allow racism to hide, even in the darkest corners of our society; we must relinquish its invisibility. When racial inequality creeps into public spaces, as it does in the online sex industry, it must be confronted. Only then will it begin to be defeated.