The Internet is somewhat like we imagine the old Wild West to have been -- untamed, unregulated and anything goes. Tempers flare fast, and entering a forum can feel like walking into a shootout. Domains are like land snatched up by speculators -- choose wisely, and you could make millions selling them off later. And many sites lie deserted and forgotton (Geocities, anyone?), ghost towns since Wordpress made it easy to build a beautiful online settlement. Even the elected sheriffs can be corrupt, as seen in how they censor online material or settle disputes. It serves you well to have one hand on your hip, ready to draw, and keep an eye out for trouble.
I'm hardly the first to compare the web to a frontier, but I've never read anything that mentions how the metaphor applies to one group of citizens as present on the "lawless Internet" as they were in the fabled Wild West: sex workers.
The period of the American Old West, often cited as beginning in the mid 19th century with the Gold Rush and ending in 1920 with the Mexican Civil War, was not an ideal one for women. Polite society in the established States demanded that women be well-behaved, devotedly clasping to the arm of their husbands. Even the sex workers had to fall into line, behaving (and dressing) impeccably well or risking their reputation and, potentially, their fortunes. Women of good and ill repute maintained a delicate balance between practicalities and appearances. The West, however, gave women the opportunity to be self-sufficient and resourceful. While still somewhat bound by the same restrictions as their more genteel sisters, the first pioneer women were more active and vocal in politics and local government. Every voice and every pair of hands was needed to run these towns smoothly. Single women could own land, for example, and women had the right to vote in these untamed territories long before they could in the rest of the country. And of course, the brothels, some of the first businesses established, prospered.
The Internet, meanwhile, is for porn, as we all know. When Usenet groups emerged, starting in the 1980s, they gave the average person the opportunity to send erotic images to others, with the anonymity making it a more comfortable option for many. Those groups paved the way to a giant extravaganza of smut. Since setting up an online storefront for content is relatively cheap and easy, millions of independent and corporate pornography sites have popped up since those early days, allowing the viewer to pick and choose what interests him or her that day from a variety of price points. We can thank early Internet porn for many innovations we use around the web today, from online payment options to streaming video.
As a sex worker myself, having worked both in real-life situations and online pornography, I have found the web to be incredibly conducive to setting up a business that I control. Like the prostitutes of the West, I can choose what I offer and for what price, and I can market myself in a way that appeals to me and will attract the clients I want to work with. I am able to manage my own site, produce my own content, and advertise my work in a multitude of ways -- and I'm free to commit as much or as little time and energy as I like into the process.
There is often an assumption that if you are a sexual performer online, you have to fulfill a certain expectation for how you look and act, and you have to provide content that is for a mainstream market. While sites that cater to those demographics indeed do very well, sites that specialize in alternative looks and sexual expressions have changed the way the mainstream makes their porn. SuicideGirls, for example, started off as just a place to see tattooed and pierced girls naked, something that was infrequent on the web -- but in 2004, Playboy started featuring a Suicide Girl of the Week, and they still do. PaddedKink was started by BBW porn star Kelly Shibari, who was annoyed at the lack of BBW hardcore kink content so she began to produce her own. The success of queer websites such as Crash Pad or No Fauxxx, which have been acknowledged at the mainstream AVN Awards, suggests that there is a market for content beyond the stereotyped consumer -- a heterosexual white middle class male. Many of these independent sites are created and produced by the women who star in them, changing the dynamic of the LA casting couch and putting power into the hands of the models themselves.
Of course, being a sex worker on the net is not merely about content creation. Social media, in particular, has shown that to be untrue! It's about connecting with the public, offering some sort of everyday look into your life. The more active you are on forums, the chattier you are on Twitter or your Facebook page, the more questions you answer on Formspring or flirty photos you upload to Instagram, the more popular you become. That instantly impacts your sales, and signal-boosts your online persona by increasing your Google ranking. More importantly, you can choose if you want to be yourself online, or if you want to play the part of your perceived persona to maintain some privacy. Both strategies work to attract different types of people. Personally, I prefer to be my queer, geeky, feminist self ... and my fans don't seem to object in the slightest!
Of course, there is corruption, and the lawlessness of the internet can work against sex workers online. This was made particularly clear through Google+'s NymWars or Facebook's real name policy, where people have been protesting the requirement of posting your full legal name, something that's quite threatening for sex workers. By being strongarmed into using your legal name or hiding and hoping you don't get caught (possibly losing your profile and thus a chunk of fans entirely), sex workers often feel like they're waiting for the other stiletto to drop.
There's also legal harassment to worry about. Cops used Craigslist and Backpage sites where sex workers advertised for free, to do prostitution busts that often targeted marginalized people. Using the web for your marketing and outreach can be a dangerous game, something that came to a head with Porn WikiLeaks last year when a medical database was potentially hacked and thousands of porn performers were outed with their full names, often including addresses and phone numbers. Protesting these actions led nowhere, with our online sheriffs saying there was little they could do to stop it. Of course, as I've discovered, wherever you find sex workers you find other outlaws, like hackers, who ultimately put a stop to the damage done by Porn WikiLeaks.
Perhaps, then, the Wild West of the internet is a better thing for sex workers than a "civilized" one, which will seek to reduce the agency of a population otherwise ostracized from society. I would rather have lawlessness and independence than be corralled into this century's idea of what a woman should behave like. I love being a sex worker, and I love how the internet has given me the freedom to set my own rules and my own standards. I couldn't agree more with the crossdressing, gun slinging Calamity Jane, who supposedly said, ""Leave me alone and let me go to hell by my own route."
Follow Kitty Stryker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kittystryker