I’ve got a piece out in the Washington Post, a commentary on Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate feminism, on the eve of her book Lean In. I’ve been following Sandberg as one of the more visible “women in tech” since she joined Facebook, just one month after I began writing for Gawker’s then-San Francisco based tech blog Valleywag.

Sandberg, along with Marissa Mayer, has served as a stand-in for a “woman in tech,” and now more broadly, as a “powerful woman.” These are roles that, back when their names were known to relatively few people outside the Valley and those who obsess about it, Sandberg and Mayer have played, and I’d argue, both played to and played against, like any woman handed a role that could elevate her as much as reign her in. Mayer says she isn’t a feminist; Sandberg says she is. In playing these roles, they also make for appealing stories of “what it all means” for the media.

But anyone who knows anything about the tech biz knows that this is a (social) media side show, and that feminism will never be one of the “disruptive” values of Silicon Valley so long as Silicon Valley is principally a machine for producing wealth for the few. (See: the story of Katherine Losse, an early Facebook employee who also crossed paths with Sandberg.) To the extent that someone who so benefits from that business culture espouses feminism, it will be ruthlessly friendly to the corporate environment in which it is exercised.

It’s this limitation that concerns me about the brand of feminism we see in Sandberg – because it’s gaining ascendence, and because we’ve been here before. It’s a trickle-down feminism that centers the concerns of an elite minority of women, and it repeats losing tactics in the history of feminist movements. Sandberg is far from the only prominent feminist who supports these tactics, which – despite their intentions – have been insufficient in addressing inequalities among women. If the book and its attendant publicity had only framed Sandberg’s contribution as something “by and for women in positions of corporate leadership,” I doubt we’d be having this conversation.

The book isn’t out yet, though Connie Schultz has a critical review out (also in the Post), and it affirms the omissions I anticipated based on the materials I had available to me, including Sandberg’s own telling of her leadership trajectory. Here’s one of the most widely-circulated Sandberg quotes on that, from an interview she gave to PBS/AOL for the Makers documentary. You can view it online:

I always thought I would, like, run a social movement. Which meant, basically, I would work in a non-profit.

It’s a telling understanding: of both the qualities of social movement leadership (which few who work within them would call “running” them), as well as where one would find a social movement (incorporated as a 501c3). And it’s another tension that’s too real for those working in movements for social justice – including women’s rights and gender justice – as we try to understand how to actually get change made: outside systems, or within them. And in fact, Sandberg has followed through on this early vision: according to documents obtained by the New York Times in advance of the book’s release, Sandberg has incorporated the related projects around Lean In as a c3. By the strike of her own pen, this is a movement.

But, is this a “real” movement? I think the legitimate concerns about what’s being sold as feminism here has got lost in the many meanings of that word, and how little people who have not been part of movements understand their function. I got my own movement education first as an activist, then while working at an explicitly feminist foundation. So for my part, I wonder what this might mean for those already working in movements on these issues, who struggle for visibility and funding, and who will likely never (and perhaps would never want to) attract the kind of media attention and corporate partners that Sandberg has found in Lean In. Will their work be made any easier? Will they find new allies? Or will they be told, as they have been for decades even by those who claim they work alongside them, that what they want is still impossible?

And what would Sandberg say if she were told the same?

by Imp Kerr

Of all the tech hijinx I covered while writing for Valleywag (missu), Facebook’s always felt the least inspired. Even in 2006, when Valleywag launched and when Facebook had just barely made itself available to anyone outside an Ivy, there was something antiseptic about it that felt so fundamentally disconnected, like whoever had built it had forgot that their business was actually on the wild, wooly internet.

Of course, it wasn’t. Facebook was in the business of our offline lives, and “frictionless” (right) sharing thereof: the business of generating wealth from and never really for its users.

Except. Except the users under its own roof. In the most recent Dissent, I look at Katherine Losse’s The Boy Kings, her excellent memoir of her time working as one of the first women at Facebook, as a way back into understanding that time, grafted onto my own overlapping years spent in San Francisco, and pointed at the question of, what really makes Facebook go and yet who is still least valued by Facebook but women?

Facebook, we know now, was never meant to be the product; we, its users were. Without us, the “product” would be worthless. Zuckerberg understood this in 2003, when he created the proto-Facebook site Facemash, built from photos of Harvard University women—Zuckerberg’s classmates and peers—and presented to users—presumed to be Harvard men—to vote on their attractiveness. In a Harvard Crimson story published after Zuckerberg beat an expulsion rap for violating students’ privacy in launching Facemash, two campus groups are reported to have opposed the site publicly: Fuerza Latina and the Association of Harvard Black Women. Zuckerberg changed course slightly, creating a site where he would not need to scrape photos off a server. We’d give them to him.

Losse herself was an early Facebook adopter, during the fall of her last year at Johns Hopkins when Facebook launched on her campus. Prior to using Facebook, she never associated her online activities with her legal name. “For women,” she writes, “there is no value in putting yourself online and offering yourself to strangers.” But women have long found ways to reap this worth for themselves, whether as fashion bloggers, porn stars, or attractive TED speakers. In performing some version of themselves online, pseudonymous or not, these women have earned their reputations and their rent.

Bonus extended mix if you want to time machine with me: the two Valleywag stories referenced in the essay, on photo-sharing site Zivity and the perils of “Girl Geek” networking.

Thanks to Sarah Leonard, the excellent editor on this, which appears as part of a feature section, The New Feminism, in the magazine and online. You can read her essay on gendered labor and Marissa Mayer in the new Jacobin. Another great pairing for the piece is Sarah Jaffe’s “Cost to Connect,” at Rhizome, which we were writing over the same weeks, and I dig the overlaps in all these very much. You should also see some influence from Sarah Jaffe’s piece in this same issue of Dissent, on being on strike from feminism:

Whether it’s City Council speaker Christine Quinn in New York City blocking paid sick days or Marissa Mayer taking the helm at Yahoo or Shannon Eastin taking the job of a locked-out worker for less money, we have to recognize that some first steps are taken on the backs of workers, many of whom are also women.

And so we are at this point, where all too many feminists see “saving” sex workers as an appropriately feminist activity but not walking a picket line with striking teachers or nurses or hotel housekeepers. When Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of raping Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel housekeeper, feminists rallied to her defense, but that support hasn’t led to increased support for hotel worker unions even as Hyatt hotel workers engage in a nationwide boycott, even though UNITE HERE, the hotel workers’ union, supported Diallo and protects workers like her from being fired for speaking out against abuse. Instead, it led to too many swoons over Christine Lagarde, who took Strauss-Kahn’s place at the International Monetary Fund.

As long as feminists are lauding the ascension of women to boardrooms for equality’s sake and not questioning what happens in those boardrooms, true liberation is a long way off.

The biggest thanks of all, of course, go to Kate Losse for her very sharp book. Besides the tech and boys and fame she made me want to write about San Francisco again, the barely bygone years between 2005 and 2009 – which she absolutely nails, cameras in the air and all.

I skipped the debate last night – I was working, and then watching the second season of the The Wire (for the first time), which so far revolves around the discovery of the bodies of thirteen (or fourteen) “Jane Does,” who maybe (I’m only on the second episode, don’t wreck it) were trying to get into the US or were smuggled into the US for sex work.

I was working late because I was up until 3 the night before finishing a review (will tell you when it’s out) of Katherine Losse’s memoir about her time at Facebook, The Boy Kings, in which she makes a compelling argument for Facebook building their value on the digital photographs (if not actual leadership, or fair compensation) of women.

I woke up yesterday to a phone call from an old friend in San Francisco worried that if Proposition 35 passes with California voters, she’ll have to register as a sex offender and surrender to internet monitoring for the rest of her life – all because she was arrested for prostitution as a teenager. That’s thanks to provisions in Prop 35 that its proponents (like lead funder and former Facebook privacy officer Chris Kelly) claim will help with prosecutions for human trafficking: she’ll be forced to give her name, her address, her online profiles, and her photo to their database, or could face further penalties herself.

I got an invitation to a discussion of Prop 35, where a friend who attended told me a pro-Prop 35 organizer who works as a Silicon Valley HR consultant pled with the folks there to vote yes on the bill because she was scared her teenage daughter would be trafficked over Facebook.

I had a client years ago who told me a long and questionable yarn about the old escort agencies he once favored, where even after escorts moved on to the internet to advertise, the madams would still bring you – once you wrote a check to prove that you were a serious customer – a photo book of all the women who worked with them, so you could still make your hire in private.

Magic Mike isn’t a critique of capitalism, even if it is a stripper movies about dudes. “I don’t understand why if a guy is naked in public, it’s comedy,” asks Diablo Cody in an interview with Marc Maron many months before the movie came out, which is circulating again now. ”And if a woman does it, it’s tragedy.” Because sexism, okay, but also, because herself. Because a few seconds before that Diablo says she “wouldn’t be here today” if she hadn’t “put walls up,” if she had “surrendered to it.”

At the same time Diablo was blogging from her peep show booth in the Midwest, so was I, in California. I did it longer than she did. Am I a real stripper? Did I “surrender”?

Unlike anything else you can do for money, including dangerous things, in sex work, needing the money is somehow the dangerous part. And it’s considered a lesser motivation than “intellectual” ones.

Marc Maron didn’t ask me (he asked Diablo, a writer), but: I’m a writer by necessity. I get paid for intellectual reasons: I can’t afford to do what is necessary for me – to write – without it being my job.

“It always looks better in the rear view,” a former drug addict and journalist advised me once, on talking about sex work and how I did it, as a journalist myself.

“There’s no such thing as gonzo journalism in this,” I told the interns at The Nation at a seminar last week. There’s no such thing as “doing it for the story.” While you’re “making your name” as a sex worker, you aren’t: you’re making your rent. There’s your body, and there’s the story, and at least to start, they’re both in the the same place.

(A twist: in Sheila McClear’s excellent memoir Last of the Live Nude Girls, she recounts both the divey strip club she worked at and the way she wrote about it at the time for publication, but without revealing she had worked there, until she wrote about it again for the memoir.)

Diablo Cody and Channing Tatum, each in their own way, stripped towards Hollywood. Magic Mike stripped towards – it’s not clear, actually, at the end of the movie. He stripped towards love? Artisanal furniture? Maybe he didn’t strip towards anything. Maybe he just quit. Can’t you just quit and change jobs? Without indicting the life you lived and worked at before that moment? Without it being a statement? Without taking swipes at the people in the rear view?


The best way to illustrate the antics of NGO “rescuers” seeking to save sex workers from themselves? Thailand’s Empower Foundation turned to the golden age of silent cinema cop drama to explain why these US-backed larks turn their lives upside down.

Laugh now. The State Department’s annual Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report is on its way. TIP scores and ranks countries based on how much they are doing to “combat trafficking,” based on US goals, with the threat of sanctions for non-compliance.

In 2008, the Thai government passed over-broad anti-trafficking legislation, which, as Empower points out (PDF) leads to frequently violent police raids on their homes and workplaces—in much less slapsticky versions of the scene above.

If the aim of anti-trafficking legislation is to restore human rights, then why, in enforcement, do NGO’s rely so heavily on threats of public shaming, violence, confinement, and deportation—all tools of power and control that anti-trafficking campaigners frequently ascribe to “pimps and traffickers”?

NGO-conducted raids to satisfy US metrics on “combatting trafficking” aren’t just confined to Thailand. Much of Southeast Asia has been on the US watchlist at one point or another. Below, a video of an actual raid in Malaysia, filmed by sex workers.

In 2008, Malaysia had been ranked at “Tier 3″ in its 2008 TIP report, the lowest ranking possible for a country. “Rather than address the real labour trafficking issues,” said the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, “the government set out to close down the sex industry. Now nearly all brothels in Kuala Lumpur have been shut. Sex workers are forced to work in dangerous and difficult conditions on streets throughout the capital.” In 2009, after the Malaysian government’s anti-sex work campaigns, the US raised Malaysia’s rating in the TIP report to a more favorable “Tier 2.”

This week Occupy Oakland Patriarchy took the vanguard of protesting outside “anti-trafficking” conferences.*

This is the first I’ve heard of an anti-trafficking conference getting the Occupy treatment. And I do wonder what the cops think: do they really want to take on yet more “vice” work they’re so poorly qualified to do? Local news doesn’t see fit to ask them, but are very pleased to provide some anarchist eye candy.

A perfect complement: Charlotte Shane writes about encountering the 1%, as a sex worker—not just wealthy clients, but also, what it means to accumulate her own wealth.

It’s true that many of my clients are incredibly bright, highly skilled at their jobs, and have labored for years on a minimum of sleep. It’s not that they’ve made no sacrifices or put forth no effort, nor are they unkind or unpleasant people. But its fruitless to debate whether they have “worked hard” enough to justify income disparity. Such personality and work-ethic arguments are red herrings; it’s clear that one can work very hard and not make much money, and that we each have different ideas as to what constitutes “hard” work.

* “anti-trafficking” is in quotes because the aim of this conference is to give the police more money and more power to arrest anyone in the sex trade, which would not only do nothing to reduce violence or coercion in the sex trade, it would also do little to “abolish”—their words!—anything re: forced labor, let alone commercial sex.

Re: this whole Secret Service “sex scandal” that began in the Colombian city of Cartgena just ahead of a summit attended by President Obama, I just can’t. Is that a bored-whore posture? Oh no, another prostitution scandal! Loosely involving a Democrat (or a Democratic regime), which guarantees nothing good can come from it on the Left, and lots of madness will come of it on the Right, and just about nothing good will come of it for any of the sex workers involved. I first heard about it late Friday night in the Washington Post, and aside from speculating what headline the New York Post was going to go with (ICYMI: SECRET SERVICED), I tried to just let. it. go.

Now today it’s A1 above-the-fold in the New York Times, so I guess it’s back? Or I have to say something. Okay.

Charlotte Shane, over at (my favorite sex work blog) Tits and Sass already covered the possible corners this story will get dragged into – the legal status of prostitution in Colombia, the martial status of the agents involved, the role of the military in the cover-up, sketchy feelings about national security, and, lest we forget, the spectre of “sex slavery.” You could just read that and stop if you wanted.

But the thing the Times did that I was hoping someone with a reporting budget would do? Get an interview with the woman “at the center of the scandal!” as they say in these things.

At least women get to be at the center of something? Though truly the thing at the center of this scandal is yet another man trying to cheat a woman out of her pay.

(Did that sound sort of second wave? It was on purpose.)

The thing that no one really knew as this thing broke, and that I suspected had to be part of the story… as it’s ridiculous that of upwards of a dozen Secret Service and military dudes in a hotel, all conniving to shut up a woman one had paid for sex, that there was only one woman being paid for sex? (Come on.)

What happened was this: solidarity, motherfuckers. There were (at least) two escorts working together, looking out for each other in the club where they picked up their clients (no matter what the Secret Service bro insists, that he was shocked that there were prostitutes in that bottle service section). That as soon as one of the women was facing difficulty in getting paid by her client, she could storm across the hall and get back-up.

That’s just so beautiful.

And the kind of thing, under most anti-prostitution law in the US, that could get you charged with pimping, pandering, or conspiracy.

Sex workers here do it anyway, of course: have each other’s backs. It’s not front page news to us. Neither is it that clients will, on occasion, try to rip you off. But that you can incite an international incident over it? That’s just beautiful.

Right. Today’s Tax Day. I spoke to Buzzfeed about how sex workers pay taxes.

(Spoiler: all the time. And there’s no better illustration of this than this installation by artist Laurenn McCubbin, as part of her 2010 Las Vegas gallery show, Speaking To Las Vegas in the Language of Las Vegas.)