Sex Workers Pioneered the Early Internet—and It Screwed Them Over
Sex workers were placing ads and organizing far before the internet as we know it even existed.
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In the early 90s, anyone looking to hire an escort or track down an erotic massage parlor started by flipping through the Yellow Pages.
Maxine Doogan, a Bay Area–based sex worker, activist, and founder of the Erotic Service Providers Union, remembers placing print ads for her services in the back pages of “girly magazines” and alt-weeklies.
“We were the economic engine for those newspapers and those entities that paid the wages of the journalists,” Doogan told me. “They were making thousands of dollars off us.”
In the late 80s, California cracked down with stricter laws against “pimping and pandering” that targeted sex workers and punished anyone who accepted their money. Many print publications refused to print sex workers’ ads, and without ads, many had trouble finding work. “It's under that experience that people started to think about building their own websites, and how to advertise on your own website,” Doogan said.
These sex workers populated early chat rooms, fueled the rise of e-commerce that began with online porn, and later adopted cryptocurrencies as a means of survival long before they hit the mainstream. Though they were some of the first to use the internet commercially, legislation against sex workers continues to push them further into the margins. Women in the adult industry pioneered the early internet and made it profitable, until eventually, it screwed them over.
Kristen Diangelo, co-founder and executive director of the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) Sacramento chapter, told me over the phone that the internet spurred sex workers to explore other methods of advertising their services. “When the internet came up, we thought, ‘okay, there's another way to tell people we're around, and we don't have to deal with all these rules that they're making,’” Diangelo said. “We saw another opportunity.”
“As the advent of the internet came on, we were like, ‘Oh, wow! Photos? Really? Like our faces? Oh my God!’
During the early 2000s, when people were just getting internet-connected home computers for the first time, sex workers like Doogan and Diangelo used the internet to advertise their services independently, pioneering the new territory of free erotic online classifieds. “I had a multi-page functional website that I had to design from scratch,” Diangelo told me. Microsoft FrontPage—a program that ushered in the era of easy-to-design websites—was still in development at the time, so she coded each page individually. In 2002, Diangelo recalled, some banks didn’t even have websites yet.
Doogan and a few other women bought a digital camera to share, took some photos of each other, and uploaded them to their sites.
“As the advent of the internet came on, we were like, ‘Oh, wow! Photos? Really? Like our faces? Oh my God!’ It was like the first time we were taking pictures, or at least for me, in conjunction with my ad,” Doogan said.
As they built their online presence, more sex workers followed, and the growing number of free erotic classified sites was a major draw for people who couldn’t otherwise be online.
“It was attracting our type of people to the internet,” Doogan added. “Sex workers created the internet. People can argue [with] that, but we are the first people who have used all of it,” Diangelo said. “Nobody really remembers the trajectory there.”
In fact, as Doogan said, “we were on the internet before we knew we were on the internet.” Bare-bones chat rooms like those on Usenet, P411, and message boards like Craigslist and Redbook allowed clients to rate and review local sex workers and their services without the providers’ knowledge, often in explicit detail.
“Industries just want to look at us and use us for whatever means serves their purpose, but they don't do anything for us”
Doogan had no idea these chat rooms existed until she heard about them from a friend who was also a sex worker. "It had all our ads on there. It had all of our faces. They've got all these reviews. They're talking about our locations. They're being very graphic. Some of the information they're saying isn't true,” she said. Many sex workers who hadn’t turned to the internet willingly were essentially forced online to combat false negative reviews which had the power to disastrously damage their income.
As communities of sex workers established a greater online presence, they’ve had to face a wide range of issues. When law enforcement began targeting sex workers’ individual websites, they were “corralled” into online ad boards like the Eros Guide. As traffic and membership to these sites grew, sex workers quickly became sources of revenue for website owners.
As adult industry entrepreneur Christopher Mallick told Business Insider in 2010, the porn and adult entertainment industries, and the women whose work built them, were one of the earliest to provide real-time credit card verification, establishing a precedent for models of e-commerce other industries would adopt later on. Sex workers and porn performers essentially created, adopted, and inspired many of the technologies later co-opted by tech corporations and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs long before they reached the mainstream, and continue to do so. However, as Mallick suggested, sex workers and adult entertainers rarely receive proper credit for their contributions.
“Businesses have looked at our industry, the adult industry, as the means to financialize,” Doogan told me. Many of these same corporations, including PayPal, continue to be hostile toward the adult industry today, once leaving many sex workers little recourse or legal protection. Faced with anti-human trafficking laws that continue to make traditional banking increasingly problematic, many in the adult industry now turn to cryptocurrency as a way to pay for online ads, or accept payment for live cam shows, and history repeats itself.
Most recently, the Fight Sex Trafficking Online Act (FOSTA) took away many of the freedoms that sex workers fought to build online in the first place, by making it harder for them to advertise and work online. Following the bill’s passage into law, some sex workers were pushed back onto the streets, important advocacy gatherings were canceled out of fears of legal retribution, and sites like Craigslist Personals and others were shut down.
“Industries just want to look at us and use us for whatever means serves their purpose, but they don't do anything for us,” Doogan said. “They're taking money off of our community, but they never stand in solidarity with our community.”
Much of the internet as we know it today was built on the contributions and presence of sex workers and porn performers, and their exclusion from the historical narrative is a by product of sex work’s criminalization Doogan said. “[Criminalization] really empowers the unscrupulous, the people who already have the power, which are men that run the internet, that run Silicon Valley.”