Fetlife Just Doesn’t Get It When It Come to Joking About Sex Workers

Last week, Fetlife (the kinky social networking site) went offline, as can happen. And the folks running the site decided it would be funny to tweet about it:

Predictably enough, a mini twitter-storm ensued, as various folks called Fetlife out for it. And a few days later, a post by Rayne on Eden Cafe (the blog affiliated with sex toy company Eden Fantasys) defending the tweet as “just a joke” compounded the error. But that post and some of the comments highlight the confusion that a lot of people have about the original tweet.

I’ve been thinking about what it is that bothers me about this joke. What if, for example, it had been “FetLife just went down like a drunk prom date…”? I’d have had a very different response, although I still would have thought it tacky. I think that some of that is because there are a few issues that are interwoven, which makes it hard to tease out what’s going on.

The first thing to look at is the context in which jokes like this are made. All of the slut-shaming that happens to women in general gets leveled at sex workers and magnified. For example, the belief that sex workers can’t be raped because “you can’t rape a whore” means that sexual assault against sex workers is rarely reported and even more rarely prosecuted. There’s also the way in which hoes are described as women who are available on-call for men, who don’t get to say no, and who have no personal or sexual agency. Let’s add to that the stereotype that sex workers don’t have limits and the belief that they don’t get to have boundaries. These are really all facets of the same basic idea and they form a background for this situation, which makes it hard for sex workers to hear jokes about them and not mistrust the people making them.

Next up, since sex workers are often attacked and vilified in the media and have very few allies who are willing to speak up on their behalf, they’re an easy and frequent target. And every sex worker I know is really tired of it, whether it shows up as attacks or jokes. So when the author of the Eden Cafe piece wrote:

Prostitutes, it seems, are “off limits” when it comes to jokes. (As well as LGBT people and minorities. Never mind the fact that most of the prostitutes, LGBT people and minorities I know crack jokes about themselves.)

it really just highlights that they don’t get it. When people on the receiving end of inequality and oppression (whether queers, people of color, women, sex workers, etc.) make jokes about themselves, it’s truly different from when straight folks, white people, men, non-sex workers, etc. say the same things. And frankly, if in 2011, you don’t understand the difference between the two, you’ve been ignoring the last twenty or so years of discussion around it. But here’s the short version:

If you’re an ally to an oppressed group, it is possible to make jokes about that group and have them be received in the way you intend, if and only if you have built up enough of a reputation that they know you’re deeply committed as an ally. Even if you’ve done that with one group within that community, if you make your jokes to people who don’t know you, your social capital doesn’t transfer over. If your best friend is queer or Black or a sex worker and knows that you’re just being funny, that doesn’t mean that anyone else thinks you are. And since the vast majority of such jokes are meant to belittle, hurt, and insult, it’s on you to make sure BEFORE you make them, that your audience will understand your intention.

The Eden Cafe post also demonstrated confusion with this bit:

One of the nicer tweets that made the rounds: Dear FetLife: Please don’t make nasty hooker jokes. A lot of the people who support your site are sex workers. xoxo, Me #FetLife

But FetLife didn’t say anything about anyone being nasty. And since when is going down nasty anyway? So much for sex positiveness, I guess.

I agree that going down isn’t nasty when it comes to sex. And I also know that when a tech person says that a server is down, that’s a bad thing. So given that the original tweet was meant to notify people that there was a tech issue, it was actually Fetlife that linked a sex worker going down to something unpleasant. Granted, that’s the nature of puns- to make a statement about two things that share a term but are in juxtaposition to each other. And yet, with all of the ways in which sex workers are vilified, that attempt failed miserably.

John Scalzi’s post The Failure Mode of Clever offers some insight on this aspect of this:

1. The effectiveness of clever on other people is highly contingent on outside factors, over which you have no control and of which you may not have any knowledge; i.e., just because you intended to be clever doesn’t mean you will be perceived as clever, for all sorts of reasons.

2. The failure mode of clever is “asshole.”

I think that sums it up pretty well.

So when Fetlife tried to apologize with this tweet:

it just made it worse. Whenever anyone says “I make fun of everyone,” it really just makes them sound like more of an asshole. And it’s almost always said by someone with a hell of a lot of privilege, which makes them sound even more so. That was the message behind this tweet, although Rayne didn’t get that, either.

The thing is, I really do think that the folks at Fetlife had no intention of insulting sex workers. And it’s also clear from both their actions and their words that they simply don’t get it. They don’t get how jokes like that fit into a larger pattern of attacking and dehumanizing sex workers. They don’t get that it isn’t on sex workers to assume that there are good intentions behind the jokes. They don’t get that when you compare people (even people who you think are amazing) with something unpleasant that you’re trying to fix, they might think that you’re saying that there’s something unpleasant about them. Which is too bad since it resulted in a lot of hard feelings, confusion, and defensiveness. All because of a pun that failed miserably.

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13 Responses so far.

  1. ThanksButNoThanks says:

    I’m a woman, and I detest it when men think they need to stand up for what they think is good for me. I’m a sex worker and I detest it when people who have never offered sex for money think they need to stand up for what they think is good for me. It’s called positive discrimination, and it weakens me. It means that I need your protection because I can’t stand up for myself. Being a target of jokes like anybody else means that I’m normal and accepted like anybody else. If you deny me this, you say that I’m special, singled out.

    Get rid of the knee-jerk reflex concernment and accept that we’re perfectly normal people.

  2. Patricia says:

    @Thanks

    I appreciate your opinion and I know the feeling. I hate it when people speak about the experiences of sex workers without any knowledge or experience themselves. It feels shitty and co-opty and oppressive, even if someone is just trying to help.

    However, it doesn’t seem like the author intends to speak for sex workers here. He doesn’t pretend to know what it’s like. He’s presenting a very informed analysis of a conflict, with his personal opinions too. And he has a right to that.

    Also, it seems like you are making assumptions about the author’s identity. He never said if he’s had experience in the sex industry, so assuming he hasn’t is not fair.

    Charlie is an ally. We need allies to help the rest of the world learn about us, and to shift social norms. Derogatory jokes don’t do that, but “normal” people calling each other out does.

    We *are* perfectly normal people. But we’re also targets of violence, oppression, and hate. Jokes like this have to be addressed, because they further the stigma and marginalization that makes our lives difficult. Ignoring the problem just means it goes unchecked, it doesn’t mean it goes away.

    I am appreciative of Charlie’s response to this issue. He is not standing up for us, he is standing up *with* us.

    Patricia

    PS. Here’s more about sex worker allies:

    http://redlightchicago.wordpress.com/how-to-be-an-ally-to-sex-workers/

  3. Jessica Land says:

    Thank you, Charlie. And thank you, Patricia.

  4. Mindet says:

    The world will be a better place when more people learn that sex-positive is not the same thing as abuse-positive. Another great post, thanks Charlie.

  5. Matt Cornell says:

    Why not “went down like a flaccid penis?” Or, “went down like a badly secured sling?” So many choices, but they chose the frattiest one.

  6. Iscah says:

    Well, it seems you get it, and actually could extrapolate out to why jokes about minorities aren’t usually funny, either. So, what I’m trying to say is well done and thank you.

  7. Enumerator says:

    1. Turn of your internet.
    2. Get some sense of humor.
    3. Then come back.

  8. Charlie says:

    @Enumerator- I’m guessing that you mean to be clever. Please see note above regarding that.

  9. Dave says:

    Imagine this being said to you or around you by someone you know as generally a good person. You’d probably look at them and say something to the effect of “Dude. Not cool.” (yeah, I’m from the west coast). They’d apologize, then keep their mouth shut for the next hour or two out of embarrassment.

    I think the joke was in bad taste, doubly so being from a business front, but I don’t believe it was intended to be hurtful or mean. Lots of people make lots of bad/inappropriate jokes, but there’s a big gap between this, and hate, ridicule, etc. Once is a mistake, more than once shows a pattern. Cut the guy some slack for the first offense.

  10. P.K. says:

    I’m a member at FetLife. Their stated mission as a forum for people whose sexual practices deviate from what a TV preacher would approve in public makes this error in judgement even more reprehensible than it would be from the average insensitive twerp.
    It holds up a legitimate occupation to ridicule and aggravates the offence by bringing in reduced capacity due to alcohol.
    Slack for the first offence my ass! Those who made this joke and those who defend it know better and should do better.

  11. This is absolutely brilliant. What a comprehensive analysis.

    @Thanks-I thought your response was completely valid, as well.

    This has given me quite a bit to mull over.

  12. Dave says:

    Its amazing that no one can make a quirky joke without the world just getting Irate about it.  Damnit, get a sense of humor.  The only reason it should be offensive is if it was pointed at someone and ment to be offensive.  This comment was an obvious attempt (and success) at humor.

  13. Charlie says:

    Dave, what I find amazing is that you still don’t get it. You’re saying that something is only offensive if it’s intended to be? I’m guessing that you haven’t been on the receiving end of a lot of unthinking privilege, clueless statements, or prejudicial remarks.

    The question isn’t whether non-sex workers think it’s funny. The question is whether the people who are being made fun of think it’s funny. And enough sex workers have expressed their distaste for this kind of joke that I think the answer to that question is pretty clear. It isn’t that “no one can
    make a quirky joke.” It’s that this particular joke from this particular person demonstrates a real cluelessness around the experiences of the people he was joking about.

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