Author Archives: zephoria

omg girls’ bodies are fascinating: embracing the gendered side of quantified self

Ever since I broke my neck as a teenager, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my body. Truth be told, I’d much rather be a cyborg or a brain on a stick. I prize my brain, but the rest just tends to get in my way, break down, or reach annoying limits that irritate the hell out of me. I know, I know.. this is a terrible way to think about it – and doesn’t actually make any sense given that the brain isn’t separable from the rest of me – but this is my sci-fi fantasy. So shhh.

Two years ago, when my body went to hell and I spent months in a whirlwind of migraines, vertigo, fatigue, and all-around misery that doctors couldn’t diagnose, I turned to tools and techniques coming out of the quantified self movement in an effort to get some form of insight. I got obsessive about tracking every substance that went into my body, experimenting with what types of food had what affects on my health. I tracked the symptoms I was experiencing, my menstrual cycle, and my weight. I used a Fitbit to keep tabs on every step I took and to monitor my sleep. (I also did a genetics map through 23andme, but purely for curiosity.) I started seeing patterns in my health and found the patterns really helpful as I experimented with non-invasive, non-chemical solutions to my various body woes.

As I explored different services and tools out there, I found myself resisting two classes of quantified practices: 1) anything that got framed around “dieting” and calories; and 2) anything that got described as being about fertility. In short, I wanted nothing to do with the practices that were gendered feminine. Y’see, one of the manifestations of my feminist-y anger with our body image-obsessive culture is to want nothing to do with calories or dieting or other activities that position the female body in an objectifiable state. I used to rebel against these norms by shaving my head and drinking 2 liters of Mountain Dew a day, but both of those practices mysteriously lost their charm in my 20s. Odd, right? ::groan:: Meanwhile, fertility just seemed alien to me. Completely unfairly, I associated fertility tracking with aging women desperate to get pregnant and I didn’t want to frame myself as such.

When I moved to NYC, I did a physical with a new doctor and described what I was tracking and the mysterious illness that had plagued me. She asked me why I was using tools designed for fertility tracking to track menstruation, moods, acne, and other symptoms but not ovulation, hormone surges, and cervical fluids. Not wanting to explain that I had a cognitive block against being what I had constructed in my mind as “that girl,” I let her explain how female body cycles are more nuanced than period/not-period and that I’d probably get a lot more insight out of seeing the whole cycle, irrespective of my interest in getting pregnant. She told me to go buy a special thermometer and read up on fertility tracking and see what I found.

In yet another effort to not address my neuroses, I decided to self-delude and position this activity as a science experiment. I read through countless pages dedicated to fertility, describing charting with basal body temperature to see the ebb and flow of estrogen, progesterone, and luteinizing hormone. Truth be told, I liked having something else to monitor because so many of my quantified self practiced had gotten so routinized as to be boring. And I didn’t even realize that my temperature might change over time unless I was sick. But the bigger surprise was how right she was. Once I started identifying ovulation and hormone surges, I started seeing how other symptoms lined up. Even my zits seemed to realize there were complex hormones cycling through my body. They were paying attention, even if I was ignoring what they were telling me.

I still want to be a cyborg. I’d still much rather not have to deal with my period, food as fuel, or the crazy chemicals that seem to dictate so many things. But, given that I’m stuck with this body, I really wish that I had started tracking the chemical and hormonal cycles two years ago when my body was all out-of-whack. Heck, I wish I had started monitoring these patterns a decade ago. I get why monitoring hormones is associated with fertility – and I suspect that most people who ever monitor such things will be looking to conceive – but I wish that the practice weren’t so laden with the cultural associations that prevented me from looking in the first place. And I wish that the quantified self movement would recognize hormone tracking and not see it – and fertility writ large – as an othered category.

I’ve learned more about how my body works by diving into its strange cycles than I ever learned in the first 35 years of my life. I can’t help but think how much better it would’ve been to dive into my patterns in high school instead of trying to make sense of weird drawing of the reproductive system. There’s something so enticing about trying to make sense of personal data. So, ladies, if you’re curious about your body, try measuring your temperature and looking for patterns in your hormones. It’ll be hard to read up on all of this totally divorced from the fertility conversation, but so many other patterns in our bodies are connected to these patterns. And seriously, it’s totally fascinating.

Free Speech, Context, and Visibility: Protesting Racist Ads

On Tuesday, Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy was arrested for “criminal mischief” – or “the willful damaging of property” – when she responded to disturbingly racist ads that were posted in the New York City subway system with spray paint. Her act of political resistance went beyond spray paint however. In some ways, it was intentionally designed to get the attention of the internet. When she encountered resistance from a person defending the ads – who clearly knew Mona and kept responding to her by name – Eltahawy chose to create a challenge over her right to engage in what she called “freedom of expression.” This altercation escalates as the two argue on camera over whether or not Eltahawy is violating free speech or “making an expression on free speech.” (The video can be seen here.) As this encounter unfolds, Eltahawy regularly turns to the video and speaks to “the internet,” indicating that she knew full well that this video would be made available online. In constructing her audience, Eltahawy also switches between talking to Americans (“see this America”) and to a broader international public, presumably of people who are angry at the perceived hypocrisy of how America constructs free speech in light of the video mocking Islam’s prophet that sparked riots around the globe.

As I watch this video and try to untangle the dynamics going on, I can’t help but reflect on the cultural collision course underway as the notion of “free speech” gets decontextualized in light of heightened visibility. But before I get there, I need to offer some more context.

Free Speech in the United States

In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This is the foundation of the “free speech” clause that is one of the most unique aspects of American political life. It means that people have the right to speak their mind, even if their speech is unpopular, blasphemous, or critical.

Over the last 200+ years, there have been interesting cases that pit free speech against other issues that result in what may be perceived to be special carve-outs. For example, “hate speech” is not protected under civil rights clauses when it constitutes a form of harassment. Child pornography is not considered free speech but, rather, photographic evidence of a crime against a child. And speech that incites violence is not considered free speech if it serves to create an imminent threat of violence. (Of course, the edge cases on this are often dicey.) But content that depicts many things that are deemed offensive – including grotesque imagery, obscene pornography, and extreme violence – is often protected by free speech, even if public display of it is limited.

Of course, what taketh also giveth. Many European countries have begun banning women from wearing the hijab, seeing it as an oppressive dress. In the United States, the same first amendment that permits racist and blasphemous content also protects Muslim women in their choice of clothing. Even when people are racist shits, Muslims have a tremendous amount of freedom afforded to them because of US laws that forbid discrimination on the basis of religion. Does that make it easy to be Muslim in the US? No. But being Muslim in the US is a hell of a lot more protected than being Jewish in any Arab state.

As offensive (and, frankly, dreadfully awful) as the pseudo-pornographic film “Innocence of Muslims” is, it’s protected under free speech in the United States. This is not the first film to depict religious figures in problematic ways, nor will it be the last. As The Onion satirically reminds us, there are plenty of sexualized images out there depicting religious figures in all sorts of upsetting ways.

Yet, this video spread far beyond the walls of the United States, into other regions where the very notion of “free speech” is absent. Many Muslims were outraged at the idea that their prophet might be depicted in such an offensive manner and some took to the streets in anger. Some interpreted the video as hateful and couldn’t understand why such content would ever be allowed. Meanwhile, many Americans failed to understand why such a video would be uniquely provocative in Muslim communities. On more than one occasion, I heard Americans ask questions like: Why should it be illegal to represent a religious figure in a negative light when it’s so common in Muslim societies to be so hateful to people of other religions? Or to be hateful towards women or LGBT people? Or to depict women in negative ways? Needless to say, all of this rests on a fundamental moral disconnect around what values can and should shape a society.

Meanwhile, in the United States, a lawsuit was moving through the courts concerning a deeply racist advertisement that “The American Freedom Defense Initiative” wanted to pay to have displayed by New York City’s subway system (MTA). The MTA went to the courts in an effort to block the advertisement which implicitly linked Muslims to savages. The MTA lost their court battle when a judge argued that this racist ad was protected speech, thereby forcing the MTA to accept and post the advertisements. Begrudgingly, they did. And this is where we get to Mona.

While posting racist images is covered under free speech law, not just any act is covered under the freedom of expression. When Eltahawy chose to express her dissent by spray painting the ads, she did commit a crime, just as anyone who graffitis any public property is committing a crime. Freedom of speech does not permit anyone to damage property and, as horrid as those ads are, they were the property of the MTA. Unfortunately for Eltahawy, her act is also not non-violent protest because she committed a crime. [Update: Eltahawy uses non-violent protest as her justification to the police officers for why she should not be arrested. I’m not suggesting that her act was violent, but rather, that she can’t claim that she’s simply engaged in non-violent protest and assume that this overrides the illegal nature of her actions. If she knows her actions are illegal, she can claim she’s engaged in civil disobedience, but civil disobedience and non-violent protest are not synonymous.] Had she chosen to stand in front of the ad and said whatever was on her mind, she would’ve been fully within her rights (provided that it did not escalate to “disturbing the peace”). Now, we might not like that vandalism is a crime – and we might recognize that most graffiti these days goes unpunished – but the fact is that spray painting public property is unquestionably illegal.

Of course, the whole thing reaches a new level of disgusting today when Pamela Hall – the anti-Islam activist behind “Stop the Islamization of America” – sues Eltahawy for damage to _her_ property. While I don’t believe that Eltahawy was in the right when she vandalized MTA property, the video makes it very clear that Hall actively provokes Eltahawy and because of Hall’s aggressions, Hall’s property is damaged. I hope that the courts throw this one out entirely.

Making Protests Visible

By circulating the video of Eltahawy getting arrested, activists are asking viewers to have sympathy with Eltahawy. In some ways, this isn’t hard. That poster is disgusting and I’m embarrassed by it. But her choice to consistently exclaim that she’s engaged in freedom of expression and non-violent protest is misleading and inaccurate. What she did, whether she knew it or not, was illegal and not within the dominion of either free speech or non-violent protest. Interestingly, her aggressive interlocutor accepts her frame and just keeps trying to negate it by saying that she’s “violating free speech.” This too is inaccurate. Free speech is not the issue at play in the altercation between Eltahawy and Hall or when Eltahawy vandalizes the poster. Free speech only matters in that that stupid poster was posted in the first place.

The legal details of this will get worked out in the court, but I’m bothered by the way in which the circulation of this video and the discussion around it polarizes the conversation without shedding light on the murky realities of how free speech operates of what is and is not free speech and of what is and is not illegal in the United States when it comes to protesting. Let me be clear: I think that we should all be protesting those racist ads. And I’m fully aware that some acts of protest can and must blur the lines between what is legal and illegal because law enforcement regularly suppresses protester’s rights and arrests people in oppressive ways that undermine important acts of resistance. And I also realize that one of the reasons that activists engage in acts that get them arrested because, when they do, news media covers it and bringing attention to an issue is often a desired end-goal by many activists. But what concerns me is that there’s a huge international disconnect brewing over American free speech and our failure to publicly untangle these issues undermines any effort to promote its value.

I’m deeply committed to the value of free speech. I understand its costs and I despise when it’s used as a tool to degrade and demean people or groups. I hate when it’s used to justify unhealthy behavior or reinforce norms that disgust me. But I tolerate these things because I believe that it’s one of the most critical tools of freedom. I firmly believe that censoring speech erodes a society more than allowing icky speech does. I also firmly believe that efforts to hamper free speech do a greater disservice to oppressed people than permitting disgusting speech. It’s a trade-off and it’s a trade-off that I accept. Yet, it’s also a trade-off that cannot be taken for granted, especially in a global society.

Through the internet, content spreads across boundaries and cultural contexts. It’s sooo easy to take things out of context or not understand the context in which they are produced or disseminated. Or why they are tolerated. Contexts collapse and people get upset because their local norms and rules don’t seem to apply when things slip over the borders and can’t be controlled. Thus, we see a serious battle brewing over who controls the internet. What norms? What laws? What cultural contexts? Settling this is really bloody hard because many of the issues at stake are so deeply conflicting as to appear to be irresolvable.

I genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen to freedom of speech as we enter into a networked world, but I suspect it’s going to spark many more ugly confrontations. Rather, it’s not the freedom of speech itself that will, but the visibility of the resultant expressions, good, bad, and ugly. For this reason, I think that we need to start having a serious conversation about what freedom of speech means in a networked world where jurisdictions blur, norms collide, and contexts collapse. This isn’t going to be worked out by enacting global laws nor is it going to be easily solved through technology. This is, above all else, a social issue that has scaled to new levels, creating serious socio-cultural governance questions. How do we understand the boundaries and freedoms of expression in a networked world?

Three conversations for parents: navigating networked publics

This post was originally written for A Platform For, a new site dedicated to creating opportunities for young people and adults to engage with technology in a healthy way.

Parenting is hard. Many parents find parenting in an era of social media to be confusing, in part because they must advise their children to make sense of spaces that they don’t understand themselves. It’s easy to be afraid of what’s new, but by focusing on technology, parents often lose track of the underlying social issues that their children are trying to navigate.

In many ways, the advice that children need to negotiate networked publics parallels advice that parents have always given when their children encounter public spaces. To address online safety concerns, parents need to help build resilience generally. With that in mind, I encourage parents who are concerned about online safety issues to initiate three important conversations with their children:

Public-ness. Hanging out online is a lot like socializing in any other public space. Youth may be there to socialize with their peers, but teachers and other adults may also be present. What makes the internet especially tricky is that youth leave traces that may be viewed by people at a different time. As a girl, my mother taught me that I need to put my best foot forward whenever I was in public. For today’s youth, that public is the internet. In order to help youth navigate networked spaces, parents need to talk with their children about unexpected and invisible audiences. How might what you write be interpreted by someone other than your friends? What happens when what you say is taken out of context? Rather than focusing on what’s right and wrong, it’s important to begin a conversation about what it means to engage publicly in a networked society.

Empathy. People often say or do mean things when they themselves are hurting. They lash out at others to get attention. Some do so anonymously because they want to see how their actions might prompt others to respond. All too often, we focus on helping youth address bullying by blaming the people engaged in meanness and cruelty, but developing empathy broadly from an early age is one of the best ways to address cyberbullying. Rather than blaming technology or blaming mean people, help everyone develop respect for others.

Sex and Sexuality. Many parents struggle with the birds and bees conversation, preferring to avoid the topic altogether or hope that offering a book will do. Unfortunately, some of the trickiest issues online – including sexting and pornography – often stem from the interplay of sex and sexuality. A conversation about sex and sexuality in a networked world needs to include a variety of issues, including navigating desire and respect, the importance of trust and the potential for trust to be violated, the desire to be loved and the potential consequences of falling in love. It never was simply about pregnancy and STDs, but networked technologies highlight how important it is that we go beyond those topics in our contemporary birds and bees talk.

The networked society that we live in today may feel radically different, but many youth are struggling with the things they’ve always struggled with.They’re trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into the bigger world. They want to hang out with friends, but they’re also trying to figure out the status games of their peers. All of this is playing out through social media. Parents are in a unique position to help young people navigate this networked world, but they need not fear the technology. Instead, parents should start having key conversations with their children to help them develop strategies for coming of age in a networked world.

“Socially Mediated Publicness”: an open-access issue of JOBEM

I love being a scholar, but one thing that really depresses me about research is that so much of what scholars produce is rendered inaccessible to so many people who might find it valuable, inspiring, or thought-provoking. This is at the root of what drives my commitment to open-access. When Zizi Papacharissi asked Nancy Baym and I if we’d be willing to guest edit the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (JOBEM), we agreed under one condition: the issue had to be open-access (OA). Much to our surprise and delight, Taylor and Francis agreed to “test” that strange and peculiar OA phenomenon by allowing us to make this issue OA.

Nancy and I decided to organize the special issue around “socially mediated publicness,” both because we find that topic to be of great interest and because we felt like there was something fun about talking about publicness in truly public form. We weren’t sure what the response to our call would be, but were overwhelmed with phenomenal submissions and had to reject many interesting articles.

But we are completely delighted to publish a collection of articles that we think are timely, interesting, insightful, and downright awesome. If you would like to get a sense of the arguments made in these articles, make sure to check out our introduction. The seven pieces in this guest-edited issue of JOBEM are:

We hope that you’ll find them fun to read and that you’ll share them with others that might enjoy them too!

What Anti-Trafficking Advocates Can Learn from Sex Workers: The Dynamics of Choice, Circumstance, and Coercion

NOT for sale: human traffickingFor the last year, I’ve been trying to get my head around different aspects of human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. I’ve been meeting with a variety of relevant actors, including anti-trafficking advocates, law enforcement officers, researchers, and sex workers. I’ve talked with survivors and buyers, observed online traces, and scoured the literature. Throughout all of this, I’ve developed a very uneasy feeling about the way language is leveraged in this domain. In particular, I’m deeply bothered by the ways in which the concept of “trafficking” is employed by different groups in ways that confuse and obfuscate different aspects of commercial sex. There is no doubt that the politics around sex work and trafficking are ugly, but if we’re actually going to help those who are abused and exploited, we need to get beyond coarse categories and try to understand the messiness.

As I’ve grappled with my own conceptualization of the issues in this space, I’ve come to realize that those invested in anti-trafficking interventions would gain a lot from talking with – and, more importantly, listening to – sex workers. (See: Sex Workers Project to learn more.) I know that’s controversial, but let me offer some of what I’ve learned by talking with those who identify as sex workers and why I believe that this divide must be bridged.

The Language of Choice, Circumstance, and Coercion

Commercial sex is not a homogenous practice. In talking with various sex workers and sex-positive activists, I often hear the language of “choice, circumstance, or coercion” employed. Although I’ve heard a variety of different definitions, I’ve come to understand this language as a spectrum. On one end, you have choice where individuals with a high level of agency and capital (social, economic, cultural) choose to engage in sex work, often because they hold pro-sex attitudes and believe that the world would be a better place if people were more open and honest sexually. Terms employed by these sex workers (and their clients) include “sex workers,” “escorts” and “high end prostitutes”; those who identify as such are often engaged in pro-sex public narratives. On the other end of the spectrum, you have coercion where individuals lack any form agency or capital and are directly or indirectly forced into the trade through manipulation or force. In between, in a category that describes what I suspect is the bulk of commercial sex, is circumstance. Circumstance itself can also be treated as a spectrum. On the end closest to choice, you have individuals who believe that they should have the right to sell any part of their bodies for financial gain. The logic is simple: why should one’s genitals be off-limits when one is allowed to sell one’s brains, hands, or back for labor? The bulk of circumstance has more to do with challenging economic issues, including poverty or financial desperation. Finally, closest to coercion, there are individuals who are both financially hard off as well as grappling with serious mental health issues, including drug and alcohol addiction, gender dysphoria, a history of abuse, and/or co-dependency.

Many anti-trafficking advocates, including second wave feminists and religious individuals view all forms of commercial sex as being coercive in nature. Many who cite religious beliefs in condemning prostitution focus on the issue of morality, either drawing on texts that condemn prostitution or arguing that people who engage in such sinful acts must not be in their right mind. Feminists who are opposed to all forms of sex work highlight that the structural conditions of oppression – including a long history of sexism, racism, homophobia, and classism – make it impossible for low-status individuals to freely choose to consent to sex for money.

The language of choice, circumstance, and coercion can get murky for precisely the reasons the feminists highlight. Plenty of oppressed individuals believe that they are engaged in sex work by choice, even when they’re grappling with mental illness and abuse. And the history of inequality and structural oppression means that many low-status individuals see few opportunities beyond commercial sex to make ends meet.

While this framework – choice, circumstance, and coercion – is primarily used to describe adult sex work, talking about youth is more complicated. On one hand, it makes sense to talk about youth as coerced, regardless of how they see themselves, for teenagers definitely lack legal agency, typically lack social agency, and are often unaware of how their circumstances create conditions in which they cannot consent to trading sex for money. Yet, in talking with teenagers – especially those who do not work for a pimp – it’s clear that many see themselves as making a choice that’s predicated on circumstances. Some – but not all – teens see commercial sex as a mechanism by which they can achieve financial independence in light of existing oppression.

As I struggle to make sense of how to understand teens’ self-perception, I started to realize that addressing the intwined issues involved in trafficking requires starting with where people are at, regardless of how we feel about their own self-perceptions. In other words, rather than externally evaluating where someone is on the choice, circumstance, and coercion spectrum, it’s important to begin by asking them where they see themselves to be. Why? This spectrum of commercial sex doesn’t just provide a roadmap for understanding how people perceive their own practice, but it also provides a framework for thinking about interventions.

Intervening: The Value of Choice, Circumstance, and Coercion as a Model

In order for an anti-trafficking intervention to work, it needs to be situated in context. All too often, we hear about cases of foreigners who are trafficked for sexual purposes, “rescued” and repatriated, only to be once again trafficked. Upon investigation, these cases almost always turn out to be driven by circumstance. For some, the financial gain of being in the life outweighs the abuse that it entails. This is horrible, but ignoring this does little to combat it.

Regardless of how someone feels about sex work, treating all commercial sex as coercive does little to address the underlying structural and social conditions that produce it. By focusing on how someone sees themselves across the spectrum, it’s easier to start imagining different kinds of interventions. For example, if someone has the social, economic, and cultural capital to make a choice to engage in sex work, the intervention that’s needed is very different than what’s needed to help someone who lacks these capacities.

There is no doubt that legal interventions are needed to get at the heart of coercion and the resultant trafficking that occurs. Unfortunately, this is where it becomes clear how broken our legal structures are. In far too many states, those who have been forced into commercial sex are the ones who are prosecuted when they get caught. And those who exploit these people – either by buying or selling them – are rarely prosecuted. This creates a situation where those who are coerced can barely tell the difference between their abuser and the State. From their perspective, at least their abuser offers love and support alongside the abuse. If we want to make a difference in the lives of those who are coerced into commercial sex, we need to make certain that they are supported, not punished. And we need to make sure that exploitation is one of the riskiest things that people can do.

Yet, as we move across the spectrum towards circumstance, it becomes clear that our lack of social services is haunting us. Far too few people have access to mental health services, let alone have the support structures to address the demons that haunt them. Foster care is fundamentally broken, the cost of mental health care is inaccessible for many, and there is very little in the way of social services for those who are struggling. People slip through the cracks all over the place. It’s no wonder that most youth who get into the life are “runaways” or “throwaways.”

If we want to make a difference here, we need to construct social services that can truly help those most at-risk, long before they end up in the life. Once they’re there, they need social services even more, regardless of whether they see themselves as trafficked or simply engaging in circumstantial-based sex work. We can’t expect those who are dealing with serious mental health issues to magically be OK once they’ve been identified. Yet, in far too many environments, that’s exactly what we expect. Given this, it’s no wonder that abused individuals keep returning to commercial sex, long after they’re adults.

Moving out of the realm of direct abuse, there are other serious components to circumstance. I do not believe that we can address the issue of sex work by circumstance without seriously reflecting on the economic state of our society. When people have limited economic choices, they often make difficult trade-offs. And when faced with a stark reality of minimum wage labor that doesn’t pay a living wage, countless individuals seek alternative financial opportunities, including selling parts of themselves that they would prefer not to. I will never forget talking with a teen who turned to sex work because she could figure out no other mechanism to help support her injured undocumented mother and younger siblings. From my perspective, sex work by circumstance is all too often a by-product of deeply flawed economic policies. We cannot expect to prosecute our way out of this. Most adults that I’ve met who engage in sex work by circumstance understand the risks and have made a hard and troublesome calculation that the risk outweighs the alternatives. Most youth feel as though they have no other option. The cost of poverty runs deep in our country, especially for children who lack parental support and women of color.

I’m not saying that the practices of those who exploit children or adults who enter into the life out of circumstance can or should be justified, but I think that it’s important to recognize that not all exploitative sex work takes the form of an abusive pimp engaged in physical oppression. Far too often, the exploitation that is occurring is a result of social and structural conditions that we’ve created as a society. Collapsing choice, circumstance, and coercion into one category of sex work or trafficking erodes the nuances that explain people’s engagement with sex for money and obfuscates the dynamics that configure people’s practices. If we want to intervene in a meaningful way, we need to draw out these nuances and build a more complex intervention model.

Exploitation and Violence

Nearly everyone is comfortable condemning the violence that occurs when people are explicitly, directly, and coercively forced into being exploited. The common presence of violence and abuse is part of why those who are opposed to all forms of sex work conceptualize it all as trafficking. Yet, it’s important to untangle the ways in which violence operate in sex work and exploitation. Some sex workers are never violated or victimized, but, sadly, violence is all too common. This does not mean that it’s acceptable. Regardless of how someone perceives their engagement with sex work, it is never acceptable for them to be violated, abused, or raped. Period. And we need to make sure that those who are are supported and helped. I get furious what I hear people shrug off rapes of sex workers with comments like “well, it’s her job, she deserved it.” No one deserves to get raped or to have sex against their consent, regardless of whether or not they choose to engage in sex work.

But in some ways, that’s the easiest side of violence surrounding sex work and exploitation. When people are accustomed to being abused, they stop seeing it as abuse. One of the heart-wrenching aspects of the commercial sexual exploitation of minors is that many of them were violated long before they entered into the life. It is all too common to hear stories of rape by family members – father, uncles, brothers, cousins – that predate their commercial sexual exploitation. What kills me is hearing stories about how much “nicer” their commercial exploiters are than their own family.

It is important to recognize the ways in which violence and abuse operates around and within the contexts of commercial sexual exploitation – and the role that it plays in shaping people’s decisions to get involved in sex work. It still boggles my mind that we do so little in this country to address familial abuse and then are surprised when it results in seriously problematic dynamics. If we want to curb commercial sexual exploitation, we need to counter all forms of sexual exploitation.

What Sex Workers See

I’ve never spoken with a radical, pro-sex sex worker who’s not absolutely horrified by commercial sexual exploitation. Even those who are pushing for legalization of prostitution are outraged that people are being exploited for commercial gain. May who identify as sex workers actively work to combat trafficking. It’s not like those who believe in sex work believe in rape. These are fundamentally different things.

Folks in the anti-trafficking worlds need to recognize how valuable sex workers can be as allies. Regardless of how any anti-trafficking group may feel about sex workers, one thing is clear: sex workers often have more access into the worlds in which the majority of commercial sexual exploitation takes place. This access can be leveraged to find victimized youth, to help do interventions, and to identify exploiters.

What sex workers see can be of great value to combating sexual exploitation, but leveraging this knowledge requires collaborations between unlikely parties. My hope is that anti-trafficking advocates and sex workers can find ways to work together to combat commercial sexual exploitation. They have a lot to learn from one another about the complexities of the issue. When it comes to sexual exploitation, pro-sex advocates are not at odds with anti-trafficking organizations. They may see the world from a different perspective, but both groups want to end exploitation.

Of course, this all presupposes that the goal is to actually combat commercial sexual exploitation, change structural conditions to minimize oppression, and otherwise address the crux of the issue. Which, I admit, is a bit optimistic given the highly political nature of all of this.

But to the degree that the disagreement comes down to ideology and framing, I think that a lot could be gained from making a concerted effort to find common ground and to hear why each group is using the language and models that they are to make sense of the nuanced experiences and situations that they’re encountering. At the end of the day, I hope that we can agree to help address the structural and social conditions that shape desperation, abuse, and exploitation. In order to make a difference, we need to not get caught up in political and ideological battles, but work to develop a nuanced understanding of the ecosystem. This means taking a multi-prompted, complex systems approach to understanding what’s happening and why. And it means building connections and listening to voices that approach the issue from a different perspective.

As more and more organizations get involved in anti-trafficking advocacy, I really hope that folks will take a moment to listen to and learn from those who identify as sex workers. The language and frames that they use may seem foreign, but I would argue that they’re quite helpful in getting at different aspects of the issue. And we really need to be building large networks of allies committed to combating exploitation if we’re going to make a difference in this complex problem.

(I am deeply indebted to Melissa Gira Grant for pushing me to think critically about these issues. For those interested in learning more about the politics and legal issues surrounding sex work, I recommend reaching out to her. And I’m also thankful to Jennifer Musto of Rice University for helping me understand the framing debates.)

This post was also posted elsewhere. Follow these links to see related conversations:

Participatory Culture: What questions do you have?

Question Mark GraffitiHenry Jenkins, Mimi Ito, and I have embarked on an interesting project for Polity. Through a series of dialogues, we’re hoping to produce a book that interrogates our different thoughts regarding participatory culture. The goal is to unpack our differences and agreements and identify some of the challenges that we see going forward. We began our dialogue this week and had a serious brain jam where we interrogated our own assumptions, values, and stakes in doing the research that we each do and thinking about the project of participatory culture more generally. For the next three weeks, we’re going to individually reflect before coming back to begin another wave of deep dialoguing in the hopes that the output might be something that others (?you?) might be interested in reading.

And here’s where we’re hoping that some of our fans and critics might be willing to provoke us to think more deeply.

  • What questions do you have regarding participatory culture that you would hope that we would address?
  • What criticisms of our work would you like to offer for us to reflect on?
  • What do you think that we fail to address in our work that you wish we would consider?

For those who are less familiar with this concept, Henry and his colleagues describe a “participatory culture” as one:

  1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
  3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
  5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

This often gets understood through the lens of “Web2.0” or “user-generated content,” but this is broadly about the ways in which a networked society rich with media enables new forms of interaction and engagement. Some of the topics that we are considering covering include “new media literacies,” “participation gap” and the digital divide, the privatization of culture, and networked political engagement. And, needless to say, a lot of our discussion will center on young people’s activities and the kinds of learning and social practices that take place. So what do *you* want us to talk about?

CFP: public-facing papers on Youth Movements / Youth Organizations

Scholars, researchers, & academics – we need your help!  Below is a “Call for Papers” on issues that many of you know about. We’re looking for your help in translating some of the amazing scholarly work out into a format that can be shared with advocates, activists, organizers, and other change-makers.  If you’re working on areas related to youth movements or youth organizations – or you know people who are – please read/share this CFP.  Thanks!!!

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society is delighted to announce a Call for Papers for The Kinder & Braver World Project: Research Series (danah boyd and John Palfrey, editors) presented by the Berkman Center and the Born This Way Foundation, and supported by the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

For more information regarding the series, please see:

This working paper series publishes short papers that synthesize existing peer-reviewed research or equivalent scholarship and provide research-grounded insight to the variety of stakeholders working on issues related to youth empowerment and action towards creating a kinder, braver world.  The papers grow out of different types of research (e.g., social science, mental health, medical, legal) and are aimed at different audiences (e.g., youth, parents, teachers, school boards, religious leaders, policy makers).  It will be developed in phases, and over time will cover a wide range of topics related to youth empowerment and the development of kindness and bravery.

For this call, we are looking for papers that are related to two topics:

  • Youth Movements for Social Change. What is known about youth organizing and youth social movements?  How do adults and youth work together for social change?  How do youth movements leverage technology? What are psychosocial predictors of youth engagement? How do peer norms affect youth activism? What is the relationship between self-efficacy and youth empowerment? What are key research insights that organizations trying to create a social movement with youth need to know?
  • The Role of Youth Organizations.  Youth have long participated in religious and secular organizations, including programs like the Girl Scouts of America, 4-H, and Gay-Straight Alliances.  How has participation in these organizations shaped youths’ worldviews, civic engagement, and social wellbeing?  What kinds of organizational structures work best to engage youth? Does participation in youth organizations predict healthy civic engagement? How is social media used by youth organizations? What are notable successes and failures in creating youth organizations? What are key lessons from youth organizations that anyone working to support youth should know?

For more information, see the call for papers:

To view previous papers on Meanness and Cruelty, see:


Important Dates

Submissions are due by July 25, 2012 to

For information on content and formatting requirements, as well as our review process and all other deadlines, please review our Guidelines to Authors:

Learn more about The Kinder & Braver World Research Series here:

We look forward to hearing from you; please forward and distribute widely to networks that may be interested.

Bringing Research to Bear on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Minors (a.k.a. “child sex trafficking”)

I believe that technology can be leveraged to empower people in amazing ways, but I also recognize that it can also be used in deeply disturbing ways. All too often, when we as a society see technology being used in horrible ways, we want to blame and ban the technology. As a researcher invested in leveraging the visibility of ugliness to make serious cultural change, my role is to step back and see if we can understand better what’s going on in order to more significantly impact the issue at hand.

I know that technology is being used in the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. I also know that many people have responded to the visibility of “child sex trafficking” on commercial websites by wanting to shut down those commercial websites. Seeing horrible things makes people want to act, which is fantastic. Unfortunately, without focus, those actions can be counterproductive. As a researcher dedicated to ending crimes against children, my goal is to make sure that we understand what we’re doing so that we actually address the core of the problem, not just the most visible symptoms of it. Unfortunately, we know very little about how children are advertised, bought, sold, and exploited through the use of technology. There are plenty of anecdotes, but rigorous data is limited. This I realized was something that I could help with. As a researcher, my goal has been to try to untangle the complex ecosystem and obtain data that can help us actually go after the root of the problem.

I worked with Heather Casteel and Mitali Thakor to construct a framing document to ask challenging questions about how technology is being used in human trafficking and, specifically, the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Microsoft Research Connections (Rane Johnson-Stempson), the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit (Samantha Doerr, Bill Harmon, and Sue Hotelling), and I put together an RFP last December asking for researchers to submit proposals about how they would research and address some of the hard puzzles in this ecosystem. We were surprised – and delighted – to get far more viable, thought-provoking, and important proposals than we could fund. After a difficult decision process, we decided to fund six projects that are intended to bring important research to bear on this important issue. The grant recipients we funded are as follows:

  • Dr. Nicole Bryan, Dr. Ross Malaga, and Dr. Sasha Poucki of Montclair State University and Dr. Rachel Swaner of the Center for Court Innovation, for research on how networked technologies, including the Internet, mobile phones, and social media, are used by “johns” to procure children for sexual purposes.
  • Dr. Susan McIntyre of Calgary, Alberta, Dr. Dawne Clark of Mount Royal University, and Norm Lewis research assistant at Mount Royal University, for research on the role of technology in the recruiting, buying, and selling of victims in the sex trafficking industry.
  • Professor Mary G. Leary of the Catholic University of America, for a comprehensive assessment of judicial opinions on child sex trafficking issued over the last ten years.
  • Dr. Kimberly Mitchell of the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center, for research on technology’s role in facilitating child sex trafficking and understanding the benefits and obstacles for law enforcement.
  • Dr. Jennifer Musto of Rice University, for research on how law enforcement leverages the benefits and overcomes the obstacles of using technology in combating the trafficking of children for commercial sexual exploitation.
  • Dr. Anna W. Shavers, Dr. Dwayne Ball, Professor Matt Waite, Professor Sriyani Tidball, and Dr. David Keck of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for research into identifying the clandestine language used in web advertising of child sex trafficking and conceptualizing intelligent software to identify such online advertisements.

My hope is that these amazing scholars will investigate these challenging issues and provide new data and analysis so that we can develop sound socio-technical interventions that really work to address the core issue: the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Through this process, I also hope that we can begin to develop a meaningful research community to really tackle these challenging intellectual and analytic puzzles from multidisciplinary perspectives.

It’s been awe-inspiring to watch so many different organizations and institutions work on combating human trafficking – government agencies, NGOs, advocacy organizations, and corporations. My hope is that this research will provide insight into these discussions so that we can develop new tactics and strategies for helping those who are marginalized and victimized. Additionally, I hope that the development of a research community in this area will help provide a locus to which practitioners and advocacy groups can turn to develop viable interventions.

I look forward to working with these scholars and going deeper into these issues in my own research.

Why “We’re Oversold – Just Deal With It” Isn’t Acceptable

On Wednesday night, I arrived at the Hilton Doubletree in Washington DC after an intense day of meetings ready to do a few more hours of work. When I got to the desk, the clerk told me that the hotel was oversold. I raised my eyebrows. The news worsened. Not only were all nearby hotels fully booked, but so too were all hotels in the District. He was going to have to send me out to Virginia to a hotel that would be 30 minutes away in zero traffic and, well, DC never has zero traffic. My response was simple: “You’ve got to be f*ing kidding me!?!?” I had booked the hotel through Amex, complete with the confirmed late check-in. I refused to take his offer to go to Virginia because it would’ve messed up every aspect of my itinerary. Instead, I called Amex to get them to investigate options. From the Amex folks, I learned that things really were dire in DC. Yet, according to the rep’s records, the Doubletree was still selling rooms. I told this to the clerk and he told me that wasn’t possible. I looked on Kayak and found that I could also still book the hotel. Meanwhile, at Amex, the only other two guaranteed hotel rooms, both at the St. Regis. One was a presidential suite costing $3000 and the other was a normal room costing a little over $500. (For comparison, my Doubletree reservation was a little under $300 per night.) I immediately asked her to hold the cheaper St. Regis reservation and pressed the clerk to switch me to that hotel. He panicked and told me he’d need to talk to his manager. Getting his manager on the phone was no easy task.

Meanwhile, I tweeted with outrage. As the clerk’s manager failed to respond, a slew of tourists showed up for their hotel rooms; they too were told the dire news and shipped off to Virginia. Far quicker than the manager, the Hilton rep responded on Twitter. I was hopeful. I asked him to call the Doubletree. He did. The clerk explained the situation and said there were no rooms and that they only rooms were in Virginia. I asked for the phone and explained that there was a room at the St. Regis. I explained that they are expected to get me a hotel room in the same city and that it was absurd to think that they could charge me almost $300 a night and ship me off to Virginia and call that customer service. For over an hour, layers of phone calls and discussions and interactions between the different actors – the clerk, the manager, the national representation, the Amex representative – went round and round. Finally, they agreed to send me to the St. Regis but they were only going to pay me for the one night and expect me to check out the next morning and then wait until 3PM to check back in. Given that I had a slew of meetings that I was planning to do from my room midday, this wasn’t going to work. But, after almost 2 hours of them running around in circles, I was exhausted and decided to stop fighting. So I went to the St. Regis, glad to have a room, but deeply unsatisfied with everything about my Hilton experience. Yes, in the end, they allowed me to pay Doubletree rates for one night at the St. Regis. But that took two hours of my time and layers of management and phone calls and never a sincere apology or commitment to fix it by any means necessary.

Then I got to the St. Regis. Bedraggled, grouchy, and generally fed up. Oh what a difference. The clerk there immediately grabbed her more senior colleague (the on-site manager) when she realized the situation. He told me that it would take some time, but that I should go and sit and relax. He sent me off to the bar where my friend and I had a drink. 15 minutes later, he came into the bar, handled me a room key with a smile, and signaled to the bartender that we should not pay for our drinks. Midday, I was in my room, and the head of security came by and asked me when I’d be out. Apparently, they hadn’t booked that room because they needed to do service on the door. I told him when I would be gone. When I came back later that day, the head of security had left a plate of fruit, a bottle of sparkling water, and an apologetic note.

Needless to say, my experiences were night and day. Sure, a lot of this has to do with the fact that the St. Regis is a luxury hotel whose brand rests upon its commitment to service while the Doubletree is a basic hotel. Yet, there’s another really clear difference. The representatives physically present at the St. Regis were empowered to actually take care of the issues that arose while the poorly paid clerk at the Hilton had no agency to do anything other than follow orders and call his manager for exceptions. And, by the sounds of it, his manager was not really on-call and didn’t have much agency either. If I didn’t have the visibility that I have through social media (as, presumably, none of the tourists did), I wouldn’t have had any wiggle room whatsoever.

There’s also another issue here. The Hilton was continuing to sell rooms even though it was sold out. Presumably, it had been oversold for hours because the clerk had clearly looked like he had been sending people to Virginia for a while. Another factor could be Hilton’s program that allows any premier client to bump a paying customer to oversold. But it’s not like Hilton sent any email warning of the situation. Or otherwise attempted to notify me or Amex. Rather, they expected me to show up and be OK with being shipped off to Virginia and pay DC rates with the only “gift” being a free taxi each way.

What makes this acceptable? Why do we tolerate overselling hotel rooms? I realize that companies want to maximize profits, but why is it OK to royally screw customers that you’ve guaranteed to have a room for?

On a personal level, there’s a serious irony here for me. I used to use Hilton pretty regularly. I used to have status with Hilton. But, a few years ago, something happened and I stopped using Hilton. A month ago, my mother had a wonderful stay at a Hilton and I realized that I had forgotten why I had stopped using them and I felt like I was being stubborn for no reason. But, in many of the cities I’m visiting this year, Hilton is actually more practical than Starwood or Kimpton (my most common go-to brands). This DC trip was my first venture back into the Hilton brand. Ooops.

I travel a lot. Last year, I was out of Boston for 209 days. I’ve become a bit of a prima donna about my work travel because it’s bloody exhausting to spend so much time negotiating these things. I’ve always had a complex relationship to the issue of status wrt travel. On one hand, it bothers me that hotels treat those who travel more frequently better than those who don’t. On the other, omg is this much travel grueling and sometimes it’s nice to be treated like a princess after yet-another-hotel following yet-another-airport in yet-another-timezone. So I’m conflicted.

But one thing that I strongly believe is that it’s not OK to commit to a service (a hotel room, for example) and then substitute with a lesser solution without any compensation and just consider this business-as-usual. And justify it in the fine print of a contract written by lawyers not to be legible to consumers. This kind of pervasive low-level abuse should not be tolerated. When you as a company screw up, it’s your responsibility to go out of your way to do right by your customers. Not just your loud and visible customers or your high status customers, but all who you’ve made an agreement with.

And it’s not just about high end brands or those who pay a significant premier. Last week, I was on Virgin America. As the plane was coming into Boston, they learned that there were problems with Red (the interactive display for TV/video/food/gaming). They emailed all on the flight to give a heads up and an apology. At the gate, they apologized twice and told us they’d keep us updated. On the plane, they managed to get the video working but not the interactive components. So they gave all food out of free. And they compensated all of us $25 for the inconvenience. THAT is service. And while Virgin is a well-loved brand, they’re not more expensive or more luxury per say. They’re just more civil.

What will it take for all brands to recognize that civility in society requires that they treat their customers with respect? That they empower their customer-facing agents? And that when they screw up, they go out of their way to apologize? And what will it take for customers not to accept being treated horribly because that’s become status quo in America? Le sigh.

Microsoft Research opens New York City lab

I am giddy with pleasure to share Jennifer Chayes’ announcement that Microsoft Research is opening a new lab in New York City that will be filled with computational social science types. The New England lab that I call home combines qualitative social science, empirical economics, machine learning, and mathematics. We’ve long noted the need for data science types who can bridge between us. And now, to my utter delight, a new lab is emerging to complement our lab. The folks who are going to serve as the founding members of the new NYC lab are computer scientists, physicists, experimental economists, and data scientists. Many of them are interested in social network analysis and big data problems but – or shall I say crucially – they all see the value in collaborating with ethnographers. In other words, we’re building a cross-lab team that’ll create new possible interdisciplinary collaborations that make my heart go pitter patter.

The new team will include Duncan Watts, David Pennock, John Langford, Jake Hofman, Dan Goldstein, Sid Suri, David Rothschild, and Sharad Goel. For the social scientists out there who were oohing and awing when we announced that MSR hired Nancy Baym, Kate Crawford, and Mary Gray, just imagine the amazing connections that can occur when you mix these computational social scientists and the great group of researchers we have at the Social Media Collective. ::giggle::bounce:: <evil grin>

Here’s to new relationships connected through Amtrak!