LinkedIn, the self-proclaimed “world’s largest professional network,” recently announced that one kind of professional is decidedly unwelcome on their site. Despite working in what is commonly referred to as “the oldest profession,” escorts are officially un-invited to LinkedIn’s virtual networking platform.
Like most online businesses, LinkedIn’s user agreement bans promotion of any illegal activity or profession. That meant that sex workers in places like Las Vegas, Nevada, where brothel work is legal, could frequent the site, but this recent change makes a point of excluding legal sex workers from utilizing LinkedIn. The user agreement now specifies that users cannot “create profiles or provide content that promotes escort services or prostitution,” even if prostitution is legal where they live.
Some outlets covering this have focused on how shocking it is that escorts were using LinkedIn at all. Why is it so shocking that sex workers, when given the opportunity to do so legally, run their businesses similarly to everyone else? Social media's effects on communication have had a global impact; it’s naive to pretend that escorts aren’t also affected by these changes. The way that the internet has transformed the sex industry, from porn to how escorts connect with their clients, has been discussed ad nauseam. Who is really surprised that they would use LinkedIn, a marketing tool meant to be open to anyone in any industry, as well?
The average person is less likely to have a realistic perspective on the lives of sex workers. Since sex workers are forced to remain invisible, using pseudonyms to protect their legal identity even when they are doing government-sanctioned work, and forced to hide their work experience (past or present), it only makes sense that "civilians" wouldn't have insight into the realities of sex work. Between issues surrounding legality, physical safety, and the potential for long-term impact on their lives (both professionally and personally), these workers often cannot be open about their business without facing serious repercussions. Being open about this kind of work carries significant risk.
Safety often trumps transparency, so although many folks have escorts (or camgirls, phone sex operators, pro-dommes, adult performers, porn stars, you name it) in their lives, they may not really know what they do for a living. It is fairly common for sex workers to come up with fake job histories, titles, and more to protect themselves from the onslaught of annoying questions, social ostracization, loss of shelter and job opportunities, or legal repercussions. Without that transparency, the average "civilian" will rarely be given the opportunity to see sex workers as human or the sex industry as, first and foremost, a job.
LinkedIn is reinforcing a dangerous sentiment by operating their business based on the wrong moral issue. Rather than considering how this affects labor rights and the working lives of the legal escorts using their site, their concern is with whether prostitution is the right kind of professional to list at all.
This user agreement not only applies to escorts utilizing LinkedIn’s marketing tools, but also applies to what can be recorded as past work experience. They may want to share the skills that they picked up while escorting, which can include more than excellent oral talents. Being a successful sex worker requires honing and utilizing skills in: marketing, copywriting, customer service, sales, financial negotiating, web design, counseling, and education. That means that a former escort who wants to use that information as valuable work experience is forced to leave a gigantic gap in their resume.
This conundrum comes up again and again for people who have worked in the sex industry: They are constantly fed messages about the “greater meaning” of their profession. They are simultaneously fetishized and vilified by a world that avidly consumes their product but actively shames them for producing it. If they do choose to leave the industry, for whatever reason, they are forced to lie about their past, figure out how to cover that gap in time on their resumes, and risk losing their jobs (friends, family support, and children, too) if they are discovered. These are people who, like all other people, deserve to be able to survive. LinkedIn is contributing to the vicious cycle that not only prevents sex work from becoming normalized, but also puts sex workers at greater risk for homelessness, poverty, and violence.
Escorts have, of course, responded to this news with outrage, and for good reason. Don't be fooled by this response; most people in the sex industry know well enough by now that this is standard fare for operating in a world where anything to do with sex and capitalism is perceived as unsavory. Escorts and the companies that represent them have been speaking out to draw attention to how hypocritical and unethical this move is on LinkedIn's part.
Our Marketing Director here at Slixa, Kathy Harris, told The Daily Dot, "It's a real dichotomy to image yourself as an online professional directory and then exclude legal companies....Most professionals are so used to this age-old tactic that they probably won't bat a pretty eyelash at LinkedIn's BS."
“By not allowing legal prostitutes to use LinkedIn, the social network and its leaders are broadcasting their feelings about social progress: LinkedIn does not believe that legal prostitution should be legal and doesn’t recognize it as a legitimate profession even though it legally is.
Is this really LinkedIn’s call to make? Should LinkedIn, a social network, decide which professions are legitimate and which are not?”
So far, escorts in areas of the world where prostitution is legalized seem to be the only workers who are outright banned from the site. While banning the promotion of illegal activity is safe and justifiable, preventing legal escorts from using the site is making a clear statement about how LinkedIn feels about the sex industry, particularly those who are operating toward the bottom of the sex worker hierarchy. The skittishness LinkedIn may feel about prostitution does not justify creating a special ban for a perfectly legal line of work.
LinkedIn’s amended user agreement is nothing more than another form of unnecessary moral policing that seeks to punish a vulnerable population. As you may have noticed, LinkedIn isn't terminating the accounts of the professional patrons of these brothels or those that engaged with the newly banned accounts; this change only affects the half of these legal transactions that already face violent opposition and social exile.
LinkedIn is successfully contributing to the stigmatization of sex work in the public sphere, and creating yet another barrier to resolving labor issues in the sex industry. Blatantly refusing to recognize escorts, particularly those that work legally, as valid, contributing members of society is refusing to recognize their struggle to have safe, clean, and fair professional lives.
Siouxie Q, sex worker, activist, and voice of WhoreCast, brought up another overwhelming concern brought on by this ban: How is this going to affect organizations that provide support for sex workers as well? Will the organizations that keep sex workers safe and supported be prevented from using LinkedIn as well? An attack on those organizations is a blatant rejection of sex workers’ right to safety, emotional support, and higher quality of living.
As the Sheri’s Ranch blog said so eloquently:
“...It’s within the social network’s rights to remove any content that it deems unsavory, but for LinkedIn to use its influence to intentionally subvert a political agenda is unfair and socially dangerous. Deciding whether or not prostitution is a legal profession in a particular country or state is the responsibility of politicians and their constituents, not the responsibility of LinkedIn.”
This act on behalf of LinkedIn is hardly revolutionary; Craigslist removed its classified sex ads a few years ago, and Backpage continues to be at risk of losing its erotic listings as well. Preventing sex workers from advertising in these forums, sometimes disguised as an attempt to prevent human trafficking, does not actually help anyone other than the people who seek to capitalize on sex workers’ vulnerability. Forcing sex workers to take their work away from the public eye will not prevent prostitution, trafficking, or pimping from taking place, but will prevent separating the consensual sex workers from the trafficked victims and make it incredibly difficult to prosecute those who have abused them.
It's not LinkedIn's place to decide which legal businesses are more valid than others, particularly not based on some arbitrary and unjustified moralism that perpetuates the marginalization of an already disadvantaged community. LinkedIn insists that their rules always included this, but clarifying it and taking action against those running legitimate businesses is overstepping its bounds.