Trauma Behind The Screen: On Sex Work, PTSD, and Cyberstalking

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I’m not proud of it but I Google my name on the internet. Not as compulsively as before but definitely more than is a mildly curious, somewhat defensible as healthy, amount. About two and a half years ago, I told my therapist that I didn’t think I had PTSD. Cyberstalking wasn’t a catastrophic event in my life. I wasn’t suffering physical consequences from the situation. At that time, C-PTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) wasn’t in common use beyond academic circles. Professionals weren’t even sure the internet could cause trauma. 

Trauma, the internet, and me

When I spoke to Joanne Mackie, LMCH, CCTP, she wasn’t surprised by the somewhat indifferent attitude I’ve adopted towards what I “affectionately” call the incident. “In terms of research,” she opines, “It’s only since the 80s, that trauma has been looked at as this serious thing.” “Bessel Vander Kolk, the author of The Body Keeps the Score, opened up the idea that trauma is more than this thing that happens to veterans or war survivors.” 

Numerous books in the same genre of trauma-informed self-care have been released. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Mending of Our Bodies by Resmaa Menakem. It’s Ok That You’re Not Ok: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture that Doesn’t Understand by Megan Devine. Books that I find myself returning to time and time again.

With the sometimes glacial speed of knowledge uptake in research institutions, Mackie notes little research exists on cyberstalking. “There’s not going to be a lot of research on sex work and cyber-stalking because crime on the internet moves faster than research can keep up with. It’s like there’s always a faster way to hurt or damage someone.”

C-PTSD isn’t yet recognized in the DSM-V, the standard diagnostic model in the United States. However, it is recognized in the ICD (the International Manual for Clinical Diagnosis). Mackie explains in a short C-PTSD crash course, “PTSD is the result of an event. If you get into a car crash, that’s bloody awful, but it has a clear start and end point. If you’re mugged, it’s traumatizing, but it’s an event.”

“C-PTSD,” she continues, “is repetitive, generally beginning in childhood. Almost everyone with C-PTSD is exposed to childhood abuse or neglect in some way. You aren’t able to get safe from [the trauma] because it colors how you see yourself in the world. It’s an important distinction between a traumatic event and a traumatic life.”

Existing as a sex worker online

Mackie looks to the paparazzi to better illustrate how public attitudes toward understanding around mental health shift faster than research. “[With C-PTSD], it’s the same feeling of not being safe. You can’t just…go do things.” I can’t help but think of the latest entry in the Meghan Markle and Prince Harry saga. Their Netflix documentary clearly demonstrates the terror of being hounded by an unforgiving press that believes they’re entitled to every aspect of your existence.

Mackie continues, “People are going to say, ‘You chose this. If you live out loud, you deserve what happens.’” Much like Markle, the options for sex workers seeking help in situations of genuine terror are far and few between. 

I think back to a panel discussion I moderated on the decriminalization of sex work as harm reduction. And theology professor on the panel earnestly (but smugly?) asked, “Well if they choose a criminalized profession, don’t they deserve to be criminalized?”

The short of it is that criminalized people won’t seek out state-sponsored assistance or resources, even when it is in their best interest to do so. The risk of penal consequences including prosecution, deportation, incarceration, family separation, etc. is simply too great.

In sociology, much of the available data used to study the use of social services and resources comes from social services reporting. In the case of data on drug use and harm reduction, research was greatly stymied by strict adherence to the War on Drugs. What little data exists regarding sex workers passing through social service networks is frequently tainted by forced participation in the criminal justice system and a conflation of sex trafficking and sex work. Only now is the phrase “consensual sex work,” a gross misrepresentation of Carol Leigh’s original intention and later work, considered the politely radical and appropriate way of referring to the artists formerly known as ladies of ill repute. 

During my own forced interlude with Pittsburgh’s police amidst my cyberstalking adventure, I remember making it very clear to the officer, I was a “graduate student” doing “research” on sex worker communities and that was why I was being targeted. I don’t imagine he believed me for a second, but I made the safest choice in a situation where my stalker had begun making anonymous reports to the school district, accusing me of harming children.

Compounding the issue of biased reporting, there is often an underlying current of “who would believe a whore?” in countless stories of stalking, harassment, serial assault, etc. The Grim Sleeper, the Green River Killer, Ed Buck, Roger Gobluski, Daniel Holtzclaw, the Iowa man whose own daughter reported him, all targeted sex workers for a reason. 

If you keep your tinfoil hats on just a bit longer, you might begin to think, well if what little data does exist is biased, wouldn’t that mean the quality of research not only suffers, but the only other evidence available is first-hand accounts? And therein lies the rub: not only is the research community failing to grasp the urgent need for progress, but the population in question is also treated as a public enemy and invisible, a pariah with no institutional credibility.

The easy retort is that sex workers must be asking for it if they return to their work time and time again… but this rhetoric is also frequently levied against political organizers, journalists, and teachers facing down harassment, stalking, and doxxing, who are most often women.

 “No one tells a soldier at war to just get over it,” Mackie observes. “Just like anybody else, I should be able to work.” Taking it a step further, she adds, “A lot of Americans go to work with dread but not the fear that someone will kill you.”

Violence against sex workers is normalized, not normal

It may be tempting to express skepticism that people want to hurt or kill sex workers for doing their job. But, death threats are relatively commonplace in industry circles. When the person, or people, orchestrating the harassment campaign start sharing personal information like legal names, locations, and vanilla jobs, the fear becomes more visceral.

For many sex workers, waking up on a list of targets for harassment and potential doxxing isn’t all that unusual. G, a content creator and companion in her late 20s has firsthand experience with that fear. An early potential client weaponized real, personal information. He outed her to family and created sockpuppet and imposter accounts to doxx her on social media.  

G says despite the harassment, she never considered leaving sex work. “I’m a fighter,” she asserts, “I will fight this until the end.” In response, she has increased her screening requirements for new clients including a valid photo ID and place of employment. Bad date lists and blacklists are common tools in a sex worker’s arsenal. These resources allow those harmed to contribute to a repository that other sex workers can access during the screening process. 

G says she worked with a therapist to recover from the ordeal . But, she still finds herself feeling hypervigilant and untrusting of new people. These are crippling hurdles for someone whose business model relies on meeting new people behind a computer screen. To this point, Mackie says sex workers take a calculated risk every time they log on. “People don’t like sex workers and they don’t feel bad if they hurt them.” Decades of documented, open disdain for sex workers showcase this. One may say it’s the rejection of their humanity.

“A sex worker has to prepare to be hit [by a virtual attack] every time they log in,” Mackie says.. That’s not a healthy reaction to your work.” It may not be healthy, but it’s a familiar feeling for so many people that work online. G says: “The best thing I did for my mental health was accept that I live in a world that hates sex workers. Being a target online comes with the territory.” 

Surviving, and thriving, after online harassment

During our interview, Mackie walks me through a supremely uncomfortable exercise. It forces me to admit the fear of being doxxed some 3 years later is irrational, but no less real. This, she says, is the point. The anxiety is a real response to an imagined, but expected fear. “Anxiety keeps you safe. It wants to help you but it does that by turning on your entire sympathetic nervous system and activating your fight or flight response.” 

While therapy has done a great job of helping me manage the post-stalking anxiety, I still find myself banging out 2000+ words on the matter. I wish I could find less online ways to get by, but Mackie insists the girls that get it, get it. “Explain what cyberstalking looks like. It seems self-explanatory to everyone that has to think about it but other people don’t really understand why [you] can never use [your] name again.” 

It might help, she suggests, to explain it as cyberbullying. Science, data, and the public conversation is catching up to the concept. “People connect bullying to trauma more than stalking. If you think of [cyberstalking] as bullying, it’s traumatizing and it’s abuse. It’s dangerous.” 

In my own experience, that feeling of being in danger, makes it almost impossible to think about anything else. Being online only intensifies it.

I wrap up the interview with Mackie (after having sufficiently upset myself.) I ask my final question. What can someone without access to traditional therapy do in a similar situation? Mackie says to start by being compassionate towards yourself. “Some days, your resilience is higher. If you feel like engaging is more than you can do, post your little bit. Sometimes, you feel like ‘I feel great today!’ and sometimes you don’t.” But most importantly, she says, is asking “Can [you] ground [yourself] into what’s in this moment instead of fears and anxiety predicting what your day will look like?” 

When I needed to cope, I threw myself into learning how to do my own nails. It’s cheaper than therapy. It’s a solid grounding activity that forces me to focus on a singular task for hours at a time. Others, on Instagram, recommended a slew of organizations and clinical resources for sex workers struggling with their mental health. And while Mackie doesn’t recommend Googling yourself to assuage your anxiety, she does say it’s ok to be grateful to your body (and brain) for trying to protect you. “[You’re] supposed to feel anxiety when [you’re scared]. It means your system is working.”