‘E-Viction’ sex work event sheds light on ‘digital gentrification’ by self-destructing when it’s over

Are you going to E-Viction on Friday? If you want to see the virtual show, then you’re going to have to make time for it. It only runs for 12 hours, 12pm ET to 12am ET, and then it disappears like it was never there in the first place.

What a familiar feeling.

My friend once compared using sites as a sex worker to a game of whack-a-mole: A new platform appears, sex workers and adult creators come in, we make it popular, then the executives up top gradually cull us while trading our hard work for civilians (or non-sex workers). Once we’re kicked off, we’re forced to find a new platform, and the process starts all over again.

Tumblr is a case study in deplatforming sex workers and throwing safety nets to the wind. Due to the site’s popularity among millennials, its NSFW ban was of the biggest vectors for bringing sex workers’ rights into the mainstream among teens and 20-somethings. But deplatforming is a history that goes far beyond Tumblr—or SESTA-FOSTA, for that matter. For sex workers, it’s like a bar being burned down. Sure, we can archive the net on the Internet Wayback Machine, but we can’t archive the sense of community that came with it.

Thus, the idea behind E-Viction: Sex workers agree to deplatform and censor themselves en masse as a sort of consensual, nonconsent role-play. It’s just as much an invitation to build a sex worker-centered community as it is performance art about doing online sex work.

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You’re probably familiar with gentrification. The Urban Displacement Project describes it as “a process of neighborhood change that includes economic change in a historically disinvested neighborhood” along with demographic changes “not only in terms of income level, but also in terms of changes in the education level or racial make-up of residents.”

When we talk about gentrification in the U.S., we usually use the term specifically in reference to the gentrification of Black and brown urban communities by white transplants. Brooklyn, New York, is perhaps the poster child for gentrification in the 21st century: White, middle- and upper-class suburbanites settle into the borough’s predominantly Black communities and bring their taste for whiteness with them.

But gentrification is about community space, not just real estate, and so gentrification also happens outside of apartment buildings and grocery stores. One of the most important non-real estate forms of gentrification today is “digital gentrification,” a term E-Viction’s art collective Veil Machine uses to describe its event’s commentary.

“E-Viction is a self-destructing platform where sex workers and artists create intimate encounters and exchanges to imagine a world beyond SESTA/FOSTA […] before dramatizing the otherwise invisible censorship of sex workers by self-destructing,” the collective writes in a press release. “E-Viction is a direct response to our urgent need for a digital public sphere and the challenges of sex worker survival in COVID-19. “

Like its offline counterpart, digital gentrification targets the most marginalized communities and cannibalizes their spaces. Online, that’s sex workers, particularly queer and trans sex workers of color. Many of E-Viction’s performers are queer, trans people of color themselves. Black and brown marginalized genders—particularly Black and brown women, femmes, and trans people—have “always been at the forefront of sex work, violence, and movements toward Black, trans, and gay/queer liberation,” Veil Machine member, E-Viction performer, and sex worker cherubirl told the Daily Dot.

“The majority of our performers are sex workers who work as kink professionals, full-service workers, cam performers, strippers, sugar babies, porn producers, and full body sensual masseuses, to name a few,” cherubirl said. “Over half our members identify as people of color, a third are nonbinary and/or trans, and almost all are identified or socialized as queer. Not everyone is in the business of exploiting their identity or oppression in their sex work or artmaking […] but our [artwork] speaks to nuance and inspires dialogue beyond identity politics into the nitty-gritty of what sex workers have always grappled with.”

E-Viction Sex Work

In offline gentrification, the first wave of gentrifiers are generally oppressed in some ways while having privilege in others. Historically, this happened in the gayborhood, where white gays would create predominantly white enclaves at the expense of residents of color. Public sex—which once flourished in the Greenwich Village gayborhood—became a vector for the New York City government to target gay men by blaming them for the AIDS crisis, which sparked a moral panic that tore the gay community in half. Some queer men saw this as a sign that they could never again trust the state. Others began licking its boots. As the latter gained social (and financial) capital, their neighborhoods became more and more gentrified over time.

That legacy continues today. After the AIDS Crisis, gay West Village residents increasingly encouraged the New York Police Department to police its streets, if not did the policing themselves. Ironically, the same gays who had bathroom sex and pier hookups during the ’70s and ’80s now call the cops on the trans people of color and sex workers hanging around in their community.

As queer theorist Benjamin Joseph Nobile Kampler argues, the mainstream gay rights movement has conceded to an imagined “homogeneous white, heterosexual, middle-class” entity, the “Public.” Because the mainstream gay rights movement believes it must alter “gay people, cultures, and sexual practices” into a form of homonormativity that mirrors the imagined “Public,” the LGBT community (emphasis on only four letters) began self-regulating itself to meet the Public’s needs. In other words, gay hustlers were sacrificed for Pete Buttigieg.

“The assumption that sex is unethical was solidified in the minds of the Public as well as state officials and became increasingly solidified in the minds of queers, particularly gay men,” Kampler writes. “The best way to fight the spread of HIV, it seemed, was to try to conform to the ideals of the Public. The state’s attempts at bathhouse closures can be understood as an attempt to infuse gay male life with heteronormative values; for the U.S. government, stopping the spread of HIV amongst gay men meant forcing them into homonormativity.”

E-Viction Sex Work Gentrification NYPD

Digital gentrification is complicated because there are no apartment buildings, no mom-and-pop businesses, no block party spaces stalked by squad cars to document. There is an ocean of information involved in an online community’s history, and becoming a digital historian requires a level of online prowess that isn’t quite the same as simply showing up to an intersection and recording. This makes it harder for online activists and organizers to not just document but also break down fascism.

When Tumblr announced its NSFW ban, some civilian LGBT users defended the move by claiming sex workers and adult creators needed to be sacrificed to stop rampant problems with child pornography on the site. Just as the West Village’s residents demanded the police arrest transgender sex workers because they felt their “safety” was at risk, assimilationist LGBT users defended Tumblr’s whorephobic policy as a lesser of two evils.

“Make no mistake—algorithms that claim to be designed to protect against ‘child trafficking’ are really just sanitizing measures to keep your timelines respectable,” cherubirl said. “One of the reasons that celebrities and non-sex worker OnlyFans users have not been kicked off is precisely because they, unlike us, don’t pose a threat. This is why, like one of our members Shayla likes to say, ‘Our very existence is resistance.’”

Given purity politics and internalized shame enable the sort of online censorship that E-Viction is trying to resist, Veil Machine turns the issue on its head in the way sex workers know best: a power play. Instead of letting big tech decide when sex workers can speak and how, E-Viction calls the shots. You can watch, you can buy services, you can talk about sex workers’ rights, and you can pay for all sorts of erotic labor. But when midnight strikes, it’s done. The move lets attendees enjoy sex workers’ hard work while also mirroring that restless feeling of dormant emergency in the online sex trade. Even though you know when the show will end, there’s never really enough time to enjoy it. If only it didn’t have to come to a halt.

“I think gentrification in the virtual realm boils down to this: Who is the internet for and what is the internet for?” cherubirl said. “Massive corporations like Facebook (owner of Instagram) and Google privatize the internet and are therefore the digital parallel of real estate developers, exacting inordinate control over the places that people consider home. Many corporations have depended on the support of the sex working community to develop—see OnlyFans, Tumblr, CashApp—and then toss us out as soon as they no longer need us. As in the case of its flesh world counterpart, the logic of gentrification has an aesthetic.”

Exposing this aesthetic, and then breaking it, is direct action. It exposes the audience to the reality of the internet. Sex workers, particularly queer and trans sex workers of color, are the engine behind popular online culture, but big tech curates how and when they get to speak. Instead, E-Viction lets these trans and queer Black and brown sex workers lead the discourse.

“It is without a doubt an issue in both the digital world and flesh world that Black sex workers and sex workers of color are statistically more often banned, deplatformed, and censored online,” cherubirl said. “Sex workers of color are shadowbanned and censored at alarmingly high rates which has an immediate impact on our ability to earn an income, make rent, and meet our basic living needs […] the gatekeepers of resources and the oppressive systems that exist in the flesh world/IRL has a very similar effect to the virtual world, silencing and erasing BIPOC sex workers everywhere.”

Inside every story about gentrification is a story of loss. For New York sex workers, that’s Times Square, the red light district-turned corporate America tourist trap. Today, Times Square’s history as a sex worker hot spot is lost on most New Yorkers under 30, but writers and artists are making sure its legacy wouldn’t pass away when its porn theaters closed shop. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue by Samuel Delaney unravels everything from public sex during adult flicks to the hustlers and gay men that hung out in midtown before Disney (and, more specifically, the NYPD) pushed them out.

E-Viction is like the 21st-century version of Delaney’s walk through Times Square. It’s a microcosm of what once was and what we could lose as technological whorephobia continues to grow. But it’s just as much a warning as it is an invitation for change. For the civilians who enjoy E-Victed and want it to go on forever, well, the power is in their hands to make that a reality. So what are they waiting for? This show is interactive.

“You’re going to censor us? We’ll make that a seductive mystery. You’re going to kick us off your platforms? We’ll make our own. You’re going to shut us down? We’ll turn our inevitable defeat into a spectacle not to be missed,” Veil Machine’s Sybil Fury told the Daily DOt. “Just showing up to work as a sex worker is resisting digital gentrification, and as such, we’ve been at the front lines of this fight for decades. It’s time to pay attention to the everyday forms of resistance we’ve been using, and ask us how we can develop those tactics into bold, widespread strategies for change.”

Veil Machine’s E-Viction goes live on Friday, Aug. 21, from 11am CT to 11pm CT. RSVP on Eventbrite to attend.