Issue 293,  published February 16, 2021

How Sex Workers Try to Make Podcasts Work For Them

Did you know that when you apply for a relief loan through the Small Business Administration, you have to certify that you don’t “present live performances of a prurient sexual nature”?

I sure didn’t.

This is one of almost innumerable obstacles for the modern sex worker; it’s also one of the topics Parker Westwood hopes her podcast will offer a place to discuss — “hopes” being the operative word.

On A Sex Worker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which launched the first week of 2021, Westwood plans to speak with workers who provide such things as escort services, stripping, and video performances, to name a few, much of which constitutes legal activity but all of which is susceptible to sundry forms of stigma. Shows like Westwood’s, along with other podcasts like Sapphire’s Earplay, are noteworthy for their attempts to both reduce stigma and carve out a place for sex workers to authentically connect. In this instance, “attempts” is the operative word, because, even in the audio sphere, neither is guaranteed.

The open nature of podcast publishing has recently attracted concerns about the harms it could potentially facilitate. In recent months, the medium has been increasingly identified as a new vector for misinformation and hate speech, with bad actors taking advantage of the fact that anybody can publish on the open podcast ecosystem with little gatekeeping or regulation. But it should also be noted that the relative freedom of the open podcast ecosystem is also what allows actually marginalized and suppressed communities like sex workers to discuss their circumstances more or less openly. Many have turned to the medium accordingly.

Beyond the obvious anonymity that podcasting provides, “another benefit of audio is you don’t have to get all dolled up if you don’t want to,” says Westwood, a Detroit-based sex worker for whom “Parker Westwood” is a work name. “The conversation can be more casual and open.” This dynamic yields a more workable space to discuss complicated topics, and there are many Westwood hopes to tackle, like the livelihoods of Pornhub contributors and systemic racism.

Mehgan Sapphire has explored similar topics and beyond on her show Sapphire’s Earplay, which has existed in various forms since she started it as a college radio program in 2008. Sapphire is a radio reporter for the Black Information Network, owned by iHeart Media, and she considers her podcast a passion project, one where she can guide people through “sex, safe sexuality, and Black sex identity.”

However, even though Sapphire has been in the audio world much longer, she’s harder to find online than Westwood. Namely, if you were to Google Sapphire’s Instagram handle, @msradiosapphire (@mehgansapphire is a back-up account), the results might not lead to her page. She thinks something’s afoot.

In December 2020, parent company Facebook, Inc. released its updated Terms of Use, specifying who and what, exactly, constitutes sexual solicitation. The content currently prohibited by its “Community Standards” is notably variable, ranging from advertisements for escort services to “[s]exually explicit language that goes into graphic detail.”

In an Instagram Live video, which was recorded even before this update was supposed to take effect, Sapphire is seen using the search function to find her Instagram account, turning the phone to face the camera, and revealing that her profile counts of followers, following, and posts all read “0”. (This phenomenon is characteristic of what has been referred to as a “shadow ban.”) A Facebook spokesperson initially responded to a request for information but at the time of publication had not offered a comment.

Sapphire describes feeling similarly frustrated with the Spotify app, where her podcast does not display category tags that she says she submitted and which Spotify itself encourages podcasters to add in order to improve the discoverability of their shows. I’m told that the tags a podcaster submits should indeed display. A Spotify spokesperson was unable to comment on why Sapphire’s tags have not gone into effect.

Ostensibly in response to recent laws such as FOSTA, which could hold such companies legally liable for instances of sex trafficking on their platforms, companies like Facebook explicitly state that it is precisely those actions they are trying to prevent through content moderation. But even with such explicit guidelines, the actions they inform can feel sweeping and indiscriminate, making many people in the sex industry wonder if they will be considered complicit. This unites some; it divides others. And thus, even on relatively “open” audio platforms, sex workers can be even further marginalized.

Take Clubhouse, for instance, where Sapphire thought she’d feel more comfortable than she has on Instagram. But, she says, “there are women on there who have Only Fans, are webcam models, are catering to the adult audience, but they say, ‘I’m not a sex worker.’” Sapphire laughs: “If you are offering any type of sexual pleasure [or] offering entertainment in the sexual atmosphere, whether or not you want to call it porn, you are a sex worker,” she says. “Sex work is not — and shouldn’t be — a disgusting word. It’s an umbrella term,” she says.

But fear, whether of stigma or retaliation, is real, says Westwood. Many workers may keep to themselves; after all, they’re just trying to make a living.

“I had the privilege of having a conversation with a sex worker who had literally never spoken to another sex worker in the six years she’d been working, because she was so afraid to be outed,” Westwood says. “The relief that I felt from her — that’s what I’m looking to have on the podcast.”

Some sex-industry-related podcasts, like The Escort: Deconstructed, speak outward to address this context, attempting to dismantle stigma that non-industry workers (and some industry workers themselves, as Sapphire notes) might hold. Westwood credits the creators who’ve preceded her for testing the medium as a place to have these kinds of un-stymied conversations about the industry; Sapphire herself recalls people listening to her show and saying, “I never knew that porn stars are just like us.”

In that way, Sapphire’s Earplay and A Sex Worker’s Guide to the Galaxy touch this goal of destigmatization. They also deliberately serve their peers in the field, creating networks that aren’t otherwise possible, whether because of bureaucratic restrictions or the intra-industry divides those restrictions appear to be feeding.

“I feel like my podcast is an outlet,” says Sapphire. “It’s almost therapeutic for people that feel like they don’t have other outlets to go to.”

In addition to enforcing the restrictions noted above, the U.S. Small Business Administration also stipulates that applicants for Economic Injury Disaster loans not “derive directly or indirectly more than de minimis gross revenue through the sale of products or services, or the presentation of any depictions or displays, of a prurient sexual nature.” That makes its exclusions apply not only to escorts, for example, but ubiquitously legal business, such as sex toy shops or strip clubs (which, in turn, include behind-the-scenes staff, management, and families, as this BuzzFeed piece notes).

To debate whether or not sex-related work should be illegal is moot, Westwood says; there is work that is both criminalized and stigmatized, but even those acts that don’t bear the former still carry the latter.

“I still work in the adult industry,” says Sapphire. “I edit porn in the morning, and I report traffic in the afternoon.” She aligns herself with the sex industry both because of the broadness of the field and her willingness to explore the parts that are distinctly different from hers, which are often also the parts that make the broader public squirm.

“At the end of the day, sex work is work,” she says. “With podcasting, for as long as it can hold out, yes, I think that it is going to be the only outlet that I can spread the message.” And this extends to folks in the sex industry who might like to come on the show; “I make it my mission with my podcast every Sunday to hold a safe space,” she says, so reach out — if you can find her.

Westwood is only on the sixth episode of A Sex Worker’s Guide to the Galaxy, though she and fellow sex workers have already used it to address such topics as BDSM, curated date experiences, and disability. She hasn’t noticed any pushback, but she’s keenly aware that she’s greener to the game, she says; things may be still to come.

“I’ve just been kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Aria has been reporting since 2015, making audio since 2016. She’s moved between the two worlds, but here, she’s in both.