Dear Companies – Addressing Privacy Concerns Amongst Sex Writers
Dearly beloved peddlers of my favourite sexual wares – this one’s for you
The World Wide Web is staring down its 30’s, Google is finally old enough to buy cigarettes, and Yelp is trying to figure out puberty. Things like affiliate marketing and product review blogs aren’t far behind – the Internet quite literally boomed and the way businesses do business took some swift and drastic changes, many for the better. Millions of people around the globe now have a voice, and a space to call their own to use it in. Because of this I can Google for almost anything of my heart’s desire and instantly have hundreds of thoughts and opinions on that thing to sort through, helping me to make the most informed decisions I can on everything from what to cook for dinner tonight, to who to trust with my health, to where to buy the comfiest shoes, to which hotel to book for my vacation on the other side of the planet. Bloggers who span everything from food to hospitality to makeup to tech gadgets, even people who simply record themselves taking something out of its packaging have their own little corner of the web. What I want to talk about in this post is what sets sex writers apart from the rest of our Internet peers, and how these differences need to be considered by the companies we work with to keep our relationships running smoothly.
One of the biggest issues we need to talk about is privacy. The circumstances under which a person who writes about sex on the internet exist within can be very, very different than those of people who write about…well, literally anything else. As an example, I’ll turn to a local internet celebrity Lewis Hilsenteger, whose main online presence is his YouTube channel Unbox Therapy…where he unboxes things. Lewis – according to his wiki page – has over 8 million youtube subscribers and holds the place as the most subscribed-to tech channel on the site. With over 8 million people paying attention to what he does, I would have to imagine Lewis has at least a handful of weird stories he could share about strange emails or overexcited fans, maybe even some hate-mail because he criticized someone’s favourite cellphone, but in my scrolls through his latest few videos I’m seeing the commenters arguing amongst themselves (or nonsense spamming, as YouTubers are wont to do) more than waging a war against Lewis himself. At the time I’m writing this, the video he posted only yesterday has over 4 thousand comments on it so in all honesty I can’t imagine Lewis is even reading the majority of the “feedback” the community has for him, which is totally fair when 8 million people want to talk to you. When you start typing Lewis’s name into the google search bar, the third suggestion down is caused from people attempting to find things out about his wife. The fourth suggestion is because people are looking for his house. Despite instances like these that most people would consider anything from creepy to a major terrifying invasion of privacy, Lewis still uses his real life identity on the internet. Why? Well, a big part of that is because there’s nothing super controversial in our society about taking something out of a box.
In contrast to Lewis and bloggers/vloggers like him who are working in industries that are generally more socially acceptable to broadcast to the world, sex writers can have a very different experience. We talk about subjects that cause people to feel anything from delighted to enraged, supported to disgusted, a bit turned on to utterly appalled. We talk about things that are still illegal in many parts of the world – sometimes the part we’re living in. We can have fans who love us a little too much for comfort, and we can have haters who will literally devote their lives to doing us harm. Just recently Sophie LaBelle, the comic artist behind Assigned Male, a strip about a transgender girl’s experiences in battling transphobia and transmisogyny was hacked. Her site was replaced with alt-right Nazi imagery and her personal details including her home address were made available to the thousands of people who spend their days issuing her death threats. Sophie was forced to pull her site from the web, had to cancel a book launch due to safety concerns, and is now in the process of relocating to a new home. Unfortunately, none of this comes as a surprise to anyone who is used to using the internet for anything related to sex.
For a more direct comparison to Lewis, I asked sex-ed vlogger Erika Lynae about her experiences with being so visible on the internet. Erika told me that she started vlogging on other subjects long before making the shift into sex-ed, and that by the time the shift happened it didn’t make much sense to create a whole new identity to film under, so she kept the same name. She also expressed being fortunate for having friends and family who she could be open with about what she does, so getting outted for her doesn’t carry as much fear and potential for disaster as it would for others. However, things have not been perfect. Erika has to do something I and many others working under aliases have never done nor would ever think of doing because our aliases are supposed to be preventing this, and that’s keep folders with screenshots and information on people who have sent her “repeated violent threats, sometimes over several years” in case she ever needs to contact the police. I’ve gotten a couple threats over the years myself but I never had much of a need to take them seriously, because I knew that short of those people being the type of genius hacker portrayed on CSI – which they weren’t – I was safe. That’s the whole point of my working under an alias, it’s supposed to give me a safety net so I don’t have to take each and every threat as something serious. It makes it so that I don’t have a desktop full of screenshots from every time I’ve gotten into an argument with someone on an internet message board or forum and they’ve gotten aggressive with me (For a woman who has been on the internet since she was 12 years old, that number is enormous.)
Erika also noted for me that she has a lot of anxiety to deal with when she attends events like YouTube conferences where she might be recognized, and could be confronted (or worse) by someone in the flesh. I occasionally post a selfie or two, but for the most part no one will ever be walking down the street and recognize me as SexBloggess. For Lewis’ part, if he worries about being recognized out in public, his anxiety level is probably just about how much time it will take for a selfie, handshake, autograph. Neither of us have to worry that someone will stalk us back to our hotel rooms, or follow us around hallways or out to our cars, or show any sort of physical aggression towards us because they don’t like what we write (or say) on the Internet. Lewis doesn’t have to worry because he doesn’t write anything sensational, I don’t worry because I work with an alias.
There are more worries that exist for Erika, but she wasn’t comfortable detailing them for me “lest they just become a breadcrumb trail.” and that is completely reasonable. As Sophie and dozens of others like her have sadly had to experience first-hand, shit hits the fan real quick if you dare to say something that someone doesn’t like on the internet. How many of us are ready and capable to just pick up and move our homes if we get outted? How many of us can completely rebuild a life after a doxxing? I asked my twitter following (mostly comprised of other sex writers, and mostly comprised of women, trans, non-binary, and other marginalized identities) why they choose to use an alias and what they fear could happen if they were to be outted. The answers vary in both consequence and level of worry.
Many expressed fear of losing their jobs and/or inability to find work in their chosen fields.
Some are worried for their children’s emotional and physical wellbeing, and a few even cited custody concerns.
Lots of us just don’t want our friends and families finding out about what we do on the internet for reasons that span from a simple matter of personal boundaries (our parents and siblings don’t need to read detailed accounts of what we do with our genitals) to fears of total disownment and social isolation from all of their loved ones.
A few younger bloggers could be kicked out of their parent’s homes and cut off from family support, some in college fear bullying and harassment.
Some have already had experiences with stalking and other harassment.
A handful of answers explained that they wouldn’t feel safe discussing their abuse if their identity weren’t hidden.
And these are just naming a few. Even though I consider myself fairly low-risk in terms of the dangers associated with being outted, I still choose to use an alias (several, actually) for a multitude of personal reasons.
Regardless of what those reasons are or for whom they exist, one thing remains constant – they need to be diligently respected. When we divulge our real names, home addresses, birthdates, social security/insurance numbers, etc, we are placing an enormous amount of trust in those companies to understand and uphold their responsibility in protecting our identities from those who could cause us pain. Unfortunately, there are a lot of ways for a company to fail us.
When Jane Doe who runs a makeup blog gets a package of eyeshadow in the mail, it’s not a huge deal if the box is covered in company logos for MAC Cosmetics. It’s probably not a huge deal if her blog alias (if she’s even using one – writing about makeup is hardly controversial) is on the address label. It doesn’t matter if the return address lists MAC Cosmetics above the street name and number. If she’s getting international mail it makes perfect sense and is not a breach of privacy for the shipper to write “Cosmetics” on the customs declaration form, because getting makeup in the mail is…again….not controversial. Most people who talk about makeup on the internet do not need to hide the fact that they talk about makeup on the internet (though if they choose to, they should still be respected)
Every single one of these things is a major problem when the thing being sent to you is a sex toy (or other sex-adjacent items.) Doing any one, but especially several, of these things when you’re a company who is sending mail to a sex writer runs the risk of outting them and making all those worst fears I listed above become a reality for these people. How can you do better?
- Send ALL OF YOUR MAIL in plain, unbranded boxes and envelopes. There are numerous ways for you to advertise your business but through the postal service IS NOT ONE OF THEM. The dozen different postal workers, our building personnel (landlords, supers, concierges, etc) our roommates, our family, our friends, our nosy neighbors are NOT an opportunity to hawk your product, they are NOT your prospective buyers and they DO NOT need to know we bought something from BigDicksRUs.com
- DO NOT put your company name in the return address box unless you’re working under a discreet name. For example, one of my favorite shops Early To Bed simply writes “ETB” in their address. Random people glancing at your mail have no idea what ETB is an abbreviation of. Still, simply leaving out your name is the best course of action, the street address works perfectly fine if the mail needs to be returned to you.
- DO NOT use our aliases in our shipping labels. DO NOT send me mail addressed [My Real Name] aka SEXBLOGGESS. There is absolutely no reason for you to be creating a public link between our alias and our real names – that completely defeats the entire purpose of an alias. Leave our aliases and all mention of our websites off the box.
- When sending products internationally you have quite a lot of leeway in how you can choose to describe the items you are sending us. I’ve received items marked as everything from “health and wellness products” to “sculptures”, you DO NOT need to write “GIANT 10 SPEED DOUBLE ENDED VIBRATING SEX TOY”, it is 100% unnecessary. Even “massagers” and “adult novelties” are off the table, anyone old enough to be handling your mail knows those are code for “sex toys.” You can be honest without outting us.
Our privacy doesn’t just pertain to sending us mail though, we also need you to be careful in how you interact with us and others online and off.
- If we are using an alias on social media, please always address us as that alias unless we state otherwise. Just because you know our names doesn’t mean you should be introducing us to your entire twitter following under that name when you talk to us.
- Please ask us before sharing our details with other industry professionals, even if you had the best intentions of creating partnerships. Just because we trust you doesn’t mean we trust everyone in the business. Be mindful of who you CC and BCC into emails and what info you’ve included in those exchanges.
- Even in person (some of you attend conventions and other industry events with us) please be mindful of whatever we’ve written on our name badges (if we have them) or ask before assuming what name(s) we’re using to talk to others face to face.
- There are varying levels of personal interactions in this industry – a writer may have become close friends with the head of one company but is still complete strangers with others, if you’re close enough to know intimate details about someone don’t assume those can be shared with anyone and everyone.
- Be careful of how you’re sharing our social media content – not all exposure is good, and not all of us WANT the exposure you’re offering. While many of us get excited to watch our follower counts increase, very few of us would celebrate the chaos of going viral. This is a particular problem I’ve been seeing with Instagram lately, so I’ll elaborate using that as an example (but this applies to ANY social media platform.) Instagram was made the way it is ON PURPOSE. The creators intentionally chose NOT to include a way for your followers to save, copy, or repost the content that you upload. Instagram has been around for years now and has undergone numerous feature adds and updates – you’ll notice that they NEVER included a way to share content, something every other social media platform includes in their interface by default. Clearly, Instagram has their own plan. This is a great feature for people who wish to have closer control over what they put onto the internet and where that content eventually ends up. Third parties developed dozens of apps to get around Instagram’s deliberate lack of content sharing features, and while yes there are people out there who praise these hacks and find them useful for their own needs, it’s just not true that they are beneficial to everyone who is using Instagram. These “work arounds” become especially concerning when a few of them work even on accounts that are set to “Private” and whose owners clearly did not wish to have their content shared. As such – and this part pertains to anywhere you find our content on the Internet – you should always ask the content creator before choosing to find a way to share their content on your own timeline, and you should even go as far as to ask how that person wishes to be credited (if at all) on the content that you intend to share. Lots of us have sharing buttons integrated into our posts and we use platforms specifically intended for sharing (like Twitter and Tumblr) but many of us also have a set of personal expectations for how you go about utilizing those features so that we remain in control of our content and aware of what is happening with it. A number of writers, bloggers, and vloggers have a “policies” page on their websites that go over content sharing – read them.
Each person you work with might have more or less concerns than the ones I have listed above, and in a perfect world you would have that conversation with them at the beginning of your contact where you two agree to start working together. I understand that, especially for larger companies where there is an entirely separate team of people operating the warehouse and shipping of materials than the one that interacts with affiliates and reviewers, that these sorts of in-depth personalizations are next to impossible, but the few bullet points I did outline are really the least companies can do in order to not only protect their business partners (which is what we are,) but in many cases, also their customers.
People do business with those who make them feel safe. We purchase cars with good crash-test-ratings, we read the ingredients in our food because we want to protect our bodies, we’re careful about the houses we buy, transit we take, restaurants we eat at, places we plan our vacations to. We research who we let babysit our kids and even our pets, who cleans our houses, who we get to repair anything. Companies who can provide that feeling of safety are the ones who get our money, our time, our attention, and our work. Companies who are making efforts to always do better, to provide us with the most comfortable experience possible, are the ones we’ll not only work with the most, but also drive customer traffic towards. Every company should be making the necessary changes in how they operate and always be striving to do better, and while “perfect” is probably not attainable, “better” most certainly is. Companies just have to care.