Being Yourself: Facebook Gets Personal

In season one of Game of Thrones, the irreverent young lord Tyrion Lannister asks his companion for the night, a foreign whore standing barely clothed in his tent, “What did your mother call you?” Now, I love Tyrion — he's quick-witted and usually quite generous in his dealings with ladies of the night. But in this moment my favorite character in the runaway HBO hit became every annoying client I've ever had that felt bold enough to ask me, “What's your real name?”

It is one of the most disrespectful questions a client can ask a sex worker. Whether it's in a strip club, a webcam show, or on social media, it is always inappropriate. Here's why: Sex work comes with a whole heap of stigma that sometimes has terrifying ramifications including but not limited to eviction, arrest, loss of custody of children, violence, and murder. Sex workers choose alter egos and pseudonyms for many reasons, but it is primarily to protect our safety.

Two weeks ago, Facebook was bold enough to pull a Tyrion Lannister. When I tried to log in to my account, I was asked to submit my legal name along with two forms of identification, preferably my Social Security number and driver's license. I was floored by the audacity of this request. Facebook isn't trying to issue me a W-9 or sign me up for health insurance. Regardless of my sex worker status, I could not fathom why anyone, whether they were using a pseudonym or not, would feel comfortable giving this type of information to a social media platform.

I am one of several hundred other folks who are in a similar boat with the company. The brave and beautiful drag queens of this city have been going toe to toe with Facebook execs for the past few months, garnering what seemed like a win after their wildly successful #MyNameIs campaign. Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence seemed optimistic after meeting with Facebook last month. “I know Facebook doesn't hate gay people and they don't hate drag queens,” she told after the meeting.

But how does Facebook feel about sex workers? Since the inception of this column in January of this year, I have not once been able to create a Facebook ad or promote any of my writing without having the post flagged or denied. Even when I interviewed Ira Glass in November 2013, Facebook gave me the runaround about promoting the post, insisting that I was somehow violating its community standards.

In a statement issued by Facebook staffer Chris Cox on Oct. 1 in the wake of the drag queen flap, he defended the legal name policy, insisting, “It's part of what made Facebook special in the first place by differentiating the service from the rest of the Internet where pseudonimity, anonymity, or often random names were the social norm.”

But Facebook has become about so much more than connecting with old high school flames late at night after your husband is asleep. Facebook's money comes from ads. The details in the profiles we share with Mark Zuckerberg, the irreverent young lord of social media, and the rest of the world give valuable information to advertisers that allow them to target their consumers more effectively than ever before. Facebook has also become a hub for networking and information-sharing that plugs communities into conversations about everything from getting cats to swallowing pills to the latest election.

Sex work can be incredibly isolating, and many find solace in connecting with other workers via the internet and, particularly, social media. When sex workers who don't feel comfortable using their legal names are shut out from one of the largest social media platforms in the world, it is a true disservice to those who need community the most.

Cox went on to defend the policy by saying, “It's the primary mechanism we have to protect millions of people every day, all around the world, from real harm.” But if Facebook is concerned about protecting people from real harm, it should consider the impact its legal name policy will have on those of us who use pseudonyms to stay safe.

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