The Jezebel Speaks: Black Women’s Erotic Labor in the Digital Age

According to contemporary scholars of sex work in the digital age, information and communication technologies (ICTs) provide sex workers various affordances. Some of these affordances include new ways of business or marketing; greater security; more autonomy; and better wages. Much of this scholarship centers young white women working in specific fields of sex work that cater to young white men clientele. Thus, several questions remain about the affordances and constraints of the internet for sex workers of color. Affordances refer to the functional and relational aspects of objects that create possibilities for human agency through interaction with them. In this present study, I use existing theories of the mobile internet and Black feminist thought to intervene into the sociology of sex work and the internet to show how Black women sex workers negotiate controlling images of Black women’s sexuality on the social networking application Instagram. This study seeks to address the following broad research questions with respect to embodiment and labor:  1) In what ways, if any, do controlling images of Black women’s sexuality emerge online? 2) How do power dynamics within the matrix of domination shape racial-sexual hierarchies of worthiness and desirability online? And finally, 3) What sexual politics, if any, do Black women exotic dancers use on social networking sites to negotiate controlling images? To answer these questions, I use a mixed-methods approach to examine the affordances of digital technology for Black women sex workers. First, I used GIS mapping software to visualize the locations of where Black women exotic dancers based in the Memphis, Atlanta, and D.C. metropolitan areas perform. Second, I distributed an online survey among this group of women to create an exploratory profile. Finally, I conducted a content analysis to explore the erotic labor of Black women sex workers as a form of racial-sexual and gendered embodiment and performance of sexuality. My findings indicate Black women exotic dancers use social networking sites (SNS) and the mobile internet to leverage racialized erotic capital into various entrepreneurial pursuits and forms of self-eroticism beyond exotic dance. Nevertheless, controlling images of Black women’s sexuality popular within the discourse of contemporary rap music shape expectations around their erotic labor. As a result, the innovation of social networking sites on the mobile internet has done little to reshape the racially and economically marginalized landscape of strip clubs wherein Black women exotic dancers perform.