The ‘Hustlers’ Twitter campaign should have been an opportunity to share the hustle of actual sex workers, but they found themselves marginalized yet again.
This essay contains discussions of sexual violence, whorephobia/anti-sex work sentiment, and mentions r/pe
By Adrie Rose
Hustlers has potential. It’s foolish to pretend otherwise when the film has grossed more than US $72 million worldwide against a $20 million budget and generated Oscar buzz for Jennifer Lopez after a lifetime of middle-of-the-road roles. It’s received praise for a lead cast that is comprised of mostly women of colour and a marketing campaign that relies on every post-#MeToo, pink hat feminist trope one could think of. Hustlers is a movement. Well…it could be a movement. It has all the makings of a cultural touchstone that will be referenced for years—decades even—to come, for featuring the kind of strong, independent female lead that gets its own entire category on Netflix. With its heavy emphasis on feminine strength and resiliency and its comedic take on the no-so-lighthearted parts of strip clubs and sex work, Hustlers has all the makings of a generation-defining film. And yet, something about it just doesn’t feel right. It just doesn’t sit right with me.
The film has been mired in controversy since the early production phase. The living inspiration for the lead role of Ramona, Samantha Barbash, is reportedly considering suing the production company for misrepresenting her as a sex worker and using her life story without compensation. The casting of rapper Cardi B in a bit part has dredged up claims that she raped men (she didn’t), drugged them (she didn’t), and robbed them (she did). In the weeks leading up to the film’s release, stories about influencer Nikita Dragun, also cast in a bit part, began to surface detailing allegations of throwing fake money at strip clubs and claims of cultural appropriation. Jennifer Lopez and fiance Alex Rodriguez have been accused of going to strip clubs for “research” and paying dancers a pittance for their time. I posted a Twitter thread on this allegation after receiving several Instagram DMs from witnesses and received further corroboration afterwards on Twitter, but Alex Rodriguez disputed this in a May interview, claiming to have paid out $400 – $600 per dancer. Even now, controversy is swirling around the subject of the film, Samantha Barbash, as claims of whorephobia, trafficking, pimping, and outright theft are arising. Activist and artist Jenda Neutral (@jendaneutral on Instagram), who uses they/them/he/him pronouns, has spent weeks shedding light on inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the stories of Barbash and Rosalyn Keo, the ringleaders in the story.
Show Palace, the club in Long Island where much of Hustlers was filmed, has attracted criticism for closing its doors for a week of filming, giving dancers and staff little notice and no back pay. This is a common practice in the film industry, but it’s no less detrimental to sex workers when an “urban” club, staffed by mostly Black and Latinx dancers closes shutters its doors. “High-end” or “upscale” clubs frequently implement unofficial quotas for the numbers of women of colour allowed on the stage or floor each day. It’s generally been agreed upon that Show Palace gave dancers between one and two weeks notice, but this is a non-starter. Giving stigmatised workers that struggle to find work outside of the sex industry one to two weeks to arrange transportation, childcare, and employment is dismal on its face. But when it’s strippers that are routinely discriminated against for their weight, skin colour, hair texture, and all manner of physical standards the weight of that expectation almost becomes unfathomable. But it’s necessary because the loss of a full week of work is rent money, food costs, and/or childcare.
But the most ridiculous, bordering on the outright absurd, aspect of the film had relatively little to do with the film itself. It was the marketing campaign, largely centered on social media, that well and truly blew my wig back. #TweetYourHustle. The Twitter Women (@TwitterWomen) account started trending on the afternoon of Sept. 7, the #TweetYourHustle campaign took off. Women across the country began chiming in with stories of their part-time, full-time, volunteer, and pyramid scheme “hustles.” Images of women in uniforms, polyester and couture alike, flooded the hashtag as they recounted tales of long nights, co- and single-parenting, night classes, and #bossbabe companies like Lularoe, Premier Jewelry, and Scentsy. But there was no evidence of the hustlers that inspired the film. There was nothing from sex workers. There were no pictures of strip clubs or dressing rooms, no pictures of porn production sets, no pictures of in-call hotel rooms or AirBnB’s from escorts. There was nothing from the community that put Hustlers on the map.
Certainly there were sex workers excited about the film and joining in on the fun, but they were shadowbanned. In the traditional sense, shadowbanning means a users posts can only be seen by the user and they cannot be found in a search or hashtag. The practice rose to prominence on Reddit, where it was used to combat spam. After backlash for not alerting users to their account being shadowbanned, Reddit switched to a system of temporary and permanent account suspensions which notify a user immediately and gives the opportunity to appeal, after a blog post admitting the failures of shadowbanning. In this sense, the current usage of the term shadowbanning is inaccurate. Twitter uses an algorithm to determine how often an account is reported, how frequently it uses flagged keywords, and how the ratio of replies to standalone tweets to determine an account’s authenticity. Based on the information the algorithm compiles, Twitter will devalue an account in searches, hashtags, and replies.
But the outcome is essentially the same. Accounts that rate frequent use of words like “whore”, “slut”, “hooker”, “prostitute”, various curse words, and slurs are devalued quickly, sending them rocketing to the bottom of an invisible list. Replies from these accounts are hidden under a “Hidden Replies” label, sending no notifications, even if the two accounts are following each other. Tweets from these accounts do not appear on the timelines of many, if any, other users. Instagram uses a similar system of valuation and the two sites thus claim that they do not shadowban users, despite all evidence to the contrary. Because Twitter and Instagram do not alert users when their account has been flagged or devalued, new tools have cropped up to identify whether an account has been targeted. A quick search of my own Twitter account shows that my replies have been deboosted just minutes after a series of tweets regarding Israel’s recent election (using the words apartheid, fascist, and Ashkenazim) and Lil B’s predation of children (using the words fuck, paedophile, fuck men, and predator). In the month that my current Twitter account has been active, I’ve been subjected to reply deboosting no less than six separate times, each coinciding with the use of specific keywords or topics like decriminalisation, sex work, hooker, and misogynoir.
Because of the work and research that I do, I saw tweets from sex workers on my timeline using #TweetYourHustle. They didn’t make it to the search page, but I saw them. I tweeted my own hustle that never made it to the search page despite being retweeted 45 times and quote tweeted repeatedly. After almost a day of sex workers tweeting constant questions at the @TwitterWomen, @Twitter, and @TwitterSupport accounts, a few strategically chosen accounts began showing up in the search. Almost all of the accounts chosen were from white or white-passing people as presented in their profile pictures. All of the accounts chosen have well over 1,000 followers and several have verified badges. Even replies to my own thread appear in the search, but not my original tweets. And yet my thread and subsequent threads received enough traction among sex workers to bring reporters from Vice and Rolling Stone to my DMs asking for quotes on articles they were writing on Hustlers.
This is not to say that my tweets deserved any particular attention. I have a small account. And if I’m being perfectly honest, I’m quite glad that my tweets don’t appear in the search after thousands of sex workers woke up on 20 September to find their accounts locked until they offered up a phone number for “human verification.” My reach is largely funneled through the larger accounts that follow and support me. But the sex worker community is not a small one online. Because of the digital nature of most areas of the sex work industry, we exist in every corner of the internet. After Rihanna canceled SnapChat, sex workers and their premium accounts kept the app afloat. Despite Twitter’s base efforts to get us out of here, it remains the only platform that does not explicitly prohibit nudity, pornography, or escorts from using its platform so every cam girl, phone sex operator, escort, and stripper has an account. My open letter to Cardi B tripled traffic to my website, garnered over 55,000 unique views on Twitter, and made it to a Rolling Stone article because of sex workers. We have reach. And despite its flaws, apparent or assumed, we were excited about Hustlers.
Sex workers are starved for proper representation. We want it and we will promote the hell out of stories that give us a nuanced and human portrayal. Netflix’s Bonding, a portrayal of a pro-domme’s assistant, was heavily promoted in sex worker circles as we waited for its release. It was…a disappointment. Films like Players Club, Showgirls, and Pretty Woman still make the rounds as favourites among sex workers despite their one-sided approach to our lives though. Hulu’s Harlots has been a resounding success commercially, largely in part to the support of sex workers. But our tweets don’t show up when you search for #HarlotsOnHulu. Numa Perrier’s Jezebel is shaping up to be a sleeper hit among sex worker and civilian viewers alike with near-perfect reviews on both Rotten Tomatoes and letterboxd. And despite our misgivings, sex workers have been raving about Hustlers. In a Nylon article, strippers give breakdowns of just how much the film got right despite a deafening silence on issues of decriminalisation and harm reduction from everyone involved except director Lorene Scafaria, well after criticism surfaced.
Full disclosure, I still haven’t seen the film yet. I’m undecided. I want to like it and I want to support the “culture.” But I’m resolute on this one thing. These sites, these actors, these directors, these writers cannot keep using us, our bodies, and our stories to line their pockets while simultaneously refusing to support us and our needs. It’s mutually assured destruction. Legislation like SESTA/FOSTA, increasingly strict oversight and censorship on social media, and the continued silencing of our voices is going to kill us. Physically, but also creatively and culturally. Marginalised groups, the same black and trans people whose work is considered fair game for cherry-picking, are overrepresented among sex workers. Without our contributions, feminist and “sex positive” outlets like Salty, fashion designers, clothing labels, film and television writers, musicians like Megan thee Stallion and Saweetie, and whorephobic pimps like Samantha Barbash would be lost. And for all the buzz that Hustlers has gained, there is still a concerted effort to get us out of here—digitally and physically. Unfortunately for the rest of y’all, that means civilians are going to have to pull the collective thumb out and start advocating for us. They’re going to have to start listening to us and amplifying our voices, even when it hurts. Or there won’t be anything left.
Adrie, Sociology student, book hoarder, and mother to Oscar (5) and Misty (15). I believe in the power of the glitter accent nail, sex workers, and black people.