A few weeks ago, Twitter reminded me (yet again) to watch my virtual mouth. While laughing with a male friend after a long, tough conversation about how he treats women in relationships, I tweeted the following message:
My new kink is legitimately asking men who want sex with no “strings”, courtship or commitment why they don’t just hire sex workers & watching them explode with anger. Transactional sex should be… transactional? There are professionals literally trained to provide this service.
That tweet went viral, and while I’m happy that it produced an opportunity for so many women to communicate what frustrates them about dating, I made some missteps in the language I used in the tweet that I regret.
I should begin by saying that I have been researching, writing and speaking about love, pleasure and relationships for over a decade. My goal is to curate expansive conversations on these topics that dig to the root of why so many people struggle to find the love and care they want and deserve. I am a womanist, so I explore these topics through the lens of Black womanhood. And believe it or not, Black men often reach out to me for advice on how they can be better men to the Black women and girls in their lives—better lovers, better partners and better fathers. My male friends, especially, ask my opinions about their behaviors in relationships because they know I’ll be honest (and fair and loving) with them. And if they’re messing up, I won’t mince my words in telling them so. The male friend who inspired the above-mentioned tweet is by many measures a great catch. He’s smart and successful; he has a heart for social justice; he loves his family and friends well; and he’s easy on the eyes. He’s also, as a single man in his 30s whose only responsibilities are to himself, can be quite selfish as he navigates the dating scene. As he tells me all the time, he’s focused on getting to the bag, which means he isn’t looking to settle down right now. He wants casual sex with no strings and can’t understand why he keeps ending up with women who want more. It’s a headache, he says and he wanted my advice on what he’s doing wrong.
My friend wasn’t being honest with himself or me when he said he only wants no-strings-sex. He wants emotional labor from women to accompany the sex they give. He desires a certain kind of sweetness from the women he sees—accommodations for his busy schedule, pillow-talk where he can speak about his dreams and hardships, excitement and flirtation, and good, passionate sex with someone that respects and desires him. He also wants those women to not have expectations of his time, to not get him caught up in their life drama or require too much attention, to not expect him to plan dates, and to not get attached after sex.
My friend wasn’t happy at all when I told him that what he wants from women compared to what he wants to give women lacks reciprocity and is coercive. The truth is that many men, my friend included, want way more than sex from the women they claim to only want sex with. They want intimacy, connection and care and they choose to link with women who are willing to give them all of that. I am a woman who believes in full autonomy for all women that includes them challenging their ideas and behaviors around relationships and sex. I want women to feel empowered to have all the sex they want with whomever they want and whenever they want. Forget three-month rules, faking orgasms to accommodate men’s delicate egos and approaching every interaction with men like those interactions are going to lead to marriage. Of course, there are plenty of women in the world who follow these rules and are absolutely down to fuck without commitment or strings. Often though, these women aren’t interested in the emotional work that men like my friend expect from them—especially when that work isn’t matched. So, many men end up connecting with women who want more than sex, and who behave like it—even while knowing they have no intention of offering these women more.
After debating with my friend for a good hour about why his approach to meeting and sexing women is flawed, selfish and manipulative, I asked him why he won’t just seek the services of a sex worker. My question seemed to offend him. It was a comment I made to help him see his unwillingness to address how awful he was being to the women he wants to sex. To me, if he wants sex with no strings and can’t seem to figure out how to seek that and receive it without confusion and entanglement, he should hire someone who can give him sex without any expectations of attachment—someone who will be compensated for the labor of accommodating his schedule, providing him with pillow talk and giving him exactly the kind of sex he wants. Everybody wins here, right? This should be a fair and consensual exchange that is not coercive or manipulative.
My friend was adamant that he doesn’t have to pay for sex. He initially saw sex work as unethical and dirty; I fully disagree. Sex work that is exchanged—consensually—between adults is the same as any other work. It should be a safe way to earn income and it should be decriminalized—and destigmatized. We know that plenty of men secretly invest in sex work, because they watch porn and because they subscribe to accounts and services utilized by sex workers—like Only Fans. They need to stop pretending like engaging in sex work is beneath them.
Eventually my friend saw my viewpoints and agreed with me. We joked about him being a recovering fuck boy and I told him that I was going to tell Twitter on him. I sent the tweet while laughing with him. The next thing I knew, my notifications went wild!
Thousands of people liked and shared my tweet. The tweet made its way to other social media platforms, including some of my favorite follows on Instagram (like sex writer Ashley Cobb and relationship expert Demetria Lucus). My tweet became the topic of live chats, videos and podcast episodes. And as I read people’s responses to that one tweet (because there were others), I immediately began to regret I tweeted it. My intention behind the tweet clearly didn’t meet the impact of it. In my work as an educator, culture critic and community organizer, I know that impact matters more than intent. I started seeing harmful language added to my message—which was supposed to be about men being honest with themselves regarding who they are and what they want when they connect with women (for sex and everything else). Folks were calling men who engage in sex work tricks and women who engage in sex work hoes—antiquated, harmful language that connects sex work to something that is disposable, immoral and pathological.
The tweet was meant to be a joke and it failed. As someone who guest-lectures in human sexuality classes designed to help mental health professionals better connect to their clients who are into kink and BDSM, I know that what I was describing in that tweet isn’t kink. I don’t get off sexually or otherwise by berating or humiliating other people. I know women like sex and I know every woman isn’t looking for a traditional, heteronormative dating experience or relationship. Hell, I’m one of the women who isn’t. I know that all sex is transactional, to some degree. But one critique of my tweet that I couldn’t ignore was that I punched down on sex workers with that snarky summation of my earlier conversation. We should always be mindful of how we communicate about those who live on the margins of society. Sex workers, because of our messed-up ideas around what is morally, politically and societally correct, face so much violence in the world. They are rarely respected or protected and they are treated as though they are disposable human beings who don’t deserve care. I added to this violent notion of disposability with my tweet. Without intention, I suggested that men who might be toxic and harmful to women be dismissed to sex workers—as if many of those men wouldn’t also be harmful to sex workers. The tweet said, without saying, that certain women deserve certain kind and decent treatment from men and certain women do not.
I was terribly wrong.
A good friend reached out to me to call me in (instead of out) about my tweet. She encouraged me to address my harmful language publicly, because our community was watching and I needed to demonstrate what accountability and learning looks like in public, virtual spaces. So, I returned to Twitter to apologize. I named the ways my language was harmful, and what I got wrong. I reminded people that we can be accountable for our missteps without feeling ashamed or disempowered.
To my surprise, the thread of tweets where I apologized received even more likes and shares than that original problematic tweet. So many people reached out to tell me that I should teach a masterclass on crafting apologies. Others, who agreed with the overall message of my original tweet, were grateful to learn along with me about the importance of respecting marginalized folks and the importance of decriminalizing sex work. Twitter can be a useful tool for learning, if we let it. Ultimately though, I don’t deserve accolades for being accountable or responsible for the harm I inadvertently caused—none of us do. This viral moment reminded me that words have power and that we must be mindful of how we use them, but more importantly that we can fail and learn and be open about our mistakes in public and private without allowing our egos to force us to double down on what we know is wrong.
Josie Pickens is an educator, writer, and culture critic. To read and hear more of her musings, follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @jonubian.