Column: Aftermath of viral Twitter story points to injustices sex workers face

This Nov. 4, 2013 file photo shows the icon for the Twitter app on an iPhone in San Jose, Calif (Marcio Jose Sanchez, File/AP)

If you haven’t read the gripping, approximately 150-tweet epic of Aziah “Zola” Wells, a Detroit-based erotic dancer, please refer to the hyperlink if reading this online or Google search “Zola Twitter story,” or something to that effect when you get the chance. Everything will make more sense. It cannot be found on Twitter anymore, but currently exists in reasonable screenshot forms. Wells proves a deft storyteller, and the Washington Post reports that, according to more tweets, she has been approached by a handful of movie studios and producers.

As an aside, extensive Twitter storytelling may be the future. Condensing every aspect of a story to 140 characters makes it much less overwhelming, even if its entirety consists of more than 150 sets of that quantity.

In its condensed form, the story is as such: Zola is a server at Hooters who meets a customer named Jess. As per server-client mandates, she strikes up a conversation with Jess and the two discover they are both strippers. They swap numbers, and the next day, Jess invites Zola to Tampa, Florida to dance with Jess’ boyfriend, Jarrett, and their roommate, referred to as “Z,” in tow. Zola agrees because it appears lucrative, but when they arrive and commence dancing, the income is slow.

Consequently, Z suggests they turn to “trapping,” or prostitution. As the night rages on, it becomes clear Z is a pimp and what follows is, according to the story, lots of sexual abuse, attempted kidnapping, murder and a suicide attempt. Neither the murder nor suicide attempt are verified as true; hence, Zola’s “based on a true story” tweet.

But while people are debating the story’s accuracy or reveling in its cinematic mastery, Zola’s depiction of the debacle in Florida contains bleak realities for many women. Jess turned to prostitution as a means of good income, likely for the sake of her daughter. Jarrett, her now ex-boyfriend, said she intended to “go work one weekend, make 15 or 20 or $30,000.” For a 21-year old single mother who recently gained custody of her child, that much money is certainly appealing. It speaks to the desperation these women feel to provide for the welfare of their children and themselves, even if it involves severe risk with suspicious characters.

Something worth noting is that Zola and Jess were both strippers before they became involved with “trapping.” This is not always the case, but one must acknowledge that stripping can be a gateway to prostitution and quite possibly human trafficking. There appears to be a fine line between the concepts. Some women are not necessarily dancing by choice, and some aren’t keeping the fruits of their labors either.

The story of Z, a.k.a. Akporode Uwedjojevwe, is also troubling. He is currently awaiting trial in January for multiple charges, including sexual assault and trafficking (and not murder, like Zola says). People like Jessica are tailor-made to be manipulated by Z and abused by him and various clients, and it’s relatively normal for sex workers to experience that. AHYPERLINK "http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24625169" 2014 study from the American Journal of Public Health suggests somewhere between 32 percent and 55 percent of sex workers undergo some kind of abuse, be it physical or psychological.

Jess denies most of Zora’s story, but on the other hand, it’s not entirely clear how deliberate her involvement was in Z’s affairs. Two women in the Reno, Nevada area, Jessica Lynn Forgie and Breeonna Pellow, experienced car trouble and didn’t have enough money to fix it or acquire plane ticket, so they posted an “S.O.S.” to Facebook, where they were subsequently messaged by Zola’s Jess, asking them if they were interested in meeting up with them to “dance.”

Similar events to Zola’s story occurred. They were coerced into making Backpage (a classified site for sex workers) accounts. The pair was forced to meet with clients. And Z sexually assaulted Forgie when refusing to meet with clients as the night took a familiar, insidious turn. This testimony suggests Jess may have been in cahoots with Z, and this predatory behavior is reprehensible, though it could be derived from Z controlling her for a long enough period of time.

While gray areas still exist in this story, it is abundantly clear that a fairly basic tenet of human decency has been reiterated for the umpteenth time: Don’t exploit people in vulgar ways to make money for you; that’s slavery.


Stephen Friedland is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at stephen.friedland@uconn.edu.