For an ever-growing segment of Toronto, the word “bunz” has become both a noun and a verb. That’s thanks to Bunz Trading Zone, a “secret” Facebook group established in Toronto about three years ago. People use Bunz—which has spun off into web and app iterations in addition to the OG Facebook group, and has grown to almost 50,000 users—to trade their old clothes, books, furniture and sundry other items in return for stuff they can actually use.
Houseplants, tokens and booze generally figure high on people’s ISO (“in search of”) lists, and services such as yoga lessons are also frequently traded. Blowjobs, on the other hand, are a less-oft seen trade—but after the events of this past week, that might change.
On Wednesday, a woman named Alex, who is a former sex worker, posted in the Helping Zone (a Bunz offshoot in which buns can ask for advice, recommendations or other favours) asking whether trading for sexual services was allowed. In typical Bunz fashion, another bun got upset and made several anti-sex work comments, wondering what people on the site would be willing to “give your body up for????”
And on Thursday, the subject came up again when a member of the main Trading Zone asked the same question. Admin Liz Went replied: “We don’t encourage or discourage it—obviously it’s the poster’s choice…if people want to offer sex/sexual services as a trade, that’s fine. Trades are trades and services are services. We’re [sic] support sex work and sex workers. I’m closing this thread now, because we don’t need to debate the issue.” She also clarified that buns are not allowed to solicit (a.k.a. be ISO) sex in the group since that could create a power imbalance.
After the anti-sex work commentary in the Helping Zone, other buns jumped to the defense of sex workers, and a lengthy debate ensued. Eventually, Eli Klein, the lead admin of the group, shut the thread down because so many people were firing back at the anti-sex work bun.
I spoke with Alex after all of this went down, and she told me she made the post because she’s never seen anyone in the group(s) trade for sex, and she wanted to know what the community thought.
“The response was overwhelmingly great from other buns,” she says. “There was one commenter in particular who was super puritanical about sex and sexual service exchange which was a bummer, but most of the commenters were SO hilarious and witty in response, which thrilled me.”
I also spoke with Klein, who said anyone who looks at Bunz’ community standards would know that the group operates on feminist principles.
“Mom [Emily Bitze, founder of Bunz] is a feminist, so we kind of follow her lead,” he says. “Sex work is not any different than using any other part of your body: your arms or your hands or your feet. It’s all labour.” That said, he didn’t kick the offending bun out of the Helping Zone. For him, an “unpopular opinion” without name-calling or direct insults is not sufficient reason to give a bun the boot.
Alex, however, says she doesn’t agree with the reason for shutting down the thread.
“I feel like the admin response didn’t accurately take into account how rampant, normalized, alienating and harmful this kind of passive whorephobia can be,” she told me. For the most part, though, it’s clear that the majority of people on Bunz are sex positive, Klein included. Shaming is strictly against the rules, and community consensus is an important facet to keeping things running smoothly.
Seeing Went’s steadfastly feminist standpoint laid down as law for such a large group of people was refreshing, at least for sex worker and avid bun Brazen Lee. She says, for the most part, she feels safe and respected in the various groups. “It’s this weird little microcosm of sex work acceptance,” she says. “Maybe it’s that sex work is on trend right now, but I feel a lot of hoe love.”