When the escort classified site Backpage shut down four years ago, sex worker Kelly (not her real name) was at a loss. “I had to scramble for months to figure out how to advertise again,” she tells me. Just days after the website was seized by the FBI, FOSTA-SESTA — which makes website publishers criminally liable for whatever their users upload, including sexually explicit content, consensual or not — was signed into law. Although Kelly says it hasn’t “personally affected” her much in the years since, its introduction marked a “mental shift” for her. “You feel like society is out to get you and your career,” she says. “It’s a shame — the social and political stigma of it all.”
This stigma, along with legal and financial crackdowns, has made life very difficult for sex workers, particularly those who provide in-person services. FOSTA-SESTA has granted federal authorities the right to take down any site where escorting is advertised, meaning new sites have to go under the radar, or base themselves outside of the U.S. if they want to avoid harsh regulations. “[FOSTA-SESTA has] made it significantly more legally risky to run an escort site or a site where folks might advertise for in-person prostitution (or anything close to it) from inside the United States,” explains Kendra Albert, a clinical instructor at Harvard’s Cyberlaw Clinic. “This legal risk has resulted in many websites shuttering entirely, while those that remain might find it more difficult to use other forms of online service that they previously would have had access to, like hosting services.”
Consequently, many platforms are popping up from outside the U.S., while still catering to the American market. Take, for example, MegaPersonals, an escorting site that’s available in Canada, the U.S., parts of Europe, Australia and New Zealand, but which is actually based in Romania. Another platform, Tryst.link, is also available in the U.S., but is based in Australia. Albert says international hosting puts the sites “at a lower risk of being targets of U.S. law enforcement action,” though this may not have been the first thought on MegaPersonals’ or Tryst.link’s minds.
While Tryst.link is officially up and running, there seems to be some confusion online about the state of MegaPersonals. In July last year, the site allegedly came up with an error message that read, “Posting in the U.S.A is not available.” Trans sex worker abolitionist collective No Justice No Pride tweeted at the time that other escoring sites, Skip the Games and Listcrawler, also went down for U.S. users. There isn’t much information about this online, but the sites all seem to be back up and running now. Still, finding people to talk to about MegaPersonals is difficult, with many sex workers reporting having more trouble than success with the site.
Tryst.link, on the other hand, appears to be doing well, and is pretty popular. It was established in 2018 by the team at sex work and technology collective Assembly Four (who also founded the now shut-down sex work social network Switter), in response to “the increasingly desperate need for a free alternative to verified advertising.” Speaking to me via email, co-founder Lola Hunt says that the collaboration between sex workers and technologists “has not only allowed [them] to build better, more thoughtful products, but has permitted both parties into spaces they would have historically been barred from.”
“Many other platforms, both adult and not, have dismissed the unique and incredibly valuable expertise and experience that sex workers have,” Hunt continues. “Sex workers are often early adopters of new tech, uplift new ideas and are heavily invested in human rights for all, even when mainstream tech often casts them aside.” The expertise of Tryst.link’s sex workers is exemplified in a video series on the platform’s YouTube channel, in which escorts talk about everything from FOSTA-SESTA and decriminalization to stories about how they got started in sex work and their funniest or most unusual requests.
Aside from that, Tryst.link works like other escorting sites — sex workers can advertise themselves, and clients can look through their profiles. The platform’s cover image is a sweet-looking illustration of a handful of couples (and singles) of different genders, races and physical abilities. Below, escorts can be browsed via categories like “recently active,” “new profiles” or via location and/or gender. When you click on someone’s profile, you can see a description of who they are and what they’re into, followed by a selection of photos (mostly of them in lingerie), their personal details, availability and price list. To make it more accessible for everyone, Tryst.link allows escorts to sign up with a free plan, which is manually verified, or choose from one of their paid options, which start from $35. According to its website, Tryst.link also aims to cater to all genders and demographics by having “an affirmative action policy” that prioritizes the employment of marginalized communities.
It’s unclear whether Tryst.link offers the ability for sex workers to formally vet clients before meeting, which at the time of writing, Hunt hasn’t confirmed. Looking at the site’s terms and conditions doesn’t shed much light, either, aside from reminding users that they’re “solely responsible” for their interactions with one another — though there are a number of safety guidelines.
Even so, launching in a FOSTA-SESTA world — even if you’re not in the U.S. — comes with its own unique challenges. In the years since the law’s introduction, its debilitating impact has been felt across the internet, particularly in the sex industry, via censorship, legal crackdowns and financial discrimination. Tryst.link has faced many of these obstacles themselves. “We’re unable to use traditional marketing methods that are available to other businesses,” says Hunt. “We’re discriminated against by the entire financial system including banking and payment facilities, and are often left with cryptocurrency being our only option. Even communication and collaboration with our users and allies is difficult, with our [social media] accounts often being shadowbanned or falsely classified as spam.”
Despite the hurdles, sex workers seem to like Tryst.link. Kelly started using the site two months ago, after another escorting site, RubRatings, was shut down by hackers. She came across Tryst.link after hearing about it through friends in the industry, as well as via her own online research. “It’s easy to use, and they verify you,” she says. “It’s free, unlike all others.” Kelly does add, however, that she prefers Eros, as it’s a “higher end” platform.
Pseudonymous Alison, a 21-year-old sex worker from Texas, has been using Tryst.link as her main platform since 2018, ever since she started escorting. Formerly working as a nurse, she entered the adult industry after “unexpected life events hit hard” and she “couldn’t find work in another city.” Although she had experience as a sugar baby, Alison discovered that she could make way more money escorting, and so started researching platforms to use. “Tryst had the best interface of all the ad sites I looked at,” she tells me, “and Lola Hunt, the founder, was extremely responsive on all platforms. So I gravitated there. It also attracts more palatable clients.” Alison’s one criticism of the site is that “it’s hard to pay for ‘TLC’ (currency used to purchase ads) without Bitcoin,” a problem she’d likely encounter at many escorting sites.
As she didn’t start working until after FOSTA-SESTA came in, Alison says the law hasn’t had a huge impact on her work. What has, she says, is the fact that Texas recently became the first state to make it a felony to see a sex worker, which has forced her to impose “strict limitations” on who she sees.
As predicted by sex workers, allies and experts who opposed the law, FOSTA-SESTA has failed in fighting sex trafficking, and has instead just made the lives of sex workers more difficult. The law has unsurprisingly led to the over-policing of legal online content, stripping sex workers of their access to online communities — in which they can safely work, organize and communicate — and forcing them into less secure, more dangerous ways of working. In fact, as reported by The Verge, FOSTA-SESTA is “almost never used” for its intended purpose, and has only had one case filed under it in three years: a June 2020 charge against the owner of CityXGuide.com, which the government alleged was described by users as “taking over from where Backpage left off.”
Moreover, the law hasn’t even stopped new escorting sites from establishing themselves in the U.S. “Services keep popping up because FOSTA did nothing to change the underlying reasons why commercial sex exists,” says Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law. “Unfortunately, Congress has shown little interest in addressing the much harder structural issues that drive commercial sex, so FOSTA is just another example of Congress claiming to do ‘something’ without doing anything helpful at all.”
With offshore escorting sites finding success in the U.S., it seems sex workers have outsmarted the government yet again. Not only that, but, in the case of Tryst.link, it’s sex workers establishing these sites, not just using and popularizing them. “Personally, I feel it’s quite backwards — and offensive — that the vast majority of individuals responsible for making these policy decisions grew up without sex, consent, relationship education or media literacy, let alone a familiarity with the internet,” declares Hunt. “We have actively worked with different segments of the community to develop and advocate for what they need and want.”
For American sex workers, what they want is simply a safe space to work.