You’ve probably recently heard a lot about SESTA-FOSTA, the bill that was signed into effect by President Donald Trump last week. Or maybe you caught the well-intentioned-but-clueless celebrity-filled campaigns promoting the bill:
These acronyms stand for Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). They’re more or less unanimously opposed by sex workers for curtailing their ability to advertise and work online by equating their labor with the experience of sex-trafficking victims. But because of how marginalized sex workers are in our society anyway, a lot of people don’t fully understand why they oppose the legislation, even those who are pissed about the closing of Backpage and Craigslist personals, one of the first major results of SESTA-FOSTA’s passage.
The truth is, whether you regularly hire escorts, tune into cam shows, watch porn or simply love scrolling through certain nearly-nude Instagram accounts, SESTA-FOSTA will eventually affect you. And so, I asked a few sex workers to explain the precedent SESTA-FOSTA creates; what it will mean for them, their customers and their peers; and why consumers of erotica online need to wake up.
Those sex workers:
- Raquel Savage is a sex therapist with a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and a board certification in human sexuality. In terms of sex work, she escorts and manages her own VIP Snapchat account.
- Courtney Trouble is porn performer, porn maker and student.
- Bianca Alba is a phone sex worker and sex educator with a master’s degree in public health.
- Mistress Justine Cross is a feminist dominatrix and owner of two of the most popular BDSM dungeons in L.A.
- Maxine Doogan is the founder of ESPLERP, the Sex Workers and Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project.
And their thoughts on the legislation…
SESTA-FOSTA sucks for clients, too.
“Negotiating sex commerce online is beneficial for consumers as well as providers,” says Alba. “Prior to this bill, a client would be able to do some research regarding a provider, what they offer, read reviews and find the provider best suited to their needs. If a consumer is forced to go through a brothel or hire a street worker, they have much less choice in what type of provider they encounter, and no guarantee that the provider isn’t being exploited by their working circumstances, as opposed to being able to negotiate directly with an independent provider via the internet.”
Savage puts it even more bluntly: “This is going to totally change the way customers navigate and seek out providers, and eventually, make doing so almost nonexistent on the internet.”
There’s not much truth to its claims of increased safety — quite the contrary actually.
“It’s utterly arbitrary that some forms of sex work are legal while others aren’t,” Alba continues. “It’s not as if we’re regulating people hooking up on Tinder, even though there’s probably a greater risk of STI exposure, sexual assault, etc. by seeking non-compensated casual sex that way. It’s a perfect example of legislation that’s not about worker safety, but a thinly veiled attempt to sabotage the sex industry. Sex workers should be the ones who decide what’s needed for their safety.”
“This is really about censorship and freedom of speech on the internet,” Savage adds. “People are going to be punished because of what’s being said and shared on websites. Basically, the websites are going to be held accountable for user-generated content, so it’s not like these bills are going to help sex-trafficking victims, even though that’s how they’re framed. The person already has to have been trafficked, and the crime already has to have been committed. So while websites that knowingly or unknowingly have this information on their site will be directly punished, people actually being trafficked won’t be directly helped. How does that prevent sex trafficking?
“My belief is that these legislators ultimately want the content of sex workers to be eradicated altogether. It’s not only our erotic content they’re going to snuff out, but also the conversations we have about our jobs and lives on social media platforms — stuff including safety, e.g., sharing lists of shitty clients to avoid. Basically then, this bill isn’t making anything safer for anyone.”
Per Trouble, “It sets up this tower of power Panopticon kind of thing, where platforms self-censor in order to protect themselves. Some sites will get seized, and that will send a ripple effect through the internet, which causes other people to pre-emptively shut down or limit their services. Already, some platforms shadowban adult users, and Facebook is notorious for deleting or suspending the profiles of regular people based on photo-recognition or peer-to-peer reporting.”
That’s right: Everything from plain old porn to sexy Instagram posts — i.e., stuff that has nothing to do with transactional sex — could get lost in the wash.
“If you’re selling bras, lingeries or body jewelry on social media and post provocative stuff — or your favorite accounts do this — they’re going to be affected too,” says Savage. “They’re going to be shut down because the people enforcing these policies aren’t going to take the time to sit down and say, ‘Well, she’s a jewelry creator,’ or ‘She’s a fashion model.’ They’re going to see legs, ass and breasts and shut it down. Not to mention, they’re going to search for keywords and images and shut tons of stuff down. Sex workers are an easy target because nobody gives a shit about us; so it’s like, ‘Boom! Let’s take them out first.’ But when porn becomes affected by this as well, which it will, more and more consumers are going to be upset.”
Needless to say, none of this is good for a sex worker’s bottom line — or their mental health.
“In-person sex workers rely on the internet in order to work independently,” explains Alba. “This is critical for finding clients, screening clients and networking with other sex workers for safety purposes. Stigma and isolation also are huge occupational hazards and making it unsafe to discuss sex work online only exacerbates the problem and worsens any associated mental health issues.”
“I’ve already heard reports of at least two women who committed suicide because of the added stress and uncertainty this caused them,” Cross adds. “Women are going missing because they don’t have access to safety checklists. Women are going back to pimps because they don’t have the agency to make appointments themselves because the ad sites were taken down. The loss of income is causing homelessness and will only escalate. Some people consider themselves ‘survival sex workers’ where they only do sex work because other work options aren’t available to them for various reasons. So shutting them off is going to have serious, immediate and negative consequences.”
Sex workers would rather you listen to them than Monk — at least, you know, when it comes to sex work.
“Celebrities who don’t know what they’re talking about should sit down,” Cross continues. “Nor did any of them respond to the many offers to discuss this bill — now law — with anyone who could have offered insight on it, especially about how it didn’t really stop trafficking. Sex trafficking is probably the worst crime — no one wants it to continue. But it existed long before the internet because of the conditions that created it, and so, it will continue to exist long after FOSTA-SESTA.”
Adds Alba, “Sex trafficking is a very minor segment of labor trafficking, and yet these same celebrities are indifferent to the struggles of other trafficked laborers, such as hotel cleaning staffs and farm laborers.”
Three Things You Can Do to Help.
1) Tip your favorite sex worker. “I want fans to start taking their consumership seriously and pay for the sex work you consume,” says Trouble. “We would survive if even 10 percent of our fans did slightly better at tipping us.”
2) Support the unionization of sex workers. “Legal sex industry workers — meaning adult film performers, webcammers, brothel workers in Nevada and strippers — have wasted so many years not organizing themselves and not expanding their rights base,” says Doogan. “Now we see the attack against us has expanded in a big way. Sex workers who can must address the criminalization of our occupation, because all of these other bad policies are predicated upon the criminalization of prostitution laws.”
3) Most of all, don’t be embarrassed by the fact that you’ve paid for it. “The pervasive internalized shame of the consumer, like all the fucking politicians that hire us, leads them to punish us for fulfilling their needs and desires,” says Alba. “It’s not unusual for clients to be in denial of their sex consumption, or blame or punish sex workers for the shame they feel around their sexual desires. It’s like how the most publicly homophobic conservative politicians are the same ones getting blow jobs from men in bathroom stalls.
“This is the only job I’ve had where I’ve made a decent living and felt good about what I do under the specter of late capitalism, because sex work is economic justice, taking back some of the spoils of the riches built on the backs of marginalized people. I’m a businessperson and a healer, and I refuse to apologize for what I do.”
Neither then should you.