Sex workers explain exactly why FOSTA/SESTA is so dangerous
Since the passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), sex workers are seeing advertising and safety resources disappearing at an alarming rate. The legislation, which forces websites to censor any user content alluding to purchasing sex, purportedly aims to prevent sex trafficking by targeting supposed hubs, such as the advertising site Backpage. In reality, the bills not only further criminalize and endanger sex workers, but also put trafficking victims at greater risk by driving the industry even further underground.
I talked to several sex workers with a variety of experience in the adult industry about how FOSTA/SESTA puts them at further risk.
1) How is SESTA/FOSTA passing going to impact your work moving forward?
Maya Morena, sex worker:
It’s going to make me question, reevaluate, and revise how I conduct my business at every level. I have to move my pornographic content and nudes out of my Google Drive and find a sex worker-friendly file sharing app. I have to stop offering meet-ups with fans. On MyFreeCams (a site I use), this is now no longer allowed. It will censor what I can offer and say to fans (other social media personalities like YouTubers do meetups and some of them do charge for it as well). FOSTA/SESTA will make me monitor what I will be able to say online even if I am only joking. And it leaves me with a general fear over which companies I can continue to do business with and which ones I must replace, or accept that I can’t do a certain part of sex work that I would like to. I live with the knowledge that anything I invest money in can be taken away without an email explaining why, or even an acknowledgment that it was done. My money was taken from sites like ConnectPal, PayPal, Square, and others. I wouldn’t find out until I would log in and see that my account was frozen, or simply shut down completely. When I request an explanation or my money back, or the money my fans gave me through them, I get either no response, or a brief statement that they don’t allow adult content.
Anna Moone, porn performer, cam model, writer, and sex worker activist:
Personally, my biggest concern is cam sites. There’s a serious risk that FOSTA/SESTA will force cam sites like Chaturbate and MyFreeCams to close. This will put me out of a job. The same thing will happen if Twitter is forced to ban sex workers from their platform. We rely on our Twitter presence to make sales and gather a fan base. Without that, we’re screwed. I’ve had to already pre-emptively remove all nudes from my Twitter in order to hopefully be able to stay, but of course, that hurts my marketing success.
Mia Little, adult performer and president of APAC (Adult Performer Advocacy Committee):
My primary modality of sex work is adult film content creation. Although I have privilege because I work within an industry that is protected under the First Amendment for the time being, adult performers are also being impacted by FOSTA/SESTA. In the industry when I’m available to shoot a scene, I was able to simply Tweet out that I was available to be booked because of my current test and additionally post recent images. Now I fear because of FOSTA/SESTA that previous social media interaction will now put me and others in the industry under scrutiny when this is how we find work and make a living. Similarly to sex workers screening clients, we as performers have to screen producers, directors, talent, and companies who want to hire us for our sexual labor. Because of how broadly FOSTA/SESTA is written, performers may be vulnerable as well as they seek out work in the adult film industry.
Amnesia, sex worker:
I’ve already been impacted by a severe loss of income due to client fear and cancellation, loss of advertising space, and the physical and emotional stress of being further criminalized. I almost didn’t make rent on the first, and I can’t currently afford the medicine I need for treatment for late stage Lyme Disease — an illness that almost took my life six months ago. I’m physically and sensorily disabled and unable to keep up with regular work, though was able to find a temporary job cleaning houses — something physically demanding where I feel as if I am literally selling my body under a rigorous schedule for very little money. I’ve had to reach out for community support to feed myself and keep up with bills, but where I am currently is not sustainable and I will likely have to turn to hotel bars, strip clubs, and other forms of hustle where screening and boundary setting prior to meeting is not an option.
2) How did you feel when you found out that Backpage was shut down?
I was heartbroken and angry. Many sex workers come from lower classes and from marginalized communities. Many are escaping abusive homes, or spouses, or dangerous situations by surviving on whatever section of sex work they choose to work in. The reason so many sex workers could be found on Backpage is because it was geared to be more accessible to the public. There were many places to post adult ads, but Backpage and Craigslist were the best and most popular for those in the lower classes, those looking to save on advertisement, and those trying to survive and get to a better situation. Backpage had more traffic than other sites that allowed adult services. It was a great option for those that couldn’t afford the hundreds in advertisement costs of other sites like Eros and the selectivity of Slixa and the Luxury Companion. In other words, it was the best bang for your buck (pun intended).
I wasn’t surprised hearing that Backpage was shut down, but I was still devastated. I think we all knew this was coming. I think perhaps the biggest shock was that it was taken down before FOSTA/SESTA was even signed into law. That was especially angering because one of the whole rationales behind FOSTA/SESTA was that it was needed to stop Backpage, and that clearly wasn’t the case. So in addition to being devastating and unhelpful, Backpage getting raided meant that FOSTA/SESTA wasn’t even relevant to the capturing the Boogeyman they used to rally behind it. I didn’t personally rely on Backpage for income, but many of my friends did.
Spaces like Backpage, Craigslist, and Cityvibe have been in ongoing struggles since internet advertising began. I’ve been a sex worker for 14 years, and have seen our advertising spaces mutate on a regular basis due to legal pressures and stings. Each time we lose a platform, there is an instability but we always bounce back with new spaces — like a rhizome or a hydra with deep impenetrable roots. With each loss, however, we end up losing our most vulnerable siblings in very real and permanent ways. The loss of Backpage wasn’t unexpected and we will co-create new platforms for ourselves, but the interim time puts so many at risk of death, abduction, abuse, and instability.
3) Many of the peer-to-peer resource sharing that makes sex work safer will be threatened by FOSTA/SESTA — what was your experience using online forums to connect with other sex workers?
I am a part of many sex worker communities, the ones I’m most active on are Instagram and Twitter. On Twitter we retweet each other and help each other gain followers and business. Since we are shadowbanned on Twitter we rely on this kind of support more than others. Some sex workers start meetups with fellow sex workers for coffee, for work on videos, for camming, or maybe just to play video games and have a friend who understands. The Erotic Review, VerifyHim, Hung Angels, and Yellow Pages have shut down our discussion boards, advertising, and community forums. Our community and our words are gone.
I haven’t used things like “Bad Date” lists and the like because I’m not a full-service worker. That said, FOSTA/SESTA can fuck up all sorts of peer-to-peer support. I’m in a group chat for sex workers dedicated to helping promote each other’s content. Does that make us guilty of trafficking each other? Can we be targeted for even talking to each other about work and offering each other advice on how to stay safe? California Senate Bill 1204 would do just that if it were to pass.
When I was very young and first began doing sex work as a minor in strip clubs and on the street, the only community we had were the people we worked beside. There was a lot of mythology about how to protect yourself and screen, and when one of us went missing it was an invisible loss. Now that we have platforms to speak both publicly and privately, we have been able to create a network of safety and security, rate setting, website building, articles and resources providing information on where to find emotional and physical health care, where to advertise, how to screen, who is safe and who is unsafe, even what products are safest and most comfortable to use for different bodies and genders. Folx who are not tech savvy have people to reach out to, to help them stay up to date and secure. We are able to signal boost each other when something that should concern the public happens — like when one of us goes missing, gets murdered, is raped or wrongfully imprisoned by law enforcement. Without forums, blacklists, email threads and the like, we will be back in spaces of hearsay and invisibility where it’s more convenient and easy for media and government to use our existence for social and political gain.
4) How do you think this bill will make it harder for sex workers to be safe?
It will leave us scrambling to find alternative online platforms where we can speak freely, post ads, exchange business advice, start collaborations and friendships, cheer each other on, even financially support each other and more marginalized sex workers. It will make it harder for sex workers to screen clients, catalog clients to avoid, get justice for sex workers who were hurt, robbed, or abused because they will have a harder time finding support groups. Sometimes sex workers will rally and start campaigns to get justice for a fellow sex worker. We care about each other, we care about those victimized in our community and we listen to each other. Those supporting these bills don’t follow us and they have no knowledge of when a sex worker is raped, abused, drugged, or in desperate situations like we do. In the time since FOSTA/SESTA has passed, I saw sex workers crying out for help, another saying her friend had committed suicide because she couldn’t go on trying to survive and seeing how much harder her life would be with this bill. Many sex workers are suffering from anxiety and fear over this bill. And it is through their amazing strength and will to live and survive that they are able to continue to build an even stronger community and help others in the community.
FOSTA/SESTA is putting sex workers in severe danger. Since being signed into law I’ve heard of at least 12 sex workers disappearing, three dying, and one trans sex worker who was raped by a client because she lost access to her regular screening methods via Backpage. Sex workers used websites like Backpage to get references before meeting clients, cross reference their information against “bad date” lists, and ensure that clients were tested and STI free. This allowed sex workers to keep themselves safe. Without that people are in danger. A lack of online options for making the money necessary for survival is pushing sex workers onto the street. This makes them more susceptible to abuse from the bad clients, pimps, and sex traffickers that FOSTA/SESTA claims to be trying to fight.
Without online advertising spaces, we won’t be able to screen our clients. Without online black and whitelisting spaces, we won’t be able to warn each other about predators. Without our forums, social media outlets, and online publications, we won’t be able to educate each other about physical, mental and emotional wellness and safety. As we build new advertising platforms with encryption and less visibility, folx who are trafficked — those who this bill is meant to protect — will become even less visible and more difficult to bring to safety. As we lose income and client bases, more of us will be in spaces where we are at risk of being pimped, trafficked, or abused.
5) What do you want people to know about SESTA/FOSTA? What can we do to fight this bill and support sex workers?
FOSTA/SESTA are marketed as anti-sex trafficking bills, which I find offensive. I’m from Honduras and have a relative that obtained her green card because she was trafficked in a restaurant. She was able to prove it and sue with two other women. Many of my relatives would never use the word trafficking for some of the abuses they went through. As an undocumented immigrant and sex worker, we are criminalized and stigmatized. Part of the reason many of us don’t seek help is because of bills like this. When people want to cut immigration and any protections we have in the legal system some will resort to the claim that they want to stop human trafficking. As a result we often suffer harder to survive — some of us die, some of never escape poverty or instability, some of us are able to work toward a decent living, and the lucky few learn to navigate the legal loopholes until they are finally able to obtain the citizenship (which takes time and money), an education (which takes time and money), and a career that isn’t criminalized.
Take the lead in society by demonstrating that you are not afraid, ashamed, or too good to be associated with sex workers and show us support. Follow us on social media, retweet us when we talk about these issues (remember we are shadowbanned on Twitter, and other sites like Tumblr). So seek us out, listen to us, and support our voices. Let others know you support sex workers and why. Pay for our content and services instead of watching them online for free from piracy websites. Donate to sex worker-led and inclusive organizations like SWOP, NSWP, Desiree Alliance, SWARM/Sex Work Hive, and others. Call your politicians and let them know what you think of this bill.
FOSTA/SESTA is targeted at sex workers but it affects you too. Websites are being forced to shutter all sorts of social media tools because of fear that if one person misuses them, they could go to jail. The result will be the end of the open internet as we know it. “First they came for the sex workers…” and whatnot. It’s unfortunately too late to stop this law legislatively. What we need now is public education. People need to know what is happening so they can organize on the streets to oppose it. Sex work allies should have these hard conversations with their friends and family and educate people on why this bill is awful. We need people to be aware of what is happening so that we can prevent any more anti-sex work bills from passing. Sex workers also need financial support. If people have disposable income they should support sex workers. Pay for your porn — not doing so takes money out of our hands and into the hands of megacorporations. Donate directly to sex workers when you see them struggling to make ends meet.
Whenever there is legislation written to support or save a marginalized community, ask yourself, do the people who are directly and inadvertently impacted have a seat at the table? Before FOSTA/SESTA went to vote, the survivor and sex worker community organized to oppose these bills knowing that the bills would hurt so many already marginalized people. Listen to and follow the calls to action by the people whose bodies and lives will be impacted by the laws written without their input. For more information on SESTA/FOSTA, I urge people to follow the #survivorsagainstSESTA movement found at survivorsagainstSESTA.org.
Intimacy is a basic human need and an innate desire for most of us. We moralize all of our basic needs in immense ways in American culture. The moralization of our needs harms us all in every possible way. You can support sex workers in need by donating to Lysistrata, the Red Umbrella Project, and SWOP in your city or nationally. You can support us by undoing deeply embedded whorephobia in yourself and others. You can support us by stepping back and listening to our needs, to our unique experience and observance of the world. You can offer sex worker friends of yours meals, financial support, emotional support, transportation, tech needs, housing, and enthusiasm towards our new ideas, projects, and hustles.