It’s 10PM on a Saturday night and I’m sitting in front of my laptop, deleting my history.
I’ve downloaded a program from the internet that I’m definitely going to regret later, given the “NORTON ANTIVIRUS HAS EXPIRED” pop up flashing in the corner of the screen, but I want to get this done in a hurry. I start tapping keywords in to the search bar.
“GFE, PSE, Incall, Outcall, Escort…” Each search brings up hundreds of results, that with just a few clicks I manage to wipe from my Twitter account for good. I don’t realise I’m crying until a stray tear manages to slide down my face and hit the keyboard. It seems so ridiculous.Crying over spilt tweets?
I didn’t choose this. I’ve proudly built up a following over the almost 10 years I’ve been a sex worker. I started my Twitter account in 2010, just months after my first shift at an erotic massage parlour flanked by used car dealerships and warehouses. I used Twitter to reach out and connect with my new peers. To promote and grow the “brand” that has carried me through on my journey as a sex worker and helped me develop as an activist.
My social media offerings are testament to that journey. Now, I’ve been forced to tear out pages from my online story. Redacting, to protect myself from the potential of being edited out of these public spaces entirely.
“Conflating sex trafficking with sex work is nothing new … rather than outright acting against the industry, governments will angle to ‘smoke out’ sex workers, by making it harder, if not impossible, for them to work safely—or at all.”
On March 21 2018, FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act)passed the senate, following months ofresistancefromsex workers, allies, and free speech advocates. The two bills had been nightmarishly combined and the impacts of its passing were sudden, swift, and wide reaching.
FOSTA/SESTA (or F/S) creates an exception to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, known as a “Safe Harbor” for ISPs and online platforms. Section 230 protects websites that rely on user generated content i.e. social media platforms, online classifieds, dating websites etc. from being held liable for the content created by users. Or rather, it did. Post-F/S any website can be held responsible for a third party posting content that advertises “prostitution.”
Conflating sex trafficking with sex work is nothing new. Wherever possible, rather than outright acting against the industry, governments will angle to “smoke out” sex workers, by making it harder, if not impossible for them to work safely—or at all. Similar moves are made in countries where the “Nordic model” has been adopted; a framework that decriminalizes sex workers, but criminalizes their clients.
F/S is as harmful as it is because of some very sloppy, though no doubt intentional, phrasing. Any sites that “promote or facilitate prostitution” can be penalized, whilst authorities are given leave to pursue any sites for “…knowingly assisting, facilitating or supporting sex trafficking.”
“Facilitate” is never strictly defined. This means that besides advertisers, any resources or organisations that support sex workers, or help to make their work safer and easier, also run the risk of being targeted. Many US organizations have had no choice but to shutter their outreach programs. Staffed by volunteers, with minimal funding, they have no way of defending themselves against intense legal scrutiny.
Within days of its passing, platforms were scrambling to take pre-emptive action by deleting large amounts of content. The Craigslist personals section was the very first to go, followed closely by adult advertiser CityVibe who took with it thousands in advertising revenue from panicked sex workers. Reddit followed not long after, deleting r/escorts, r/maleescorts amongst others, without much, if any, warning.
Sex Workers were profoundly affected, but treated as little more than collateral damage.
It seemed inevitable to me that social media sites, such as Instagram and Twitter might be next. I’d already been shadowbanned on both services and post-F/S it felt like every day I was pushing my luck. Advertising options were growing more limited. I had laid claim to space on a number of websites, but relied on classifieds to meet more of those my niche—the queer nerd with a boyish figure, a potty mouth, and a penchant for costumes—catered to.
Around this time there wereplenty of peoplewith things to say about the plight of sex workers in a post-F/S world, but rarely were those people the ones most affected.
I’m not naive. I’m white, non-binary but femme presenting; I walk through life with a lot of privilege. I’ve been fortunate to interact with the media on anumber of issuesrelating to the industry. Normally, I’m happy to do so. However, I’d steadfastly refused offers to speak out about FOSTA/SESTA because I believed—and still do—that there are other voices more important than mine.
I reached out to three of those voices.
“The fight to push against FOSTA/SESTA alone was brutal and emotionally taxing…”
Mikki is open about the limitations they already faced when working due to mental health, but once Backpage, a classifieds site, was taken down—not necessarily as a direct result of FOSTA/SESTA but “caught up in the politics that allowed it to pass”—things only got more difficult. Mikki noticed a significant drop in their clientele and was faced with no guarantee of stable income. Having recently lost the home they shared with their partner, Mikki was forced to make the decision to move back home, which “…has created a vicious cycle that restricts our ability to work and find independence again,” they say.
Based in Australia, Mikki has made connections with sex workers all over the world. Connections that they could potentially lose. I asked Mikki if they had any plans in place for not if, but when that happens. “Honestly, I’ve tried to build up my own personal networks but I know that the loss of our communities is inevitable at this stage. This bill was written with a specific intent of cutting off our ability to organise and connect…there are people at every turn looking to isolate sex workers.”
FOSTA hasn’t managed to entirely stop workers from mobilising. In addition to peer-owned advertising, social media, and web hosting options, Mikki has worked hard to disseminate valuable information to peers reeling from the loss of the platforms they’d come to rely on. “I worked hard to provide a resource dedicated to alternative advertising options after Backpage shut down, and still try to update that regularly, but it’s hard to know where clients are looking now.”
“I wouldn’t be alive today without my tumblr sex worker community…I can’t imagine how similarly vulnerable people are going to connect like that going forward.”
On December 17, all adult content was banned from Tumblr. By far one of the internet’s most popular and user friendly spaces , it’s not surprising that many minority groups made it their home. Mikki is frank about the fact the platform gave them vital access to peers, allies, and resources, all of which had a positive impact of their health and safety: “I wouldn’t be alive today without my tumblr sex worker community…I can’t imagine how similarly vulnerable people are going to connect like that going forward.”
Mikki has a relationship with social media that I feel a lot of workers identify with. “My brand has so much less to do with visual images and so much more to do with the identity and imagery I paint for myself on social media.” It was by connecting with peers on social media that Mikki learnt how to establish their early online presence. “They taught me how to create a presence and identity for myself that allowed me to drastically up my rates in spite of falling outside of traditional desirable body types.”
But it’s not just promotion. Mikki has built up a substantial following and they don’t hesitate to use it. “I’m a very vocal person, and holding back my politics isn’t something I’m good at…I’ve spoken a lot about my early experiences in sex work, of poverty, of antisemitism and queerphobia…I feel like the sex worker community around me has been able to reach and educate an audience that is so closed off from marginalised communities,” they say.
Mikki’s voice has power. Having the platforms that allow them to amplify their voice stripped away so swiftly is a massive loss, not just to them personally, but to the people who would benefit from hearing them.
“Whether it’s education or sex work, I live with the reality that I could wake up any day and my life’s work could be gone.”
If you follow Siren anywhere online you’ll know that she’s never in one place for too long. To say she has many strings to her bow feels like an understatement. FOSTA has impacted her in all aspects of her work. “I use sex work to fund a significant amount of my work,” she says. Travel expenses, conference registration, equipment for content creation and teaching; the expenses add up. “FOSTA/SESTA and the loss of Backpage has made it harder and more expensive for clients to find me, especially as a niche worker. It’s made it harder and harder to continue the work I was already doing, let alone expand on it.”
Siren uses Instagram to network with other educators and organisations around the world. It’s a risky business: “Every day my fellow sex educators and bloggers are having their accounts removed despite working hard to adjust to the consistently inconsistent content guidelines.” Twitter currently operates under similarly vague guidelines, dishing out shadowbans with reckless abandon. “Twitter doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do with adult content,” Siren says.
Playing it safe online is often easier said than done. Far too often the mechanisms and bots put in place to police content on websites lack the ability to differentiate between entertainment or educational content—between, say, the eyes on a smiley face and two nipples. It seems easier in the long run to remove any and all references to anything “adult,” than to invest time and money in to coming up with a more nuanced system.
“Every day my fellow sex educators and bloggers are having their accounts removed despite working hard to adjust to the consistently inconsistent content guidelines.”
“Rules against ‘adult content’ keepsex education contentoff mainstream platforms like YouTube and now Tumblr,” says Siren, adding this system “pushes it into the same space as porn and adult services, where it’s less accessible to the people who need it most.”
Not even the spaces that workers and educators createthemselvesare safe from the reach of F/S. “I self-host my own website and blog because sites like wordpress.com are hostile to any kind of adult content,” Siren says, “but even then I feel like I’m just constantly holding my breath to wake up and find F/S has made my hosting service delete my sites.”
What’s disappointing is that these platforms were happy to benefit from the money and traffic that sex workers and adult content brought them until now, says Siren. “There are hundreds of sites who use adult content to build their success and then throw it under the bus when investors get antsy. Patreon is … arecent example of thisbut this isn’t a new phenomenon. PayPal used adult industry money to get where it is and is now one of the most hostile platforms for sex workers.”
In Australia, where the legal parameters surrounding the sex industry vary state by state, we enjoy a level of privilege not shared by our peers in the US. That being said, Siren suggests nobody gets too comfortable.
“The voices that are very directly impacted by it aren’t centered.”
I have an incredible amount of respect for Nicki Visage. Like others I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to, they’re under no illusions about the state of the industry and their place within it. “I feel like as great as it is that there’s this discourse, there’s this fear around it where the voices that are very directly impacted by it aren’t centered.”
When I ask Nicki how they’d describe themself, they’re very matter of fact: “I’m a full service sex worker and I guess fetish provider? I am a hairy Eurasian BBW which is a niche within a niche within a niche!” Having a niche can be blessing, but post-FOSTA it can also feel a lot like a curse, even in Australia where Nicki is based. Her visibility has been dramatically reduced as her options for cost effective advertising simply disappear.
Enquiries have dropped drastically. Advertising broadly for free or as little as possible, they explain, was already difficult pre-FOSTA, but now it’s become a lot harder. “I’m a marginalised sex worker in a very racist country/industry so I’m lucky I get any work at all.”
“I’ve had to compromise my screening style, trying to appease enquiries in the hopes I’ll get a booking.”
For every advertising platform lost, it feels like another two pop up in its place. “I’ve never received so much text spam till the last year,” she says. Messages scream “BACKPAGE IS BACK” and promising cheap, but not free advertising, for a site that will be “TOP RANKING” on Google in no time at all. “And they’re not run by sex workers, or clients. Or adjacent to clients. Just a bunch of dudes,” says Nicki. It’s unsettling how many predators are trying to use the current anxiety among struggling sex workers to make a quick buck.
Worryingly, rather than being able to take more safety precautions post-F/S, Nicki is one of many sex workers who’ve been forced to takeless. “I’ve had to compromise my screening style, trying to appease enquiries in the hopes I’ll get a booking.”
Having the freedom to ignore messages that obviously scream “time waster” is a privilege Nicki feels they can no longer enjoy. They admit, the level of effort going in to these interactions is exasperating and it takes a toll on their mental health.
Like in many industries, burn out is always a big risk in sex work. Now, stress and financial insecurity amplify it tenfold. As Nicki puts it, “with FOSTA/SESTA we are doing even more work, just to work.”
“Vote. Vote at the ballot box, vote with your money, vote with your time and vote with your voices. Call out anti-sex worker politicians on any side of politics.” — Siren
“Pay sex workers, support sex worker organisations, and contribute funds to those in need.” — Mikki
“Do your research and buy sex toys, porn, and educational resources from the people who do the real work.” — Siren
“Amplify the voices of marginalized workers. If they’re being directly affected, let them be at the center of the conversation.” — Nicki
“Use your voice to shut down whorephobic comments, jokes, and media wherever you see it.” — Siren