Stormy Daniels is lighting up television and newspapers, and collectively we cannot deny that—while reticent to discuss it—sex work plays a crucial role in many of our lives. Whether you’re curled up in bed watching PornHub or visiting a BDSM dungeon for regular appointments, pretending otherwise won’t work anymore.
But even though we consume what they make—sometimes daily—the people working to sate public desires are constantly faced with virulent opposition at every step of the way. There’s pushback against sex workers simply doing their jobs, forcing them into situations where they can’t do the necessary activism and information gathering that keeps them safe.
Agitating for anything—labor rights, the institution of safety measures, sex work decriminalization, participation in the #metoo movement without censorship—is even more difficult for sex workers than it is for those with other types of jobs. There’s no union. There’s no HR. There are just the people doing their jobs, running their own small businesses the way that anyone else would—just sell something a little different.
From the public’s perspective, the industry has remained quiet for the last few years, settling into the background of the machinations of late-stage capitalism where everyone’s got to do whatever it takes to make rent and pay for health insurance. But that publically laissez-faire seeming attitude wasn’t really the case; instead, there was always the omnipresent din of legislative pokes at the industry, attempts to pick it to pieces and imprison workers in the few places where FSSW (full service sex work) has been legalized.
A particular uproar arose recently with the release of the documentary I Am Jane Doe, which focused on the website Backpage and exposed instances of sex trafficking on the service. Rightfully, this made people upset. But it also instilled a moral panic among the anti-sex worker set, especially those who conflate consensual sex work with human trafficking.
The raid on Backpage founders and former Village Voice owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin resulted in an indictment for “promoting prostitution” and money laundering. The FBI seemed unable—or unwilling—to file a trafficking charge despite claims that there was a reported proliferation of “child prostitution” advertisements on the site. The CEO of Backpage, Carl Ferrer, has pled guilty to the charges and is assisting the federal investigation.
The reason for the timing on the rush to raid Backpage has to do with a new bill the president just signed into law known as the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA, a.k.a. SESTA), which is billed as an anti-trafficking law. What it really targets are the online resources that sex workers rely on. Many companies even anticipated the passing of the law before it happened, with Craigslist deleting its personals section, Google Drive erasing porn without a word and Skype entirely banning nudity from its platform.
Porn actor, sex worker activist and cam girl Anna Moone told me that the physical shutdowns and regional bans of pages like Backpage and The Erotic Review affect those engaged in FSSW the most.
“People used Backpage to properly screen and vet clients, making sure that they were safe to go on dates with and that they were tested and STI negative," Moone explains. "Personally, as someone who does not currently engage in FSSW, the biggest issue I’ve been facing is an overwhelming culture of fear and paranoia within my communities. Will SESTA force cam sites to close? Will Twitter be forced to ban sex workers? If either of those happens, my career is over. I can’t make money if people can’t follow my work."
The panic has already set in.
“Waking up nearly every morning to another avenue for sex work being shuttered overnight makes it impossible to feel secure in what is otherwise the best job I’ve ever had in my life," she continues. "It feels like the Sword of Damocles is hanging over my head.”
Moone shares her worries about a future where sex workers are closed off from information and community contact: “Sex workers are going to die. For all we know, SESTA has killed someone already, especially if it was a suicide out of fear—the media would never report on that.”
The porn industry saw five suicides earlier this year, and with the loss of those women, Moone’s prediction is anything but farfetched.
Canadian “genderfluid hooker and punk rock porn performer” Jane Way tells me the extent of the damage that losing Backpage has already had on the marginalized members of the community: “Backpage was accessible to the poor and working class among us. It had the highest client traffic for many major cities and towns. Now that’s all gone. I have friends [who are] taking to the streets for work or [who] no longer have any way to pay rent or feed their children. I have friends who I’m not sure are going to make it, and I have friends who won’t survive. We can’t do our jobs, and we’re already dying. I’ve heard whispers from the community that already 10 folks are missing or dead. I’m scared for our community."
Way sees the dangerous and demeaning regression only getting worse, adding, “Some clients are rejoicing that these laws have damaged our resources so much [that] we’ll be forced to see the abusive among them and will tolerate ill treatment because we have to pay our bills. Some of us have nowhere to turn but pimps. These laws will affect our most marginalized with great force and trickle down to the rest of us. These are dark days, we are in terrifying times and my community deserves to be heard. We deserve to be free from unconstitutional laws and deadly social stigmas. How is the oldest profession the one society is so set on demonizing? These are human beings you’ve condemned with your laws, but you sure as hell consume our labor.”
Moone adds, “SESTA isn’t about ending sex trafficking or even ‘rescuing’ sex workers—it’s about policing deviant sexuality and banishing it from the internet. SESTA forced Pounced—a furry community site—to shut down and put [kink site] Fetlife in jeopardy of being closed. How long until Grindr is targeted based on the old stereotype of promiscuous gay men being hookers? The Venn diagram of people who hate sex workers and people who hate trans women is basically a circle. How long until they try and ban online trans community spaces by targeting the fact that many trans women are sex workers?”
And FOSTA is far from the end of the legislative onslaught. Representative Ann Wagner, a Republican senator from Missouri who spearheaded the bill, told CNN that because “most prosecutions for sex trafficking offenders happen at the state and local levels, [she] is working to get a version of the FOSTA framework passed in all 50 state legislatures.”
That attitude is even spreading internationally. Way says, “Though FOSTA/SESTA are American in origin, they speak to deeper issues worldwide and are an example of how stigma and ignorance fuel how the legal system views and treats sex workers. There are rumors flying around of a Canadian equivalent, [and] others predict a crackdown on the industry in other ways.”
As has historically been the case, sex workers have had to take matters into their own hands. An anonymous Australian group called Assembly Four teamed up with the platform Mastodon to create the Austrian-hosted Switter, a social network for and about sex work. Because it is not based in the United States, Moone says, it ensures “that even if Twitter does boot us, we will still have a home on the internet.”
The site has ballooned to more than 20,000 members in less than three weeks. It’s not that big a deal that Switter is small compared to Twitter when it comes to talking to other sex workers. Rather, it’s the work of finding clients that the censorship hits the hardest.
“Losing Twitter will still cost workers access to the vast majority of clients who either don’t know about Switter or don’t care to join another social media site," Moone adds.
And though being based outside of the U.S. protects the site from FOSTA, explains Moone, it doesn’t extend it any protections under the CLOUD Act. Signed into law in March, the CLOUD Act gives the U.S. and foreign police “new mechanisms to seize data across the globe,” says the Electronic Freedom Foundation, regardless of whether or not that person is involved with the U.S. at all.
And despite the fact that at least FOSTA’s reach is restricted to America, Way says, “These laws affect sex workers everywhere because the internet has no borders. We use the same sites as our American counterparts, and those sites have been censored, shut down and changed in ways that affect how we all operate and keep each other safe. Our bad date lists are gone, our advertising platforms are disappearing. Our websites are being taken down, and our social media is being censored. We’re losing our email accounts. We can’t use Skype even for personal use, God damn it.”
The Intersection of Disability and Sex Work
Much of the public thinks of consensual sex work as a last resort, but in reality, people don’t just like buying sex—they also like selling it. Moone gushes about her job the way that anyone who runs a burgeoning business might: “I’d wanted to make porn for as long as I can remember. I was always drawn to how amazing it was to get to watch people be so open about their bodies. Sex work is far and away the best job I have ever had. I have fibromyalgia—I physically couldn’t do a job that required me to be on my feet for eight hours a day lifting heavy things."
Moone continues, "I’ve met the most amazing people and found the most wonderful community through sex work. Sex workers take care of each other in ways that I’ve never seen in other communities. I feel much more attractive, desirable and capable than I ever felt before I started doing sex work. The fact that there are people who want to ‘rescue’ me from all that is laughable. Sex work has changed my life—the fact that I could wake up one morning to all of this being stripped from me is horrifying.”
For people like Moone, the mix of wanting the job and needing something with a flexible schedule makes sex work an ideal choice. Other sex workers with disabilities—a sizable population within the community—echo the sentiment.
Sex worker, independent adult media producer/director and political organizer Liara Roux explains that before she went into full-time sex work, she had a hard time finding disability accommodation at her Bay Area developer job.
“As someone who has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and cluster headaches, I would periodically be extremely limited in my ability to work to the expectations of an intense daily hourly schedule," Roux explains. "And as someone who [isn’t] a cis male, my pain was not taken seriously. I also have an audio processing disorder, making it harder for me to keep up in meetings as opposed to written material."
Roux continues, “Sex work allowed me to not only do something I'm great at with recognition, but to also set my own schedule, ask for [one-on-one and email] communication, be my own boss [and] work around my chronic pain—and it's led to me being appreciated for my technical and organizational skills. People are sexually harassed and abused in office jobs all the time, but as a sex worker, my clients [stay aware of] my control over [their] levels of respect. And if they don't, and they don't respond to criticism, I have the ability to fire them.”
Way echoed those sentiments. They said, “The intersection of sex, sex work and sexuality [with] disabled bodies is important to our humanity. It's the only way I can afford to live and take care of myself as a disabled person. I'm unable to work any other job, so sex work allows me to stay off social assistance and support myself while giving my body and mind the time and rest it needs."
Way continues, “As disabled people, we're not seen as sexy unless we're being fetishized. We're to be pitied, we're to overcome our shortcomings for the pleasure of able-bodied people. We aren't sex symbols—some people question whether we can even consent based on certain disabilities. We are seen as a burden, not as a sexual partner. That's why my work is so important to me: I want to show the world that disabled people are sexy, capable and sexual people just like anyone else. Disabled people fuck. Disabled people love to fuck. Not only that, I'm a disabled person who gets paid to fuck. That is revolutionary considering the social climate surrounding disabilities. I want to show my fans that they are wanted and worthy of love and sex, just like I am.”
The Necessary Path Forward
Many sex workers did not want to speculate about a future where they can’t operate their businesses, but some still visualize a version of this planet where the stigma of their industry has been stripped away.
Way continues, “Sex work saved my life, and we need to create a climate where sex workers are seen as autonomous laborers worthy of equal protection under the law and when it comes to access to resources. We need to drastically rethink the way we view the sex industry, leave our unfounded morals behind and respect sex workers as a whole. We deserve that. We deserve safety, we deserve to work on our own terms and we deserve to live our very best lives.”
Roux explains that “criminalization makes it extremely hard for sex workers to talk about safety or politics, since any discussion of how to make their job safer is often treated as ‘discussion of harmful acts.’”
She continues, “Even legal sex workers in other countries have had their YouTube accounts [shut] down just for talking about their job. I agree with the conclusions of Amnesty International when they say full decriminalization, as opposed to a legalization model that includes fees and regulations, is the only model that will actually help the most vulnerable workers.”
Moone agrees: “The ideal landscape for sex work is full decriminalization. I’m strongly opposed to regulation—I’m queer and Jewish and so I know that nothing good has ever come of the government creating lists of members of marginalized communities.… I believe that sex workers should have unions and collective bargaining rights just like any other worker. And I think that there needs to be solidarity work done between sex workers’ movements and civilian workers’ movements—our fights for liberation are intrinsically intertwined.”
And while unity between the adult industry and larger civil rights movements flounders, sex workers are being left in the lurch, unclear of whether they’ll have resources or even the ability to continue running their businesses. And more than just abandoning sex workers—which is certainly enough—FOSTA is eroding crucial avenues for people with disabilities to make a living.
With outlets like CNN giving FOSTA positive coverage without acknowledging consensual sex work and intersectional issues compounding the complexity of the job, more and more people—in politics and elsewhere—are getting the wrong ideas about everything from porn to FSSW. As with other vices, prohibitionists seem to not understand why these activities will always exist—whether people like it or not.
And trust me, when it comes time and the moon comes out, they definitely like it.