The United States Congress just passed two bills, SESTA and FOSTA, which claim to diminish sex trafficking, but in practice is censorship legislature that will make sex workers’ lives more dangerous and their futures uncertain. Here, dominatrix Mistress Couple talks to three other sex workers about what these bills mean for their work and lives, as well as for the future of sex work and censorship in the United States.
OK first, a quick breakdown: The FOSTA-SESTA bills make it easy to sue websites that “knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking”—so basically, any sites where sex workers advertise online are being targeted/taken down, because these bills conflate sex work with sex trafficking. (If you were wondering why Craigslist Personals disappeared, it was a victim of these bills.) The problem is, these website (that they purport facilitate trafficking) are also where sex workers share information about bad/violent clients, and other info that keeps them safe. These websites also enable sex workers to advertise their services safely online, rather than having to work in the streets. You can see why this would be a problem…
Now let’s get the convo started. (Big thanks to Mistress Couple for facilitating this discussion for Slutever!) First, everyone introduce themselves: Who are you, how did you get into sex work, and what does it mean to you personally?
Vee: I’m a 30-year-old white transmasculine person and I’m going on my 5th year in the sex industry as a full service worker. Part of the reason I started in this type of work was so that I could afford my creative pursuits and have a flexible schedule to accommodate both my creative work as well as my physical and mental needs.
Holly: I’m 30-year-old queer disabled black sex worker with over 10 years in the industry. I began working to secure independence for myself and escape a toxic environment. I continued working because I loved the freedom it allowed me: to keep attending school, maintain my personal life and pay my bills. My life has a brightness because of sex work, and I am proud to be apart of this community.
Dii: I am a 26-year-old Rroma/Sinti trans sex worker who has been in this industry more than half of my lifetime. I began performing erotic labor when I was underage as a means of survival. I have worked many other jobs in between, but I always come back to sex work because I enjoy the flexibility and autonomy it provides, as well as the singular sense of community among sex workers.
Couple: I’m a 32-year-old white woman and I have been working in the sex industry for 5 years as a dominatrix, relationship counselor, and sexuality author. I used to be a professional ballroom dancer but left that career to pursue sex work out of my own volition.
What is FOSTA-SESTA, and what are the misconceptions surrounding these bills?
Holly: These bills are the love child of Senator Rob Portman, this law amends the Section 230 safe harbors of the Communications Decency Act. It holds online hosts and websites liable for their actions in conjunction with “sex trafficking”. It is already sending sites offline or overseas. Paired with the CLOUD Act (which lets the US subpoena or ask foreign countries to turn over their data), the FOSTA-SESTA Package means that the government has their hand around the wrist of sex workers and the resources they use to stay safe.
Dii: Because of these bills, even mentioning sex work online puts us at risk of being accused of promoting sex trafficking. This opens up a whole host of possibilities for online risk reduction resources—such as rating systems and records for clients—being severely censored or removed altogether. Sex workers have had to adapt to abrupt (and often state-sanctioned) threats to our safety for as long as our livelihood has been criminalized. We have to be very resourceful and flexible to work in this industry. The fact remains that we are running out of safe spaces online. This particularly affects workers who are the most vulnerable to violence, such as trans women of color. When our communities are denied or unable to access resources to protect ourselves and each other the consequences are often deadly. This doesn’t have to be the reality, though. Sex work can be dangerous, but danger is not an inherent or necessary fact of this industry. Stifling legislation, regulation and criminalization are what makes it dangerous for us to merely try and survive in a capitalist world. We need avenues to find work safely.
Vee: The saddest part of this legislation is that it will actually put the trafficking victims it purports to help in more danger. When you make it more difficult for clients to find providers, you are also making it more difficult for law enforcement and social workers to find trafficked individuals and help them. At the end of the day, this is a moral crusade wrapped up in the cloak of “helpful” legislation. In Seattle, for example, they have changed “solicitation” to “sexual exploitation”. Not only does this remove autonomy from consenting workers and treat clients like abusers, but it intentionally confuses the public into thinking that ALL prostitution is abusive and that just not the case.
Couple: One major misconception that I keep hearing about SESTA is that Trump and the Republicans are to blame. That is so far from the truth that it hurts. Democratic presidential contenders Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris (women who are being touted as progressive by so-called feminists and liberals) co-sponsored this bill. Many women today conflate consensual sex work and trafficking because they personally find it to be demeaning, not because they’re actually concerned for victims. This was a bipartisan attack on the sex industry, our right to assembly, and internet freedoms. The vote passed 97-2. Open your eyes, this is not just an issue of liberal vs conservative.
How has SESTA-FOSTA impacted you personally?
Vee: Most of the websites used by my trans brothers and sisters have been shut down or stifled. It scares me to think what kind of world we’ll be in once I’ve transitioned (I’m delaying my medical transition for work reasons), but I’m trying to keep moving and making money to support the folks who can’t work stealth right now. Sex workers help and support each other because many of us don’t have the support of our family and civilian friends, which the ignorance on the topic of this bill has really highlighted. A lot of the websites that I have used to successfully screen out rapists and abusers are now being censored and it’s terrifying.
Holly: Being a black sex worker already has its pitfalls and obvious discrimination, but this bill has taken the last bit of safety I thought I had. Watching the lights go out on all the sites and resources that I use is not only sad, it’s terrifying. If I don’t have message boards and forums for help or aid, what happens if I go missing? How do you find references on someone with no paper trail? How do I not become one less black body on the news, one more statistic?
Dii: This bill honestly has me paralyzed with fear (and I wield considerable privilege in this industry for being white passing and assigned female at birth). Every day since SESTA has passed I see another advertising platform shutting down or drastically limiting their services – and the law has not even gone into effect. I am not an upscale provider; I don’t have a website with reviews or a steady client base so I rely on various advertising sites. At this point I am counting down the days until I have to go out onto the street – and working on the street makes it much more difficult to establish boundaries and protect yourself.
Couple: Even though we are less at risk, myself and fellow dominatrices and sex educators are also scared stiff. We are in jeopardy of losing our websites, social media followings, review sites, access to clients…etc. The businesses, brands, and careers that we have been building for ourselves could be taken away in one clean sweep. While this is far less significant than being exposed to danger and death, it’s still scary. It’s important to have an awareness of intersectionality and acknowledge the disparity in outcomes from this bill.
Here are 3 things you can do right now to help sex workers in the wake of SESTA-FOSTA:
Donate: Below is a list of organizations, collectives and personal fundraisers that need your support:
Red Light Legal
SWOP Behind Bars
St James Infirmary
El/La Trans Latinas
LYRIC LGBTQ Youth Center
US Prostitutes Collective
+ more resources here: https://twitter.com/fatalvalerie/status/978663040739631104
Raise Awareness: Share content about the effects of these bills on sex workers – on social media and offline.
Bug your senators and representatives: If you don’t know how to contact them, you can text RESIST to 50409 And they will tell you how to contact those people.