Congress Is Preparing to Harm Queer Sex Workers Like Me

If FOSTA Passes, It Will Hurt Queer Sex Workers Like Me

When over 100 survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., went to the state capitol in Tallahassee last month pleading with lawmakers to pass House Bill 219 — a bill that would ban the sale and possession of semi-automatic weapons like the kind used by gunman Nikolas Cruz — Republicans voted it down 71-36 in under three minutes.

Guns, they decided, were not the greatest threat to Florida’s youth, never mind the 17 murdered peers of students in attendance. The real threat, they ruled, was porn. After voting down the gun bill, House members passed Florida H.B. 157, which declares pornography a public health risk. A similar bill awaits action in the Florida Senate.

The House bill was sponsored by Ross Spano, one of three Republicans running for Florida attorney general. Spano also chairs the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, the first committee assigned to hear the semi-automatic weapons ban. His antiporn bill calls for “efforts to prevent exposure and addiction to pornography, to educate individuals and families concerning pornography’s harmful effects, and to develop pornography recovery programs.”

Why? Because, “due to advances in technology and the widespread availability of the Internet, children are exposed to pornography at an alarming rate and it often serves as their main source of education regarding human sexuality,” as the bill's text reads. 

This is surely true in Florida, where students receive inadequate sex education. State law requires credits in “life management skills” — abstinence-based sex ed. According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, $10.7 million in federal abstinence-until-marriage education funding was spent in Florida in 2006; only Texas spent more federal funds for abstinence-based sex ed that year.

While the rejection of a lifesaving gun bill deserves our attention, the passing of another porn-phobic, anti-sex worker piece of legislation is part of a dangerous and ongoing pattern over recent years that no one seems to be noticing outside those of us who work in sex industries — porn stars, escorts, models, elite companions, toy makers and sellers, professional dominants and dominatrixes, kink coaches, sexual surrogates, directors, writers, and countless other hardworking Americans, many of whom are queer, trans, women, and people of color. The most vulnerable and invisible of queer people are sex workers — and we are under attack.

I have escorted on and off for about four years now. It’s a small part of what I do, and probably not the job I’m best at, but that extra bit of money helps pay rent. I don’t depend on it to survive, but countless friends and lovers do. You know a sex worker. You are friends with a sex worker — you just don’t know it.

In addition, I work at an online-based fetish store. We sell sex toys. It infuriates me that our youth are being slaughtered while lawmakers fuss over what to do about my “dangerous” industry. Other movements like Time’s Up have become public entities backed by big names. From fashion to entertainment, famous faces are putting their might behind #MeToo. I don’t see the movement advocating for sex workers and porn performers. If anything, I see an aggressive movement against us — one that worryingly crosses party lines.

Here’s one example. I want to cheer for Kamala Harris, a Democratic favorite and potential 2020 presidential candidate, and there’s a lot to love about the refreshingly left-leaning and uncompromising Harris, but she was active in a campaign that hurt sex workers before her election to the U.S. Senate. As California attorney general, Harris tried to shut down the adult section of Backpage.com, a popular classifieds website, believing that shuttering the section of site would stop sex traffickers from using it. We know sex trafficking happens on Backpage.com, and not to a small degree, but many on the opposition warn that closing down a site won’t stop pimps or sex traffickers from using the internet to conduct business — it will simply force them to pursue other more dangerous methods of doing so, methods that will harm victims. There was vocal resistance from sex workers to Harris’s campaign, many who use Backpage.com to conduct honest, consensual business. Harris has a history of whorephobia.

Most sex work is done online — mine is. This protects us from the dangers in finding clients on the street. In online platforms, accounts can get reviewed and verified by other escorts, which keeps us (and our clients) safer. Attacking online resources puts sex workers at greater risk — and truly does little to combat human trafficking. When the Manhattan office of Rentboy.com, the most popular gay male escort site in the United States at the time, got raided in 2015, it was a devastating blow to countless at-risk queer men who depended on the site.

Sex work doesn’t go away when you shutter a site — nor, it must be said, does sex trafficking. We don’t just stop working, and pimps don’t just call it quits. We resort to less regulated and more dangerous ways of conducting business — ways that hurt victims and hurt us. On top of this, if strict censorship laws are put into place, companies like Google won’t bother with careful screening to determine which postings and which accounts are legitimate sex workers conducting business and which ones are sex traffickers. Sadly, the language used in both — the keywords that might be flagged — are the same.

Late last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed House Resolution 1865 — titled the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA — legislation intended to penalize operators of sites that facilitate online sex trafficking by holding companies like Facebook, Google, and Backpage.com legally liable for content their users post. But many in the adult industries and beyond warn that this legislation will censor and silence trafficking victims — and, once again, cut off vital web platforms for escorts.

Eric Leue, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, the largest porn and sex worker advocacy group in the United States, told adult industry news site XBIZ that the House vote “sadly, is not an unexpected outcome.”

"Despite our efforts and outreach,” Leue said, “Congress does not seem to know, or care to know, the important role that online platforms and adult business have historically played in the disruption of sex trafficking. In addition to removing a critical tool in the identification of traffickers, those behind the bill have now dismantled one of the most important pillars of the free internet, the Communications Decency Act. Rather than prevent online sex trafficking, we expect FOSTA to be used to push legitimate sex workers underground and censor actual victims.” (Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act offers web platforms that publish third-party content a broad protection from liability for the actions of users.)

FOSTA was supported, disappointingly, by many left-leaning celebrities, including Amy Schumer, Seth Meyers, and Tony Shalhoub, who are featured in a video public service announcement encouraging Americans to support the bill. It has bipartisan support. At last, politicians seem to think, here we have something everyone can rally behind. Everyone hates sex trafficking.

Yes, everyone does — including sex workers. We actively look out for it and are perhaps the best people to recruit in order to help fight it. We know how the internet works, including and especially the dark and slimy parts where people get hurt. Legislation like FOSTA — and any kind of heavy-handed censorship — hurts, perhaps unintentionally, people who truly do no harm. People like me.

Why should you care? Because free speech on the internet is an American right — a right that we regretfully acknowledge that some will abuse. And because censorship — we can’t say this enough — doesn’t help victims. It silences them.

Queer people have been depending on sex work to survive since well before Stonewall. The greatest figure in the Stonewall riots, Marsha P. Johnson, was a transgender woman of color and sex worker. Politicians, celebrities, and people hoping to combat sex trafficking don’t know or don’t care enough about the realities of online sex work enough to differentiate between it and sex trafficking. We expect this from Republicans, who view our work as the moral erosion of their God-fearing America, but when a liberal media outlet like The New York Times publishes bullshit, porn-phobic, sex-negative pedagogy about the “dangers” of Internet porn, we recognize what appears to be something more ominous: a united front.

Porn isn’t evil — stop vilifying it. Stop letting the sex-negative attitudes and shut-shaming beliefs our culture is mired in — beliefs right-wing, anti-LGBT people have long been attempting to establish as law — infect the Resistance in what appears to be an olive branch across party lines. The Senate is expected to vote on — and pass — FOSTA this week. If you care about your friends and lovers and the people whose films you enjoy, urge your representatives not to pass it.

Sex workers struggle to step forward and take a stand, because our business and safety often depend on discretion. There is a massive stigma attached to what we do, a stigma that loses us job opportunities and threatens the safety of our families and homes. Sex workers come in every size, shape, age, skin color, and background. Some of us have master’s degrees. Some of us are former military. Some of us are college professors. Some of us are grandmothers. Many of us are parents. In a sex-negative, porn-phobic culture, we do good, even lifesaving work: We provide space for people to explore and discover sex without fear or shame. We help people. Now help us.

ALEXANDER CHEVES is an Atlanta-based writer. Follow him on Twitter @BadAlexCheves.

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