In middle school, I asked a friend to print gay porn from his home computer and give it to me. He whispered “I got it” and handed me a folded cube of paper under the table at lunch. The paper burned in my pocket like a talisman. It made a papery crunching sound when I moved my leg and when I pressed my thumb on my pocket in class. When I got home, I locked myself in the bathroom and unfolded the treasure. He must have gone to Google Images and searched “gay porn” and simply printed the results in black-and-white. I studied every grainy image — three pages of thumbnails, dark windows in which men were fucking and gasping — then immediately destroyed them. I ripped the pages into little pieces, wrapped them in toilet paper, and flushed them.
I wanted to keep them, but I was afraid my parents would find them. My parents had found other things — underwear hidden under the barn and a picture of Chris O’Donnell from 1997’s Batman & Robin. I could explain those things, but this was different. These pages would confirm my parents’ fears as surely as they confirmed mine — I was gay.
My friend’s computer did not have the parental blocker like the one my parents installed on our home computer. That crude porn was the first rung on my ladder out of the closet. It led me to the life I have now. My friend is, as far as I know, still living in secret.
As with any industry, porn can be problematic — far less problematic, I would argue, than massive corporations with billionaire CEOs and day laborers struggling to pay rent, but problematic nevertheless. But the good things that porn brings to the world outweigh the invented social ills we love to charge it with. Porn’s existence makes us no more promiscuous or addicted to sex than fashion makes us addicted to buying clothes. Porn has cultural, artistic importance (the harness trend among male celebrities on the Hollywood awards circuit, for example). And for me, along with countless others, it was a gateway to self-understanding.
Let’s define porn, since the label encapsulates a wide range of content. There is “amateur” porn — pictures and video typically created in private residences and hotel rooms, not production studios. Then there is “studio” porn, which is everything you’re familiar with (cameraman, set, director, and so on). There’s erotic information, particularly in the world of kink and BDSM, which is both arousing and very informative (think of the lengthy, point-of-view fisting videos you can find. which teach you everything from proper lube-mixing to hand shape and technique). Then there’s sex education and contraceptive information, which is only pornographic if you think all images of naked bodies are explicit (many people do). These categories exclude all the beautifully written erotica and powerful erotic art in the world.
Why is porn important? Beyond the fact that it’s an industry many queers enjoy and depend on, let’s pretend, for a moment, that you’re a young trans kid who once enjoyed tying up your stuffed animals, and now that you’re a little older, you think you would like to be tied up too.
The first thing you’d likely do is search for porn on the internet. Eventually, you’ll find online communities, forums, websites, and “dating” apps where you can talk to people who share this thrilling new kink called bondage. You may even arrange to meet someone. On the internet, you will find bondage experts, bondage blogs, bondage artists, and an international culture built around this fun, sexy scene. You’ll learn that there are safe ways to play and unsafe ways to play. You’ll learn that doing bondage without proper instruction or a playmate present is extremely dangerous.
At least that’s the ideal scenario. What happens if you’re unable to find these people or access this information? I know at least two people who have died because they knew so little about their kinks before they tried them. One was found dead in his apartment from autoerotic asphyxiation, which every informed kinkster knows is a fetish practice you should only do with someone else present (multiple people have died of this). Beyond the safety risks, this content and these communities are essential to the mental health and sexual well-being for curious youth — particularly youth living in the closet.
When we talk about a sex panic, it’s important to realize what exactly is at stake. Our fear has never been “I won’t be able to find my favorite porn” or “I’ll have to change my profile picture on my favorite app.” We respond strongly to these seemingly small-scale events — the banning of adult content on Tumblr and new profile guidelines on Scruff — because they are bullet points of a larger, worrying trend. They illuminate the reality that dangerous laws like SESTA/FOSTA are slowly making the internet and apps less welcoming for queer people and sexual expression.
We live in a sex-negative culture in which porn has long been relegated to trash, a “lower” form of media. Roughly 75 percent of people in the United States are Christian, and most of them have a negative view of promiscuity. Various social stigmas around sex exist because of Christian purity myths and the underlying belief that women must be virgins or whores.
That said, 2015 was a powerful year for queer visibility. June of that year saw the Supreme Court rule for nationwide marriage equality, which amounted to a defeat for many Christian conservatives — a blow to a sacred institution we had so long been barred from. I believe that a backlash followed: Two months later, in August, the Manhattan offices of Rentboy.com, a website used by many gay male escorts to meet and screen clients, were raided by the Department of Homeland Security and the New York Police Department in an action that looked alarmingly like the police entrapment of the 1970s.
The antigay motive was apparent. Law enforcement seemed to deliberately obfuscate Rentboy’s business with alarmist language like “internet brothel” and “racket.” The language of the legal complaint against Rentboy reads as if it was lifted from a 1960s police report. Kelly Currie, the acting U. S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said the site “made millions of dollars from the promotion of illegal prostitution.” The site pulled in $10 million in five years — less revenue than an average McDonald’s franchise. The seizure of Rentboy was a major blow to countless queer male sex workers who depended on the site to survive.
A year later, the #MeToo movement began with a watershed report in The New York Times detailing Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades of alleged sexual assault. The widespread problem of assault was finally brought to mainstream news and was addressed by countless celebrities.
But, again, we live in a moralistic, sex-phobic society, and the general public is not educated enough about sex to distinguish good sex (sex which is healthy and empowering) from bad — rape, assault, and things that aren’t sex at all, but rather violence and privilege masquerading as sex. Complicating matters are alleged predators like Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer, who have used their queer sexuality to attempt obfuscation of the accusations against them.
Suddenly, battle lines were drawn between self-described feminists who were anti-sex worker (SWERFs), feminists who excluded trans women (TERFs), and actual feminists, a group that includes many sex workers — people who celebrate sexual autonomy and control the commodification and objectification of their bodies for their own profit and pleasure. An antiquated, whorephobic idea reemerged in public discourse — the claim that porn is at odds with feminism and dangerous for women, and that sex workers are victims of trafficking. Who would willingly choose to be a sex worker? (Many people, actually.)
Early last year, Congress passed irresponsible and dangerous legislation known as SESTA/FOSTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act), which President Trump — himself facing at least 16 accusations of sexual misconduct — quickly signed into law. SESTA/FOSTA has been the most devastating blow of our current sex panic. Champions of the bill — including 2020 presidential hopeful Kamala Harris — claimed that SESTA/FOSTA would hold sex traffickers liable by making websites responsible for third-party content posted on them. In reality, SESTA/FOSTA has rolled back countless internet freedoms and inflicted devastating damage on already-marginalized communities, including many trans women of color who depend on sex work to survive.
Sex worker advocates were sounding the “sex panic” alarm well before SESTA/FOSTA. Even so, its support was shockingly bipartisan — many progressive celebrities like Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham publicly supported it. Harris fought hard for the bill in order to shut down Backpage.com. Like Rentboy, Backpage gave sex workers the ability to be financially independent and find and screen work for themselves — off the streets and away from actual traffickers, abusive “managers,” and pimps. Sex workers and advocacy groups warned that SESTA/FOSTA would have disastrous effects on sex workers’ safety and lives — and that's exactly what happened.
Harris’s goals materialized. Before the legislation even passed, Backpage.com was seized by the FBI. Harris claimed the seizure as a victory — one that further isolated and threatened the safety of countless independent sex workers and service providers.
SESTA and FOSTA are written in such vague terms that any website, app, or platform that seems to foster sexual meetups is put under scrutiny. It’s frustrating how little lawmakers understand about sex on the internet — namely, that not all explicit content is indicative of trafficking or misconduct. Like much of the general public, Harris and others like her seem unable to accept that someone can be a consensual sex worker.
Apple already has an anti-porn record. It doesn’t take much to deduce that SESTA/FOSTA has pushed the company to be more stringent in the content permitted on its App Store. After getting pulled from the App Store, the microblogging platform Tumblr faced public outcry for having child pornography on the site. The ensuing ban of all adult content is seen by everyone to be a gross overreaction — a devastating sweep of censorship that effectively erases all the beautiful kink communities that shared content and found representation there.
Last week Scruff, a social app for gay men, announced heavy-handed changes to its profile picture guidelines — no underwear allowed and no sexual acts, which include no kissing or hugging. Scruff was pulled from Google Play a few months ago — incidentally, Google Play has yet to remove an app accused of promoting "ex-gay" therapy. And while no one has stated plainly that Google is also feeling pressure from FOSTA/SESTA to clean up, this is what I believe has happened.
I think this sex panic will get worse. Fearing SESTA/FOSTA, more sites and apps will be threatened to censor their content and the content their users upload, erasing queer people in the process. Facebook has been unfriendly to trans people and drag artists for years with its “real name” policy, and last October it was revealed that Facebook is actually blocking LGBTQ ads. Arizona is currently proposing a law to tax porn in order to pay for Trump’s ridiculous wall. Since large corporations control most of what we see on the internet, don’t be fooled into thinking porn bans (or added charges to access adult sites) are outside the realm of possibility. I believe porn bans are coming — if we don’t react.
I don’t want to be the overzealous human claiming causality in what is simply an unfortunate stretch of time for sex workers, queers, and kinky people, but I don’t think I am. I also won’t claim a single source for this sex panic, but rather the existence of multiple social and political factors enabling it.
I cannot blame SESTA/FOSTA for the sex panic any more than I blame hundreds of years of moralistic conditioning in American culture in which sex has been widely shamed. I think there has been an anti-queer pushback since marriage equality. I think religion is toxic for sex-positive expression. But I also blame, in part, the LGBTQ rights movement itself, one that presented a very sanitized goal — marriage — for lawmakers to focus on. Winning that long-deserved right presented the idea that marriage is all we ever wanted, and it’s not.
I want porn, cruising, sexual freedom, and the ability to show off my body on an app, and I'm far from being alone. Anarcho-fags of decades past fought for the freedom to be wholly and unapologetically queer, and what we have now is a duller and more censored victory than the one I was ready to taste.
ALEXANDER CHEVES is a New York-based writer and a sex columnist for The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @BadAlexCheves.