When I first posted about FOSTA/SESTA, I posted about it with a nude. Despite the fact that a nude is more likely to be deleted on Instagram––and my body comes as a direct threat to the permanence of my words––nudes also gain more traction, and this was an important message. Also, sometimes the more serious a topic is, the more it is filled with logic or legal jargon, the more I like to show my naked self beside it; not as a distraction but to say: here, I can be both at once, and my body that you may sexualise does not limit or undercut my voice, they can coexist.
The important message I wanted people to read was about the implications and repercussions of two acts that looked like they were going to pass the senate in the United States. FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act) would allow prosecutors and state attorneys to sue any American website that hosted ads and content relating to the sex trade. Using sex trafficking as the premise, this would ultimately lead to the outlawing of anything related to sex work, and to the censorship of sex workers. A bunch of celebrities had promoted it, for example Amy Schumer, all of whom had no experience or knowledge of the sex industry. This always happens when the words ‘sex trafficking’ are used, it seems to draw the well-meaning and ignorant to it like moths to a flame. (Who then, unfortunately, don’t sizzle away but instead fan and obscure actual information.)
This was devastating for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it undermined the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which protected websites from lawsuits over user-generated posts, leaving it open for more changes to be brought in to persecute websites that publish any content that the US government doesn’t like. It set a scary precedent by encouraging websites to self-censor and clamp down on anything deemed legally ‘risky’, for fear of being prosecuted.
Secondly, because sex workers in the US would no longer be able to advertise their services. This meant many would turn to more dangerous forms of sex work such as street-based sex work or working under a pimp in order to survive. It would also restrict their communication and screening processes, making it difficult if not impossible to warn each other of violent clients. And even outreach services could no longer provide basic help such as free condoms or legal advice because they could then be charged with enabling sex trafficking. As the US views all sex work as trafficking (bar porn because when consenting adults have paid sex IN FRONT OF a camera it’s suddenly fine) it meant that US websites such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook would start eradicating anything related to the sex industry to cover their backs. The internet would become slowly dominated by one discourse as sex workers’ voices were wiped out because, let’s face it, a lot of the most popular websites accessed by the general public are American.
This is exactly what happened. Within the first week of FOSTA/SESTA coming in to effect, thirteen sex workers in the US went missing, another two were confirmed dead. It is hitting the most vulnerable, as was easily predicted. What was, partly, an ego-driven vendetta against Backpage (a website that many sex workers used to advertise on, and the US government had failed to charge with sex trafficking in 2016/2017) has had reverberations across all kinds of sex work, across multiple countries. But the sex workers who have been hit the hardest are those in the US, those with no other options (survival sex workers) and sex workers from marginalised communities (e.g. migrant sex workers, WOC, trans and non-binary workers). In Australia, those who would be considered more ‘niche’ workers (such as fetish workers or trans women) lost their incomes. But I, and many like me, are privileged enough to be able to turn to alternatives. Brothel shifts overflowed and one Australian escort website suddenly had a monopoly on the market, with a more than 20% increase in new escort profiles in the months after FOSTA/SESTA. However, we are not in the same desperate straits as those in the US. Nowhere near.
Sure, there was an exodus of escorts from Twitter to sex-worker-run alternative Switter, because of shadow banning (when a social media user is ‘shadow banned’ they have full access to the platform but other users are prevented from seeing their profile, and they do not appear in search results, effectively muting their voice). Sure, our accounts are being deleted from Instagram and we are being further silenced. All of that is terrifying, and there will be much more to come. (Mistakenly people are attributing Paypal’s and Airbnb’s ban on sex workers to FOSTA/SESTA, but they have always been anti sex work.) Who I most ache for though, and wish I had the ability to fight more for, are those who have no other choice of advertising platforms, can’t turn to a brothel, don’t have a social media platform to fight this with. And you know who else I ache for? People who are actually trafficked, who used to be found via Backpage ads and will now be hidden down in the dark web. Reply All did an amazing podcast on this, and the way that FOSTA/SESTA doesn’t even do what it set out to achieve. Someone more concise than me described it using this metaphor, which I have rephrased as I could not find the original Twitter thread; ‘if you have a river that some people sail for joy, others fish for survival, and some drown in, would you really concrete over the river at the expense of those whose livelihoods rely on it? Concreting over a river doesn’t stop the flow, it just pushes it deeper. Those threatened by it would still be swept along underground, even less visible to the eye and able to be saved’.
There has been a lot written about FOSTA/SESTA and the way it has decimated the sex worker community. I was hesitant to add my voice to the discussion when I think that people should be focused on the voices of sex workers more directly impacted. My whiteness, thinness, youth and the fact I am cis means that I will not struggle to be find employment in any brothel in Sydney. It seemed both disingenuous and indulgent to bemoan FOSTA/SESTA as a sex worker when it has not affected me as a sex worker. However perhaps my voice will reach an ear that wouldn’t have heard the others. And I am going to now include links to more detailed and nuanced take downs, by people better fit than me to speak of it, or simply more knowledgeable.
Other Useful Resources
Tilly Lawless is a queer, Sydney-based sex worker who is passionate about horses, sex worker rights and feminism. She utilises her online platform to speak about her personal experiences within the sex industry, in an attempt to shine a light on the everyday stigma that sex workers come up against. Growing up in rural NSW, her writing is often a bucolic love letter to the countryside that she comes from, and also a deeply intimate insight into queer romance and relationships. You can read her writing in various publications, but it’s best going straight to the source and reading it directly from her Instagram, @tilly_lawless, which she uses as an incredibly transparent analysis of herself, her life and her motivations.