Sex Workers: Rights not Rescue

Sex sells. It always has. The desire for touch and companionship are at the very core of the human experience. We’re social creatures and for as long as we’ve walked the earth, we’ve searched for the physical and emotional connections we crave. Finding love isn’t always easy — but it is available for purchase.

Sex Workers: Rights not Rescue

The business of selling sex is old — really, really old — though the term “sex work” is fairly new. Coined in the 1970s by activist (and sex worker) Carol Leigh, “sex work” encompasses a diverse range of industries, performers, and providers; ranging from strippers, nude models, and camgirls to fetish models and street-based workers. Sex workers come from all genders, races, and backgrounds; each with their own motivations for joining the industry. The legalities of the work vary greatly, as do the identities and experiences of the workers themselves. For some, sex work is a full-time job; for others, it’s an occasional means to make ends meet.

Author Renee Olstead
Renee Olstead, M.A., AMFT

The growing appetite for self-produced content — commonly sold through online platforms like ManyVids and OnlyFans — have created new norms for the evolving industry, allowing many sex workers to create and distribute adult content from the privacy of their home. Though the internet brought a variety of new opportunities for sex workers, it also created new challenges like censorship, market oversaturation, and the oscillating cycle of hustle and burnout. “I consider myself to be an amateur creator because it’s me doing all of the work,” says Isla Cox. With over 43 million views and counting, she’s a film crew of one. “There’s no, like, professional filming. I film, edit, direct — everything is done by me.”

Sex work can be hard work, even when a worker makes the work appear effortless. Sometimes, that’s the point. In Dr. Heather Berg’s discussions of “authenticity”, Berg explores the erasure of work in the sex work industry. Authenticity,or the illusion of it is in high demand: it makes viewers feel good — or in on the fantasy — and makes clients feel special. Consumers often favor “authentic” performers and they want to hear performers talk about how much they enjoy their job — which is, for many, true. For others, keeping up the charade is just another invisible aspect of the work of catering to their audience’s desires.

While Western society may stigmatize sex workers as a whole, some workers face more of the burden than others. Factors such as race, age, gender, and socio-economic standing affect the opportunities presented to workers in any industry; in sex work, it can shape the work entirely, often dictating the level of risk workers are likely to encounter. Those entering sex work with the least amount of privilege are routinely those at the highest risk for violence, exploitation, and arrest. While the sex work community may include both the college girls selling pictures of their feet on the internet and Instagram models making millions on OnlyFans, both are unlikely to encounter the same level of stigmatization and risk thrust upon in-person sex workers and members of less protected classes.

Violence and harassment aren’t exclusive to in-person sex work, however. Doxxing, the act of maliciously publishing an individual’s personal or private information online for the purpose of harassment, is a common occurrence, sometimes with tremendous real-life consequences. “I have tried my absolute hardest to be safe online,” says Cox. “[But] I’ve actually moved twice now, after someone has found where I live. [You have to] have a backup plan. There are lots of different things that you walk through and figure out preemptively so you don’t have to do it when you’re scared or stressed.”

Openly discussing the risks and challenges of the industry can be tricky territory for sex workers. Many workers face the threat of industry backlash, account removal, unsympathetic reaction, or worse — supplying ammunition to those who hope to eradicate the sex work industry entirely. The puritanical desire to completely wipe out sex work — an impossible task — is amplified by the consolidation of social media platforms. Deplatforming, or the unexpected and ideologically-driven removal of one’s social media accounts, is a constant threat for sex workers,whose livelihoods often depend on their online fan base. Some workers have even adopted coded terminology (referring to themselves as “accountants” or “304”) in an attempt to speak more openly about their work. Despite these efforts, social media sites still regularly ban users who haven’t violated a platform’s terms and conditions, often without explanation. Earlier this year, Pineapple Support, a non-profit org that provides subsidized mental health care to members of the adult industry, was banned from Twitter, only reinstated after sustained community outcry.

Even sites inextricably linked to adult content leave much to be desired. In August of 2021, OnlyFans,an online platform that rose to popularity thanks to its adult content creators, announced that it would no longer allow explicit content on the platform, citing push-back from payment processors. Though the site ultimately reversed its decision just days after its bombshell announcement, the message it sent was clear: sex workers responsible for stuffing the platform’s pockets could expect little loyalty in return.

The government also plays a role in making sex work dangerous through legislation that criminalizes and silences the sex work community. In recent years, attacks on Section 230 of the The Communications Decency Act have challenged the legal separation between “publishers” — platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit — and their users. Section 230 challenges are frequently framed as initiatives necessary to fight sex trafficking or the distribution of child sex abuse materials (CSAM), however, legislation such as 2018’s FOSTA-SESTA — a bill condemned by groups ranging from EFF to the ACLU — have been ineffective in the fight against sex trafficking. These crude measures often make it more difficult for law enforcement officials to bring traffickers to justice and  exacerbate the threat to sex workers by eliminating the risk mitigation tools they use to find and screen clients.

FOSTA-SESTA and bills like it hold online publishers responsible for posts by their users and files uploaded to their servers. Publishers can be charged for “promoting prostitution” or “knowingly facilitating sex trafficking.” Publishers with users in the millions or hundreds of millions cannot enforce these strict regulations; for small sites, a single infraction could spell disaster. Platforms that host third-party content are faced with two options: risk costly litigation or remove all sexual content. As sex workers watched the resources they once depended on for safety removed, mutual aid organizations such as “Sex Worker’s Outreach Project”, hacking//hustling, and the UK’s “National Ugly Mugs” project(?) stepped up, offering new online resources in an effort to help keep full service sex workers safe.

Challenges to FOSTA-SESTA, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposed “SAFE SEX Workers Study Act,” have called attention to the “unintended” harms of FOSTA-SESTA, while proposals such as Senator Lindsey Graham’s EARN IT Act, present new threats for sex-workers and non-sex workers alike. If passed, EARN IT would compromise end-to-end encryption standards, allowing for the widespread scanning of user messages and the potential for massive data leaks. “The anti-sex work, anti-porn movement is very much a reaction to the progress that we’ve made,” says Free Speech Coalition’s Mike Stabile. “We have to make it through and make sure that the community survives this, but I think in the long term, they have a much weaker hand.”

Not every sex worker loves their job, but use of the term only applies to work to which the provider has freely consented — a very different thing from sex trafficking. People forced to perform sex acts against their will, who do so under coercion, or are unable to consent to the work should be referred to as what they are — victims and survivors. Though it represents the majority of American trafficking investigations, sex trafficking comprises only one piece of the global human trafficking epidemic. Human trafficking statistics compiled by The International Labour Office estimate that in 2016, 40.3 million men, women, and children were living in modern slavery. Of this figure, 24.9 million were estimated to be victims of forced labor, with 4.8 million people estimated to be forced into sexual exploitation. US State Department reports acknowledge the neglect often shown to the victims of (non-sexual) labor trafficking, with labor trafficking prosecutions representing a mere 4% of traffickers prosecuted. Accounting for approximately 75% of sex trafficking victims, foreign nationals face an even greater challenge in escaping exploitation due to the constant fears of arrest and deportation.

“Of those survivors, some who were required to register as sex offenders by their state or local government as a result of a conviction for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit faced social or familial ostracization; restrictions on travel or relocation; additional limitations on accessing services, housing, and public amenities; and in some cases lost custody of their children because of their status as a sex offender.”:“2022 Trafficking in Persons Report: United States,” U.S. Dept. of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons

I’ve yet to meet a sex worker who doesn’t fully endorse safe and supportive exits for victims of sex trafficking; however, current “anti-sex trafficking” legislation is largely opposed by the sex work community, and for good reason. It often harms both sex workers and the victims of exploitation. Similarly, proposed models of sex work legalization also leave much to be desired, with lawmakers frequently undermining the agency of workers by excluding them from the vital discussions directly related to their safety. Models of legalization and partial decriminalization, such as the Nordic model, are often fraught with issues that make the industry more dangerous. Sex work and sex worker-allied communities overwhelmingly support the decriminalization of sex work. Though “decriminalization” and “legalization” may sound similar, it’s important to underscore that only under the decriminalization model do we offer communities the opportunity to come forward about the abuse they’ve witnessed or experienced without the risk of arrest, fines, or jail time. Sex worker solidarity is more vital to the cause then ever as pro-sex work activists continue to oppose harmful legislation and fight for their seat at the table.

Is sex work always empowering? No. Can it be? Yeah, sometimes. Can a worker still willingly consent to provide a sexual service that they don’t enjoy? Absolutely. For many, sex work provides a viable source of income for those unable to work a traditional 9 to 5. It puts food on the table for people needing to supplement their primary income and buys the Christmas presents they give their kids. Hell, sometimes, it actually does put a dancer through college.

Chances are, someone you know — maybe even someone you know well — is a current (or former) sex worker. There’s a lot more of us than you might think; we pass you on the street and we stand in line behind you at the grocery store. Many of us look nothing like the characters you see on TV. We are all human and worthy of love and safety. Choosing to commodify the sexual attention one likely already receives makes a person no less worthy of respect or deserving of abuse. Violence isn’t a reasonable expectation for any industry or something a worker should expect to come with the territory. It is the unprotected status of the sex worker, the fear of arrest, and the societal indifference they experience that create the vulnerability that emboldens violent offenders to target us.

A safer world for sex workers begins with listening to sex workers. A safer world begins with asking sex workers what they actually need. For most of us, the answer is rights, not rescue.

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