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At this point in the SESTApocalypse, as I finally emerge from the paralyzing fog of wtf-wtf-wtf around the death of our business model, we’re all sick of thinking and talking about it. We’re sick of wondering how the hell we’re going to manage, sick of watching high-end workers become paranoiac internet security experts, sick of low-end workers being driven back to the streets. We’re sick unto death of the media requests, media requests in our inboxes but no money, media requests just as blithely uncaring about outing us as always, media requests which cheerfully expect a response that night before the news cycle stops giving a shit about hookers. (Oh, but could you connect us to someone even more abjectly fucked than you? Could they talk to us in between dodging assault as they re-acclimate themselves to the shittiest and most dangerous sort of desperate street-based work? How do you feel about your imminent impoverishment, the obsolescence of your only survival mechanism, and your bleak and possibly nonexistent future?) And when we do accept these media requests and bravely strive to make ourselves understood—when they don’t just quote our snarky emails refusing the most ignorant ones without our permission—we’re sick of the coverage that results, always appearing underneath that sickeningly familiar synecdoche for us, those disembodied legs in thigh high boots leaning over a car under a streetlight.

We’re understandably sick of it all as we attempt to keep body and soul together in this new landscape, but I feel I have to write a eulogy for Backpage.

Alas, poor fucking Backpage. I’m not crying any crocodile tears on your grave—your owners can sit and stew in the hundred charges in their indictments and take that instead of true justice for cynically profiting off a criminalized population—but I will lament what you meant for us.

We’ve lived with you under threat for so long, your demise hardly feels real. From innumerable lawsuits to credit card companies cutting ties with you to Senate hearings to your flagrant strikes for free speech, it seems like something has always been promising to put an end to you. But you persisted.

Personally, I was with Backpage from its murky beginnings to the end of the line. I advertised in a print ad in the back of an alternative weekly back in the aughts when Backpage founders Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin’s company, Village Voice Media, owned a large swathe of those weeklies. I paid $200 every two weeks for that ad, $160 for a week if I couldn’t manage to put together that $200. $200 for 100 characters, briefer than a tweet—no pictures. I had to walk into that newspaper office personally to deliver the cash, forget any concerns about outing (oh, yes, kids, and I walked uphill in the snow, both ways).

It was this crude newspaper model, these back pages only a few escorts could advertise on, which would eventually become the much more accessible Backpage. (Larkin in an internal company document, as quoted in the unsealed Backpage indictments: “We have with the Village Voice probably the longest run of adult content advertising in the United States and it is, like it or not, in our DNA.”) In fact, Lacey and Larkin initially used Backpage’s revenue stream to keep those alternative weeklies alive in a newspaper industry that was failing even then, in the late aughts and early tens. Though, as anti-trafficking discourse intensified nationally, Village Voice Media came under new ownership which denied any connection, financial or otherwise, between their high-minded journalism and Backpage’s taint.

(Though now both independent print journalism and online escort advertisement are dying models, so we have something in common again.)

The Stormy Daniels Effect, Part II: Post SESTA/FOSTA Edition

A younger Stormy Daniels demonstrates powerful side-eye. (Photo by James Chang via wikimedia)

When I first identified “The Stormy Daniels Effect” here at Tits and Sass, my theory about the power of sex worker class-consciousness, the Stormy Daniels media cyclone was just beginning to brew. This week, after her 60 Minutes interview on Sunday night, it briefly became a full on news cycle shit storm. Commentary on Daniels ranged from sex worker-penned think pieces praising her as a “hero of the opposition” to the never-ending parade of trolls calling her a “whore,” “slut,” and “ho” on Twitter. There was also a slew of pedestrian commentary on mainstream media sites, including tired retorts to Daniels’s press coverage that claimed her sex work is evidence of moral and intellectual shortcomings. My favorite came from an anonymous troll who goes by the name mason B: “awwwwwww the HO’S [sic] have a national voice now isn’t that nice?”

While trolls are not the barometer for our country’s political and social health, the dichotomous identities slung onto Daniels most certainly are. Even Nate Lerner, grassroots director for Build The Wave and creator of the “Boycott Trump” app, recently tweeted, “It’s disconcerting when a porn star is more articulate than our president.”

That Daniels is considered a dumb whore on the one hand and a savior on the other is pretty telling—in our culture, we want our sex workers to occupy uncomplicated little boxes. Leftists and right-wingers alike want sex workers to fit into one of two wildly different narratives. More to the point, it is not lost on most sex workers that while some Democrats and progressives praise Daniels, it was, nevertheless, Democrats and progressives who just fucking passed FOSTA.

SESTA Vs. Stormy Daniels

(Image via Flickr user Donkeyhotey)

The fact that porn workers have always been popular scapegoats for the broadest strokes of politics and media is hardly news for those who work in the sex industry. There are myths claiming pornography leads to violence and there is the historical fact that porn workers have protected our civil rights. Protecting our First Amendment rights is just scratching the surface of sex workers’ contributions to labor and women’s rights movements, among others, since antiquity. Although more is at stake for sex workers than free speech, the passage of FOSTA and SESTA will not only affect us but civilians too, especially in light of the repeal of net neutrality. In a titillating cross-section of lawmaking and scandal, we have on one side Stormy Daniels suing 45 for unlawful payoffs and calling him to account publicly for his associates’ threats against her, and on the other side, legislation that has already silenced common sex workers, with the overlaying intersections of race and class; good whores and bad whores; victims and perpetrators; and misinformation all around.

You might see liberal celebrities championing Daniels, but you won’t see them championing sex workers’ rights.

The Erasure of Maya Angelou’s Sex Work History

A young, beautiful Maya Angelou with Langston Hughes, not long after her career as a sex worker—guess she didn't think his joke was that funny? (Photo via mayaangelou.com)
A young, beautiful Maya Angelou with Langston Hughes, not long after her career as a sex worker—guess she didn’t think his joke was that funny? (Photo via mayaangelou.com)

As Black History Month draws to a close, we thought revisiting Peech’s seminal essay on Maya Angelou would be appropriate. 

Dr. Maya Angelou, American Poet Laureate, most famous for authoring I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, passed away at age 86 on May 28th, 2014. Her literary agent Helen Brann confirmed the news to press, and thus began a worldwide outpouring of grief. The top trending tag on Twitter was “RIP Maya Angelou” and, at the time of this writing, it is one of four Maya Angelou-related trending hashtags. She is hailed as a national best selling author, a genius, a spiritual God-, Grand-, and mother. She is lauded as everything Black women should aspire to emulate in life. So why is it very few of us know she was a sex worker in her youth? Why is it, even in her death, as in her life, it’s such a guarded secret? Why was this secret kept by seemingly everyone except Dr. Angelou herself?

We can, once again, boil it down to respectability politics and stigma. I am angry about it. I find myself ruminating, considering, wondering: If her work had been talked about as much as her dancing with James Baldwin or even her considerable, commanding, and lovely height of six feet, what would the sex work community look like today? If we had talked about her wonderful compassion for sex workers, how she never looked down on them, and her refusal to be intimidated by invasive and obnoxious questioning about her sex working past, what would sex workers around the world be saying today in memory of her life?

Instead, we read post after post, obituary after tribute, calling her a “pimp” and saying she had “an unsuccessful stint as a prostitute.” The most detailed accounts currently online are making sure to emphasize that she spent a “brief stint,” a “short time” in the sex industry, so as to, without explicit words, solidify the shame they believe she should have felt, the shame we should feel as well. The media uses inflammatory terms to get clicks and to emphasize the terrible and shameful secret that was, in actuality, never a secret at all.

Dr. Angelou herself says she was never ashamed.

SESTA’s Growing Threat To The Sex Worker Internet

Senator Richard Blumenthal testifying in favor of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, with that sincere, constipated look one gets when testifying in favor of anti-trafficking legislation. (Via Youtube)

You can always count on a corporation to look out for its own interests. An existential threat to their business model will even trump the good PR that comes from beating on everyone’s favorite marginalized punching bags, sex workers). So, until recently, major tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Google opposed SESTA,the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. Their business models depend on user-generated content, and SESTA would overhaul Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which previously protected internet platforms against liability for the actions of users.

But following a compromise earlier this month between Silicon Valley and the bill’s Congressional sponsors, SESTA has passed the House and is headed to the Senate. Though they tried to keep their involvement quiet, cloaking their advocacy in the lobbying group the Internet Association, tech companies pushed hard for changes to the bill. An amended version of the bill released on November 3 by Senator John Thune addressed many of their concerns. Initially, SESTA took aim at any facilitation of user sex trafficking. But an amendment to the bill now specifies only “knowing conduct” as “participation in a venture,” meaning in general terms that sex worker advertising sites are now the only ones on the hook while Facebook and company remain immune from sex trafficking liability. Another key revision that spurred a change in the Internet Association’s position involved the development of bots policing content. In earlier versions of SESTA, developing such bots would constitute knowledge of the platform being used to facilitate sex trafficking. Similarly, Backpage’s keyword filters for policing content were used in its Senate hearing as evidence that it had knowledge of and was facilitating sex trafficking. Its own reporting efforts were used against it.

The bill also now specifies that state law enforcement officials using SESTA to prosecute individuals or entities would have to use federal law as a basis for their actions. That’s very handy for the tech companies, as in some states, “sex trafficking” can mean just about anything. While the federal definition of sex trafficking involves force, fraud, or coercion (or the involvement of minors, though this leads to situations in which young street youth get arrested for trafficking for helping their friends in the business as soon as they turn 18), a number of states, such as Alaska, have much broader definitions. This can include cases such as two escorts simply working together. A 2012 records request found that two such escorts were arrested and charged with sex trafficking as well as with prostitution—both alleged victims were arrested and charged with sex trafficking each other.

The bill remains draconian. There are enormous liabilities attached to user content for internet companies, which is a huge incentive to police that content heavily. Platforms that host advertising for sex workers are definitely still in the crosshairs. In fact, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) points out, SESTA will even target companies retroactively, a measure that was no doubt included as a way to go after Backpage. No actual intention to assist in any sex trafficking is necessary in the newest version of the bill either, so long as it is “facilitated” in some way, a term which courts have interpreted broadly.