Emperor’s Palm Beach is advertising that they’re taking applications from soon-to-be high school graduates. Seems like a questionable strategy, since another location operated by the same owners was sued for allowing an underage dancer to work. It sounds like the club might be a nice stop for traveling (legal) dancers, though. An article in the Broward-Palm Beach New Times points out that the club’s website offers hotel accommodations and “guaranteed funds.” Of one thing we can be sure: This sign undoubtedly reached more Reddit readers than potential strippers.
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.
Content warning: this piece contains discussion of sexual violence.
You may have read the recent editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times, an opinion piece in which Mary Mitchell argues that sex workers who are raped by a client are making a mockery of “real” rape survivors by even considering what happened to them to be sexual assault. Luckily, the majority of commentators discussing the editorial see it for what it is: a blatantly discriminatory piece of rape apologism. While the actual piece itself has been critiqued by multiple different authors and websites, the question of how sex work, sexual assault, and consent are related is a frequent topic in the discourse around sex work and its legality. Rather than stopping at simply declaring Mary Mitchell to be a peculiarly regressive quasi-feminist, it may be more helpful to examine the ways Mitchell’s views are actually in line with how most non-sex workers see our ability to consent.
Mitchell’s piece is filled with questionable reasoning and a variety of anti-sex worker phrases. She makes sure to allude to a victim narrative by mentioning “pimps” and “trafficking” (neither of which were present in this crime), but at the same time wishes to hold sex workers accountable for our own sexual assaults. Even more strangely, her qualifications of what deserves to be called “rape” (you know, “rape-rape”) seem inconsistent. She wants us to know that she doesn’t think women are responsible for their own rape if they “dressed too provocatively or misled some randy guy,” but seems to think that a man threatening a woman with a gun for sex is somehow not really sexual assault. What’s important for her is that we sex workers put ourselves in a situation which will obviously lead to sex: we’ve already consented by agreeing to take money. “It’s tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim,” she writes, because it’s clear the sex worker was going to consent anyhow. What is the difference between financial stability and not being shot to death, anyways?
It would be nice if Mitchell were the only person who thought this way, but unfortunately, the world is full of people with similar opinions. I’ve heard too many men joke, “If you rape a hooker, is it rape or shoplifting?” to read this as an isolated incident. And surely enough, there is at least one recent case where officials have dismissed sexual assault charges when a sex worker is the victim. In fact, the judge in that scenario, Philadelphia’s Teresa Carr Deni, used the same exact arguments that Mitchell did: calling the sexual assault of sex workers rape demeans real rape victims; it is actually more a “theft of services” (a direct quote from both Mitchell and the judge, incidentally).
Rather than an opinion held by particularly vicious bigots, I think this is actually a belief held by most non-sex workers, including many of our clients. Sex workers, in the eyes of many, are just people who are particularly lascivious, who get into sex work because they are that into having sex with lots of people. Almost every sex worker I know has a story of a client who thought that after one or two times of meeting, the sex worker would be willing to stop taking payment for their work; clients habitually try to barter us down on the presumption that we must be getting our own payment (in terrible sex). Even people who purport to be allies might hold this view: a non-sex worker who had worked on campaigns for decriminalization once asked me as I was heading off to meet a john they thought was particularly dangerous, “What is the thrill?”
In this view, our entry into sex work is a sort of broad consent: we’ve consented to whatever a client might do to us simply by being in the life. Any ability to individually consent to one round of sex is swept away, let alone the ability to consent to certain acts and not others. This is especially true for sex workers whose demographics are already highly fetishized as “always up for it,” like trans women or black women, and especially sex workers in both those demographics.
I’ve been a sex worker rights activist for going on a decade now, and I’ve lived in New York all that time. My focus in the early years was very local, meaning that I was concerned with what was happening in my own life and the lives of the people I worked with and cared about. I wanted us to stay safe, get rich, and not deal with douchebag clients – you know, all the dreams a girl could have. When I got involved with $pread magazineand became an editor in 2005, I started to pay more attention to what was happening outside of my little bubble. Being responsible for the news section of the magazine meant that I started to learn more about what was happening in sex worker communities not just across the country, but also across the world.
Over the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work more closely with sex worker rights activists globally, and I gotta say that it’s kind of blown my mind. In the fall of 2009 I spent a week in rural India, a few hours south of Mumbai, with SANGRAM and the sex workers at VAMP. We collaborated on a video about sex worker organizing in India, and it gave me immense respect for the work these activists have been doing. In India, there are sex worker unions, and hundreds of sex workers show up at events and rallies. They are loud, and they are a unified community struggling hard for their rights and getting some traction. During one conversation I had with an older woman about the differences in our activism, she said, “In America, you have everything. You have cameras. You use the internet. But you aren’t fighting the government together the way we are. You need to come together and collectivize. It’s the only way.” It really resonated with me. In a place where sex workers have to walk to one well that serves the neighborhood to get water for their huts, their community is infinitely stronger than ours, probably because there’s less obsession with individuality.
Since that fall, I’ve been seeking out other opportunities to learn more about the global situation of sex workers. This past month, I got the opportunity to go to London for Sex Worker Open University, a nearly weeklong event organized by a collective and held in the Arcola Theatre complex in Hackney. There were many sessions every day, an interesting blend of skill shares by and for sex workers, and presentations about policy and activism work. The event ran from Wednesday, October 12 through Sunday, October 16– you can see the full program here and feel envious – and on the Friday, we had an evening of conversation among activists from all over the world.
By now, you’ve probably heard the story of Zola and her fabled strip trip to Florida with her new friend, Jess. If you haven’t, the story was told in a series of dramatic tweets by Zola, AKA twitter user _zolarmoon. In it, she spins a story that’s so intense and absurd that it’s hard to believe. In sum: she reluctantly agrees to take a work trip with her new pal, Jess, to Florida. Things immediately go wrong in a variety of terrifying ways. Zola’s narration of the journey is flippant and casual. She saw a lot of humor in the events that allegedly occurred.
The series of tweets were so flagrantly wild that they exploded on Twitter—at one point her story was (and still may be) trending worldwide. The story was picked up and regurgitated by your typical new media blogs: Fader, Buzzfeed, Complex, and, Jezebel (the list is still growing). It’s not surprising that Zola’s narrative was embraced so thoughtlessly. It contained the trappings of a good story that the new media elite thrive on, a perverted version of the who-what-where-when-why-how I learned about in journalism school: sexy pictures, nefarious and criminal doings, content that could be quickly mined and embedded, and, uh, Florida.
Sex worker Twitter did not appreciate the Jezebel piece. It triggered a familiar dialogue about the intersection of social media and journalism. What, ethically, is public record? Is Zola’s Twitter account public record? Jia Tolentino, the author of the story, argued that YES, it is. And further, the original tweets themselves had been shared hundreds of times—so who cares? The story went viral. Deal with it.