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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.

Thinking About Cyntoia And My Black Body

Cyntoia Brown. (Via Youtube)

Content warning: this piece contains accounts of child sexual abuse and violence against a sex working minor as well as discussion of structural violence. 

I spent my teen years selling sex on the internet. I grew up on the Craigslist Erotic Services section, finding men who would pay me for something I didn’t take seriously because I’d been robbed of the chance to do so. I’d been raped at 12 by my next door neighbor after months of molestation, and subsequently passed around the neighborhood to two other perverts. One was an Albanian fella who definitely sold women, and he could have ended up trafficking me as well. In hindsight, my luck has been insane.

Cyntoia Brown’s story feels too close to home. Brown killed one of her abusers at the age of 16. When I was 16, I met a man on Yahoo Personals who seemed nice. After a four hour session, he didn’t want to pay. He kicked me out of the house and I had to find my way home. He could have killed me, and I thought he would, because he grabbed me so hard to throw me out. That session could have been my last, and no one would have been the wiser. If I’d been abducted, my mom would have been looking for a ghost; she had no idea what I was doing.

The Eros Raid Means None of Us Are Safe

Three days ago, Eros-Guide’s call center in Youngsville, North Carolina, was raided by the Department of Homeland Security. On Tuesday morning at 10:30 AM, a dozen black government vehicles converged on parent company Bolma Star Service’s office and data center, beginning a search and seizure operation that would last into the night. They confiscated computers, documents, and servers. The search warrant is sealed in federal court, with officials offering no comment on the investigation besides the fact that it is an active investigation. All DHS agents will say is that they are often assigned to crossborder cases involving money laundering, cybercrime, and human trafficking. So we have no idea what their probable cause even is. No arrests have been made yet, or charges filed. But collectively, we sex workers shudder with that familiar fear: we’re witnessing yet another instance of an ominous multi-year pattern, from Craigslist to MyRedBook to Rentboy to Backpage, of our advertising platforms being raided or pressured out of existence.

Once again, some of us are left in desperate suspense, waiting to see if our business models are about to be disrupted; if we’re going to be left in economic turmoil. Sure, eros.com and the other Eros subsidiary sites are still up for the moment, but how secure are they to conduct business over now?

Over the past few years, Eros has required progressively more revealing ID checks in order to confirm advertisers are of age. Now those IDs, including those of migrant and undocumented sex workers, are in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security. Sure, if they use this evidence at all, the feds will probably just focus on those of us they can construe as traffickers—sex workers who own incalls for the use of other sex workers, for example. There’s probably no reason for most Eros users to panic about this. Still, having your real name, address, and ID number in the hands of DHS is a nightmare scenario in a profession where our survival depends on our anonymity.

When it comes down to it, though, as many Eros workers pointed out on social media, they’re more worried about being homeless than about the government having that information.

The rest of us look on with empathy, knowing that any day, we could be next. We all try not to think about how tenuous and transitory our ways of doing business are so that we can go through our days without feeling the paralyzing economic terror hitting many of us now. But when something like this happens, it’s difficult to avoid that hard fact.

When Backpage caved to government pressure and shut down its adult ads earlier this year, some middle and upper class escorts felt immune. They felt that the higher prices they were charged for ads on Eros and Slixa meant they were paying for security. They acquiesced to the ID checks those services innovated, trading in their anonymity for the hope that now their advertising platforms couldn’t be accused of trafficking minors the way Backpage has been. (Not that the ID submissions weren’t foisted upon them as one of an array of very few options.) But now that Eros has been hit, our higher end counterparts must recognize that none of us are safe. No matter what security measures we take, no matter how many layers of privilege might mitigate our grey market or black market status, at any point, criminalization can strip us of all of them and leave us economically and legally exposed.

If You Want to Understand the Violence White Men are Capable of, Ask Any Sex Worker

The Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where Stephen Paddock murdered 58 people on October 1. Photo courtesy of James Marvin Phelps.

As a Vegas resident and sex worker for nearly a decade, the massacre there hits close to home. Too close, actually, as knowledge of the shooter’s proclivities for erotic services surface. In fact, my first response to images of the shooter was, “He looks familiar.” I chalked it up to the fact that every white cis dude looks like Stephen Paddock. But now, I’m not so sure I didn’t see him around. And while I cannot claim that I ever saw Paddock as a client myself, I am familiar with the terrain of the Vegas sex industry and wouldn’t be surprised if the two of us crossed paths.

The fact that the Las Vegas shooter was a client of sex workers is meaningful, but not for the reasons that most civilians think. 

Hugh Hefner: Rapist And Revolutionary

Hugh Hefner the image. (Photo by Flickr user Sarah Gerke)

Content warning: this post contains brief references to rape and abuse. 

Hugh Hefner died.

Of course he did. Dude was 91. When my castmate announced it after rehearsal, I didn’t feel shock at the news. Hefner may as well have died when he stopped being the editor of Playboy magazine. Or when The Girls Next Door tried selling us on twincest. Or when the magazine stopped publishing nudes. He was a go-to pop culture joke about debauchery and smoking jackets, but he’s hardly been relevant for years.

Still, I had some mixed feelings. I never much cared for Hefner or his image, having been introduced to him as a doddering grandpa on reality TV, but Playboy the brand had been in my life since I was a child. It molded my early ideas of what it meant to be attractive. It introduced me to the idea that sexiness could be playful or serious. When I turned 18, I bought an issue just because I could and delighted at the articles and interviews just as much as the pictorials. This, I thought, was the intersection of brains and beauty. By thumbing through the pages at my grandma’s house I was somehow becoming a well-rounded adult.

To say nothing of the accidental connection between Playboy and queerness. For generations, Dad’s secret stash (or in my case, my mother’s boyfriend Chad’s collection that he just left out in the open in his office) was a gateway not just for teenage boys but also girls. It felt like fate that my first issue featured a spread with Adrienne Curry, the first out bisexual I had ever seen. Since Playboy could also be “for the articles”, I was able to hide my queerness even from myself. Perhaps even more than the cool girls I had met in high school, Playboy gave me the most intense stirrings of looking at a woman and not being sure if I wanted to be her or be with her. As I grew I realized, hell, why not both?

When I went to college I found vintage issues and hung the centerfolds in my kitchen, aspiring to their fresh-faced, breezy beauty. I copied the makeup, teased my hair higher, and then rebelled against the streamlined pin-ups in favor of some Hustler-esque trashiness. Those styles helped me experiment and come into my own again and again as I rolled through my early 20s. Even now, I’ll sometimes look at them and imagine living in a dreamy world of sheer babydolls and fur rugs. It’s a world I realize I now have the means to create for myself at any point. Several photographer friends are just a Facebook message away, and within the week I’ll have a pin-up of myself to tuck away. In them, I’m eternally 19, 21, 24, and these versions of me seem younger and younger every year. They’re my own digital flashbacks that I wish I could share with my younger self. “Look,” I’d say. “You’re pretty too.”

But none of that was Hefner. It was the women I idolized—women who were paid peanuts to be immortalized in soft focus.