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.
A few years back, I woke up, looked at my arm, and thought I was in a nightmare. My arms were covered in rashes of tattoo-dark blood blisters so thick my skin looked burgundy-purple from a distance, and bruises, the flesh so swollen it looked like I had been in a car wreck. I had not done anything out of the ordinary, not been beaten up, not survived a new trauma.
It was the most obvious symptom of what would later be diagnosed as an immune disorder. The other symptoms were invisible but devastating—among them, noncancerous growths in both lungs large enough to require a surgical biopsy, and having to relearn how to breathe. My platelets dropped to levels that saw me restricted to cancer treatment wards, experimental medications and bed rest, and a never-ending hell of side effects. The only potential explanation was that this immune disorder could be causing my body to kill my platelets, removing my blood’s ability to clot.
Without platelets, you struggle to get enough oxygen. For a while, I even spent time on oxygen tanks. Without platelets, you’re a “bleeding risk.” You bruise. Sometimes you bleed spontaneously—internal bleeding, swollen limbs, bloody noses that soak towels and can’t be stopped outside a hospital. You can die from a bloody nose if it can’t be cauterized in time. The underlying immune disorder also removes my ability to respond to vaccines, rendering me vulnerable to preventable illnesses.
The good news is, with ongoing access to a medication derived from healthy people’s immunoglobulin, I can see the same long life as others. That’s a whole other discussion about ethics under capitalism in and of itself, because that immunoglobulin sure ain’t coming from rich people, is it?
The bad news is that without insurance this medication costs as much as some types of cancer treatment, and I’ll require it for the rest of my life. In the time between medication doses, my body chews through the donor immunoglobulin, as well as my own blood’s existing components.
In the scope of weeks, months at best, I go from healthy to on the verge of death, platelets dropping, sometimes by 2/3 in the scope of a day. In the course of diagnosis, I spent periods checking into the hospital every two weeks as my blood nosedived to a platelet level so dire that, at times, my doctors thought their machines had malfunctioned and were simply failing to count my blood’s components properly, because how the hell could I be alive otherwise? I was the youngest adult in the cancer wards, the mystery patient doctors came from other floors to see because my case was just THAT strange.
I was uninsurable prior to the Affordable Care Act, even without this diagnosis. My docs claimed I’d grow out of my irregular, heavy, unnervingly painful menstrual cycles, that they were nothing to be concerned about, yet the insurance companies claimed I had “an undiagnosed uterine disorder” and refused to cover me entirely. It turned out they were right about that disorder, ironically enough. After the endometriosis got bad enough to become disabling due to medical neglect, I finally got a diagnosis. I was disabled before my immune disorder ever happened.
Being able to get covered through the ACA was a turning point.
And if I had still been limping along without coverage when my immune system went into free fall, point-blank, I would be dead. Lack of coverage led to my deterioration and my medical inability to work to this day. But it would have led to my death if it had gone on just three years longer. Without full coverage that handled almost everything—blood tests sometimes daily, expensive medications, hospital stays, a dozen specialists, outside consults, extensive imaging, multiple surgeries, an ungodly amount of medications—I would have died during one of those blood drops, when I had 1/150th the minimum platelets of a healthy person.
I tell you this so you can understand how it’s all connected. How one denial, one interruption of coverage, one financial bad break, can cause a failure cascade that results in an individual’s life becoming a mire of sickness, struggle, medical neglect, and decay. For countless Americans, it leads to financial ruin.
For chronically ill and disabled people who do sex work in order to work around their conditions, doing criminalized, grey market, or informal labor without benefits means we often have no access to insurance without the ACA. Employer-based health insurance is now and has always been a leash on workers to keep us beholden to more powerful employers. The ACA was a first step away from that and empowered all workers, regardless of employment status. This is crucial in a “gig economy” of Uber drivers and independent contractors, people with standing not so different than my standing was as a stripper. A nation without the ACA is one in which many of us will die of illness and poverty.
This is the country that we are in danger of returning to if Brett Kavanaugh becomes the newest associate justice on our Supreme Court.
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.