Since its advent, the internet has been a key resource for keeping sex workers safe, a venue for hearing their opinions on policy and a tool for making money.
“When sex workers started to be able to use online platforms, they didn’t need to be out on the street in possibly dangerous situations,” local pornographer Kate Sinclaire says.
However, many sex workers online are complaining about censorship. One instance is the esoteric use of “shadowbanning” on Twitter and other social media platforms. Another is the recent passing of U.S. bills SESTA/FOSTA (the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act), which makes website publishers responsible if third parties post information about sex work – including ads, services and rates, blacklists and other safety information – on their platform.
These censorship moves have impressive reach. Sinclaire says that access to (and denial from) online platforms also affects her work in porn, which is a wholly legal industry.
“ These bills are coming down from white men, largely, and they are absolutely ways to control and snuff out queer communities.
“Even people like me that are doing a legal thing are forced to censor ourselves and make ourselves less visible. Less visibility = less profit...” Sinclair says.
“Tech dudes behind keyboards that will never know what it’s like to have your social media account deleted or your family disown you or to be arrested on the street – those people keep making money. The women, femmes [and] trans folks lose,” she adds.
According to much of the online discourse around SESTA/FOSTA, the bill is a huge step towards future censorship attacks on women and LGBTQ people. According to Sinclaire, the recent repeal of net neutrality was the first step in this direction.
“Repealing net neutrality was a big step that paves the way for things like SESTA/FOSTA to be enforceable.”
She adds that the internet has allowed marginalized populations to “communicate, create communities, be sex positive and more ... These bills are coming down from white men, largely, and they are absolutely ways to control and snuff out queer communities.”
“We [queer folks and women] got to this point by creating communities, being visible [and] being proud. These laws are meant to kill those communities.”
A Q&A with American sex worker Liara Roux delves deeper into the importance of equal internet access and the deadly effects of internet censorship.
Uniter: In lay terms, what is shadowbanning? What is the process to make it happen, who is behind it, and what are the effects?
Roux: “Shadowbanning is a term used to describe when your account on a social media site is, in some way, taken out of the discussion without outright banning you or informing you that you've been banned. The idea behind it seems to be that if a bad actor is muted without them knowing, they are less likely to escalate or make a new account.
On some platforms, like Twitter, it's implemented in such a way that you may never know it happened to you. Generally someone who is shadowbanned will not have their tweets show up in [a] search or under trending hashtags for users who are not that person's friend. So I may see myself in the search and another friend will see it, but not someone just participating in the hashtag that isn't directly linked to me.
“ People can already toggle if they want to see adult media or not – I’m not asking for everyone to see my pictures without clicking, [and] I can accept that. But don’t force people into a situation where they can’t see us, even if they’re actively searching for our perspective.
It kind of sounds like an urban legend, but people have come up with applications that search for you and let you know. I've found these to be generally reliable by testing it when not logged into my account.
We don't know [why it happens]. Twitter refuses to comment. I can tell you that two of the biggest groups that seem to be experiencing it are people on the alt/hard right (neo-nazis and the like) and sex workers. I like to believe this is for drastically different reasons – perhaps they are trying to make the site more ‘family friendly’ with the misguided inclusion of sex workers [in shadowbanning].
Another thing that seems to get people shadowbanned is over-zealous automation, or a high percentage of tweets through external apps. I think that's fairly reasonable, but I still think users should be notified. It seems that some people who automated their tweets have said their account became unbanned a few weeks after they stopped the automation.
Because Twitter outright refuses to admit that they do this, there's no appeal process.”
How does shadow banning specifically affect sex workers?
“Right now, it's especially frustrating that people treat sex workers as ‘over 18 content’ instead of people who make adult content. Unlike platforms that seem primarily designed to interact with your fans or advertise, Twitter is also a social conversation tool with the unique feature of allowing you to conversation with a much wider worldwide conversation.
And it's very obvious how important that conversation is. The media searches through hashtags to find posts to feature. Popular posts rise to the top of the hashtag, amplifying that person's voice and extending their message, as well as finding them new followers to pay attention to that message. The message of adult entertainers is not just that we make adult entertainment. We should be able to participate in every aspect of these conversations, as people.
And we also need to participate in the political discussions about us, especially right now. As I write this there is legislation going through Congress that could severely limit sites ability to host content to do with sex work, since it will be very hard for them to automatically tell the difference between people posting about consensual sex work, about non-consensual sex work (trafficking), or even discussing ways to help non-consensual sex workers out of their situation.
It's not a perfect metaphor, but it could be similar to saying that gay people are not welcome to participate in conversations on a platform, then having a national conversation about what to do with gay people. As a queer person, I feel like I already grew up during that very active struggle – which sex workers were major leaders in – but there just isn't the same understanding on the left offered to sex workers.”
“ When we fight for access to online resources, we are literally fighting for our lives.
Who does shadowbanning harm?
“I think that it's possible for shadowbanning to be a tool to protect people from harm – such as keeping white supremacist groups from flooding tags with recruitment propaganda. There may be a case made for that.
But when you lesson the ability of vulnerable groups to speak out about their situation, you are putting them in harm’s way. I don't believe that hiding these people from the feed [and] silencing them is an acceptable trade off for whatever concerns they have about people seeing adult media.
People can already toggle if they want to see adult media or not – I'm not asking for everyone to see my pictures without clicking, [and] I can accept that. But don't force people into a situation where they can't see us, even if they're actively searching for our perspective.”
I read the Vice article linked on your press page about Patreon changing its terms of service in a way that censored accounts connected to porn. I’ve also heard about shadowbanning on Instagram. How have other online platforms responded to sex workers using the platform?
“The biggest problem with online platforms (and offline, really) is financial discrimination. Most payment processors (notably Paypal, Stripe, Square, etc) do not allow sex work or adult content of any sort.
Payment processors, like CCBill, that do allow sex work have higher fees, do not accept as many types of cards and require much more work to implement. They're generally a little behind the times in terms of technology and user friendly interfaces and they are sometimes alarming to banks, who may close an account due to using a ‘high risk’ payment processor. Ways to accept payment are very limited for adult content creators.
This harms sex workers by both limiting their audience, making a sex work-oriented subscription site or store much more expensive and time consuming to set up and by reducing the amount of the money that goes directly into their wallet.
“ When sex workers can’t go to law enforcement for help, they are more appealing targets.
You are also not allowed to advertise sexual services on Instagram. This results in sex workers in both countries where full service sex work is legal and illegal being unable to take advantage of a major advertising venue ... Most advertising services, like Facebook Ads or Google Adwords can't be used [either.]
Many online storefronts (like Etsy), website building or hosting platforms (like wordpress.org), or other user-set-up services don't allow adult content. Often this isn't very clearly stated, resulting in people losing a lot of hard work when enforced.
Banks will often close accounts to do with sex work, without any sort of conversation on the manner. It's unclear what most of their internal policies are, as they usually just point to clauses that they can terminate the account for any reason. I've had a bank account closed when they found out who I was.
Newspapers/Craigslist often don't allow postings that mention sex work, even if someone is just mentioning that they are a sex worker while looking for a room to rent (as perhaps they don't want to live with people who think poorly of sex workers).”
What functions do online platforms fulfill for sex workers?
“Sex workers from different backgrounds and in different situations face different challenges and use social media differently ... I know that for a community as a whole, the internet is important.
Advertising sites themselves are essential to our safety. Ads allow us to have control over how and when we advertise (from how we want to talk about ourselves, to when we want to work and what we require in screening information) and they allow us to work from the safety of our own homes, apartments or locations we have secured that we feel safe with.
We don't have to go to strangers houses or spend time in their cars, and we don't have to rely on other people to advertise for us and control our work. Losing advertising sites will result in sex workers being killed. Losing screening resources and black lists will result in sex workers being killed.
When we fight for access to online resources, we are literally fighting for our lives. I'm obviously in a much much more privileged position than most, having been lucky enough to have my career trajectory, but these things are still true for me. When sex workers can't go to law enforcement for help, they are more appealing targets.
And without the internet, we're not going to be able to fight for the decriminalization needed to allow us access to those law enforcement resources.”
“ We already have systems for sharing information, if it didn’t put us at risk we’d devote those systems to helping those victims too.
Are there other venues for sex workers to participate in political discourse? To influence politicians and policy makers?
“Sure, you wanna write a letter?
We've got advocacy groups, we've got NGOs, we've got the WHO (World Health Organization) on our side. Amnesty International and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) both recommend decriminalization as well.
But you can see by the overwhelming bipartisan support for SESTA/FOSTA, they just don't care. No one wants to vote ‘against’ a bill that will ‘rescue sex slaves.’ But it's focused more on hiding us away [and] shutting down our advertising sites than it is on actually saving people.
It may result in less reports of trafficking, but it won't help those unreported victims. People who work every day to find trafficking victims say these sites help them, since they are able to examine the ads and put their resources towards ones that have a higher chance of involving a victim of trafficking.
We're all on the same side against that – but politicians are ignoring our community as a resource. We already have systems for sharing information, if it didn't put us at risk we'd devote those systems to helping those victims too. We're in a prime place to identify them.
It's very unclear what we'll do if we lose Twitter. I haven't even been able to sign up for Facebook – I get banned halfway through the account creation process. Over the past few years, I've seen escort Twitter, stripper Twitter, porn Twitter and cam girl Twitter [...] get closer and closer together, and that networking makes us a much more powerful labor group. I hope that helps our voices get heard before we lose them to overzealous moderation.
Interview edited for clarity and brevity.
This interview was done before SESTA/FOSTA passed through the U.S. Senate. Within 24 hours, discussion forums, safety resources and advertising sites for consensual sex work started to come down, with repercussions reaching sites like Craigslist, which removed its personals section. Since SESTA/FOSTA passed, there have been news reports and anecdotal reports documenting the disappearance of over a dozen sex workers, as well as several deaths, assaults and attempted suicides.