Guest written by Rain Andersen (@wearenotfriends_) a veteran sworker with eight years in adult entertainment and three years working for Lovers.
To what degree should the Government control what you see?
On March 3rd (International Sex Workers Rights Day), we take a calculated look at the impact of SESTA/FOSTA and SISEA bills on sex workers in the United States, and how they stand to influence media consumption on a national level.
It is important to note that the actions of the US Government continue to influence the laws regarding sex work and censorship on a global scale, which is why it is our duty to educate the public on the ways that these harm-reduction bills promote the dismantlement of a large and valuable community of service providers and entertainers. All three of these bipartisan bills play an integral role in the way that our society accesses and evaluates art, education, and the human experience through the filter of Government-approved content.
The Creation of FOSTA/SESTA
The FOSTA/SESTA package bill was passed into law on April 11th, 2018. These bills were designed to hold internet service providers accountable for their participation in or benefit from online sex trafficking. This was spurred by the investigation and removal of Backpage.com, an online classifieds service. Senate sponsor, Rob Portman spearheaded the investigation, accusing Backpage.com of concealing listings that solicited sex trafficking on their platform, and actively removing keywords that would have led to the discovery of sex trafficked individuals.
In response to this finding, the Senate proposed an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934, that would hold websites liable for content uploaded by third-party users. The revisions to the Communications Act were designed to curb the impact of sex trafficking (which differs from sex work) by coercing online platforms to adopt restrictive censorship policies and algorithms.
Three years after passing these packages into law, we have seen that many of these policies inadvertently target members of marginalized communities.
Though the bills were created to fight sex trafficking, the bills only succeeded in redirecting where sex trafficking was occurring. The government claimed an initial 90% decrease in sex trafficking ads, that has since rebounded to 75% of the original figure, as reported in The Washington Post.
The Impacts of SESTA/FOSTA
Evidence has shown that the modifications to these bills has driven sex traffickers deeper into the dark web, making it more and more difficult for law enforcement to track and prosecute sex trafficking operations. Further modifications to the user experience across digital platforms have proven to remove sex workers' ability to equitably access technology that played a vital role in the vetting of clients. This has robbed sex workers of an essential resource to conducting independent work, resulting in higher instances of violence perpetrated against sex workers.
Craigslist.com, another popular classified service, removed adult personals from their platform on March 23rd, 2018. This comes shortly after releasing a peer review study, Craigslist’s Effect on Violence Against Women, which reports a 17% decline in violence committed against women since the launch of their adult classifieds. By eliminating access to digital platforms, sex workers were given limited alternatives to street-based work. Websites that continue to host and facilitate sex workers were and are able to engage in exploitive practices, such as increasing service fees and limiting bargaining power.
On April 7th, 2018 courts in Massachusetts and Florida made a ruling regarding the court proceedings of Backpage.com. By shielding evidence of specific keywords, Backpage.com played an active role in the trafficking of humans. This distinction would have allowed Portman to purse legal action against Backpage.com without making adjustments to the Communication Act of 1934. In essence, the bill was deemed “unnecessary” and counterproductive to its original purpose, that instead resulted in the restructuring of user/platform experiences through increased verification processes and censorship policies.
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced the SESTA/FOSTA Examination of Secondary Effects for Sex Workers Study Act on January 8th, 2020, that proposes a year long study of the impact of SESTA/FOSTA on sex workers in the United States.
The New Bipartisan Bill, Censoring NSFW Content
Sex workers are facing yet another threat to their community with the introduction of the SISEA bill, proposed by Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Ben Sasse (R-NE) on December 17th, 2020. The SISEA bill is an extension of the anti-trafficking bills, SESTA/FOSTA that is intended to protect users from the unauthorized upload of adult content through extensive identity verification processes. In order for internet providers to monitor this type of content across the web, they have created broad and wide sweeping policies meant to address NSFW (Not Safe for Work) content.
NSFW content pertains to all written, spoken, and visual content construed as inappropriate or lewd.
You may be thinking that this is a very personal judgement call to make. Ultimately, the distinction between lewd and sophisticated content can be applied to such a variety of mediums that live in our digital space, and not surprisingly targets a group of under-represented and stigmatized individuals as a proverbial testing ground for censorship laws.
You may have already seen your favorite content creators making adjustments to their Instagram accounts, altering or censoring their expression of sexuality to comply with vague and undefined services policies. In November of this year, the LOVERS Instagram account was purged of sexual language, innuendo, and imagery in order to preserve our platform for sexual education and wellness, because SISEA takes even greater strides to define what is culturally valuable.
The SISEA bill requires even further inspection regarding its impact on sex trafficking, implementing confusing and unproductive terminology regarding state age-of-consent laws in Section 3, Item A. SISEA proposes that video uploads must comply with state age-of-consent laws. 34 out of 50 states have an age-of-consent of 16, and 6 out of 50 states have an age-of-consent of 17. That means that only 11 states have age-of-consent laws of 18 or over, carelessly creating provisions for the production of under-18 pornography.
Additionally, as SISEA outlines in Section 3, Item B, sex workers must choose to identify as either a sex worker or victim. This means that should a sex worker also be a victim of revenge porn, or the unauthorized distribution of goods, they will not be able to remove the content without removing all reproductions of their content. This lends to an important question regarding the distinction of sex work (a trade and profession) and victimization (an experience), leaving us wondering who this bill is designed to protect and support? More importantly, if it is acceptable to censor an entire community of individuals, then who will be targeted next?
How to Repeal SISEA
SISEA was proposed on December 17th, 2020, and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The bill has been delayed to allow for members of the 117th Congress to be sworn in, which provides our community with the opportunity to educate and organize on a local level.
FOSTA, Male Escorts, & the Construction of Sexual Victimhood in American Politics: Virginia Journal of Social Policy & Law
Erased, The Impact of SESTA/FOSTA: Hacking & Hustling
FOSTA, A Hostile Law with a Human Cost: Fordham University School of Law
Nipples, Memes, and Algorithmic Failure, a NSFW Critique of Tumblr Censorship: Sage Pub