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Why FOSTA/SESTA Harms Those It Supposedly Serves

A sex worker takes a stand against new legislation that endangers sex workers.

Liara Roux is a sex worker, independent adult media producer and director, a political organizer focused on freedom of expression for adult workers online, and an advocate for decriminalization and protection of consensual adult activity including queer and sex worker rights and safety worldwide.

Liara Roux, used with permission
Liara Roux
Source: Liara Roux, used with permission

She has been interviewed by or had projects featured by the press in publications such as Vice, Wired, Playboy, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed News, International Business Times, and BBC Technology and on blogs such as Reason, The Mary Sue, Kotaku, The Daily Dot, and ErosBlog. She’s written as Liara for XBiz, Motherboard, Broadly, and Tits and Sass. Her work has screened in Berlin during the Berlin Porn Film Festival.

Q: Tell us about the new FOSTA/SESTA legislation, what it aims to accomplish, and how it actually negatively affects the very people it purports to protect. I understand you have compiled a list of grievances and deficiencies in the legislation. Can you give us an overview?

A: While FOSTA/SESTA was marketed as a bill to stop “trafficking,” the language of the bill actually applies to “prostitution” - AKA, consensual sex work between two adults. It’s a big difference between what the bill says and the PSAs about “child sex slavery.” Most people understand trafficking to mean labor under coercion, fraud or force - but the language referring to that was removed from the final text of the criminal law.

Rather, it focused on “facilitation” of “prostitution” via online platforms. It’s worth noting that neither facilitation or prostitution are adequately defined in any way. There’s no federal law definition of prostitution that, for example, differentiates between domme work, or a private stripping show, or really any other consensual sex act. Likewise, facilitating prostitution could include making it safer (or “easier”) in any way. This has caused websites to remove educational text, to shut down harm reduction services, and even resulted in the loss of Craigslist’s personals.

The lack of clarity and focus is at the center of a lawsuit currently proceeding against the law - Woodhull Freedom Foundation et al. v. United States. The EFF and associated counsel are representing two human rights organizations, the Internet Archive, a political activist and a massage therapist in challenging the law on its restriction of free speech and confusing language.

It’s my personal opinion, based on familiarity with many of the groups that pushed FOSTA/SESTA, that this ambiguity about acceptable speech concerned with sex and sex-adjacent work (like massage or dating) is purely intentional. Earlier proposals were more targeted, but many of the groups backing the bill also have stated goals to “end porn” or other erotic expressions. For example, a major backer was the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, which was previously established as “Morality in Media, Inc.” in the 60s. There has been a major initiative (focus group driven, advertising firm assisted) to rebrand porn as “sexual exploitation” and all in-person sex work as “trafficking”.

In the aftermath of FOSTA/SESTA we’ve seen hundreds of examples of increased discrimination against all forms of criminalized and legal sex work, with major sites shutting down services and impacted groups including porn performers, webcam models, even sex educators. Every bit of that has been celebrated as a victory by prohibitionist groups. I don’t believe they are anti-sex trafficking, I believe they are anti-sex.

Just as the “White Slave Traffic Act of 1910” was less about a (nonexistent) “White Slave” epidemic and more about racism and controlling the sexuality and financial independence of people considered “unsavory”, today’s “trafficking” panic uses emotional manipulation about saving women and children to push forward extremely problematic policy and legislation.

Q: In your piece in, you mentioned that sex work has provided you with much better working conditions and self-control than a previous stint in the tech industry. How has this been the case and what should people know about the positive aspects of sex work?

A: For most, sex work is much like any other freelance job - you get to be your own boss, in charge of your schedule and your clients. You set your own rates, decide when you work, and how.

The tech industry encourages an extremely unhealthy work/life balance that is very hard to maintain for people with disabilities like myself. I also found the workplaces stifling and unaccepting to my existence as a queer/trans person, and sexism is a major issue as well. I spent a lot of time dealing with the frustration of being treated with less respect than my cis white male peers and would come home and cry for hours while processing that day’s particular struggles.

Sex work, for me, was an option, and the best one. I’ve always been interested in it, so it didn’t feel like any sort of loss or compromise. I’ve always liked the idea of being a professional friend and I quite enjoy my sexuality. I’m someone who, for the most part, very much enjoys their job.

Sex work is something one can pick up with very little in the way of start-up capital. People can use sex work to leave an abusive situation where a partner controls the finances and other resources. Many use sex work to fill the gap around other jobs - maybe someone supplements their underpaid writing career or maybe a busy single mom puts up an ad for a day to pay that unexpected leap in the power bill.

I also believe sex work can be incredibly ethical - a way to directly move wealth from some of the most privileged in society to those that don’t otherwise have class mobility or stability. Sex work is overwhelmingly an industry where capital flows from men to women and queer folk.

Sex work has allowed me to explore expression in a variety of ways, as sex work itself is an umbrella term. Sex work includes holding a client’s hand for a long walk on their very first date - helping them learn to be comfortable with intimacy. It includes facilitating a fantasy of losing control for someone in a demanding leadership role interested in learning to submit in their downtime. It includes tending to the physical needs of clients with disabilities. And it includes a wide array of artistic expression in media creation and performance. And the nature of it allows me to move between all those various forms of work, prioritizing one sort as it suits me or deciding not to indulge in another sort when I decide it’s a boundary I’d like to set.

sex shops (Paris), labeled for reuse, Wikimedia Commons
Sex shops, Paris
Source: sex shops (Paris), labelled for reuse, Wikimedia Commons

Q: What should the public know about the day-to-day realities of a sex worker that they probably have no idea about or have significant misconceptions about? It seems that the public has some polarizing views but I suspect, that as you mentioned, the reality is that for many, sex work is much like running any other freelance business.

A: Work is, of course, inherently a trade-off. Some people may be lucky enough to do work they enjoy every day, but for most of us the idea of “work” is the idea of doing something for money that you would not do for free.

The important thing to remember is that sex work is work. That is true if you’re someone who is lucky enough to enjoy their job most days, like me, or someone who absolutely hates it. We stress that sex work is work, because discussions of sex work are often distorted to create a conflict between “happy hookers” and “trafficking victims”.

The reality is much more complicated and nuanced - some people might be a victim of abuse and then, when able to keep all their money for themselves, decide to continue working as a sex worker. Other people may be sex workers and taken into a situation where they lose control over their work and income. What we need are policies that protect and improve the lives of everyone in the sex trade by offering them rights and access to resources, instead of just the threat of imprisonment or rescue programs often more focused on “saving” someone than giving them the resources they need to survive past rescue - or supporting them if they decide to keep selling sex as a means to pay their bills.

Finally, sex work is, at its core, about consent. Prohibitionists like to say it’s inherently exploitative, but that’s just a complaint about capitalism. If someone says “I’ll do this if you pay me”, that is an explicit act of consent. Sex workers constantly educate their clients about consent - every sex worker I’ve ever talked to has boundaries and limits. A worker is free to refund and walk away. A worker is free to say no. If there is the absence of consent, then it is not work, it is rape.

One of the most dangerous things about criminalization is that it makes discussions around consent harder. If an explicit agreement to perform a sexual act can be used as evidence, then it’s harder for providers to have negotiations with clients about exactly what they would like to do.

Criminalization in this respect only works to enable the abuser - and that’s compounded by the inability of the worker to go to the police for help, to be taken seriously in a monetary dispute in a court, or even to protect themselves from abuse at the hands of the police, which is distressingly common. Decriminalization is absolutely essential for improving working conditions in the sex trade.

Q: Piggybacking off the last question, why do you think there is such a disconnect between the lived experiences of many sex workers and the public (mis) perceptions that have allowed for such draconian legislation as FOSTA/SESTA to become law?

A: I believe that some misconceptions are given life in the way of any other myth or narrative. It’s more exciting to hear about violence and abuse, and if one is inclined to help, it’s more rewarding to think of oneself as a savior. Stories about kidnapped children and pimped women have easy victims, easy villains. On a superhero show, showing a villain with a crate of terrified women is easy shorthand - hey, there’s a bad guy!

Even documentaries suffer from this - they require a narrative to sell to the viewer, they require a sequential sequence of events that is easy to understand. Listening to the real stories of individuals, and not just a couple individuals handpicked for a narrative but hundreds and thousands of individuals, that’s really really really hard work. So part of this is just that people take the easy way out - they listen to stories in pop culture and they listen to the narratives hand-picked for them by celebrities, politicians, law enforcement, and so on.

But part of it is actual injustice, really honestly a violent act of erasure. Epistemic injustice, a term coined by Miranda Fricker, refers to the erasure of someone’s own story about their life and the substitution of other more privileged viewpoints. Sex workers are highly stigmatized. They aren’t considered trusted sources in journalistic publications, they aren’t brought in as expert witnesses, they aren’t invited to the table to write policy.

It feeds into a cyclic system of erasure where people create victim narratives that preclude sex workers from talking for themselves unless they’re willing to cooperate with the dominant narrative. This is evidenced by certain non-profits putting funding behind bringing the same “victims” to the public, to hearings, over and over again, while actively pushing social media platforms to ban sex workers who differ in lived experience - sex workers who want to keep doing sex work.

That’s why FOSTA/SESTA is such a success for prohibitionists, not because it’s actually saving anyone in particular, but because it allows the current narrative to remain dominant by silencing dissent. The problem wasn’t that the internet created trafficking (again, evidence suggests it made the sex trade safer), the problem was that it made sex workers visible.

camera lens, labeled for reuse, PxHere
Camera lens
Source: camera lens, labeled for reuse, PxHere

Q: You have branched out into other areas such as online content creation and you have now started directing and producing your own line of adult videos. Tell us about your subjective experiences with this new venture and how it compares with other forms of sex work, such as escorting or being in front of the camera for other's productions.

A: Escorting is very intimate, a performance to a very small audience. Throwing up media on the internet is almost the polar opposite, in terms of intimacy, but I honestly try to bring a lot of the same energy and personality to both. Creatively, bringing that sense of intimacy into mass media has been one of my main challenges.

My team and I play a lot with the idea of nostalgia. We shoot on film for our still photos and have a video style somewhat adapted from a home movie aesthetic. Or rather a large budget version of what a home movie might look like. My main videographer, Ashley Lake, likes to joke about my tour video (which was shot by Jessica Nicole Callejero) - “It’s like a big budget Hollywood version of a home movie that the protagonist is watching right after his spouse dies in a car crash.” A feeling like you were in love with someone, or you’re falling in love, or maybe you used to be in love and now you’re feeling that pang in your heart. It’s possible to create a feeling of intimacy by studying everything around sex - why do you want to have sex with someone in particular?

In terms of moving to content creation, I’ve always been very interested in making things - painting, sculpting, taking pictures. I actually created content for the internet, galleries, print, well before I was well known as a sex worker. So it’s been kind of a natural evolution towards merging those careers.

Early on in my sex work career, I was very focused on what I could make short-term - doing engagements paid the bills. But I was keenly aware that any one income stream can dry up quick, especially in this climate. The media creation was a way of building my brand and doing the same sort of social media marketing you’d expect with any other business.

I knew that people would steal my pictures no matter what, so I put them out in high res and considered them a trail of breadcrumbs. My selfies started ending up on Reddit, actually hitting the front page a few times, and I organically built on that. I really didn’t start charging for any of my media work until I’d built a fairly solid following by putting out free content. For me, it was worth it to develop the media business slowly since the content still drove interest to my in-person work. I knew that I wanted to be directing and producing media that didn’t involve myself, but for a sex worker your persona is kind of your brand, so the path still involves a fair amount of personal presentation.

Right now, I’m still mostly making media that I’m in myself. But I’ve started working on projects where the viewer can see me, with my camera, directing a scene while also in the scene - people who are fans of seeing me may also become, through that, fans of seeing me create.

For me, pornography is also very much about community. I’m interested in building systems that not only support one person or funnel money to the top but also support others. While there’s a lot of talk of ethical porn that focuses on plot lines or presentation, I believe to truly be ethical you need to be paying people right. It’s only ethical if everyone involved is making a wage they can live on and be happy with.

So a lot of my major goals and planning milestones with the porn business have to do with that kind of sustainability. For example, my big goal this year has been getting several people who work with me on the books with healthcare. It’s not the most profitable way of doing things, but I want to use my privilege and position to really be taking care of other queer, disabled, trans people - people who really have trouble finding work and support in traditional industries.

Poster Robots by mikecogh, labeled for reuse, Flickr
Sex Robots
Source: Poster Robots by mikecogh, labeled for reuse, Flickr

Q: Lastly, I am particularly interested in the role of new technologies on our societal experiences of sexuality. It seems we are on the verge of a new tech breakthrough with virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and advances in lifelike robotic sex partners. When you peek into the future for the next 10 to 20 years, what do you think the future of sex looks like?

A: What, you mean like a nuclear wasteland? I kid. Honestly, there’s a part of me that’s very concerned for the future of sexual expression. We’ve gained so much with the internet, but there isn’t a lot to guarantee that we’ll keep the progress we’ve made. I wouldn’t go as far as saying porn won’t exist, or something like that, but it’s quite possible we are heading towards the majority of sexual expression really being controlled - say you end up in a situation where sex work is legalized, but everyone is working low wages in the Walmart of brothels. Where all the porn on the internet is produced by one giant company with many faces - actually close to our current situation with MindGeek’s stranglehold on the industry through its ownership of so many tube sites and studios.

I think that we need to be careful to maintain our freedoms - to fight for decriminalization instead of legalization with regulations that leave the most vulnerable in terrible situations, to fight for net neutrality and to end payment processor discrimination so small indie porn producers can thrive and bring their product to the public. If we keep people’s individual freedoms, their agency and importance as a human being in mind as we look to the future, then we can be excited about non-humanoid sex robots being a fun toy in the bedroom vs. terrified of the displacement of real workers by automation.

It’s not just a sex issue, sex work really needs to be understood as a battleground both for workers’ rights and individual expression. Do we want nightmare capitalism with continued exploitation - not just sexual but for all workers - or are we going to try to harness technical breakthroughs to raise the standard of living for everyone? I think we’ll all be having better sex if our basic needs are met.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m insanely into VR, robotics, and so on. I’ve already done one VR project and plan to do more. But as exciting as that all is, it’s not accessible to most people, and I find myself thinking often about how people are going to create sustainable solutions so everyone can enjoy a healthy sex life, and life in general.

If we really want to improve sex - have healthy and fulfilling sex - that means education, planning, good policy, healthcare, and a social contract that gives people the time and means to explore themselves and connect to others. The future of sex may have more to do with politics than technology.

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