This is sometimes referred to as “survival sex work”: it’s sex work done out of financial need rather than desire. It’s far more common than we imagine, but much like the thought of performing any other physical job out of an urgent need for money, it carries a heavy stigma.
Not many people like to admit that they need money, and adding sex work to the mix makes it an admission that can often be dangerous.
I write this from a position of enormous privilege and fortune: at this moment in time, I have no urgent need for cash. My pantry is stocked, my bills are paid, and my Opal card is freshly topped up. But if an emergency should strike, the option of placing that quick ad on Backpage or a similar website is no longer available to me, or to any other worker.
As of this weekend, Backpage has been taken offline after the website was seized by the United States Department of Justice.
Seven individuals involved with the website have been charged in a 93-count federal indictment. The seizure of Backpage comes days ahead of US President Donald Trump signing the SESTA-FOSTA acts, two bills created with the intent of putting an end to sex trafficking that occurs online but that will, ultimately, have catastrophic results for sex workers of any kind who use the internet to find and screen clients, share resources, and communicate with other workers.
(Despite some reports, not a single charge levelled against any of the individuals involved in Backpage was related to sex trafficking.)
SESTA-FOSTA removes parts of the Communications Decency Act to now hold website owners responsible for any content posted on their platforms by individual users. In layperson’s terms, if I use a website like Backpage, or Craigslist, or even Google Drive to advertise my services as a sex worker, or to share sexual content, the website itself can be held legally accountable for my behaviour.
Given that many large social networks are US-owned and -hosted, there has been a panicked rush to restrict the sharing and posting of any sexual content, regardless of its country of origin, lest website owners find themselves in trouble with the law upon the bill’s passing.
What this means for sex workers, even here in Australia where sex work is legal or decriminalised in some states, is that the rug has been pulled out from underneath us with little to no notice, leaving many panicked.
Without a platform to advertise on, a sex worker’s income can dry up quickly; and even those considering brothel-based work find themselves at a loss, as brothels also advertise on the same platforms workers used.
The effects of the bill don’t stop there, though: there have already been reports of escorts having their own websites vanish, deleted in a rush by hosting companies, and many sex worker outreach organisations have already begun scaling back their operations for fear that they, too, may find themselves in legal trouble upon the bill’s passing.
As a sex worker, there are a few things that are vital to our work: a reliable and cost-effective place to advertise, a safe community in which to share tips and screen clients, and peer-led organisations that provide education and resources to those who need them. SESTA-FOSTA has an enormous chance of stripping these things from us completely.
If you’re not already sharing the fear, the ramifications of SESTA-FOSTA are beginning to be felt far beyond the sex work community. This is, without doubt, something that will have an effect on any individual who uses the internet for sex, whether advertising as a worker, paying a worker, or even just sending sexy photos over email.
SESTA-FOSTA creates a world in which the government of a country we don’t even live in can look directly in to our online lives and pass judgement on what services we can access, based on our sexual behaviour.
As an internet user, I’m concerned. As a sex worker I’m absolutely terrified.
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