While “Free Speech!” is the rallying cry of many a Joe Shmoe on the internet, it’s rare that anyone takes up that cry for sex workers. Yet the sex work community is no stranger to internet censorship. Earlier this year, the hashtag #yesastripper, as well as #stripper, #stripperlife, #stripperstyle, and #ilovetoseestripperswin were all banned from Instagram. When searched for, Instagram provided the following response: “Recent posts from #stripper are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram’s community guidelines.” Previous to the ban, there were hundreds, or sometimes thousands of photos: of pole tricks, outfits, or (my personal favorite) simply smiling selfies of strippers and sex workers with their makeup perfect, posing with stacks of cash. After the ban, the Top Posts for some of these hashtags reported were, “No posts yet.” And thousands of sex workers sharing their skills, knowledge, or just joy, vanished into the internet ether.
More recently, the online sex work community is fielding two more instances of silencing and violence.
First, Men’s Rights Activists (the premier “Free Speech” shmoes of the internet world) have concocted what they’re calling a Thot Audit. (“Thot” is an acronym for “that-ho-over-there,” and is a term specifically used to disparage Black femme sex workers.) Led by someone named David Wu, these MRAs and incels (aka men who are “involuntary celibate,” and have decided that’s the fault of women rather than their own trash personalities) have taken it upon themselves to report suspected sex workers to the IRS for things like their Premium Snap Chat channels. The threat of the IRS actually investigating any of the reported sex workers is minimal—and if these winners had done any research, they’d know that you need a lot more than someone’s online profile to get them audited. But, as many sex workers note, the IRS is not the point—the harassment is.
The apparent origin of the audit, according to sex work circles I’m familiar with, was an innocuous-seeming poll on Facebook asking, “Is Sex Work Real Work?” When people responded that yes, sex work is real work, the assumption was made that they were sex workers, and their information was gathered and forwarded to the IRS to be audited. Some respondents also reported being doxxed, or having their personal information made public to a group of men who relish the idea of threatening, assaulting, and murdering sex workers.
Seems like a good time for the reminder that I grew up as a pre-teen coming of age right around the time the internet became A Thing. Trust no one, friends, because you never know when the Facebook profile you’re interacting with is some loser sitting in his basement, peeing into a Mountain Dew bottle, and angrily wondering why he can’t get a date—and deciding that someone deserves to die because of it.
In addition to men jeopardizing the safety of sex workers because they have no purpose in their lives and nothing better to do, Tumblr has announced that it will ban adult content from the site starting December 17th. In an instance of morbid irony, December 17th happens to be the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Removing their explicit tags flies in the face of ending violence against sex workers, for whom the internet is very often our only source of community and connection in a world where sex work is so heavily stigmatized. Sex workers who are geographically isolated, or sex workers who are still in the closet, often report relying on the connections we make on Instagram and Tumblr in order to experience solidarity. Not to mention the fact that being able to use the internet to advertise services and vet clients literally saves sex workers’ lives.
Finally, sites like Tumblr—and to a lesser extent, Instagram, which has continued banning sex workers with a vengeance since last April—are extremely important for the dissemination of information and educational resources. As someone who spends most of her time in classrooms—and is often the only person in the room who will speak up about sex workers’ rights and issues sex workers face on social, economic, and political levels—believe me, I know. Academic institutions, mental health service providers, the medical field, and mainstream media, 90 percent of the time, get sex work completely wrong. Social media and the internet are the only outlets where sex workers get to create educational content by and for ourselves. It’s an invaluable resource. Taking it away forces the lived experiences of sex workers further underground, making it easier to dehumanize sex workers, or just forget about them entirely. Dehumanization leads to violence. It always has.
And for Tumblr to enact such a policy on the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers is a slap in the face.
The connection to SESTA/FOSTA, which I’ve written about before, is clear. Sex workers fought SESTA/FOSTA long before the bill was signed in April, though their efforts were largely ignored. But sex workers aren’t the only ones whose lives are changing under SESTA/FOSTA. For example, according to The Verge, under the Tumblr ban, some of what will be removed from the site “includes photos, videos, and GIFs of human genitalia, female-presenting nipples, and any media involving sex acts, including illustrations” which, to me, sounds like a lot of sexuality education that was easily and accessibly dispersed on Tumblr is about to disappear. Personally, I was a huge fan of Lady Cheeky’s Smut For Smarties, whose sexy GIF sets of sensual porn provide a much welcome respite from the startling wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am insensitivity of mainstream porn targeted toward men. Unfortunately, I don’t think Lady Cheeky is going to survive the purge. So save your GIFs while ya can.
As a sex worker myself, and as a social work student whose prime directive is to serve the most vulnerable among us, I am less bothered by the fact that lay people’s lives are changing under SESTA/FOSTA, though the lack of accessible sex ed content hurts my heart. Still, my first priority will always be to the people in the community who are experiencing direct threats to their livelihoods, such as decreased income, poverty, violence, and police brutality.
Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio makes no bones about what this ban means, stating, “We’ve given serious thought to who we want to be in our community…” Apparently, those who are sex-positive (who value centering and celebrating non-traditional bodies, sexualities, sexual expression, and relationship styles) or simply those of us who are into creating content and resources that affirm many ways of being—including being sex workers—are not welcome.
Rather than saying, “We told you so,” let’s just say: This is your chance. Non-sex working bloggers and creators on Tumblr who used the #bdsm, #sexuality, #sensuality, and #porn tags to share glimpses into marginalized experiences, to shed light on and normalize the beautiful aspects of your lives, the places where you feel the most authentic and whole, this is your chance. Queer folks who found community on Tumblr, no matter where you live or who surrounds you, this is your chance. Sex educators who, like myself, received Ask Box questions and offered resources for folks who were struggling with gender identity, sexual fluidity, or even the joy and anxiety of trying to pursuit authentic sexual pleasure for the first time, this is your chance. It’s time to center sex workers. It’s time to turn to the sex work community with humility and to honor the work that the sex work community has done for generations—and has been doing alone.
It should be—it must be—clear now that SESTA/FOSTA were never about “stopping trafficking” the way legislators claimed that they were. But they were certainly about the idea of freedom and about who in our society is deemed worthy enough to be free. Sex workers have known for generations that sexual liberation will remain nothing but a lofty goal unless everyone who fights for sexual liberation acknowledges that #SexWorkIsRealWork and that #SexWorkersRightsAreHumanRights.
We’ve been here. We’re fighting.
On December 17th, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, stand with us.
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